Spot the fake smile

Why a kill-the-Japanese game is selling well in Tokyo: My latest Slate column

Slate just published my latest video-game colum: “Lost in Translation: Why Japanese gamers love avenging Pearl Harbor.” It’s about Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, one of the first war games to put you in the shoes American marines as they attack Japan in revenge for Pearl Harbor. The thing is, when Electronic Arts released the game in Japan, game reviewers loved it — even though the game requires that they repeatedly kill their virtual fathers and grandfathers, in a war that is still a rather touchy subject.

I try to explain the game’s popularity in Tokyo. You can read the piece online, but here’s a taste of my argument:

This leads to a surprising facet of game psychology: Really hard-core gamers often look past the cultural “content” of a game. They’re mostly worried about a more prosaic concern, which is whether the game is fun. The geopolitics of a game melt away as players, like philosophers musing on their favorite platonic solid, ponder gameplay in the abstract.

We’re accustomed to thinking that a piece of entertainment is nothing but its cultural content. A movie or TV show is just what you see on the screen. But a game is also about play, and play is invisible. That’s why outsiders are often puzzled by the success of games that would appear to be nothing but screamingly offensive content. They can’t see the play. Sure, you’ve got raw guts flying around — but for the player, part of the joy is in messing with physics (even if that happens to be bullets and shoulder-launched grenades) or with strategy (even if that’s figuring out how to starve a village).

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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