Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

Part Three – On Final Fantasy

Sazh and Dajh from Final Fantasy  XIII

It was by playing Pokémon X/Y and seeing for myself how easily and naturally racial and ethnic diversity can be represented in video games that I began to grow concerned over how other Japanese games, such as those in the Final Fantasy series, marginalize diversity. Final Fantasy VI has one person of color, General Leo. Final Fantasy VII has one person of color, Barret Wallace. Final Fantasy VIII also has one person of color, Laguna’s comrade Kiros. Final Fantasy XIII, the most recent of the one-player console-based Final Fantasy games, has two people of color: Sazh and his son Dajh.

Unlike the Tales franchise, which is almost exclusively populated by light-skinned anime people, the inclusion of racial minorities in the increasingly photorealistic Final Fantasy series only serves to highlight the relative lack of diversity in the games. In such games, the race of minority characters seems to be either window dressing (a superficial visual element that does not affect the character or story in any way) or character dressing (that lends the character a minor personality trait, such as occasional outbursts of “sassy black attitude” ). Although it’s important that people from racial and ethnic minorities can be major named characters in blockbuster video games, I still can’t help but wonder why it’s so hard to have racial diversity in a game filled with tons of NPCs (non-player characters).

That being said, Final Fantasy IX started to lead the series down a parallel path in which diversity was represented less by the skin color of human beings and more by a plethora of fantasy races. Zidane, the main character of Final Fantasy IX, is a social outsider who is made even more of an outsider by his tail, and his love interest, Princess Garnet, has a horn, which was removed when she was a child to make her appear more like the dominant race of the kingdom into which she was adopted. Other characters in your party include Freya, an anthropomorphic mouse-like person whose race has suffered greatly at the hands of Princess Garnet’s kingdom, and the black mage Vivi, who race has been bred and enslaved by the game’s central antagonist. In this game, fantasy races thus serve as ciphers for social discrimination and political oppression.

Kimahri Ronso from Final Fantasy  X

The theme of discrimination returns in Final Fantasy X, in which two playable characters, Rikku and Kimahri, both face discrimination from the dominant racial and ethnic groups of sentient beings that populate the game’s world, including certain members of your own party, who gradually grow as characters over the course of the game as they begin to understand that such distinctions have been created and maintained for political reasons and meaningless on the level of the personal and the individual. The game’s main antagonist has been driven to purge the world of sentient life by having witnessed the suffering of his parents, who were both ostracized for marrying outside of their race/ethnicity. Final Fantasy X has strong references to real-world historical concerns, such as Japanese military and cultural imperialism during the first half of the twentieth century, so it is far from accidental that racial and ethnic tensions occupy a central position in the game’s story.

Fran and Balthier from Final Fantasy  XII

The Ivalice of Final Fantasy XII is a true diaspora occupied by a dazzling array of peoples and individuals who have been forced out of their homelands by war or who have left their homelands to seek profit and adventure in the wider world. Two of the game’s main characters are Balthier and Fran, a Hume and a Viera who work together as a team on completely equal footing with each other. Both have left prosperous yet culturally closed cities and positions of power to become opportunistic sky pirates, thus serving as representatives of the exciting potential of diversity in a truly open world.

This is not to say that the game fails to represent discrimination, however. Arcades, the capital city of the Arcadian Empire, is dominated by the Hume race, and many of its citizens display appalling attitudes towards other races, attitudes that are clearly presented in a negative light and meant to be disgusting to the player. For instance, this gentleman in the Arcadian airport, who compares members of the Seeq race to livestock, comes off as rather pig-headed himself.

Seeq-Hater from Final Fantasy XII

The Seeq themselves comment on the relative privilege enjoyed by members of the Hume race, as we can see in this example of a Seeq day laborer involved in an imperial public works project.

Itinerant Hand from Final Fantasy XII Dialog 1

Itinerant Hand from Final Fantasy XII Dialog 2

It’s difficult to say that Final Fantasy XII handles racial diversity in the best or most politically correct manner, but at least it manages to populate its world with several different races who mix freely in all but one of the game’s large urban areas. Moreover, there are dozens if not hundreds of individuals of each race with whom the player can interact, and these individuals demonstrate a wide range of personalities and abilities that seem to be determined more by occupation and social class than by innate predisposition.

What these examples show us is not that games in the Final Fantasy series eschew racial and ethnic issues and fail to represent diversity and discrimination, but rather that they tend to do so using fantasy races. In other words, real-world diversity and issues relating to the differences that can arise between nations and cultures are expressed not just through real-world races and ethnic groups, which are often loaded down with historical baggage, but also through fantasy races, which are capable of suggesting interpretations without forcing them.

Some Japanese video games, such as those from the Metal Gear, Tekken, and Yakuza series, portray real-world races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Video games developed in North America and Europe and set in versions of the contemporary or near-future world include characters associated with various racial, ethnic, and national groups as well. Because of the real-world history of conflicts between these groups, however, these portrayals can have unintended and unfortunate implications. For example, in the opening chapter of The Last of Us, which takes place in in a dystopian version of Boston, a white female support character who accompanies the white male protagonist shoots a black man in the face. Ouch. Moreover, when a game allows a character to be defined by his or her race or nationality, it treads over thin ice encrusting an enormous ocean of offensive stereotypes. It’s therefore difficult for video games – or any type of media – to make a statement about racial or ethnic issues without running the risk of representing members of specific races and ethnicities in a problematic manner. This is one of the reasons why fantasy races can be extremely useful when dealing with representations of diversity and discrimination.

Two influential progenitors of fantasy races often brought up in discussions of diversity in popular media are the Lord of the Rings novels (including The Hobbit and The Silmarillion) and the Star Trek franchise. Both sources handle diversity in complicated and interesting ways, but they are also somewhat limited in what they are able to achieve. What role playing games in particular can do really well is to allow the player to identify with characters from minority groups by encouraging the player to invest time and attention into the stories and personal growth of these characters. By effectively becoming a minority character, the player shares the character’s life experience not as a statistic or a stereotype but as an individual. In this regard, fantasy races can help ease the burden of empathy for players of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities.

Moreover, role playing games can accommodate vast numbers of NPCs (non-player characters) who exist not as enemies or service providers (such as inn keepers) but rather as characters with their own stories whose presence in the game serves to make its world more rich and immerse. Diversity in NPCs not only makes a game more interesting and imaginative but also allows its developers to hint at events occurring outside the realm of the heroes’ immediate attention. Sure, the player might be controlling a rebel group fighting an evil empire, but what does this empire actually mean to different groups of people, and how does it affect their everyday lives? This is especially true in online MMORPGs, where the players themselves can choose the fantasy race with which they’ll identify while completely ignoring any race-based stereotypes the game’s developers may have chosen to suggest or reinforce.

Final Fantasy XI Playable Races

In conclusion, Japanese role playing video games have the potential to offer international gamers a different perspective on race and ethnicity than the ones to which they have become accustomed. By incorporating fantasy races into the worlds and stories of their games, developers are able to represent both the potential and the challenges of diversity in a manner that is more universally accessible to gamers coming from a myriad of social and political backgrounds. As Japanese video games become more sophisticated and more complex, it’s only natural that they also come to better reflect the amazing diversity of their global audience.

* * * * *

If you’re interested in reading more about diversity in Japan and in popular media, I’d like to recommend three works that strongly influenced me.

The first is Lennard Davis’s The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era (2014), which is an interesting update on identity politics in contemporary America.

The second is Yoshio Sugimoto’s An Introduction to Japanese Society (2010). Yes, it’s an introductory textbook, but it offers a wealth of useful information and statistics, and the author’s style of writing is clear and concise.

The third is a three-part series of essays by Thomas Lamarre on speciesism in anime. The first part, “Translating Races into Animals in Wartime Animation,” can be found in Mechademia 3 (2008). The second part, “Tezuka Osamu and the Multispecies Ideal,” can be found in Mechademia 5 (2010). The third part, “Neoteny and the Politics of Life,” can be found in Mechademia 6 (2011).

* * * * *

I’d also like to link to six fantastic online essays and one wiki article about race, media, and fandom that helped me put my thoughts into perspective as I was writing.

Missing Polygons: Asians, Race, and Video Games

Reactions to the ANA Commercial, White-Face, and Racism in Japan

If Tolkien Were Black

Is Being Ambiguously Black a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

RaceFail ’09

Race Representation in Media and Online Fandom

Cosplaying While Black

Sahz and Vanille in Nautilus Cosplay

Part One – On Cultural Difference
Part Two – On Pokémon

4 thoughts on “Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

  1. The source for the Sazh and Vanille cosplay photo is Kelly Onstenk’s page on deviantART.

    The three screenshots from Final Fantasy XII were taken from Livvy Plays Final Fantasy, the best Let’s Play blog in the history of Let’s Play blogs.

    * * * * *

    I gave this talk as part of a panel titled “Japanese Culture in Japanese Games,” which was part of the MAGES Symposium at an annual video game fan convention called MAGFest. Since this convention is held in the United States, most of my comparisons and references are to American history and society. I apologize to non-U.S. readers for my Americanocentrism.

    My sincere thanks to Clinton King and Tim Macneil for inviting me to speak at MAGFest, as well as to my fellow panelist, Kirk Norman, for being both patient and brilliant. We had a huge audience turnout, and I’d like to thank everyone who came to the panel for being so kind and supportive. In addition, I was able to get some excellent critical feedback from the people who approached me after the panel with questions and concerns. May you all continue to be awesome.

  2. I’m curious that you don’t include Oerba Yun Fang among the people of color in FF13. She’s not black, but I wouldn’t call her white nor anime-default either. She’s certainly distinct from Vanille, Lightning, Snow, etc. They don’t make a big deal of it, but then they don’t make a big deal of Sazh and Dajh either. In terms of stereotyping, she follows many of the standard tropes for Ryukyuans and Pacific islanders— to a similar (though lesser) degree as Sazh’s following (Japanese-)standard tropes for black folks.

    1. This is such an interesting point! I’m not sure if I can adequately address it, but I will do my best.

      I unfortunately can’t link you to a source for this, since these discussions happened years ago in the comment chains on posts to various forums on Livejournal, but players have drawn parallels between Fang and Vanille’s clothing and the traditional dress of various cultures in Africa and South America. It’s my understanding that the Ultimania companion guides have more information about the characters, but I don’t have copies of the guides for the FFXIII trilogy. In the absence of concrete information from sources like creator interviews, I’m afraid that I would be relying heavily on stereotypes if I were to try to assign a real-world race and/or nationality to certain aspects of Fang’s character design.

      Furthermore, even though Fang and Vanille are from different “clans” (Yun and Dia, respectively), they’re both from Oerba, which means that they are ostensibly from the same community. I can’t help but wondering, given Fang’s original designation as the “strong-willed male character” Final Fantasy archetype, whether her skin tone and hair color have less to do with race or ethnicity and more to do with the fact that male characters often have darker hair and skin than female characters in Japanese popular media.

      All that being said, in a Final Fantasy Union podcast interview, Rachel Robinson (Fang’s voice actress in the English-language version of FFXIII) says that both Fang and Vanille had Okinawan accents in the Japanese version, which was meant to give them an “otherworldly” feel.* This provides an interesting point of comparison to FFX, in which the world of Spira has several references to Ryūkyūan culture.

      Instead of saying that Fang is a person of color whole Vanille is anime-default, then, I guess I’m more comfortable allowing people to stick to their own headcanons without trying to suggest anything tangible and concrete based on stereotypes. Maybe Fang is of a minority race/ethnicity, and maybe she’s not, but either way she needs to star in her own game because she is awesome.

      * Personally, I think it would have been cool if Fang and Vanille had American accents while everyone from Cocoon had British accents, which would have been a cool play on the “the evil empire is British” trope, but nobody asked me.

  3. You ask for racial representation in a politically correct manner, realizing that the politically correct is entirely a social construct of the west? I wonder how you’d read into a south american videogame that displays racial diversity as it is, with us calling black people ‘negro’ and being called ‘indio’ back with no offense meant. Offense which is, of course, entirely and completely a bloody social construct you americans see in all other cultures and want to impose your ‘correctness’ on all of us.

    Yeah cheers, I enjoy your literary analysis but you go to far sometimes in not recognizing how non-objective your concept of racial representation and discrimination is.

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