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

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Five)

If we can assume that the fantasy trope of mystical female other in bondage gear is popular among men, perhaps we can likewise assume that the fantasy trope often referred to as Draco in Leather Pants is popular among women. According to this trope, a man with a complicated past, equally complicated motivations, and a markedly antisocial streak has a heart of gold somewhere deep inside – especially if he’s handsome. The character Balthier from Final Fantasy XII meets all of these conditions; and, judging from the amount of fan fiction and fan art that has been created in his honor, female fans of the game love him.

It is therefore not unreasonable to argue that Balthier’s design and characterization both contain just as many fetish elements as Fran’s. After all, the male characters in the Final Fantasy series are subject to the same narrative tropes as the female characters. If Rydia is wedged into the role of spell caster by virtue of her gender, then Cecil is similarly cast into the role of the dark/white knight by virtue of his own gender. Moreover, if Rydia is sexually attractive to men, Cecil is perhaps even more attractive according to non-heteronormative female standards of male beauty (which include delicate features and long, willowy limbs). This is fantasy, and we want our characters to be attractive, and interesting, and suitably epic. There is no rule, after all, that says fantasy has to be any less subject to the confines of narrative tropes than, say, interwar French existentialist fiction.

If everyone in the Final Fantasy games is fetishized, and if everyone is subject to gendered tropes, however, can the series really be called “feminist”? Through my discussion of Rydia, Aeris, and Fran, I have attempted to prove that each successive game in the Final Fantasy series has become less sexist and phallocentric. I posited at the beginning of this essay that a “feminist” work contains “strong” (by which I mean “multi-dimensional” and “featured prominently”) female characters who are not villainized. By this standard of judgment, the games in the Final Fantasy series are indeed feminist works. Even though the player-protagonist is often male, this character is usually subordinate to the narrative importance of a central female character. Even though the story of this female character is seen through the eyes of a male character, it is her story that is being told, and the male player-protagonist is just along for the ride. While the player controls the gameplay, the actions of the female protagonist advance the plot and open more of the game’s world.

Although we could once safely assume that the gamer behind the player-protagonist was male, this is no longer the case; he is now just as likely to be controlled by a woman. The player-protagonist may have his own story, but he is also the eyes through which the player looks and the hands and feet by which the player explores and manipulates the world. Such a direct player identification thus makes his identity somewhat less than stable, along with his gender and sexual orientation. The player-protagonist is arguably little more than a cipher in many situations (such as Tidus in Final Fantasy X, who is never addressed or referred to by name, lest the player’s identification with him be impeded), and the true spotlight shines on the female protagonists of the series, such as Rinoa, Garnet, Yuna, and Ashe.

Perhaps, because these female characters were created by development teams consisting primarily of men, they can never be considered “pure” feminist role models, but there is another side to the equation – the female (and male!) fans of the series who have been inspired by these characters and have interpreted them in ways that may differ wildly from the original intentions of their creators. As I have argued elsewhere, a text does not end with the “Game Over” screen but rather spins into ever wider and deeper perversions in the personal fantasies of the player. These personal fantasies can then be reinforced and expanded upon when introduced into larger communities of gamers. Player reception is engaged in a feedback loop with Square-Enix, which has used the enormous revenue it has earned from the Final Fantasy franchise in order to develop games that will better appeal to its fans, both new and old. The strong female characters of the series have resulted in a large and vocal female following, which has in turn resulted in Final Fantasy XIII, a title that has been celebrated as a truly feminist video game. As gaming technology becomes more sophisticated, and as the narrative mechanisms of role playing games become more innovative and complex, I am looking forward to meeting the female characters in the future of Final Fantasy.

I cannot claim to have the final word on Final Fantasy, or on the topic of video games, role playing, and gender. Allow me to therefore cite my sources and inspirations, both online and in print.

The absolute best pieces of writing on Final Fantasy that I have ever had the pleasure of reading are collected under the title The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy. Each of these essays is quite long, but each is beautifully written and provides all of the background information I have omitted, which is presented in a humorous and highly intelligent tone. The online video game “magazine” The Escapist recently posted a video essay called True Female Characters, which is a bit superficial in terms of analysis but makes some good points and provides several examples of female characters in video games who are prime examples of sexist stereotypes. A short, journalistic article called Getting the Girl offers an interesting counterpoint to this discussion in the light it sheds on female game developers and the market pressures they face when designing female characters. The website The Mary Sue has a number of interesting pieces on women and geek culture, including statistics relating to female gamers.

If you’re interested in other aspects of the Final Fantasy series as viewed from a “scholarly” analytical perspective, there is an essay in Mechademia 4: War/Time titled “Imagined History, Fading Memory: Mastering Narrative in Final Fantasy X.” This essay is somewhat crippled by the word count imposed by the journal, but it contains an interesting argument relating to how the narrative structure of the game may relate to Japan’s experience of modernity. There are also several interesting and tangentially related articles in an academic journal called Games and Culture, including an essay on ethics in Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, as well as an interesting piece on fantasy races in MMO-RPGs.

On a broader level, Sharalyn Orbaugh’s “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture” (found in the collection Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field) is an excellent discussion of cross-gender character identification in a Japanese context. All four chapters of Tania Modleski’s short but brilliant Loving with a Vengeance discuss the romance tropes surrounding male characters and might be useful for a sustained inquiry into why a character like Balthier (or Sephiroth) is so popular with female fans. Finally, while I was writing this essay, I was addicted to Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan’s Deconstructing Disney, which opens by making a strong case for why we should continue to analyze popular culture and then goes on to provide an fantastic model of how to do so.

All of the games and characters I have discussed, as well as (almost) all of the images I have borrowed, belong to Square-Enix. Square-Enix, I love you. Please don’t sue me.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Four)

When one looks at Fran from Final Fantasy XII, the first thing that jumps to mind is most likely bunny girl or perhaps fetish character. Fran is tall, beautiful, and wearing very little clothing. The clothing that she is wearing is black leather bondage gear. She is marked as exotic not only by her rabbit ears but also by her Icelandic accent and the coffee color of her skin. If there were ever a character who seems designed solely for heterosexual male viewing pleasure, Fran would appear to be that character. Putting issues of costuming aside, however, I don’t think Final Fantasy XII’s characterization of Fran is in any way sexist.

Before I explain why her characterization isn’t sexist, let me first address the issue of why I don’t think her characterization is racist. Although it’s very easy to jump to the facile conclusion that Fran is just another example of a hyper-sexualized black woman, I would argue that this is not in fact the case. The most significant counter-argument against this claim is that Fran is not black, at least not in the sense that being “black” in America carries with it a great deal of history and cultural significance. In Ivalice, the fantasy world that Fran inhabits, there are many races of people with whom the player has extensive contact, and none of these races is distinguished by racial stereotypes (as, for example, Vulcans and Klingons are in the Star Trek universe).

To give an example, the Bangaa are a type of bipedal lizard-like people with floppy puppy-dog ears. Some of them are bounty hunters, and some of them are merchants or traders, and some of them are mechanics. Some of them are vicious and cruel, and some of them are pleasant and kind. Some of them are intelligent, and some of them are stupid. Some of them have red skin, and some have green skin, and some have blue skin, and some have brownish-yellow skin. Because the player comes into contact wide such a wide variety of Bangaa, and because the game itself does not stereotype them in any way, it’s almost impossible to create an overgeneralizing racial profile.

Fran’s race, the Viera, are the same. Although they all have rabbit ears, different individuals have different color hair, eyes, skin, and ear-fur. While some dress in skimpy clothing, others do not. While some live in the forest like mystical rabbit-healer-elf-ninjas, others do not. While some are wise and bound to nature, others live in urban areas and engage in commerce and trifling romantic affairs. The fantasy world of Invalice is a pan-cultural diaspora in the truest sense of the word, and one of the primary themes of the game is that the twin concepts of “homeland” and “people” are nothing if not extremely problematic.

While Fran may be exotic, then, I don’t feel that the game’s depiction of her is particularly racist. Nor do I feel that it is particularly sexist. As I mentioned earlier, the Viera are a diverse race of people. Even though the race seems to have originated in a heavily wooded area of Ivalice and has developed ears to hear the semi-magical “voice of the forest,” many Viera do not live in the woods and consider their ears as nothing more than mere decoration. In the case of the Viera in general, this makes a sexist equation between woman and nature, or woman and mysticism, or woman and emotion, difficult. In the specific case of Fran, who is an engineer and pilot, such an equation is utterly non-applicable. Moreover, even though the player may fetishize Fran, Final Fantasy XII does not. Not only is Fran significantly older and more mature than any of the other playable characters, but she is the object of no one’s sexual attraction, and even her relationship with her male partner Balthier is characterized as friendly yet professional.

The game makes it hard to draw sexist conclusions based on any of its female characters either in terms of plot or gameplay. Ashe, the character around whom the game’s plot revolves, is a princess, but she is less concerned with love than she is with political strategy, international alliances, and the consequences of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Ashe comes pre-equipped with a sword; but, if the player decides to make her a spell-caster instead of a melee fighter, there are no consequences. Likewise, although Fran comes pre-equipped with a bow, the player can choose to make her a two-handed weapon-wielding tank of a melee fighter.

As in many earlier games in the Final Fantasy series (including Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy VIII), gender bears absolutely no relevance to fighting ability in Final Fantasy XII. The player builds each player’s abilities though a device called the “license grid,” which is the same for all playable characters, regardless of gender. Furthermore, a character’s base statistics (for values like attack power and physical defense) are dependent on his or her equipment, the selection of which is also non-specific to gender. Men can be healers dependent on magic, and women can wield battle axes larger than they are.

In other words, there is nothing about Fran’s character or fighting capacity that is innate to her race or gender, save her revealing costume. The clothing of the game’s other two female characters, Ashe and Penelo, is similarly racy, but so too is the clothing of the game’s three male characters. This point brings me to an important twist in my argument about the fetishization and sexism inherent in the female characters of Final Fantasy – are male characters not fetishized and subject to sexism in exactly the same way?

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Five