The final part in this three-part experiment is researching Hatoful Boyfriend. I’ll tell you some basics. It’s a dating sim/visual novel based on an alternate reality where birds are sentient. The protagonist is the only human at St Pigeonational’s trying to navigate her way through a bumbling best friend, pompous transfer student, narcoleptic maths teacher and extremely shy freshman among a whole host of other crazy birds.
First problem when it came to researching this further: what’s the difference between a visual novel and a dating sim?
Research shows it seems to be a conceptual-structural split. Emily Taylor’s definition of a dating sim is fairly generic: “a video or computer game that focuses on dating or romance and may contain erotic content” (2009 194). A visual novel, by contrast, “characteristically dramatizes alternate and intersecting story arcs and its ending therefore varies depending on the choices made by the player at certain pivotal ‘decision points’” (Cavallaro 2009 p1). As you can see, a dating sim can easily fit into the structure of a visual novel although it doesn’t necessarily have to be experienced in that way. Likewise, a visual novel is not limited to telling the romantic and/or erotic narratives of a dating sim.
Let’s spend a bit of time understanding the culture around dating sims. Taylor wrote her paper in 2007, 8 years ago. She focused her research on 4 games, all of which were bishōjo. Bishōjo is where a male character interacts with several attractive anime-style girls. I was immediately confused as to why a female researcher would choose to enter this from a male perspective. When Cavallaro mentions dating sims in her book, Anime and the Visual Novel: Narrative Structure, Design and Play at the Crossroads of Animation and Computer Games, her only consideration extends to the same heterosexual male-to-female interactions. This suggests to me that the only dating sims worth academically researching are bishōjo.
My very limited experience of dating sims opposes this. They were all otome (literally translated to “young lady”, one female character interacting with many male characters) not bishōjo. Hatoful Boyfriend is just one example of an otome dating sim. However, my first experience of a dating sim was in an episode of Ouron Highschool Host Club, an anime where a secondary character recognises the main male protagonist for his resemblance to the love interest in her favourite dating sim. The fictional dating sim was also otome. Perhaps this is because Ouron Highschool Host Club is targeted towards shōjo (young women) and I also fit that demographic so I’d be unlikely to stumble across bishōjo games marketed towards otaku (geek) culture instead.
This brings me to the bigger question of researching women and gaming. Literature on this subject can be divided into two perspectives: games for women and representations of women in games (Kim 2009 p166). “Games for women” as a concept really interested me. As a child I wasn’t aware there was movement going on in the US causing video game producers to expand into gender-specific games. This movement was similarly reflected in Japan.
While video games themselves were discovered by strange, bright outcast pioneers — they thought arcades would make pub games more fun, or that MUDs would make for amazing cross-cultural meeting spaces — the commercial arm of the form sprung up from marketing high-end tech products to ‘early adopters’. You know, young white dudes with disposable income who like to Get Stuff (Alexander 2014).
Men originally dominated the gaming market: the makers and the consumers were majority men, regardless of whether or not specific games or types of games (e.g. MMORPGs) appealed to women. After some cursory market research, findings indicated:
girls have distinct preferences and tastes different from those of boys; they liked collecting, creating and constructing, and placed more emphasis on character, story and relationships than achieving a given set of goals. To summarize, the results indicated that girls favored socialization and exploration over competition (Kim 2009 pp166-167).
I wholeheartedly disagree with this out-dated assessment because it relies on a binary separation of gender that has become increasingly irrelevant in contemporary society. Gender in and of itself has no influence over what games an individual may enjoy playing. Consultation with male gamers has proven they may also enjoy these “feminine” game traits as well. However the inclinations in this market research are reflected in industry-developed otome games, otome dating sims in particular. In the same way that otaku culture is othered, treated as niche and then marketed to, otome games such as Hatoful Boyfriend are marketed to shōjo.
What is important in game development and production is the games are both made by and for women (Dillon 2006; Kelly 2007). This is evidenced by Anthropy’s sentiment that a queer transwoman struggles to find a game about someone like herself, someone with whom she can identify (Anthropy 2012). I wondered why otome was so underrepresented in academic research and why female researchers would prefer exploring bishōjo dating sims. The answer I think is because bishōjo came first and as women played through a bishōjo game, establishing connections to the different women portrayed and then were expected to cross into a romantic and/or sexual relationship at which point there was a disconnect where most female players would have simply said, “I do not relate to this,” and put the game down. Through development and deployment of software such as Ren’Py, hobbyist gamers would have been able to develop otome, “boy love” or “girl love” dating sims. As more women play and more women mod these grassroots games, the industry notices the niche market and begins developing on a larger scale, resulting in Hatoful Boyfriend and the like.
Why is this significant?
The version of Hatoful Boyfriend I played was a 2014 remake of a 2012 remake based on the Flash game created for April Fools in 2011 by a Japanese manga artist named Hato Moa. This was her first game and she began with the visual novel format due its basic structure and preference for plot, character development and simple visuals (Murdoch 2014). It meant she could make a game about a world full of sentient birds and otome romance for others to enjoy, regardless of their gender.
What have I learned? That women making games for women is the best thing to ever happen to this industry, in Japan, in the US, in Australia and everywhere else.
Alexander, L 2014 ‘“Gamers” don’t have to be your audience. “Gamers” are over.’ Gamasutra: the Art & Business of Making Games, 28 August, viewed 10 November 2015, <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/224400/Gamers_dont_have_to_be_your_audience_Gamers_are_over.php>.
Anthropy, A 2012, ‘The Problem with Videogames’, in A Anthropy (ed), Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amatuers, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You are Taking Back an Art Form, Seven Stories Press, New York, pp. 1-22.
Cavallaro, D 2009 Anime and the Visual Novel: Narrative Structure, Design and Play at the Crossroads of Animation and Computer Games, McFarland & Co, North Carolina.
Dillon, BA 2006 ‘Event Wrap-Up: Girls ‘N Games 2006’, Gamasutra: the Art & Bsusiness of Making Games, 18 May, viewed 7 November 2015, <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2694/event_wrapup_girls_n_games_2006.php>.
Kelly, K 2007 ‘SXSW: Getting Girls Into The Game: Designing and Marketing Games for Female Players’, Engadget, 21 March, viewed 7 November, <http://www.engadget.com/2007/03/21/sxsw-getting-girls-into-the-game-designing-and-marketing-games/ >.
Kim, H 2009 ‘Women’s Games in Japan: Gendered Identity and Narrative Construction’, in Theory Culture & Society, vol. 26, no. 2-3, pp. 165-188.
Murdoch, J 2014 ‘Hatoful Boyfriend’, Gamers With Jobs, 4 February, viewed 29 October 2015, <https://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/1016261 >.
Taylor, E 2007 ‘Dating-Simulation Games: Leisure and Gaming of Japanese Youth Culture’, in Southest Review of Asian Studies, vol. 29, pp. 192-208.