Kotaku on Monster Hunter and Japan

From an article titled, “Why Monster Hunter Is So Popular In Japan (And Struggles Everywhere Else)” [sic].

Kotaku Monster Hunter Japan

“The fact that friends are playing the game acts as an incentive for people to join in as well as keep playing. In Japan, a country with imperial origins, there is often enormous pressure to fit in in communities. When something is popular among one’s peers, it’s best to get in on the action, or at the very least know what all the hubbub is about. While this mindset has lessened in the years of democratic rule, it remains embedded in a large part of society.”

That’s some assertion.  Let’s look at it for a bit.Very first of all, is Japan “a country with imperial origins”?  There certainly used to be an Empire of Japan, but is that the origin of the country?  I think the terms “empire” and “country” would be hard to define well enough to pin down a definite answer to this question, which is why I find it shocking how casually the author throws out that parenthetical remark as if it is a commonly accepted fact.

But on to the meat.  First of all, does Japan’s imperial past make it different than other countries, especially those of the West?  I don’t see how we can say that when Britain, France, the United States and others beside them had empires (and there are even convincing arguments that claim they still maintain empires to this day).  I think most of the countries the author is attempting to compare Japan to also have empire in their histories.

But second and more importantly, are the assertions of “community pressure” accurate and unique?  I think not, or at least certainly not as far the author claims.  For example, look at this sentence again:  “When something is popular among one’s peers, it’s best to get in on the action, or at the very least know what all the hubbub is about.”  Is that really different than in the West (or indeed anywhere)?  Not knowing what is popular among your friends, classmates, and coworkers means nothing at all in America?  That is not how it was when I lived there.  Just look at the popularity of memes; thousands of in-jokes that everyone on the internet is expected to be up-to-date on.  Urban Dictionary exists and is hugely popular due to people constantly trying to stay on top of the current vernacular.  Not to mention Kotaku itself is only successful because of this very same phenomenon.

“I could not find a single person who started the series on their own. Everyone seemed to have been introduced to the game series through someone else, be it a colleague or friend’s suggestion, or simple peer pressure from watching friends enjoying the game.”

I think this is true for most every game everywhere.  Otherwise, why do some games sell way more copies than others?  People hear about the game from someone, or they see someone playing it, or they read a positive review.  If everyone in the West chooses their games entirely “on their own” then the only explanation for why some sell significantly better than others would be the box art, and I don’t think anyone is arguing that.

In fact, although the author directly contrasts this attitude with democracy in his statement, “While this mindset has lessened in the years of democratic rule…”, surely we must say this way is more democratic than the alternative.  Compare people choosing games based on what people they personally know are telling them, and/or what they see with their own eyes to people choosing games based on what a reviewer, an impersonal, perhaps even anonymous authority figure is telling them.  Surely the former is diffuse and democratic while the latter is centralized and authoritarian.

Next, is there anything wrong with playing the same games your friends are playing?  The author presents this tale:

“On a trip with 15 or so colleagues, everyone but me was playing Monster Hunter on their PSPs.” Kenji, a 25 year-old actor recalls, “I sat in the corner playing Final Fantasy on my PSP, while everybody else sat in circles of 3 or 4 laughing and having fun… It was terrible. When I got home, the first thing I did was get a copy of the game.”

I don’t think there is anything uniquely Japanese about that story, but aside from that I don’t see anything bad or shocking about it either.  Kenji found it boring to play a game by himself when all his friends were playing together and having fun.  No evidence is presented that his friends purposefully excluded him or pushed him to buy the game with “peer pressure.”  He wanted to play with his friends, so he bought the game.  How is this any different than your friends getting into playing baseball, and you then also thinking that it looks like fun, and so you go out and buy yourself a glove and play with them?  There’s nothing bad about that, and certainly nothing foreign.

Finally, let us look at one more quote from the article:

“Like it or not, gaming is still largely viewed as a solitary pastime with interactions between people only occurring over the internet (You won’t find groups of friends sitting around a table in a restaurant or fast food joint playing hand-held video games together in many other countries outside of Japan).”

Now I’d say the author is rather on-the-money here, but isn’t the picture it paints sad?  Americans heading straight home after work and school to lock themselves up and plug themselves into their computers, playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty with millions of others doing the same thing, while in Japan adults and children alike hang around parks and restaurants with their real-life friends chatting, eating, and playing together.  Given the choice, which one would you pick?

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