On Dating Sims for Women, by Women

Below is the highlights real of my playthrough of Hatoful Boyfriend. Please consider muting the playthrough and listening to the above podcast while the video plays.


Final questions:

Is otaku only limited to describing Japanese geeks or can it include geeks from other cultures? Geek culture seems to transcend menial divisions such as national borders.

[To be updated with more questions]


 

Related blog posts:

GameWreck: Let’s Play Hatoful Boyfriend Term 1 (Full Playthrough)

What’s the big reveal?

Tell me something I don’t know


SoundCloud transcript

[sorry for some inaccuracies from when I went off-script]

Hello and welcome to my podcast. My name is Kay and this is my digital artefact for DIGC330 Digital Asia.

My autoethnographic investigation is into Japanese visual novel-style dating simulation (dating sim) games. The autoethnographic methodology I applied is a reflective narrative ethnography (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2011). I had first encountered dating sims in Let’s Play videos on Dodger’s channel, PressHeartToContinue. Dodger’s lively commentary and various character voices initially attracted my attention to this form of digital text. I could not stop laughing at all the funny voices she made reading each character’s dialogue aloud. Needless to say my own voice acting does not compare. I am a noob to both the world of video and computer games and also Japanese visual novel dating sims, I really wanted to document my immediate experience of the game as I was playing. However the first step was to choose a game.

I play on a MacBook Pro using Steam to purchase my games. After consulting a few blogs on the topic of dating sims, I made a shortlist of about 6 games that were compatible with my operating system. I chose Hatoful Boyfriend on the advice of my tutor and because a pigeon dating sim seemed like a unique experience. 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. Even though Hatoful Boyfriend was originally a joke intended to poke fun at otome character stereotypes, the Flash incarnation attracted so much traffic the server it was hosted on crashed, resulting in the development of a longer visual novel.

To say I didn’t understand what I was doing with Hatoful Boyfriend is an understatement. This was the first visual novel dating sim I ever encountered as a player. It wasn’t until well after I had finished my first playthrough and began to research the game genre itself that I realised visual novels require multiple playthroughs in order to fulfil each possible outcome, in this case achieving each of the romantic pairings available. This also lead to the question of what is the difference between a visual novel and a dating sim? On Steam Hatoful Boyfriend is tagged under both categories, along with many other games. But this doesn’t mean all dating sims are visual novels nor are all visual novels datings sims. Dani Cavallaro describes a visual novel as “a gaming event of an eminently participatory nature […] The visual novel 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’” (2009 p1) whereas Emily Taylor summarises a dating sim as “a video or computer game that focuses on dating or romance and may contain erotic content” (2007 p194). So the tiny division between these two categories seems to me to be a clash of concept and structure. Dating sim is content, visual novel is a format to present this content.

My attention then turned to types of dating sims. They were initially marketed to otaku cultural members: Japanese “geeks” who shy away from social interaction in favour of digitally mediated spaces like dating sims (Taylor 2007). Shōjo is a Japanese term used to describe young women and products of, for or about them. Dating sims are typically bishōjo, meaning the protagonist is a heterosexual male with a selection of shōjo-like women to pursue. Otome is the inverse of this with a female protagonist and a number of male romantic suitors to choose from. There are also girl love and boy love dating sims, which are pretty self-explanatory. Something I didn’t realise immediately while playing Hatoful Boyfriend is how otome came into existence. Dating sims are so intuitively tied to otaku culture, the variety in games we see today shows a massive shift in the gaming industry.

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 a trend 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 majority of makers and the consumers were 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 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 a queer transwoman struggles to find a game about someone like herself, someone with whom she can identify (Anthropy 2012). Because bishōjo came first, women had no choice but to play from the male perspective. They would establish connections to the different women portrayed but then they were expected to cross into a romantic and/or sexual relationship. At this point there was a disconnection 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.

I wanted to experience Japanese gaming culture for myself. Hatoful Boyfriend is more than a Japanese dating sim. It’s an example of a female manga and anime artist, Hato Moa, contributing to both gaming and Japanese culture. Women making games for women (or anyone else wanting to play) has helped the gaming industry grow and expand in ways it previously did not consider.


References

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&gt>.
Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’ in Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1 <http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095>.
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.

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