I Can’t Believe It’s Not Gaming!

The first time my girlfriend walked into my dorm room, almost two years ago, she sized up the place as only a socially active, dating female could. Unmade bed, dirty clothes and old assignments scattered all over the floor, cartoon and movie posters thrown haphazardly along the walls, a veritable rat’s nest of wires on the desk where the computer was … check, check, check.

But there, sitting in the middle of the room next to my PlayStation 2, was the single biggest risk to my dating gambit: namely, my massive MAS Systems arcade stick. Weighing in at probably around five pounds of pure phallic hardware, the stick had the unnatural ability to demand the attention of anyone and everyone it encountered, regardless of race, gender, creed or any of that fun stuff. I knew, as any savvy gaming male ought to know, the presence of the stick alone could be enough to remove me from the pool of date-able males, and relegate me solidly into the Friend Zone, regardless of how suave and seductive I might have been on the night that I met her.

I will spare you the details of the encounter, dear Reader; suffice to say that my years of Street Fighter worked their delicate back-and-forth magic, and we’re still together.

All three of us.

But ponder my desperate struggle to reconcile my gaming habit with my women habit; no doubt many young gamers reading this can identify with the need to conceal our uncool habit when around members of the fairer sex. So why is it that when my girlfriend enters the room, she eyes my beloved MAS Systems arcade stick with unadulterated dear-god-what-am-I-getting-myself-into suspicion, but when two adorable girls from Osaka named Maki and Mayo come into my room, they squeal in joy and button mash their way through Street Fighter: Anniversary Edition, all while yelling the names of Ryu’s special moves out? Ask yourself this, dear Reader, perhaps during your daily meditation, perhaps in a moment of vulnerable soul-searching weakness, or at 3:30a.m. amid a pile of empty Starbucks cups and unsettled bedsheets. As it turns out, one only need watch a few Japanese girls play Katamari Damacy and chatter to each other (providing running commentary, as it were) to begin formulating an answer.

About a week ago, I asked a few friends of mine whether they called themselves “gamers” or not; predictably, some did and some didn’t. When I asked instead if they identified as “movie-watchers,” the reaction was substantially different; while all of them agreed that they watched movies for recreation, they generally felt as though it was a fairly trivial way of identifying oneself, as though saying “I watch movies,” was about as unique as “I eat,” or “I breathe oxygen.” Which is to say, movies are ubiquitous, and games – though no doubt the “non-gamers” had played a few games of Solitaire or Snake – are decidedly less so. “Well, that’s different,” they tell me, “That’s not really gaming.”

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A few days later, I sat down with another friend of mine – who happened to be an international student from Japan – and asked him a similar question. He replied that he did not think of himself as a gamer in the sense that I meant it because to him, our conception of the term “gamer” was akin to his usage of otaku – that is, a self-professed, obsessed, garden variety geek. I was fascinated. He proceeded to paint for me a vision of a world with a wholly different entertainment culture than I had known, one where men in their thirties, and even forties, would occasionally refer to Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest in casual water-cooler conversations, where arcades were actually places that people socially played games, where a man, woman or child could play on their GameBoy Advance SP and not have it mistaken for a cellular phone that could play Street Fighter 2.

This is Japan, he explained – a country where any young man or woman might have played through Final Fantasy VII, but to put up a poster advertising that fact in one’s dorm room would be unthinkably, unforgivably otaku. And if this sort of sentiment is not completely alien to you, dear Reader, then maybe it makes a little more sense that an arcade peripheral, unlike a stack of DVDs, would inspire an attractive, interested young lady to briefly consider if she really wants a long-term relationship.

Allow me to draw upon a contemporary example; one of my fellow dorm-dwellers came into the possession of a no-questions-asked copy of Square’s straight-to-DVD movie release, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and held an informal screening in our living room. While I was unable to attend, I returned to find a living room packed; about half were Americans (all of whom had either played through the original Final Fantasy VII or had been forcibly dragged along by a friend) and the other half were Japanese (of which a handful had actually played).

As Advent Children appeals almost exclusively to people who at least know of Final Fantasy VII, this instance speaks very clearly to differences in Japanese and American attitudes toward gaming. While some of the international students had played Final Fantasy VII, the experience of those who hadn’t played FFVII seemed largely akin to, say, someone going in and seeing Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith without having ever seen any of the original Star Wars trilogy; though they won’t have experienced the fully continuous Star Wars experience, they still have some concept of Star Wars as culturally relevant. Conversely, the Americans in the room who had never played FFVII were horribly lost in a haze of beautiful fight scenes and choppy editing.

Let us consider gaming as equivalent to a mild narcotic habit, whereby it’s perfectly acceptable for Yoshiko from Waseda University to wander into my room during a party and ask if I have marika (Super Mario Kart), or to pick up the MAS stick and explain to me during a game of Street Fighter III: Third Strike that she used to play all the time with her older brother, back in the day (“no, I’m not a gamer, I just do it socially at parties”). And perhaps that, in turn, explains the puzzlement and surprise with which Yoshiko later confides in me, “It seems everyone here likes Sen to Chihiro,” upon encountering more than a few rooms with movie posters for the American release Spirited Awayoh, how otaku. It conjures up that moment of utter solemnity when beginning pot-smokers and beer-drinkers will pass on to each other the sacred Addiction Rule of Thumb – do it as much as you want, dude, just never by yourself. That’s when you know you’re an addict.

So, we are welcome to bemoan the fact that the vast majority of the industry is dedicated to pumping out games devoted to asinine movie licenses, football and life-simulators that consist of stealing cars, buying clothes and hot coffee (which should now be the officially recognized street slang for having sex without taking off your clothes). We can wring our hands at the appalling lack of innovation that runs rampant therein. But we would do well to remember that a few games every now and then make it out of the pile of Manhunts and Madden 20XXs and Gundams and Dragon Balls and appeal to us on an elegantly simple level. These are the The Sims and the Icos and the Rezes of the world; they entertain us without making us feel like we have to cross that otaku line. Put succinctly, we, as a society, make games that don’t make us feel like we have to be gamers, just like we can make movies that don’t force us to be movie-watchers.

And it’s pretty easy to tell right now, amid our heady predictions for the Revolution, that the Japanese are fairly competent at doing just that; where American gaming is by and large targeted at a particular hardcore gaming audience, Japanese developers, if ever so rarely, have been able to come out with those Nintendogs and Animal Crossings that are able to seduce people of all different genders, creeds and colors precisely because they feel so organic.

No, I don’t think Advent Children will attract much in the way of the general American audience quite yet, but there is no question that the space for non-gamer gaming is expanding. Why, just the other day my girlfriend – yes, that same joystick-fearing young lady – mentioned to me a few days ago that she’d like to try that new game for the PS2 that she heard about from her friend – Calamari Dynasty? Fancy that – I just picked up We Love Katamari the other day.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.

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