As Phil Fish makes his graceful exit from his career in game design, I feel like a unique opportunity has been created to talk about something that has been plaguing gaming media, and gaming culture for the last 7 years - racism.
Edge posted an article about the whole ordeal this morning that really forced me to reply; but this issue has been brewing for me this whole console generation.
Phil Fish and the hate mob - an internet tragedy http://www.edge-online.com/features/phil-fish-and-the-hate-mob-an-internet-tragedy/
"Phil Fish absolutely fulfilled his side of this bargain, with a big chunk of the web fulfilling the other side. It’s tempting to say that Fish tells it like it is, if ‘tells like it is’ wasn’t a euphemism for ‘is a mad bigot with no off-switch’. Phil Fish isn’t a mad bigot; only the most perspective-challenged self-identified fans of Japanese games would accuse him of being a bigot, which is admittedly still at least 50 per cent of self-identified fans of Japanese games."
Since I said in the comment section yesterday that I do feel he has bigoted opinions, I felt I'd take this moment to point out just how incorrect this article really is, considering he's talking about me, and people like me. Yes, I am a self-identified fan of Japanese games. I wear that badge of shame proudly. My user name is based on a Japanese anime that I really enjoyed many years ago, Rurouni Kenshin. My avatar is also from a different anime series, Hellsing. I plead guilty to these two crimes: openly admitting I like Japanese games, and liking some anime series.
Before I move on to my argument, just look at the above quote. It's important to note that in Edge's dismissal of charges of bigotry, Edge actually says very obviously bigoted opinions in that same sentence. It's stunningly ironic, and clear as day. This shows how pervasive racist attitudes towards Japanese games really are. They have become virtually invisible to many gamers, and especially gaming journalists.
Let's dissect what he's saying. 50% of self-identified fans of Japanese games are extremely "perspective-challenged." Firstly, why isn't it 50% of all gamers? If you like Japanese games, it is due to an inferior perspective? This segments fans of gaming into "us" and "them." If you like Japanese games, you have a 50% chance of being an irrational fool. If you don't like Japanese games, we can assume from Edge's statement here that this means your risk of being a fool is probably a lower percentage. Considering that two out of three consoles out today are Japanese, we can assume that a great many people like Japanese games around the world. New Super Mario Bros. alone sold almost 30 million copies, which actually surpasses Call of Duty; and it's been a top gaming franchise for several decades longer. According to Edge, minimum, 15 million people are "perspective-challenged." You can tell this because they purchased New Super Mario Bros. Dead giveaway. This doesn't even mention the 75 million PS3 owners, or the untold numbers of perspective-challenged gamers on Wii, DS, and 3DS. That's an awful lot of perspectively-challenged individuals.
Since sexism is the hot button issue these days that gaming journalists and gamers can't seem to get enough of, I'll filter a few statements through my sexism analogy filter generator so hopefully more people can see how problematic some of these statements are.
"Phil Fish isn’t a mad [sexist]; only the most perspective-challenged self-identified fans of [games made by women] would accuse him of being a [sexist], which is admittedly still at least 50 per cent of self-identified fans of [games made by women]."
Can anyone imagine a journalist writing this sentence in this day and age? They would be crucified. More importantly, can anyone imagine a game journalist actually arguing that what he said would not be considered sexist? But since it's merely implying that a whole race of people are worse at making games than everyone else, it can fly through the radar without much complaint.
"They suck. I'm sorry, you guys need to get with the times. Make better interfaces and better technology. We're totally kicking your ass."
Before I start, run this through the sexism analogy filter. Picture a female developer standing up and saying that she's proud that Indie Game: The Movie is made by a female film director interested in gaming. Imagine her asking what Fish thinks of recent games made by women.
"They suck. I'm sorry, you [girls] need to get with the times. Make better interfaces and better technology. We're totally kicking your ass."
Can anyone imagine the kind of backlash that he would have gotten from the gaming press if he said that? More importantly, can you imagine a game journalist actually arguing that what he said wouldn't be considered sexist in any way? But he's just insulting all Japanese developers, so it's fine I guess. If you see any bigotry in this, you're perspective challenged, along with 50% of all fans of Japanese gaming.
2. Soft Racism
I make the jump from Fish being rude to Fish being racist because it takes racist beliefs about Japanese developers being inferior to even rationalize saying something that profoundly stupid. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is literally the highest rated game of this gen. Blow even mentions Dark Souls, which does precisely the exact opposite of what he was complaining about. In fact, game journalists first saw Demon's Souls' design as being so foreign, so alien that they literally called it "crazy." It ran counter to everything they were used to seeing in streamlined western games. They would often say it's really only the product of "crazy" Japanese developers, with their zany ideas about game design. To act like that is some random exception to the rule, when its a distinctly Japanese product is absurd.
Or look at any fighting game, whether it's Street Fighter, Soul Calibur and on. Or look at Vanquish, or Metal Gear Solid V, or Bayonetta, Gravity Rush, Soul Sacrifice, Etrian Odyssey IV, Ninja Gaiden 2, Super Mario 3D Land, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Animal Crossing, NieR, Bravely Default, FF Type-0, Valkyria Chronicles, Rhythm Thief, Professor Layton, Okami HD, Lost Odyssey, Trauma Team, Gran Turismo, Ghost Trick, Sin and Punishment 2. Look at the combat mechanics of Dragon's Dogma and Dark Souls compared to Skyrim. Look at Xenoblade. I could keep going and going and going.
The list goes on and on and on, in virtually every genre out there.
Many Japanese games are utterly fantastic, and are some of the very best games ever made, including this generation. They excel in game music, game mechanics, originality, colorful artistry, and gameplay polish. Nintendo is probably still the single best developer on planet Earth, and their critical acclaim, sales, and history of massively original titles bears that out.
Fish at the time he was saying this had literally not even released a single game yet. Blow had only released one. Pick any two good Japanese game this whole gen, and you're already at twice the output these guys had. The only reason they could possibly even settle on what they said is racism against Japanese developers. I'm not saying they're members of the KKK, but they are absolutely prejudiced, and a ton of game journalists are too.
It takes effort to look at what happened in that video and not see an obvious racial component. A Japanese developer spoken to as "you guys," and Fish taking the mantle of "we," as in "we are totally kicking your asses." It's very transparently ethnic/nationalistic competition, fueled by racist bigotry and a desire to see his collective race/nation/region seen as the champions of gaming.
3. The Gaming Media
Not only have Japanese games come under attack this gen, but it's gone hand in hand with a full scale attack on Japanese culture as a whole, something that I feel is entirely unprecedented in gaming culture in previous generations.
Most gaming fans have read Kotaku, and they're one of the most influential sites out there when it comes to pushing aspects of gaming culture and collective gamer attitudes and perspectives. Kotaku is probably without a doubt, the website most responsible for bringing sexism and gender issues to the forefront in gaming culture. They're also the website most responsible for shaping gamers' attitudes about Japan.
For years, Brian Ashcraft has ran a series of non-gaming related culture oddity articles overwhelmingly focused on "odd" things about Japanese culture. These run 5 days a week, Monday through Friday. Topics covered include blow up sex dolls, erotic games, pin-up models, sex hotels, and more. You could literally sum up almost every one of the articles with the headline "What the fuck Japan!?", and it would fit. The purpose is to purposely show only the most obscure, odd, and strange aspects of Japanese culture - 5 days a week.
It is my opinion that stories like these, running for the last several years straight, have "othered" Japan as a whole in the minds of many gamers. While most people out there have enough intelligence to realize that Japanese culture cannot be summarized by posting articles about blow up sex dolls, I fear far too many gamers have failed to figure that out.
The tendency to "other" and "fetishize" Asian culture has been around for a long, long time - known as Orientalism.
"Orientalism" is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. Edward W. Said, in his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, defined it as the acceptance in the West of "the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, 'mind,' destiny and so on."
According to Said, Orientalism dates from the period of European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which "the West" constructed "the East" as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or "rescue."
In the time I've been online this gen, Japanese games have been systematically picked apart, insulted, and labeled as collectively inferior along with the whole of Japanese culture. Look at how gamer language and culture has changed in regards to RPGs since last generation. Last gen, most people just called all RPGs "RPGs." Crazy, I know. Now, we have JRPGs and WRPGs. And then shortly after people managed to introduce "JRPG" and "WRPG" into common gamer vocabulary, we had the constant debate about how the west can intervene, or rescue the Japanese from themselves, because their game design methods are exotic, backward and comparatively inferior - or so the narrative goes ... but don't count Dragon's Dogma and Dark Souls as JRPGs, even though they are RPGs made in Japan, because the purpose of using the label "JRPG" is to make sure it looks as inferior, dated, and backwards as possible at all times when compared to WRPG.
Let's pull out the sexism analogy filter again and imagine what it would be like if 5 days a week, Kotaku ran articles only about irrational and strange things that women do. How do you think this might color the opinions of people reading stories on that website about games made by women? How do you think it might impact the opinions gamers have of women in general? Do you honestly think articles like that would be acceptable, and would not be sexist?
These are important questions to ask yourself. The answer might not be very pleasant, because many gamers and gaming journalists have grown comfortable with a persistent racist attitude towards Japanese products and Japanese people. It's not uncommon to read a comment on a Japanese game article from a user claiming that all Japanese people are pedophiles. Where do opinions like these come from? It's not uncommon to read user comments online claiming that all Japanese games are inherently inferior, and that they are technologically inferior. Where do opinions like these come from?
It's not uncommon to read articles written by Destructoid, IGN, and Kotaku editors claiming that Japanese developers are uniquely perverted compared to western developers, and that their games have unusual levels of sexual titillation. Nevermind the fact that nudity, romance plot lines, and sex scenes are far more common in western games, and that one of the most popular shows on US television focuses on sex, torture, incest, pedophilia and rape (Game of Thrones). It's far easier to externalize our perversion to the "other." They're worse, and they're the bad ones, not us. When western artists use extensive perversion and sexuality in their games and storylines, its seen as mature and thought provoking.
The unfortunate reality is that many gaming journalists have been peddling soft racism in gaming stories for years, and this will lead many to come to Fish's aid, or at the very least to downplay his offenses. It's articles like Kotaku's culture pieces. It's "how to fix JRPG" articles on IGN. It's 7 years of "East vs. West" headlines and tabloid articles. It's the double standards in reviews. It's the tone used, the sex jokes, the inferiority jokes, and the continued push for the "west is better" narrative. People will be quick to admit that Fish was rude, but few will admit that there are racist elements to his opinions, because saying so admits their own culpability in spreading these views, which are unmistakenly race-based double standards based on inaccurate assumptions and generalizations.
4. Fear of using the word "racism"
How do you feel about recent games made by Japanese people?
- They suck. I'm sorry, you guys need to get with the times. Make better interfaces and better technology. We're totally kicking your ass."
How do you feel about recent games made by women?
- They suck. I'm sorry, you girls need to get with the times. Make better interfaces and better technology. We're totally kicking your ass."
How do you feel about recent games made by African-Americans?
- They suck. I'm sorry, you guys need to get with the times. Make better interfaces and better technology. We're totally kicking your ass."
I could go on and on, but there really is no other scenario where this wouldn't be seen as colored by bigotry, except when it's directed at Japanese developers apparently.
Calling out this hard truth makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and they simply shut down and deny that its even a possibility, instead of engaging in the debate. I think this is because many people do not understand that there are varying degrees of severity in regards to racism. Most people in the US especially see racism as the be-all end-all of criticism. It's a life ending charge that gets people fired, tarred and feathered and collectively shunned by society as a whole, and for good reason. But not all racism is equal. Not every person with a racist belief is equivalent to a Nazi or a KKK member. Some people may just hold on to irrational beliefs because they have developed a specific blind spot in their logic that has not yet been challenged, or countered with education.
I don't think Fish hates Japanese people. I don't think many game journalists hate Japanese people either. But I do think that Fish, and many game journalists have allowed themselves to develop a significant blind spot in their logic. They push objectively inaccurate generalizations as fact; generalizations that demean Japanese people and the games they make. They push false generalizations about Japanese culture. They forgive western game design flaws, but criticize the same flaws when present in Japanese game design. They let nationalism and pride in western accomplishments promote a rivalry of "us versus them" that exaggerates our differences instead of celebrating our similarities. They take pride in the collective triumph of team western over team eastern, like it is a battle that has to be fought with winners and losers, instead of a sharing of art and culture. That's not the same as being a KKK member, but it is still race-based discrimination.
Instead of plugging your ears and running from any mention of the R-word; take a moment and analyze your own blind spots. You just might find something you're not that proud of. Learn from the experience, grow, and stop promoting racist, inaccurate generalizations. Stop championing people like Fish who do. His claims were factually absurd, and they were shameful.
And here I'll end with a few more gems from Edge's article about Phil Fish from this morning.
"We're so used to seeing developers' public personas through a mesh of corporate hierarchy and external comms policy that seeing someone filtered through the mesh of being a sarcastic real-life person is frightening and confusing. And following this weekend's announcement, it looks as though those meshes were there for a reason; the corporate mesh deflects and absorbs abuse, deforming and ricocheting off to one side like a bullet on kevlar, whereas Phil Fish's normal person mesh just lets everything through unhindered, to grim cumulative effect."
No. Look at how people responded to Microsoft PR around Xbone One's reveal. Gamers do not prefer misleading, polished corporate PR non-answers. And Phil Fish isn't a champion for truth and honesty. He's hated for publicly humiliating one of his peers at a developer conference for no reason, based solely on inaccurate assumptions about game design based on the race of the people designing. It's not praiseworthy to be "honest" when all you have to say is that everyone is beneath you, and that you're superior. What a crock of shit.
Phil Fish's "mesh," is hardly what I would consider "normal person." I have never sat in a conference of peers, and publicly humiliated someone who was asking a polite question right after complimenting my work.
The game industry needs more people like Phil Fish, and it’ll be all the poorer for his absence if he’s really gone. The internet isn’t short of people saying things are rubbish, in the same way that there’s probably enough creepy artwork of characters from Mass Effect already, and Sonic-themed erotic fiction is so oversubscribed as to be on a one-in-one-out system. But there are precious few people in Phil Fish’s position who are willing or capable of stirring up such debate, and almost none who are as entertaining. You might hate him, but he made Fez – and as such,he’s probably better than you."
Not only are western designers literally better people than Japanese designers, they are better people than every gamer who reads Edge who is not a designer. We now define individual human worth by whether or not they have made a western game. I've saved a human life before (seriously, I have), but I didn't make a western game, so I am an inferior person, probably. I have not humiliated people in public at a conference of peers, but I didn't make Fez, so I am an inferior human being, probably - 50% likely to be "perception challenged," AND inferior, to be more accurate. What about Japanese developers? Are they better than us too, probably?
Maybe Edge and Fish should stop trying to tell everyone who the accepted class of "better" humans are, and should start treating people as equals. If you think I'm exaggerating, remember that Fish just told Marcus Beer to "compare your life to mine, and then kill yourself."