Mediakasvatus ja uudet lukutaidot/Syksyn 2017 kurssi/Cultural and social critique in video games (Hietanen & Soilumo)

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Cultural and Social Critique in Video Games[muokkaa]

ITIA2 Mediakasvatus ja uudet lukutaidot. Salla Hietanen and Nana Soilumo.

Media literacy is an umbrella term, under which many forms of reading different medias are gathered. In this section, we concentrate particularly on how media literacy can be applied to video games in different regions, and why this is important. This we achieve by contrasting Western video game to a Japanese video game. Firstly, in Reading Video Games, we discuss video games as a whole and how they can be read critically. In BioShock Infinite – Lessons in History, we provide an example of a western video game and how it can be read. Likewise, in Persona 5 – Individual Freedom in Japanese Society, we move on to Japanese video games, and what media literacy skills are needed in Japanese culture. In Conclusion, we discuss several ways in which these two video game genres differ, and how the audience must adapt when playing a game outside their cultural reference.

Reading Video Games[muokkaa]

When we talk about media literacy, the term does not only encompass traditional media such as books, newspapers, and others, but it also contains more modern forms of entertainment. These are, for example, television, internet, and, particular to our interests, video games. Video games are commonly categorized as entertainment, but this does not lessen its effect on people who play them – games are not only entertainment, but also a source of information on various subjects. Under the guise of entertainment, the players receive a wealth of information on, for example, history, current trends in technology, and social hierarchy. To be able to understand this information, players must then read the game. Information does not come in only textual form, but also in visual cues. Carefully constructed environments are designed to give the player a sense of where and when the game is happening. The characters in the game with whom the players interact with provide the context for social structure for the characters and the player. All these factors contribute towards creating immersion in the game sphere. These visual and textual cues are not always easy to interpret, however. It is possible to play a game without any knowledge of its context, but generally it is expected of the player to have some ability to recognize cultural and social references. On a surface level this might be as easy as having some knowledge of significant historical events, but on a deeper level this might extend to inside jokes, culture-specific references, and criticism. The last part is especially important, as at times games are used as a form of criticism, often towards injustice.

BioShock Infinite - Lessons in History[muokkaa]

In BioShock Infinite (2013), the player is transported into a fictional America in year 1912. The main character is one Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent, who is sent to the city of Columbia to find Elizabeth, a young woman held captive who becomes Booker’s companion for the game. Elizabeth has the ability to open “tears”, windows to another dimension, which the player can use to their advantage. She is also the adopted daughter of Columbia’s theocratic and dictatorial leader, “Father” Comstock. Comstock is revered as the leader of the cult based on Christianity and the Founding Fathers of America. As the game progresses, the player discovers that in truth, Elizabeth is Booker’s own daughter, and that in some dimensions, Booker himself is Comstock. In different dimensions, different decisions have changed the outcome. In the end, Booker chooses to be drowned in baptism by multitude of Elizabeths from different dimensions, eliminating himself from the factors that would make the unwanted future possible.

Religious Readings[muokkaa]

As stated above, Columbia is controlled by prophet Father Comstock, who is worshipped as are the Founding Fathers of United States [1]. This echoes the principles of American exceptionalism, which holds that Americans are exceptional, both in negative and positive connotations, and that they have the destiny and power to transform the world. This in turn has the notes of Puritan beliefs upon which the first English colonizers based their superiority on – that it is their unavoidable destiny given to them by God to expand to America, regardless of the native presence. This concept might be more unknown to most of the players, and certainly players outside America. There is also the question of baptism at the end of the game, where Booker is literally reborn – a fundamental concept in Christianity. In order to make sense of the environment, and the significance of these events, the player then has to have a working knowledge of Christianity, and of religion altogether – especially how religion has been applied. Oddly enough, discussing the religious aspects of the game Radde-Antweiler et al. came to the conclusion that while religious imagery is found in abundance in the game, it raises no special discussion among the players. It is interesting to note that in their study players who discussed the moral implications and decisions that need to be made in the game, did not make the link tying them specifically to their religious roots. Whether this is due to players indifference to religion, or their unawareness of it, remains unknown.

War and the United States[muokkaa]

Another aspect that is in a significant role in BioShock Infinite, is war. The game itself is an FPS game (first person shooter), and the crucial conflict in it is the war between the cult and the Vox Populi. Vox Populi are the oppressed lower class in the hierarchy of Colombia, which is a racist, white-nationalist state, where relations between different races are forbidden. The ruling class is white, and wealthy – the lower class used for cheap labor, and who do not reside in the sunny streets in the clouds, are racialized. This results in conflict, where Vox Populi are the aggressors, having had enough of oppression. In the game, the player hears both sides of the story, as they travel through different areas. The military actions the United States has taken all over the globe during its stay as a super power make it unlikely that players everywhere could be unaware of it. This same military aspect is as pervasive in western video games as well – considering the multitudes of games created that have any form of conflict or war, a significant amount is heavily influenced by American military style, or popular performance of it. In BioShock Infinite this is seen in multitude of ways; the main character is a lone white man, who must survive on his own, relying on his wits and conveniently placed ammo. He goes against blind obedience to government, but opposes it more to personal reasons than moral ones.

Race and the Racialized[muokkaa]

Although the game was widely praised for its treatment of race, there are problems about it as well. Game creator Ken Levine has stated in an interview that the situation in the game reflects the real racial tensions in 1912, which is relatively easy to recognize in the game context. But if we consider resistant reading [2], the underdog and aggressive stance of the Vox Populi can be read as reducing the racialized people into inferior position; the white upper class is clean, educated, and light-colored, while lower class is dirty, uneducated and violent – all familiar narratives in racism. While the game received overwhelmingly positive reviews both from critics and players, a critical reading is necessary in order to discuss complicated matters in games.

Persona 5 - Individual freedom in Japanese society[muokkaa]

“In order to prevent such distortions, one must hold a powerful will of rebellion.”

The main themes of Persona 5 are justice, judgement, and the conflict between individual and community, which is connected to critique of individual freedom and individual’s rights in the face of law. The game is set in present-day Tokyo in year 20XX. (Most likely 2016.)

Justice and Judgement - Vigilantism[muokkaa]

“We just need to show the world what true justice is. We’ll make them come to their senses.”
Yusuke Kitagawa

The main characters of the game form a group named ‘the Phantom Thieves of Heart’. They possess the ability to traverse into what is called Metaverse, a cognitive reality inside people’s hearts. In Metaverse, their objective is to find the Palaces [3] of people whose hearts have been corrupted by evil (the above-mentioned 'distortions'). The Phantoms target individuals who have somehow escaped the grasp of law. This is essentially critique towards Japan's legal system that is often seen as having failed individuals. Persona 5 puts the validity of the 'public opinion' under dispute, and contrasts it with the views of people actually involved in the cases. The Phantoms fight for this justice and their primary goal is to give the people the courage to fight back against the public opinion. This, of course, is vigilantism, and the main characters are forced to consider if their actions are, in the end, justified. The main thematic question of the game is why do people depend on others and sit back.

Individualism vs. Communality - The Silence of the Masses[muokkaa]

”I mean, she grew up overseas, plus there’s her looks. The popular kids hate her; the quiet ones stay way.”
Ryuji Sakamoto about Anne Takamaki

The main cast are teenagers, who have been “robbed of their place in the society” (Igor). The protagonist is a 16-year-old on probation for an assault he never committed. His friend, Anne Takamaki, is a (presumably) Finnish-Japanese model who is shunned by the other students due to her foreign looks. One of the most notable critiques towards the Japanese society is between the community’s silence and individual’s suffering. The ‘community welfare’ and protection of the collective face[4] becomes more important than an individual’s rights and well-being. In short, individuals can be sacrificed for the greater good. An example of this is the P.E. teacher Suguru Kamoshida, who is abusing his students without interference. As an Olympic medallist and a teacher who has coached the school’s track team and volleyball team to numerous victories, he is considered essential for the school’s reputation. One of the abused students, Yuuki Mishima, confesses to the protagonist that the teachers and parents know, but no-one is willing to act in order to prevent scandal. This scandal is eventually let loose when the Phantoms steal Kamoshida's heart and he reports himself to the police.

Gendered Inequality and the Battle Up the Social Ladder[muokkaa]

”Moving up in the world is difficult as a woman. Yet, you can’t do much if you don’t have the authority. I’ll use every method necessary to make it happen.”
Sae Niijima

A person has to fight their way up the social hierarchy, and the competition starts already in childhood. In Japan, there is serious competition for places in the best junior high schools (ages 13-15) and entrance exams to senior high school (ages 15-18). In Persona 5, in spite of the Phantoms being teenagers, the social issues addressed are mainly about work life, not schools. A newspaper reporter Ichiko Ohya is being driven into a burn-out by her boss and the protagonist can choose to target this boss. One of the villains in the game, Kunikazu Okumura, is a restaurant chain CEO who treats his employees like slaves. These kinds of interactive actions (making a choice to help) form the game-specific image of the game literacy.[5] Prosecutor Sae Niijima is one of the game’s many examples of a woman struggling to keep their place in the conservative, male-dominated work environment. Women in Japan have to fight for their rights at the work place, and prejudice and belittling is more a norm than an exception. Niijima tries to proceed on her career as a prosecutor, but is met with contempt and chauvinist comments from her male peers. For example, she is told she should marry and leave the work for men. It is exactly because of this that many Japanese women who want to keep their job never marry nor have children. In spite of being a long-time problem in Japan, it has met surprisingly overt criticism (by Japanese standards) during the last few years due to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 'womenomics', a scheme to move more women into employment.[6]

Idealistic Teenagers vs. Corrupted Adults[muokkaa]

”Adults are only interests in using the young, while they simply do as the adults say.”
Goro Akechi

The Phantoms hold their own sense of justice, which does not come from naïvety. All of the Phantoms have seen the ugly side of the world, but still believe a better society is possible. The protagonist works as an anchor for the others to hold on to, preventing them from losing their sight of their goal and soothing their anger and greed. Through the protagonist, the others see their own faults and overcome them. This sense of justice is contrasted with the ‘corrupted adults’ of the society and their greed. Most of the targeted villains are these kinds of adults, who are using others to gain something for themselves and not caring about the consequences. At the end of the game, prosecutor Niijima makes a promise to the protagonist that they can leave the fight for the adults, who will take the responsibility for the children’s future.


How Does the Critique Compare?[muokkaa]

In BioShock Infinite, the critique is all over the game: in dialogue, visual environment, characters, and in plot structure. A huge statue of Father Comstock is there to greet the player when they arrive in Columbia, and it is clearly a provocation for critical thinking. In this game, the interactivite gameplay and actions are emphasized. In Persona 5, on the other hand, discourse is heavily emphasized. The player creates the protagonist's personality along the way, and with choices such as answers in conversations, the Phantom's targets, and befriending NPCs (non-player-characters), the player can alter the game's ending. This is the major difference between the games, as BioShock Infinite always ends the same way. In Persona 5, reading the conversations and dialogue is of major importance, as it gives the player the background on which to make their choices.

In Japan, critique (impersonal, e.g. social critique) is not traditionally said out loud, but conveyed in some more implicit way. But this has started to change in the 2010s, when especially the younger generations have started to be more open about the faults in the society and demand personal justice. The main influence for this has been considered the U.S. and European countries, which have gained more foothold in Japanese society, not the least because of social media. In this sense, Persona 5 is a game of the newer generations, and has not gained as much popularity in Japan as it has overseas. Individual freedom is, of course, something we in Europe take for granted. Individualism is important, and it is often encouraged to show you differ from the masses, e.g. in job applications. In Japan, on the contrary, it is discouraged to stand out. Protecting the ‘face’[7] of a person is important in the west, but has been taken to extremity in the east. It is safe to say that the European and, especially, American attitude towards individualism has gone ashore in Japan and has given the younger generations both ideas and tools to reform society.

Playing Without Media Literacy?[muokkaa]

Mika Mustikkamäki emphasises that in the sociocultural view of game literacy, games are seen first and foremost as artefacts of the source culture.[8] With heavily critical games such as BioShock Infinite and Persona 5, the player has to have a bit higher level of media literacy. With no media literacy, the games hardly make sense at all. With lower level of media literacy, many sociocultural factors remain unnoticed.

The player also has to understand that the game has been designed to give a certain kind of a gaming experience: it has been deliberately designated to draw certain reactions from the player. In BioShock Infinite, the obvious target of criticism is the American society. Likewise, in Persona 5, the target is the Japanese society.

Works Cited[muokkaa]

  • Radde-Antweiler, Kerstin, Michael Waltemathe, and Xenia Zeiler. "Video gaming, Let’s Plays, and religion: the relevance of researching Gamevironments." Gamevironments 1 (2014). 365
  • Kapell, Matthew Wilhelm, and Andrew BR Elliott, eds. Playing with the past: Digital games and the simulation of history. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2013.
  • Ken Levine the GamesRadar Interview by Dan Amrich 11.9.2006 Retrieved 15.11.2017
  • Fetterley, Judith. The resisting reader: A feminist approach to American fiction. Vol. 247. Indiana University Press, 1978.
  • Mustikkamäki, Mika. Digitaaliset pelit ja pelilukutaito. Pro gradu, University of Tampere, 2011.
  • Paltridge, Brian. Discourse analysis. 2nd edition. Bloomsbury, 2015.


  1. Radde-Antweiler, page 8
  2. Fetterly
  3. A term which comes from the ‘mind palaces’, as in the method of loci in cognitive psychology.
  4. Paltridge, pages 52-55: 3.8. Politeness, face and discourse & 3.9. Face and politeness across cultures
  5. Mustikkamäki, pages 32-33
  7. Paltridge, pages 52-55: 3.8. Politeness, face and discourse & 3.9. Face and politeness across cultures
  8. Mustikkamäki, page 31