Yesterday, DRM-free digital distribution platform GOG.com posted a lengthy interview with localisation producer Tom Lipschultz and team leader Ken Berry from XSEED Games, whose most recent localisation project Zwei has recently been released on GOG’s storefront.
Lipschultz in particular has been known up until the time of writing as someone who claims to hold a “zero-tolerance” policy towards content edits made during localisation of Japanese titles for Western audiences, but a number of his comments throughout the interview gave a few people pause.
And it’s worth talking about those points in detail, because some of what Lipschultz says unfortunately appears to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of where his priorities should be as part of a successful and prolific localisation company that has brought a number of beloved franchises to the West.
The core of many Japanese game fans’ concerns stems from this extract of the interview, a comment from Lipschultz:
“Recently, however, with all the news that’s come out about systemic sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood and elsewhere, as well as the issues being faced by the LGBTQ community in this modern political climate, it’s become much harder to justify maintaining a zero-tolerance approach – and with a lot of Japanese games starting to really push the boundaries of “good taste” more and more, the looming threat of censorship has become much larger and more imposing than ever, and certainly more of a beast to fight on multiple levels. And it’s really not a battle I WANT to fight – I’d rather just localize games that everybody can enjoy!”
The accusations of sexual abuse and harassment from Hollywood are big news at the time of writing, with Miramax founder and film producer Harvey Weinstein being public enemy number one in this regard. The Twitter hashtag campaign #MeToo has also encouraged victims of rape and sexual harassment to come forward and tell their stories without fear — although, as with any sort of social media campaign like this, it’s always difficult to verify whose stories are genuine and whose are accusations that have been exaggerated, embellished or even outright fabricated.
That these things are going on can’t be denied, but I can’t help but find myself thinking “what on earth does this have to do with video games?” It’s hard to know exactly what Lipschultz meant by games that “push the boundaries of ‘good taste'” because he refused to give specific examples on the grounds that he didn’t want to badmouth his competitors, but considering what he said and attempting to relate it to events such as Weinstein’s debauchery and #MeToo only really leads to one conclusion: the fallacious assumption that exposure to content that “objectifies” or makes a joke out of fictional characters will, in turn, lead to the lessening of respect towards real-life equivalents of those characters. To put it more simply, the assumption that video games are inextricably tied with sexist and/or homophobic attitudes.
A commonly cited piece of research in supposed support of this claim at the time of writing is the Frontiers in Psychology study from 2017 by Laurent Bègue, Elisa Sarda, Douglas A. Gentile, Clementine Bry and Sebastian Roché. This study, which made use of a random, stratified sample of 13,250 11-19 year olds from Grenoble and Lyon in France, claimed that it “showed for the first time in a large representative sample that video game exposure was related to sexism, controlling for television exposure, religiosity, and other relevant factors. [The] results suggest that a traditional source of influence (religiosity) as well as new digital media may share some similar features on sexism.”
However, as Christopher Ferguson from Psychology Today points out, there are significant flaws in the study, most notably the fact that the measure of “sexism” was confined to a single question asking how much participants agreed with the statement that “a woman is made mainly for making and raising children”, and that the results of the survey were the subject of significant hyperbole rather than being genuinely statistically significant; in fact, the results for religious influences were more significant than those for video games, but this was not the aspect focused on.
Ferguson also notes that journalists tend to make the problem worse, with headlines and articles implying causality (“video games cause sexism”) rather than correlation (“sexism is more common in those who play video games”) as well as exaggerating the actual results, which Ferguson describes in simple terms as “if you had to guess which teenagers were sexist, and the only thing you knew about them was their gaming habits, your chance of being right would be about 0.49 percent better than chance alone.”
In other words, there remains little in the way of convincing evidence that media such as video games “cause” sexism or even reinforce sexist attitudes, and in fact the claims of “objectification” are often greatly exaggerated by critics of certain games without considering the context of the content they are talking about, the intention of the original creators and who is actually consuming and enjoying this content.
Let’s take a few examples that we’ve previously covered here on MoeGamer to highlight this.
Many Western gamers only became aware of Sting and Atlus’ excellent Dungeon Travelers 2 after Phil Kollar of Polygon posted a judgemental news article/opinion piece claiming that “Atlus can do better than this creepy, porn-lite dungeon crawler”.
However, Dungeon Travelers 2 proved to not only be an excellent game, but absolutely justified in its use of ecchi content. The provocative scenes that followed boss fights were used as a reflection of the player overcoming a challenge and understanding their foe — nudity is often used in a symbolic manner in Japanese work to demonstrate “exposing” oneself in a more metaphorical sense, in this case exposing one’s tactical and strategic weaknesses. Moreover, the bosses’ sexual comments towards the protagonist Fried were used as a means of reflecting that particular monster’s culture and attitudes towards mating rituals, which is relevant and interesting to the protagonist not as a hormonal teenager, but because he is a scientist; and the intimate scenes between the protagonist and the all-female cast were pretty self-explanatory — a way of demonstrating their developing and escalating relationships.
The Senran Kagura series is one that has often taken a beating at the hands of ill-informed Western journalists, many of whom are pretty up-front about the fact that they spend very little time with the game prior to branding it sexist trash, with some even going so far as to make horrific accusations about the fanbase, including, as former Vice writer Mike Diver did, the suggestion that if they weren’t playing these games they’d be “groping a stranger on the bus”.
However, as my numerous articles on Senran Kagura have repeatedly demonstrated, there is a lot more to this series than just tits and ass — and, moreover, it is a series regularly praised by straight and queer people alike for its inclusivity, sex-positivity and acceptance of homosexuality. Check out this wonderful essay for just one example of what the series means to a gay woman; I’ve shared this article a number of times in the past, but it’s still one of the best things on the subject I’ve read, so it deserves even more pairs of eyes on it.
And Criminal Girls, a game that will net you an instant ban from supposedly “progressive” gaming forum and NeoGAF replacement ResetEra for even mentioning, uses its BDSM-style content as one of many ways in which that game reflects its core theme of trust and understanding. The game as a whole also deals with the long-term psychological effects of mental, physical and sexual trauma, and does so in a fascinating, sensitive manner.
These three examples — and many others like them — are often accused by the mainstream press as being exploitative, titillating or pornographic, typically with the commentator in question demonstrating little to no awareness of the actual content of these games. Over the course of my lengthy explorations of each of them, it has become extremely apparent that the presence of their more provocative content is always justified in terms of creative intent. Not only that, many of them are enjoyed by women and the LGBT community as well as the great straight white male devil.
With all this in mind, these comments from Lipschultz were a bit of a concern:
“And if there’s any positive to be gained by doing so, it’s that the presence of offensive content in localized titles will spark much-needed discussion about those topics, and hopefully lead to a dialogue on the state of the industry in Japan, possibly even resulting in creators being a little more cognizant of people outside their tight-knit circle of acquaintances when designing new titles from here on out.”
This is a common argument among the more vocal “progressive” commentators who typically make the biggest fuss about this sort of material — the claim that they’re “starting a conversation” rather than trying to tear anything down or take things away. Here, Lipschultz appears to be arguing in favour of Japanese creators deliberately steering away from material that might prove controversial — removing the content at its “source”, as it were, rather than leaving it to localisers to make these decisions.
He later clarified that he was supposedly not arguing in favour of “self-censorship”, noting he believes “games are a reflection of society, and I think if society gets its act together, people will stop WANTING to stir the pot, so to speak” — but the fact is, as we’ve seen with the previously cited examples and many others like them, this content often isn’t there simply to “stir the pot”. It is, in many cases, trying to say something — or simply incorporating this content as part of its overall aesthetic, not to be provocative, but just because that was the creator’s vision.
Noting that there needs to be a “dialogue on the state of the industry in Japan” suggests that there is something wrong with what Japan is doing… but it’s not really our place here in the West to say whether or not that is the case, particularly when much of this sort of commentary on Japan completely ignores the existence of specialist markets such as those for otome games or BL titles as well as the inherent, unacknowledged progressiveness of many Japanese offerings in general… not to mention how well explicitly sexual content is used in titles like Grisaia, Ne no Kami and Nekopara to enhance the experience and narrative rather than just purely for titillation.
Lipschultz subsequently responded in more detail to the dismay from many members of the community in a separate post in an attempt to clarify his position:
“No matter how you may feel about controversial content in games, you have to admit that on occasion, content comes up that — if someone asks, “why is that in there?” — the only real explanation anyone can come up with is, “for the hell of it.” It doesn’t fit the mood or feel of the game in any way, and seems to have been included solely for the sake of stirring the pot.
“Now, there may be a deeper reason for its inclusion, which is part of why I feel it’s necessary to always honor this content in localization. A lot of times, though, it’s there before the creator didn’t know any better — maybe he/she saw it somewhere once and thought it was neat-looking, so he/she included it in the game without any further research whatsoever as to the possible subtler meaning behind it.
“However, I believe more often than not, the real reason it’s there is because the creator simply wanted to see how much he/she could get away with.
“In other words, it exists as a DIRECT CHALLENGE to censorship culture. It’s there because the creator knows all of his/her content is at risk of being altered or removed, and wants to see just how far he/she can push things before that happens.
“What I want to see is a world where there’s no need to test the waters like this; a world where creators know their content is never going to be altered or removed due to its offensive or salacious nature, so they no longer feel the need to add little things like that just to see if they can get away with them. Basically, I want a world where creators feel comfortable adding controversial content to their work whenever they feel it’s appropriate to do so, without worry.
“…And it would also be nice if creators educated themselves a bit more about stuff they don’t understand, so they stop throwing in symbology without knowing what it actually represents. That way, if they still choose to include it, they do so with full awareness of its meaning, and can effectively defend it should the decision to include it be challenged.”
The trouble with Lipschultz’s statements here is that it is not really the place of the localisers to question whether or not that content “should” be there, the reason for its inclusion or whether or not the original creator understands the symbolism they’ve used. As we’ve seen with the previous three examples I gave — some of the more controversial localised Japanese releases in recent memory — context is often ignored in favour of ill-informed kneejerk responses in an attempt to appear “progressive”. After all, it’s much easier to point at a game and say “this game has pretty girls, it is objectifying and exploitative” than to delve into the game in more detail, explore its narrative and understand its cultural context. And, unfortunately, this happens all too frequently; there’s no value to this sort of criticism as it doesn’t engage with or interrogate the work, it just brands it “offensive” and is done with it.
Lipschultz also pointedly doesn’t give any examples of what he believes to be content that is included “for the hell of it”. As previously noted, he says this is because he doesn’t want to badmouth his competitors — and moreover, he claims not to be talking about XSEED’s products, which is noteworthy primarily for the fact that XSEED has previously localised the Senran Kagura games to date — but it still doesn’t lend much weight to his argument.
Looking back on all the games I’ve covered on MoeGamer to date, it’s hard to point to any game with ecchi or explicit content that genuinely feels like said content was gratuitously added for no reason other than to be provocative or to push boundaries if you really think about it; nukige are another matter altogether, of course, but even games like that have a place in that they make no attempts to hide the fact that they are pornography, and in many cases make far more of an effort to contextualise their content in a narrative sense than Western pornography.
Ultimately what we should be pushing for is greater diversity of gaming experiences, and for games that treat their audience as adults who can make their own decisions. That means acknowledging, understanding and even revelling in the fact that sexuality is an important part of art — and of life in general. This, of course, doesn’t mean that all games need to include this sort of content — as Lipschultz notes, titles like Zwei, Brandish and PoPoLoCrois all provide great experiences without any sort of provocative content — but it’s nice for the option to indulge in this sort of thing to be there for those who do enjoy it.
Which is why I think Lipschultz needs to think very carefully about this statement he made, because it’s based on a flawed assumption:
“I do fully understand that from a business standpoint – and even from a moral standpoint – it’s always best to avoid upsetting your fans, because obviously, an upset fan is not going to remain a fan for very long, and signing off on upsetting or troublesome language or imagery is never something anyone wants to do!”
The issue here is that the fans of the sort of games Lipschultz is talking about here tend to have no problem with “upsetting or troublesome language or imagery” whatsoever; the people who complain the loudest about this sort of thing are emphatically not the ones who are buying and playing these games.
To give just one example of many possible, the reason I know the aforementioned ResetEra forum will ban you for mentioning Criminal Girls is because it happened to me; I brought up the game in good faith as an example of interesting female characters (which it has a substantial cast of) and yet my comment was regarded as a “joke post”, and ultimately tagged by moderators as “promoting child pornography” — a statement which probably strays into libel territory, given the fact the game is legally available and thus, by definition, is not illegal child pornography. In other words, the most vocal critics of that game aren’t interested in engaging with it or acknowledging its value at all — they just want it gone.
As such, we can extrapolate the fact that the real fans of games like this — the ones Lipschultz doesn’t want to “upset” — are the ones who are playing these games, enjoying them and wanting the experience to be as true to the original Japanese as possible. The ones who don’t want “troublesome language or imagery” to be removed, because they believe doing so compromises the artistic integrity of the original and represents localisers stepping over a line that it is not their place to cross.
Those are the fans Lipschultz and his team should be prioritising the happiness of — and if they are unwilling to do that, they should refuse the license of the game in question and allow someone else to localise it. An upset fan will not remain a fan for very long, after all; he said it himself — and to be fair to him, he did also note “just as it wouldn’t feel right to me if someone painted over offensive material in a painting, edited out offensive material in a book, or cut offensive material from a film, I don’t want to see anyone (least of all [XSEED]) editing out offensive material in games. My thought is, if it’s that offensive, then we probably shouldn’t be releasing the game at all – though that’s obviously not always a realistic option.”
To clarify, because it’s unfortunately necessary these days, the people who want uncut “troublesome language and imagery” in their games (assuming they were there in the original Japanese version) are not in favour of those things happening in reality. Gaming is an escape from reality and a safe way to explore fantasies, and depiction is not the same as endorsement, after all — I loved the shit out of the Rance series but I would be absolutely horrified if I saw anything depicted in those games unfolding in reality, to give just one example.
Likewise, someone enjoying a game involving pretty girls with big boobs in no way precludes them from treating real women with appropriate respect (to say nothing of the fact that a game having pretty girls with big boobs in it doesn’t mean its creators don’t love and respect those characters). Many fans joke about their love of “anime tiddies” and “thicc anime thighs”, but this does not mean they would behave inappropriately towards a real person; clear lines are drawn between fantasy and reality (or, if you prefer, “2D” and “3D”) for most people, after all, and in the cases where they aren’t, there are usually deeper issues at play prior to any input from the media.
Rather, the gamers who enjoy this content want to be treated as adults who are willing and able to pick and choose the content they want to consume and to engage with — and even for that content to sometimes make them feel uncomfortable or challenge them. Over time, we all develop our own tastes and understanding of what we do and do not enjoy; it’s very easy indeed to simply avoid that which you don’t like given how broad today’s sprawling medium of “video games” really is, and sometimes it’s even enjoyable and desirable to step out of your comfort zone a little.
I’m not saying localisers shouldn’t make changes where it becomes necessary to do so, either due to legal issues or when you know you’ll be dealing with a broad audience that, for example, isn’t au fait with certain aspects of Japanese culture. (That said, there is great value in leaving aspects like this intact.)
But when it comes to content that some might find “offensive”, cutting content or making changes in an attempt to “fix” the work (as former Aksys editor Ben Bateman once described his job) pleases no-one, and achieves very little. It stifles the creativity of the original creators, it upsets fans who want localised experiences that are as true as possible to the original Japanese, and it does nothing to placate those who are already offended; the latter of whom are a group who, more often than not, simply want experiences that they dislike gone, not simply sanitised.
While I understand that there are sometimes valid or legally enforceable reasons for content to be modified or removed, I would encourage localisers such as Lipschultz not to fall into the trap of assuming that the oft-cited but amorphous and ill-defined concept of “the current political climate” means that there is no demand for content that is provocative or even offensive to some.
“An upset fan will not remain a fan for long.” I think those are the most important words in this whole discussion, and they are ones that I feel localisers would do well to bear in mind — along with who those “fans” really are… and what they have always wanted from the games they enjoy.
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