Written by Stephen Patterson
It’s no secret that Japanese games, manga and anime often objectify women. In fact, it’s something that routinely tarnishes the appeal of role playing games and the general perspective of Japanese gaming to women on a regular basis. Series such as Senran Kagura and GalGun are unashamedly explicit and, in my mind, largely offensive. Games that you would (and possibly should) be ashamed to play. Some developers in Japan have bucked the trend however, and are investing their time in producing games called Otome, namely stories where you play as a female main character and turn the male-focused video game power fantasies on their heads. Invariably romance tales, Otome games often weave stories akin to those of Japanese role playing games into the visual novel format and have you, as the player, decide which of your male counterparts are the best fit to help you resolve your adventure.
Otome is important for a number of reasons. In popular Western media there is an increasingly loud outcry (and rightly so) against the objectification of women in video games that is so pervasive across our world. When 45% of the video gaming demographic in Europe is made up of female gamers, there is surprisingly little written specifically for them that breaks away from the established norms – male protagonists and female love interests. Otome games reject that status quo by empowering female characters and making the stories we read and play about them specifically. In these games, it’s the female character who makes the decisions, chooses which path is correct for her and who she wants to take with her, not the other way around. As a male writer it’s almost impossible to sympathise with how women play video games, but from my perspective it’s incredibly refreshing to see writers embrace the other side of the spectrum – and enables me to approach topics from the opposite side, think about what difficulties a female character would face in comparison to a male character and also to reconcile that with how I have experienced games for my entire life. When we think of video games as a male dominated sphere, any chance to educate us, however difficult, on the concerns faced by the opposite gender should be welcomed. These developers are not only writing and producing stories that are admirable for their content and for challenging established norms – they’re taking huge financial risks by appealing to a user base which is comparatively small.
Otome games have seen a surge in popularity across the world recently for a number of reasons, making them far more accessible to you or me than ever before. The visual novel has soared in popularity thanks to defining genre standouts such as the impeccable time travelling science fiction drama Steins;Gate and murder mystery Danganronpa, which have only served to heighten our senses to more niche visual novel titles like those made in the Otome style. Bigger publishers such as Aksys Games and Idea Factory have gone to the trouble of painstakingly localising these games into English for us in the West, not to mention making them available in physical versions for the PlayStation Vita and downloadable on the PlayStation Store. Much credit can be given to Sony in their pushing of Otome over the past 3 months in fact: PlayStation Plus subscribers received digital copies of both Code:Realize and Amensia: Memories on the Vita for no extra cost – two wonderfully written and illustrated visual novels with female protagonists.
The growing popularity of Otome doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re making major progress in the representation of women in video games however. The vast majority of stories told are those that focus on male protagonists, those which use women as objects of affection and little more. Unfortunately, despite a much increased uptake of the hobby with females in the past few years, triple-A titles very rarely include a major female character who is normalised and representative. We can take solace that games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider and Dishonored 2 include women that are not sex objects and are extremely popular, but in order for developers to adhere to mass market appeal we still see many one-dimensional, throwaway women written into stories. Otome however is a step in the right direction. Current social culture is dominated by movements to recognise women, people of colour and those that live alternative lifestyles and how those aspects of life affect our world – video games, as a conduit for expressing opinions and viewpoints to younger generations, are placed uniquely to educate on these issues. There’s an extended debate that could be had, far too large for a piece like this, about whether video games should confront social issues head on or whether they are purely a vehicle for escapism. That’s what I originally drafted this article as but realised it was absolutely impossible to tackle without extensive research and data which I frankly do not have access to. From the perspective of someone who had their eyes opened by playing Otome to the potential of using videogames as vehicle for experiencing other viewpoints, there is no doubt in my mind that more can be done by major developers, publishers, and most importantly story writers to raise awareness of these issues. Some games, such as Life is Strange, do a wonderful job of combining the escapist elements of a story about rewinding time while exploring the daily struggles of a college-aged woman. I’d like to see franchises which are larger in both scope and sales attempt a melding of these two parts and attempt to at least educate the player on these elements of society, while also serving up the escapism we buy and play them for. In my mind, there’s no reason that a proficient writer cannot achieve both.