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Are Japanese women the future of its gaming?

Are Japanese women the future of its gaming?

Fri 04 Apr 2014 7:09am GMT / 3:09am EDT / 12:09am PDT
Development

Animal Crossing: New Leaf shows that mixed-gender teams can defy both Japan's gender gap and its industry's troubles

The Last Of Us is a rare kind of game. It's both critically acclaimed and commercially successful; a title which admits no compromises between its game experience and its storytelling. It's won absolute stack loads of awards and it's hard to find anyone bar a handful of stalwart curmudgeons begrudging it those achievements. It's a great game, one which will likely be considered a stand-out gem of the last generation of consoles, one which justifies, if any justification were necessary, the AAA development process, the core game experience and the need for dedicated gaming hardware.

It's also, to the slack-jawed astonishment of many gamers, being significantly outsold by the Nintendo 3DS' Animal Crossing: New Leaf. The latest installment in Nintendo's series of irrepressibly cute and tough to define titles has sold almost 7.4 million copies worldwide; The Last of Us has done 6 million. Both are commercial successes, but Animal Crossing is by far the more remarkable; not least since it's on the 3DS (installed base: 44 million) while The Last Of Us is on the PS3 (installed base: 83 million).

I don't mean to compare apples to oranges or to raise fanboy hackles with this comparison. These are radically different games targeting completely different markets - I'd like us to think of the commercial success each of them has achieved as a remarkable affirmation of the sheer creative breadth and demographic reach the games medium has attained. I make the comparison simply to point out that even while The Last Of Us has won critical and commercial acclaim in a way which has been noisy and impossible to ignore, Animal Crossing: New Leaf has been steadily turning itself into a true blockbuster title - a platform-seller, a multi-million seller, a big, commercially important game.

"From talented and experimental indies through to creative and production staff at top studios, the boys' treehouse atmosphere of game development is increasingly being dispelled by an influx of women, LGBT people and other minorities"

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is remarkable in all sorts of ways. It's remarkable because it defies genre conventions, because it's got the kind of quirky art and design that's meant to be a tough sell in a blockbuster, because it's inherently a social time-sink of a game on a dedicated handheld platform in an era when those games are meant to exist only on smartphones. It's remarkable because it offers a myriad of new counter-arguments to the "that will never sell" droned arguments of dull middle-managers holding sheafs of market research numbers and listless grey dreams of cloning Call of Duty and mixing it with GTA.

It's remarkable, finally, because Animal Crossing: New Leaf was directed by a woman, and because almost half of the development team were women. That would raise some appreciative eyebrows anywhere in the games industry - but it happened in Japan, which should make your eyebrows veer dangerously around your forehead as if they have a life of their own.

The games business as a whole has made some pretty impressive strides with regard to inclusiveness in recent years. There are lots of battles yet to be won, but campaigning has made a real difference in many areas - and more importantly, a generation of young women (and LGBT people, and other minority groups besides) have grown up loving games, and have proven themselves unwilling to back down over being involved in making, creating, expressing and redefining the medium. From talented and experimental indies through to creative and production staff at top studios, the boys' treehouse atmosphere of game development is increasingly being dispelled by an influx of women, LGBT people and other minorities. Their influence is clear, and truly positive; they all love games, and have no desire to "destroy" the medium, as some narrow-minded detractors have claimed, but rather to expand and improve it with the benefit of new perspectives, new ideas and new experiences.

Even so, there is still plenty of ground to be made up here. Fresh anecdotes present themselves with depressing regularity - female developers forced to explain at expo booths that yes, they did work on the game and no, they're not just hired help for the show; transsexual gamers and creators alike belittled in public or made into the butt of crude jokes; and only this week, the sad tale of a colossal cretin who sank a high-budget effort at broadcasting an indie game jam event by trying to stir up "conflict" over the presence of women on two of the competing teams. Still, compared to five years ago, there's a sense of getting somewhere. The online abuse of women and minorities hasn't gone away, but that's a much wider problem - the games industry itself is, at least, groping its way slowly and painfully from being a contributor to this problem to being part of the solution. Even if the internet is still a toxic environment, games companies, creative spaces and communities are slowly turning themselves into safe, open and collaborative places where people who love games - of any kind - can come together and make great things. That's as it should be.

In Japan, though, for a major game to be both fronted by a female director and made by such an gender-mixed team is truly remarkable. Japan is a nation where the gender gap remains so wide you can rarely see one side from the other. Female participation in the workforce is low by the standards of developed countries; around 48 percent, which is a solid 10 percent behind countries like the UK and the USA. In itself, that's not necessarily a bad thing, as a society which placed equal value on women's free choices either to pursue careers or raise children could be laudable, but Japan isn't that society. Women who work are held back by their gender, constrained by a deeply ingrained belief that once they get married they ought to retire from work and become housewives and mothers. Women's jobs are viewed all too often as fleeting hobbies; a woman who works at a great company only got that job in order to give herself the opportunity to meet a successful man to marry, after which she'll quit her job and put her fancy college education to work making packed lunches. This expectation is self-fulfilling; companies don't promote women beyond an extremely low glass ceiling because they don't expect the women to hang around in employment for very long, and place heavy pressure on them to quit once they get married or become pregnant.

"Japan's game developers lost themselves in their desperation to be more "western", believing that "western" meant a laughably macho, self-conscious style that western games themselves were actually growing out of..."

The consequences of this culture are easy to see in the nation's employment statistics. Women earn around 60 percent as much as men for doing the same work. They make up over 60 percent of the nation's clerical staff but only 10 percent of management staff. Only 1.1 percent of board members in Japan are women, and only 4 percent of CEOs. Women are far more likely to be "non-regular employees" (part-time or short-term contract workers with little job security) than men, with 54 percent of female workers being in that position, compared with about 19 percent for men. In short, being a woman who wants to be taken seriously and advance her career at a Japanese company is an uphill struggle; and Japan is a nation with some damned steep hills.

It's going to require major cultural change for this situation to rectify itself overall. Such change is happening (and like all social change, will happen very, very slowly, and then very quickly), with even the present socially conservative government acknowledging that female labour participation is an important part of the nation's economic future. I wonder, though, if Nintendo's success with Animal Crossing: New Leaf might not set some minds racing in Japan's games industry. Not only did the company put Aya Kyogoku in charge of a radically gender-mixed team to create the game; it's now openly bragging about it. Kyogoku was profiled in Wired this month; Satoru Iwata himself has given Japanese press interviews about the strength of Animal Crossing's appeal with female consumers and the success of creating a gender-balanced team.

Japan has no shortage of talented women - yet it's notable that the creative talents of Japanese women have largely emerged in solo fields, while team-focused projects have been led exclusively by male auteurs. In art, we find the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Junko Mizuno and Chiho Aoshima; in fiction, Natsuo Kirino, Banana Yoshimoto and Fumiko Enchi; in music, popular composers like Yoko Kanno and Yuki Kajiura, or singer-songwriters like Hikaru Utada and Shiina Ringo. Yet in film and games, it's men whose names are best-known. Female directors of both media do exist; notably, both Sega's Phantasy Star and Konami's Suikoden RPG series were helmed by women (Reiko Kodama and Junko Kawano respectively), but their staff remained predominantly male.

It's a feather in Nintendo's cap that such a thing was attempted, and a great boon both to Nintendo and to Kyogoku herself that it was such a wonderful success. For a Japanese console games industry that has been wondering how to rediscover its relevance in the wake of some pretty tough years, perhaps there's a lesson here. Outsider experiences make for the most fascinating storytelling and the most challenging ideas in game design; to the benefit, not the exclusion, of the "traditional" consumer market.

Moreover, the generation of women who have grown up playing games haven't gone away simply because smartphones arrived. The right experience, the right tone and pitch, the right game and the right marketing can unlock millions of sales to consumers previously written off in the endless hunt for teenage boys' pocket money. Japan's game developers lost themselves in their desperation to be more "western", believing that "western" meant a laughably macho, self-conscious style that western games themselves were actually growing out of with the help of a steady move towards more inclusive work and creative environments. Now Japan needs to rediscover its own style - and the help of the untapped 50 percent of the nation's creative potential may be essential to achieving that.

23 Comments

Justin Shuard
J - E translator

40 144 3.6
A bit of an unfair comparison considering that the Last of Us is a new IP and Animal Crossing has been around for over a decade, but congrats to Ninty all the same I suppose.

Posted:3 months ago

#1

Jed Ashforth
Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group

101 155 1.5
I totally get your main thrust here, Rob, but I agree that comparing New Leaf to TLOU is a bit of an odd comparison.

Animal Crossing is a well known, well-loved and well -established brand across all territories and several platforms, it's well merchandised, and it's aimed at all age ranges. TLOU on the other hand is an 18-rated new IP on a single platform. Also, Animal Crossing is extremely easy to fall in love with, where TLOU takes a good investment of time before it gets under the skin of a lot of players, etc etc - there's not much overlap between the two.

Posted:3 months ago

#2

Robin Clarke
Producer

295 677 2.3
There were news stories that expressed disbelief at the AC/TLOU sales comparison, which highlights how bad the games media and even the industry itself are at recognising the legitimacy (and enormous mass market appeal) of handheld games.

Incredibly, BAFTA didn't even shortlist any of Nintendo's 3DS games for their 'Mobile & Handheld' category this year.

Posted:3 months ago

#3

Daniel Hughes
Studying PhD Literary Modernism

436 496 1.1
Popular Comment
@ Jed

I think the main point of Rob's comparison is that the success of two vastly different experiences is fantastic for the industry, but while TLOU has received plaudits, as Robin points out, Animal Crossing--and other excellent handheld experiences, many coming from Japan--are being overlooked by mainstream Western media, despite their obvious success. I'd also argue that Animal Crossing has been something of a hit and miss series. The original N64 title (and later GameCube port) was a very niche success, the Wii version faired relatively poorly (a couple of million copies on an enormous install base), while the DS and 3DS versions have gone onto strong success.

It's a good success story that deserves more attention, and Rob hits the nail on the head with his comments on how forward looking and disruptive this is for traditional Japanese development practices. If we think more deeply about the comparison, though, The Last of Us is a Western made, critically and commercially successful, mature, core orientated home console title that's received huge amounts of attention from the media. It's a poster child for the strong blockbuster business that has powered the Western console industry for the last decade, and as Rob points out, has left many Japanese publishers with a distinctive market identity and creativity crisis. Animal Crossing: New Leaf should be a poster child for the Japanese industry and celebrated more widely in the West. It's a successful 'social'/'casual' game on a platform whose market has been irrevocably altered and shrank by new platforms and business models, a globally successful, multi-million selling Japanese title (how many of those are there now, particularly outside of Nintendo's offerings?) and a clear sign that if Japan levels the gender playing field in its own gaming industry, it could yet offer some of the most creative, critically and commercially successful software hitting home and handheld consoles.

As an aside to Robin, I agree it's a travesty BAFTA didn't recognise the quality of software on 3DS last year. Bravely Default, Luigi's Mansion 2, Pokemon X/Y, A Link Between Worlds and Fire Emblem: Awakening were all incredible games. I'd tie the latter two for my favourite game of the year.

Posted:3 months ago

#4

Neil Young
Programmer

269 291 1.1
I guess the comparison is more of a reference point than anything - it probably shouldn't be that surprising: AC is an established franchise, its market isn't constrained by it's age rating, and whilst there are more PS3s out there than 3DSs, the 3DS is much newer, so the proportion still in use will be higher.

That's not to say nintendo don't deserve credit for managing to add another successful entry to the franchise.

Posted:3 months ago

#5

Shehzaan Abdulla
Translator

81 174 2.1
Women earn around 60 percent as much as men for doing the same work.
This statistic doesn't quite tell the whole story. Or at least it paints one that is misleading.

In Japan there is a steep difference in pay between full-time salaried workers, so called Sei Shain, and "part-time" workers doing the same jobs. I use quotations because in many cases Sei Shain and part-time workers actually do the same work for the same number of hours, but at vastly different pay grades. Naturally, employers like keeping a system around that lets them, in essence, employ full-time staff at part-time wages.

Many women fall into the "part-time" category which is why they aren't being paid as much to do the same work; part-time workers simply aren't.

There may be an element of unequal pay between Sei Shain at work here but the biggest factor in payment discrepancy is likely to be the difference in standing between Sei Shain and part-timers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shehzaan Abdulla on 4th April 2014 1:11pm

Posted:3 months ago

#6

Rick Lopez
Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 941 0.7
Animal Crossing is a great game. Dont care if men or woman made it. However if in this case having woman on board to get the results the developers wanted then thats valid. Besides if you want a game to appeal to a certain demographical group such as females then its a good idea to have more woman on the team.

Anyway, glad some good news is coming from Nintendo. they have been getting alot of hate lately and I just saw footage of Mario kart 8 and Im stoked. I am so going to get a WiiU at some point.

Posted:3 months ago

#7

David Mann
Artist

8 11 1.4
Popular Comment
@Shehzaan Abdulla: I really don't see how that is misleading. Even by your explanation, the fact of the matter is that women tend to be relegated to part-time employment, yet their employers expect full-time results. Thus, women are getting paid less than many of their peers for equal output, which was essentially Rob's point. Just because there's a special name for their unequal treatment doesn't mean it's justifiable, or that calling out that wage gap without using a specific name for it is misleading.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Mann on 4th April 2014 7:41pm

Posted:3 months ago

#8

David Mann
Artist

8 11 1.4
Animal Crossing is a great game. Dont care if men or woman made it. However if in this case having woman on board to get the results the developers wanted then thats valid. Besides if you want a game to appeal to a certain demographical group such as females then its a good idea to have more woman on the team.
Sooooo... When would having a woman on the team be invalid? ;) Not to try to pick on you or start an argument, but something you might want to think about. Also something to think about: the connotation of referring to women as "females." It implies that they're less than human, or at the very least, below men in social status. And you might not personally feel that way, and I don't want to accuse you of such, but simply referring to women as "females" instead of women will give many people the impression that you lack respect for them, or are belittling them. Food for thought.

Posted:3 months ago

#9

Robin Clarke
Producer

26 50 1.9
@Shehzaan Abdulla

So in fact the statistic does tell the whole story. Are you really going to try to lecture someone who lives and works in Japan on how to correctly report on Japanese society's gender inequality?

Posted:3 months ago

#10

Rick Lopez
Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 941 0.7
@David Mann

Hmmm… were should i start… and stop…. I tend to write alot…

Sooooo... When would having a woman on the team be invalid? ;) Not to try to pick on you or start an argument

Reeaally?…
the connotation of referring to women as "females." It implies that they're less than human, or at the very least, below men in social status... | |...referring to women as "females" instead of women will give many people the impression that you lack respect for them, or are belittling them. Food for thought.
Female as in "male or female demographical group of people"… Although its not inapropriate I find it weird to say the "men or woman demographical group of people" or have to say the "demographical group of men/woman"… I prefer to say male/female demographical group of people… so I used the word "females" in that regard.

Anyway, i cant see how anything I said in that post would imply that they are less human and below men in social status. Much less disrespect or belittle them…

Regarding the article all I wanted to say that I found it interesting that woman had a hand in creating Animal crossing. I had no idea. I like that game a lot. They should get more involved in making games.

Lots a woman happen to feel strongly about how games are made, and this is the type of thing I feel is needed for that, just more woman getting involved. Thats why I liked the article.

It seems when someone takes a jab at me they get stars… interesting…

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 5th April 2014 1:09am

Posted:3 months ago

#11

Tim Ogul
Illustrator

335 462 1.4
I think the main point of Rob's comparison is that the success of two vastly different experiences is fantastic for the industry, but while TLOU has received plaudits, as Robin points out, Animal Crossing--and other excellent handheld experiences, many coming from Japan--are being overlooked by mainstream Western media, despite their obvious success.
Well, I think there's good reason for that. Success speaks for itself, high sales numbers isn't really news. A game like Last of Us got attention not for its sales, but for its artistic merits. Animal Crossing, for all its success, was not anything ground breaking, just an iteration on the series. It would be better to compare it to a franchise title, like Assassin's Creed IV (which sold ten million+ copies).

Posted:3 months ago

#12

Christian Keichel
Journalist

559 772 1.4
Yet in film and games, it's men whose names are best-known. Female directors of both media do exist; notably, both Sega's Phantasy Star and Konami's Suikoden RPG series were helmed by women (Reiko Kodama and Junko Kawano respectively), but their staff remained predominantly male.
It's fair to say the female movie directors are the exception anywhere in the world too. In 85 years only 1 woman won the academy award for best director and besides Kathry Bigelow and Sophia Coppola I am not aware of any other female director who is currently successful in mainstream Hollywood or known to an international audience. Here in europe the situation is the same. This doesn't mean I think women can't direct movies, this is nonsense, but it's a fact, that female directors are extremely rare.

Posted:3 months ago

#13

Gabriel Islas
Associate Interface Scripter

4 4 1.0
A great read!

Posted:3 months ago

#14

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,128 1,038 0.5
Fun fact: Junko Kawano also directed Shadow of Memories (Shadow of Destiny in the US) a game she wrote and did some art for. She also directed the Nintendo DS game Time Hollow, a similarly themed time traveling adventure that seems to be a bit tough to track down cheap these days.

Posted:3 months ago

#15

Alex Lemco
Freelance Writer

8 23 2.9
A very interesting article, chaps, but I really want to know where those employment statistics came from.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alex Lemco on 7th April 2014 12:38pm

Posted:3 months ago

#16

Shane Sweeney
Academic

348 249 0.7
Betteridge's law of headlines would suggest no.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headlines

Posted:3 months ago

#17
Popular Comment
Alex: The statistics are largely published by the Japanese government. If you want to go a more in-depth, there are two government sites that are great starting points for labour data on Japan - the Ministry of Internal Affairs' "Statistics Japan" site (総務省統計局) http://www.stat.go.jp and the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training (労働政策研究機構) http://www.jil.go.jp - both of these sites have English language versions although I'm not sure whether the data on the English sites is as comprehensive as it is on the Japanese sites. There's also a lot of data on workforce participation rates and so on published by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (厚生労働省) http://www.mhlw.go.jp

Posted:3 months ago

#18

Alfonso Sexto
Lead Tester

761 574 0.8
@Robin Clarke:

"...highlights how bad the games media and even the industry itself are at recognising the legitimacy (and enormous mass market appeal) of handheld games."

Which explains why "Virtue's Last Reward" went so much under the radar back in 2012

Posted:3 months ago

#19

David Mann
Artist

8 11 1.4
@Rick Lopez

Like I said, I'm not taking a jab at you, nor am I trying to pick on you or accuse you of meaning something else. I was simply saying that, while you might not in fact feel this way (and you've clearly stated you are for equal treatment/employment of women in games), some people will take what you're saying the wrong way. You need to think about context and phrasing.

Yes, your use of "females" in the context of demographics does get your point across, but A) some people don't like being reduced to a demographic anyway, and B) most women like being reduced to "females" even less so. So, I tried to politely suggest why you might want to think about your wording in the future.

Anyway, i cant see how anything I said in that post would imply that they are less human and below men in social status. Much less disrespect or belittle them…

You can't, but others could, and that's why I brought it up. Hell, if I hadn't read it as such at first glance, I wouldn't have said anything. But upon first read, you came across to me as saying that having "females" work on a game is valid in this instance, but there are apparently other times when women shouldn't or don't need to work on a game. At second glance, I realized you weren't trying to read like that at all. So I tried to politely (and apparently I failed at that, sorry) explain that your wording could be better to get your point across.

Sorry you felt I attacked you-- as I stated multiple times in my first post, I wasn't trying to pick on you or argue with you, I was just trying to help you (and those who read what we write) phrase your words more clearly, that we can all have a more productive dialogue around these issues.

EDIT TO ADD: It seems when someone takes a jab at me they get stars… interesting… I didn't get a star for responding to you, don't know why you'd say I did...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Mann on 8th April 2014 3:06pm

Posted:3 months ago

#20

Rick Lopez
Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 941 0.7
@David Mann

Whelp!... Sorry if what little I wrote rubbed off on you the wrong way.

I post alot here alot and dont have time to nitpick everything I say every single time, nore do i want to do it so much it comes to a point where I cant say what i wanna say. I understand people wont always agree... however other times people are just too damn sensitive about certain things, especially with any forum thread that involves gender, race or sexual orientation as the topic.

I can go on, copy, quote and respond to the things you said ... justifying every single pixel in my previous post...

but... It takes alot of my time...

Anyway, im only bothering to write this just to let you know, your good intentions are noted... we are good.

Posted:3 months ago

#21

Bonnie Patterson
Freelance Narrative Designer

155 422 2.7
Interesting that this is only news in Japan now.

Bit of history. I bet there are a few here who are huge fans of the J-Horror films Ringu (1998) and Ju-on: the Grudge (2002), yes?

Aside from being bloody good films, they were the early flags of a then-new movement in Japanese cinema. We can term this movement "The Realization that Teenage Girls get Pocket-Money but Don't Spend it on Stuff that Screams 'Not for You.'" Studios starting asking for scripts to take advantage of this new demographic, intended to form just a part of their output and be made right along with titles that catered to the traditional themes of tits and explosions.

Some of what got pitched was very little different to the standard, already-extant fare for children, but the studio heads understood that very few guys of the same age as girls in their target demographic would sit through that on date night, so in the end the adjustment required was actually pretty small.

Very few people who have seen Ringu would say "This is for girls" as what we generally understand as meaning "for girls" these days is something pink, possibly with a pony in it, more likely a princess, and should involve brushing something at some point. But all they did was take a perfectly sensible horror plotline, remove any gratuitous gore and sex ("gratuitous" in the real meaning of the word - unnecessary to the intended purpose of the product - not as many campaign groups use it, to mean all of it) and... make the film.

That Ringu was then the most popular adaptation of Koji Suzuki's oft-adapted novel - well, it's almost a given. After all, it had twice as many customers as any other attempt, or indeed any other horror film released in Japan at that point, grossing over $137 million.

Take two genders for your audience instead of one, double your money. Best way to attract that new portion of your audience? Stop telling them to f**k off. Like so many obvious things, it's really simple.

Edited: my spacebar is full of cat hair and a lot of words got mashed together.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 8th April 2014 9:11pm

Posted:3 months ago

#22

Bonnie Patterson
Freelance Narrative Designer

155 422 2.7
@Shehzaan Abdulla Usually when this type of statistic is brought up, there are two different stats that get confused.

One is commonly called the "Gender Gap" (though actually this term applies equally correctly to both stats, just to be helpful) - the difference in average pay between a woman and a man, across all roles and types of employment. It's often used because it's a better indicator of the sum total of "discriminatory" factors (ways in which the genders are treated differently) from birth to employment. Because everything has an influence on what your chances are at getting a given wage, from the stereotypes applied to you in school to where certain types of jobs are advertised to what industry parties are like.

The other is the amount equally qualified candidates receive for the same work. This one means same contractual hours, same responsibilities and so on. And 60% is certainly a match to the WEF, UN, World Bank and Diet figures. Worldwide, Japan ranks 87th in wage equality for the same job.

Posted:3 months ago

#23

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