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Are Japanese women the future of its gaming?

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.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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