Plus Alpha: Playing by the rules

Plus Alpha is a weekly column that explores life in Japan from the perspective of American expatriate and game-industry veteran Jarik Sikat. Having worked in numerous areas of the game industry since 1994, Sikat relocated to Japan in 2010. 

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in the plaza of an outdoor mall, eating a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream cone. To my right, there’s a Domino’s Pizza and a Mister Donut. Behind me are Sports Authority, Toys ‘R’ Us, and a Starbucks Coffee. Over at the Warner Mycal Cinemas, where the lobby is adorned with statues of Superman, Batman and the Looney Tunes characters, they’re screening Captain America: The First Avenger.

Spend enough time in Tokyo and Yokohama, and you’ll see just how pervasive American culture can be. However, Japan’s love for Americana tends to stop just short of videogames. 

There have been a lot of arguments in the past as to why Western-developed videogames haven’t reached equal footing with domestically produced content. For game publishers, it’s been an issue they continue to wrestle with. We won’t tackle that discussion again today, but there’s one theory in particular that recently struck a chord.

What comes up from time to time is that Japanese players prefer to have stringent rules and clearly defined boundaries – handholding, if you will. Now, whether that’s true or not, and if that is indeed a factor in choosing Japanese games over foreign ones, it’s difficult to say. But if there’s one thing I can say, it’s that here in Japan, rules always apply. With nearly every situation you encounter, you can bet there’s a set of rules or instructions one must adhere to. 

Boarding a train, there’s a system that everyone follows: no one rushes the door. Upon queuing up, passengers form two lines on both sides of the doors, and only after allowing all other passengers to disembark, they enter the train. The process isn’t written out on the platform, but everyone follows the same procedure.

Near our train station, there’s a kaiten zushi restaurant, where the sushi is served on a conveyor-belt system. Before you even set foot into the dining area, a member of the staff is ready to provide you with a tutorial on exactly how the sushi should be taken from the conveyor. When paying for the meal at the register, one doesn’t hand money to the cashier, but places it in a tray. From there the cashier retrieves it. If there’s no tray, I instinctively place the money on the counter.

At many game centers, you’ll find a wealth of instruction manuals. However, I see these as much needed, considering that many of today’s games combine touchscreens, traditional joystick and button controls as well as collectible cards.

One of the most mind-boggling displays of – let’s call it “being told how to play” – I’ve witnessed so far, was at Tokyo DisneySea. Before the start of one of their afternoon shows, theme-park staff stood before the audience and instructed the crowd on exactly how to wave their hands when Mickey Mouse gave the signal.

These are just a few examples, and anecdotal ones at that. Though it seems rather minor and silly at times, appreciation for protocol and adhering to society’s rules helps maintain a sense of order that I’ve come to value and respect, especially after the March 11 quake and the nuclear crisis that ensued.

At my previous position with a Japanese game publisher, I’d often ask, “why are we doing this?” or “why must we do it this way?” The response was always (to paraphrase) “that’s the way we do things.” Sometimes I’d respond by saying, “well there’s that way, and there’s the right way.”

In my year and a half of living in Japan, I’ve succumbed to playing by all the rules, and adapted to following the directions. As a guest in a foreign country, it’s only proper. However, coupled with the challenge of learning the language, it can be awfully debilitating. When encountering a new situation, rather than proceeding as I would have seen fit to do back in the US, I’ll stop and look for instructions or wait to be told what to do. In some instances where there was no sort of guidance, I avoided the situation completely in fear of doing something wrong.

Imagine being raised that way for 15 or 20 years, and the mindset of Japanese gamers becomes a little clearer.

Jarik Sikat has worked in the videogame industry in areas ranging from localization and product development to public relations and marketing. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in PlayStation: The Official Magazine, Official Xbox Magazine and Newtype USA.


  • grindcrusher - December 18, 2011 9:50 a.m.

    Minecraft must be mind boggling for the japanese gamer.
  • Daruniah - December 14, 2011 4:04 p.m.

    Really liking the Plus Alpha articles. Keep it up!
  • Nintendophile - December 14, 2011 12:50 a.m.

    Love the feature! Keep the great articles coming, please! ^_^
  • Killshot - December 13, 2011 5:40 p.m.

    That really makes me wonder, do the Sims pc series flop in Japan? I'll also admit that i really need some sort of purpose or set goal in a game so i can really only have fun on console sim games.
  • Ravenbom - December 13, 2011 5:36 p.m.

    Interesting, it makes Japan sound like the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. But in a lot of ways it makes more sense because we have rules for our society, they're just not written down. Like we don't write above a urinal that you have to stare at one spot without moving your head once you start pissing and that you have to leave a one urinal space if at all possible, but it is a hard and fast rule of our society. Nobody will ever tell you that rule, but it's a rule none the less. Every society has a lot of social rules like that, it's just cool that in Japan they're spelled out for you.
  • GamesRadarMatthewKeast - December 13, 2011 5:02 p.m.

    Any society that forms orderly queues like polite grownups is gravy in my book. Also, one counter-example to the hand-holding is Demon's Souls/Dark Souls, which have some semblance of a tutorial, but are some of the least hand-holdy games around, and are Japanese developed (and very popular in Japan).
  • garnsr - December 13, 2011 4:39 p.m.

    I've been in Japan a couple of times, and never got used to putting the money in the tray, I always try to hand it to the cashier, who would either point to the tray to remind me, or just take it then put it into the tray before putting it into the register. One of the gripes I've heard about Skyward Sword is the hand holding beginning. I didn't notice so much of it in the last few Yakuza games, but I think hand holding is one of the things keeping Western players from playing Japanese games now that we have a choice.
  • radiodeaf - December 13, 2011 4:22 p.m.

    I understand sort of the "living by rules" concept, but what game doesn't have a set of rules? I see style of gameplay we call sandbox seem like there are no rules... but I can't imagine the sandbox yet without one. We really don't have the freedom just yet we can truly call sandbox, and to suggest of any real game that hits that marker, Big Planet 2 would be my pick. I see it more as a story problem. There seems to be a genuine difference in cultural story telling compared to the West. (example; Bollywood)... I really don't understand what is the mystery here.. This cultural difference has been around long enough to know, build something for the culture if you want to sell to it, build something of your culture if you want to share.
  • nomis - December 13, 2011 3:47 p.m.

    Very interesting indeed
  • winner2 - December 13, 2011 2:34 p.m.

    Very interesting article, as usual. This feature has grown on me, and you're a very good writer I must say. Hope Japan's been treating you well, looking forward to your next article!
  • Ilyere - December 13, 2011 2:30 p.m.

    I figured it was something like this. Most Japanese games place more focus on story, and Western games appeal with freedom. I guess it's what defines them... I really like your articles, by the way!
  • n00b - December 13, 2011 3:24 p.m.

    modern warfare/bf3 campaign = freedom?
  • AxiamWolfe - December 13, 2011 3:48 p.m.

    I think he was referring more to things like The Elder Scrolls or BF3 multiplayer. For that matter, any sandbox game.
  • NearNRiver - December 13, 2011 2:20 p.m.

    Very good read! I have become quite a fan of this feature! I hope you're doing well in Japan!

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