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Japanese Video Games

Final Fantasy Theme Analysis

Success in America
Atari vs. Nintendo

I wrote this paper looking at why Japanese video games are successful in America.  I am going to extend it into my thesis so any comments would be appreciated.

Final Fantasy Theme Analysis: How Japanese video games translate into American sales.


“Whether we like it on not, this is the medium of our moment.  It is a medium that is telling our cultural story, and the fact that it is a primary tool of youth and adolescents means it will have a tremendous impact on how the next generation or two plays itself out….” 

-Sheldon Brown, Visual Arts Professor and Director of the Center for Research and Computing of the Arts at the University of California, San Diego.


“In October 1995, Nintendo announced the sale of its one billionth video game – or one game for every teenager in the world.” (Schilling 1997)  Video games since that time have become a seven billion dollar a year industry according to the Entertainment Software Association.  In 2005 the average game player age was 30 and 75 percent of heads of households played computer or video games. (Association 2005)  Still, the video game medium is still unrepresented and misunderstood in academic research. 

Researchers have studied certain effects of video games, such as violence and social interaction.  Yet, such early research tended to focus on impact on children, with psychological or social-psychological perspectives.(Loftus and Loftus 1983; Greenfield 1984)  Such studies were usually negative and focused on ideas such as game addiction and violence. 

With more gamers becoming adult’s newer approaches to game studies or “ludology,” from the Latin word for “game,” are slowly becoming more accepted in academic circles.  Still ludology remains in its infancy and many questions remain concerning how video game research should be conducted. (Wadhams 2004)

This article intends to further the understanding of the video game medium by looking at why videogames are able to translate so effectively from their Japanese origin to an English speaking audience, by looking at common themes that every American audience member understands and how they exist in a successful Japanese video game.  The methodology used will be comparing Ernest G. Bormann’s research on fantasy theme analysis with some of the highest selling console franchises of all time, Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, and Final Fantasy VII.    


            Bormann enumerates sources that fantasy theme evidence should come from, such as audio and video tapes, participant recollections, and direct observation.  By looking for evidence that fantasies are shared, searching for “similar dramatizing material such as word play, narratives, figures or speech and analogies” which appear in a number of messages in different contexts a critic should be able to draw conclusions about group fantasies.(Bormann, Kroll et al. 1984, p.289)  In essence Bormann outlines searching sources for shared message types, or symbolic clues, until the dramas begin repeating themselves, after which the critic attempts to interpret the shared conscious of the group based on these recurring patterns of dramatic imagery. (Endres 1989)

By conducting a content analysis of reviews and chat rooms directly influenced by these video game franchises, Super Mario Brother, Tetris, and Final Fantasy, this article will generalize major ideas and themes that American gamers have concerning relationship with the video game medium and specifically Japanese made video games. 

            Super Mario Bros, Tetris and Final Fantasy game titles were chosen for three main reasons.  First, According to GameState magazine these three game franchises make up almost fifty percent of the top twenty best selling game cartridges of all time.(Man 2003)  Each franchise contains more than ten titles based on the same premise.  Finally each game has strategically and interactively different types of game play from the other two franchises.

In his 1977 essay Bormann suggested that there might be “significant rhetorical forms which cut across rhetorical visions.” (Bormann, 1977, p. 130)  This article intends to use statements and major ideas from online computer game reviews to show that Bormann’s suggestion is what makes video game narrative and ideas translatable across cultures.  

This article will attempt to show that in order to produce a successful video game, one that translates for both Japanese and English speaking audiences, game producers must use prevailing fantasy themes that are easily understood in both cultures to generate the desired emotional response.  In turn the game itself may emphasize or stimulate the fantasy, especially to the extent that it adds to interpersonal discussion in small groups, which in turn may lead to further chaining.  “Stories which chain out most widely will typically provide significance for those who identify with them; they spring from widely accepted ultimate legitimizers and/or use accepted characters who frequently recur in fantasy themes already accepted.” (Kidd 1998)       

            While this article intends to look primarily at Japanese produced video games one of the above three titles does not originate from Japan.  Super Mario Brothers and Final Fantasy are both extremely popular video game franchises that are created and distributed by a Japanese production company.  Tetris on the other hand was originally created by a Russian mathematician.  The author feels that this should cause no discrepancy in the outcome of this research because of the premise and game play of this game, which will be explained later.       

Three Video Game Franchises

In order to better understand of how each game interacts with their intended audience it is important to look at the premise of each franchise.  Each of these franchises fit into different game genres which take different approaches to entertain their audience.  Each of these games will be used to embody a different type of game experience; puzzle game, action, and role-playing.  These games have been chosen because of their levels of narrative, audience interaction, game play, characters, setting, unique terminology, and plot or story line.

For example Tetris is a puzzle game in which there are no apparent story line, plot, or characters.  The audience is entertained by trying to constantly fit shapes comprised of four blocks, placed in unique patterns, together to create horizontal lines with no gaps at the bottom of a well-like setting.  Further motivation to continue creating full horizontal lines involve rewards such as level advancement, points, and faster falling blocks.  Players of Tetris use unique terminology to describe game play such as “drops”, “clears”, “tetrimino”, and “topped out.”       

The Super Mario franchise is based on minimal narrative with large amounts of action.  Its basic plot is centered on an unlikely hero, Mario the plumber.  Mario and his friends, including his brother Luigi, some mushroom men, and a dinosaur named Yoshi, find themselves rescuing Mario’s love interest, Princess Peach, time and time again from the evil dinosaur Bowser and his minions. 

            The main game play of each Super Mario game involves an opening scene where Bowser is once again seen kidnapping Princess Peach.  Mario then sets off on an adventure to save her.  From that point on the game depends on action sequences and small tasks in which a player can earn rewards, such as collecting coins, special powers, or finishing stages, to hold the player’s interest until the end of each level when cut scenes further the story and finally reveal the conclusion of the game where the conflict is resolved. 

Mario games are usually set in a brightly colored world in which pipes can lead to anywhere and eating fruit gives you super powers.  Super Mario players also make use of a unique terminology: ideas and terms such as “fire flower”, “goomba”, “a star”, and “big boo” are used along with many others in order to communicate with both the game and other gamers.

            Finally, the Final Fantasy franchise is considered one of the best selling role playing genres of all time. (Mike 2005)  This franchise embodies games that are highly reliant on a story line because role playing games are furthered by continuously talking to different characters throughout the game.  Also the plot line is essential to continue the action.  Unlike Super Mario and other action games action in role playing games is often directed by the plot.

            Final Fantasy games center on a hero and his band of friends who are trying to save the world, a person, a way of life, or something else they value from an evil organization or person.  Each Final Fantasy game is centered on a character that is controlled by a human player and a group of computer-controlled allies.  Story or plot lines continue after major tasks have been accomplished by the player or group.  Often sub-tasks that involve making money, fighting monsters, gaining levels, and obtaining hidden treasures help develop the story by improving the main characters chance of completing a final goal. 

            Final Fantasy games are usually set in a neo-classical setting in which swords, and guns coexist.  Characters that are usually central to Final Fantasy games include magicians, wise men, swordsmen, a love interest, an antagonist and others.  Like the previous two games a different set of terms exist for these games some examples are, “magical crystals”, “Moogle”, “Chocobo”, and “Guardian Forces.”            

Final Fantasy Theme Analysis

This paper proposes that in order to understand the fantasy theme of video games a researcher must look at each video game experience in both a real life and game life perspective to gain an understanding of the rhetorical visions produced.  In other words a video game means different things to different gamers depending on whether they are focused on real life drama or game life drama or a combination of both.  These levels of understanding when looked at using the fantasy theme analysis create different dramas or rhetorical visions in the mind of a gamer. 

Mohrmann in his 1982 article, An Essay of Fantasy Theme Criticism, defined fantasy as having two aspects, the first of which is confined to an individual, and the second involving a group.  He said “the individual in a group may need to enhance his self-picture, to feel more attractive and powerful, to discharge aggression or dispel anxiety, and he may use a fantasy to satisfy needs hidden from himself and others.” (Mohrmann, 1982, p.103)  This paper will look at both individual responses and group responses to each fantasy.  

To critique the video game message we must first understand the basic elements that compromise each story or drama.  “When similar dramatizing material such as word play, narratives, figures, and analogies crop up in a variety of messages in different contexts, such repetition is evidence of symbolic convergence.” (Bormann, 1985, p.6) Individuals cast events using contexts with which they are familiar.  Using mutually understood terminology, character types, scenes, plots, and values or messages each story or drama is made to resonate with its audience.  Understanding and being able to label these recurring themes is essential to fantasy theme analysis.

Each process begins with a narrative which according to Bormann “consists of characters, real or fictitious, playing out a dramatic situation.”  Stories or dramas are based around character types. (Bormann, 1972, p.397) 

Some character types must exist in every story.  These characters types that a story must contain include a central persona who is a sympathetic character for the audience to identify with, which this paper will refer to as the hero.  A hero normally has various obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve a final goal, which often improves the world around them or dispense some type of gain.  This goal is what motivates the hero to act in a certain way, and is known as the ultimate legitimizer, or the reasoning behind why the hero’s actions are worthwhile and just. “At the base of a fantasy theme, and central to the rhetorical vision, is an ultimate legitimizer, the basic value from which others spring. The ultimate legitimizer is the bottom-line value which justifies the decisions of the central figure and the characterization of success or failure of the enterprise.” (Kidd 1998)  

Each story must also contain a central character which represents an opposing force, which this paper will refer to as the antagonist.  The antagonist is the hero’s apposing entity which is out to stop the final goal from being accomplished.  Both the hero and the antagonist do not necessarily need to be human in every story.  Ideas such as violence, sex, world peace or entities such as big corporations, the army, and Green Peace can also play both heroes and antagonists.       

In many stories both sides have additional characters that support both hero and antagonist.  Supporting characters can include an admiring crowd, intellectual older characters, victims, the fool, evil toadies, etc.  Supporting characters are often used to reinforce the main message of each story (Kidd 1998)           

Video games tell a unique drama because two distinct heroes and antagonists can exist for an individual when playing certain video games.  To explain this idea we will look at the first Japanese role playing game to achieve widespread popularity outside of Asia, Final Fantasy VII.  The game centers on its hero, a spiky haired blonde paid mercenary character named Cloud, who wields a gigantic sword, who along with a group of supporting characters battles a powerful conglomerate: the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company and its lead antagonist Sephiroth, a super soldier created by the Shin-Ra corporation (Wikipedia 2005)

Analyzing Final Fantasy VII we can easily identify the hero, Cloud, and antagonist, Sephiroth.  Yet this paper asserts that the ability for Japanese video games to translate for an American audience comes from a second type of drama.  This base level drama takes place in what this paper will refer to as the “real world” or the “here and now” of the player and their relationship of the game.  In other words, the original hero would be the player himself and the antagonist would be the game. 

Real Life Level

In an interactive medium, like the video game genre, the original drama happens in the here and now, between the audience and medium.  Bormann defined fantasy theme as “a recollection of something that happened to the group in the past or a dream of what the group might do in the future.” (Combs and Mansfield, 1976, p.xxix)  Looking at the real life level the video game player, or gamer, plays the original role of hero. At this level the drama that exists is player against game and the goal is to complete the game, which makes the game the real life level antagonist.  This relationship between player and game creates a type of narrative in which the gamer uses rules and performances to translate that relationship.  The player is able to create a type of narrative using his game performance from the past and hope that he can generate a better performance in the future.  As one player commented about his relationship with the puzzle game Tetris “i get mad when i dont get high points and i want to get high points [sic].” (jbl-619 2005) 

This understanding leads to the realization that in games which contain a plot or story line, such as Final Fantasy, the game plays a dual role in the drama.  On the real life level the game acts as the antagonist against a human player.  While on the game life level the game cooperates with the player to act as the hero while also playing the antagonist.

In games such as Tetris, which rely on the real life level drama to communicate with the gamer, game play becomes the narrative between the two forces.  The gamer has a set of rules that must be followed in order to combat an antagonist.  By following these rules and understanding the terminology that exist between the player and the game a type of interactive “here and now” drama is created.  This real life drama contains every aspect of a rhetorical vision or fantasy theme: the setting is provided by the game.  Tetris is set in a well type setting, involving no virtual characters, instead characters are created by the gamer and game, word play is set by the rules or game, and in the mind of the player the fight between hero and antagonist is being fought.  Bormann described this motivation like this, “Fantasies are shared in all communication contexts; there is a connection between rhetorical visions and community consciousness, that sharing fantasies is closely connected with motivation, and is an important means for people to create their social realities.” (Bormann, 1982, p.289)      

Gameplay reviews by players are an indication of how drama or the story between the gamer as a hero and the game as an antagonist is experienced.  Another reviewer of the game Tetris explains his relationship with the game in this way, “The story of the game there isn't one. You see all you do is try to make lines with this blocks that are made up of four squares but there is a unqiue [sic] twist to it as you go up in levels the speed of the game increases and here is the real kicker your brain and fingers can only handle so much until you ulitmatly [sic] lose.” (Youkokurama001 2003)  This feeling of competition between the game and gamer exists in order to create a drama that the player understands and it in turn leads the player to feel a part of a group.  

Bormann talked about the effect that shared fantasy themes have on an individual.  He said that when a group shares fantasy themes they come to a symbolic convergence on the matter and will envision that part of their worlds in similar ways.  By creating a symbolic common ground small groups are able to talk with one another about shared interpretations. (Golden, Berquist et al. 1983)    This common understanding of symbolic meanings in video games has lead groups of individuals interested in the same game to create online communities dedicated to communication about each game.  Communities of players that are interested in a game will come together to talk about their past dramatic experiences with that game.  Web sites dedicated to these experiences are created.  Stories about both good and bad dramatic moments players experienced during game play are retold to other members of the rhetoric community. 

One player who goes by the screen name David shared this experience on a web site dedicated to the Super Mario franchise.  “I was 7 or 8 when i was playing paper mario. i havent played it for a long time but i took it out and played the boss i could never beat. And that day i beat it! I started yelling and banging my head on the furniture. Boy was that a good and weird memory [sic].”(David 2005) 

Sharing rhetorical visions that have been experienced between players and their games is possible because of the small group communication of the real life relationship between a gamer and his game.  

Game Life Level      

            Not every video game is designed to provide the audience with the feeling of belonging to a group, but many games, such as Final Fantasy and Super Mario Brothers, are.  Games that create a sense of bonding between the characters and the player are prevalent in the games market and include genres such as sports, action, adventure, and role playing games.  Most of these games make a gamer feel like a part of a virtual group and provoke feelings of group friendships, defeats, successes, etc. 

            Even though only one of the character’s decisions is actually being controlled by a human player a sense of belonging is forged by the gamer and game which help the player continue until the end.  Sub-characters in such games form groups of allies which are all committed to solving the same goal.  Often the time commitments necessary to complete a games ultimate goal are extremely hefty which helps to develop a sense of accomplishment and belonging. 

            One example of the friendships or feelings of belonging to a group that are formed in video game can be found in conversations that took place on-line concerning Final Fantasy VII and one of its supporting characters Aerith (Also spelled Aeris due to Japanese translation.)  Aerith is a unique character in a role playing game because she is a popular character that is murdered by the main antagonist midway through the game.  Considered one of the most touching moments in video game history Aerith’s death has spawned numerous web sites dedicated to her memory.   Many of these web sites contain fan listings, poetry, stories, conspiracy theories, etc., centered on her death. 

In the poetry section of a web site called the Aeirth shrine one fan wrote about Aerith’s early death “The world was threatened, All life was endangered, A madman's dream, The planet's death. To save our lives, To save our loves, To save our dreams, You gave up your own.” (Li 1999)  While on another page a virtual tombstone has been created for this character which says “Aeris Gainsborough your spirit will forever continue to live in our hearts.” (Tsukitaka and Tsukitaka 1997)

Both of the above messages were created as if the individual were actually commemorating the death of a friend or member of an intimate group.  Even though both messages were created by gamers who had never actually met this character a sense of sadness was developed when her death ended their virtual friendship.  Ideas such as her heroics and the promise to remember her forever suggest the connection that players had developed.    

This feeling of group has lead many individuals to look for ways to continue these virtual friendships after a game has ended.  On the web site Final Fantasy RPG chat, one chat room’s rules are explained as follow “a place for fianal fantasy addicts to role play as thier favorite character, posts will be ignored if you do not have a final fantasy 7-X2 name. please play in character, if you don't, post will be ignored [sic].”(Kaiser 2005)  This chat room is being used as an extension of the group fantasies that individuals received while playing Final Fantasy games.  By creating a new setting for the same drama users are once again able to virtually experience the group understanding that was created in the original game.

Most video games with narrative are based on the most simple of rhetoric the idea of “a deeply meaningful explanation of the presence and purpose of evil, of their own place in God’s theme of things, and the place of their community as a people in a unique covenant with God.”(Bormann, 1977, p.134) Perhaps God is not mentioned as being the main ultimate legitimizer or reason that obtaining a goal is essential, but some form of higher good is usually reached by completion, the reason being that when an individual can relate with a rhetorical vision he gains with the supporting dramas and he is compelled to adopt a life style and take certain action. 

Understanding Cultural Differences      

            This feeling of group leads players to accept ideas that are commonly not found in their understanding.  For example, although both Super Mario and Final Fantasy games draw heavily on Japanese tradition, religion, and ideas, an American audience easily accepts these ideas without question.  Looking at Bormann’s theory, from which the rhetorical tool of fantasy theory analysis was derived, symbolic convergence, we can gain an idea of why these discrepancies in culture are overlooked by American gamers.  Symbolic convergence or “the communication process by which human beings converge their individual fantasies, dreams, and meanings into shared symbol systems” is the theory that through communication small groups converge their ideas in a unified understanding. (Bormann, 1977, p.130)  Through symbolic convergence, individuals begin to build a sense of community or a group perception.  This convergence is seen in the unquestioned acceptance of the tanooki (tanuki in Japanese) or statue Mario suit, one of Mario’s super powers in the game Super Mario Brothers 3.

            The tanuki suit is very coveted in Super Mario Brothers 3.  It gives you the ability to instantly become invincible by turning into a statue.  What American players do not know is what both the tanuki and statue hold specific symbolic meaning for a Japanese audience.  In Japanese folklore the tanuki (タヌキ or ) is believed to be a shape shifting raccoon dog with overly large testicles that according to myth uses leaves to supply their magic for transformation.  (Brazil 1998) The statue is called a Jizo, and to a Japanese audience symbolizes a religious deity who is the guardian of children.   American video game players have been collecting leaves to change into a tanuki for over twenty-five years not realizing the significance. 

American players have not needed to question these allusions because of the fantasies that have been created on both real life and game life levels.  Fantasy themes were created in America and groups originized around these fantasies were able to create their own symbols for any incongruence by using fantasy themes that are accepted in American culture.  Many gamers did not even know that this character should cause them to question Japanese culture because of the group understanding of how the game Super Mario should be translated.   

One gamer when told about the relevance of  tanuki to the Mario games had this to say, “There's one of many ironies... how people complain, even here in the US about how US kids have no concept of other people's cultures... of course they don't, everyone keeps on americanizing things way too much. That would've been a great place for some relevant education. Kids ARE smart enough and capable of being told what a tanuki is or being forced to go look it up... *gasp* They have to look it up![sic]” (Skye 2005)  American kids are smart enough to look up new ideas and cultures but Japanese video game producers rely on the fact that they will not have to.  By belonging to a rhetorical community that accepts the video game message different ideas are accepted as being a part of the group symbolism. 

This symbolic convergence happens not only when a new character comes from the Japanese culture but also when a new type of creature is produced for a video game.  In the same Super Mario Brothers game a number of creatures were produced to create a fantasy like atmosphere creatures like goombas, mushroom-like bad guys, thwomps, giant brick-like bad guys, and Bowser, the antagonist dinosaur.   

            American kids did not need to go out and learn about tanukis because a type of personal translation of Japanese culture takes place as they play the game. “Humans are essentially story tellers, our communication is like a story, with a plot, characters, and other attributes of fiction. Also instead of using induction or deduction we use “good reasons,” like traditional ideas of logic, and values that the story teller shares with the audience to make decisions and persuade others.” (Fisher, 1987, p.64) 

With new characters coming from both traditional Japanese culture and new Japanese story tellers American game players can not tell which characters have cultural meaning and which do not.   Still they do not need to understand Japanese meanings behind these symbols.   Instead American gamers use good reasoning and understood narrative to create their own understanding of any discrepancies in their cultural understanding or symbolic convergence.  Americans that have shared the same fantasy theme were able to overcome any discrepancy in the message by relying on the group or values that they already hold to create a symbolic common ground. 

Americans create symbolic ideas to explain the creation of creatures.  Ideas such as the main antagonist using magic wands to transform items into different things, toxic waste, clones, and potions are shared in groups.  One gamer explained the origin of such creatures like this:  “I see no way of explaining this, as there is no further information about him! Seems to me he's just... there. Like we knew all about or something.” (FarFarAway 2005)  This player shows acceptance of new ideas because the gaming world, or those people in his group, produced them.

Japanese games are part of the community

Japanese culture has become a part of the video game community’s rhetoric.  Even when something that is undeniably Japanese appears in a game it is accepted by the gamer community because Japanese culture is part of the gamer rhetoric.  Many gamers know and accept that Japan makes great video games.  Perhaps they are not always aware that the game they are playing was produced in Japan, but when undeniably Japanese ideas confront gamers they are accepted because Japanese games are now part of the group and culture of gamers.

One web page that is interested in translating the Japanese culture in Final Fantasy VII had this to say, “Given the fact that Final Fantasy VII was created almost exclusively by people native to Japan, it only goes to reason that cultural factors should be considered when making an interpretation of the game. The cultural background of the people who made this game must have played an influence on the creation of the story. Many websites exist which interpret the storylines of Japanese anime and magna in terms of Japanese culture. The same kind of influence exists in video games such as Final Fantasy VII.”(ShroudedG, yuna et al. 1998)

Many fans of video games have accepted that their favorite video games are made by Japanese companies.  Gamers often try to learn Japanese or look toward websites to explore cultural ideas.  Still because Japanese video games have become an accepted member of the video game community gamers understand that some ideas will remain foreign.    


            The video game medium is becoming a more accepted form of communication.  With many gamers now entering their thirties and beyond it is time to begin looking at what makes a video game relevant to its audience.  By understanding what it is that has made video games a popular medium researchers should gain an understanding of the video game audience and their needs.  

Many of the video games in America come directly from Japan and are readily accepted by an American audience.  These imported games often include ideas that are unique to Japanese culture but English speaking gamers enjoy each game.  By understanding what makes Japanese video games and culture translatable for an American audience researchers can understand what makes cultural ideas transferable.

Individuals who enjoy video games do so because they interact with the medium on two different levels.  Fantasy themes are being created between a gamer and a game in both real life and in game life.  These dual meanings help connect each player to different game genres.  

On the real life level players are able to connect with games that do not rely on plot or storylines to further the game.  Instead a relationship of fantasy is created by the player.  The player understands himself as a type of hero that is trying to accomplish a goal, while the antagonist or game attempts to thwart his efforts.  The real life level of video game fantasy occurs in every video game helping each player to develop a personal connection to each game.

The game life fantasy or drama is found in games that rely on a story line or plot to further the game play.  Story line or plots may not be extremely important to every game but do help each gamer to connect with the characters.  During the game life gamers develop a sense of group between themselves and the virtual game characters.

American audiences are able to overcome any discrepancies that Japanese video game culture might have with their own culture for two reasons.  The first is because the video game community is often able to create their own symbols of what ideas mean when they encounter new ideas.  Ideas that seem to be created for each new game are translated by individuals and groups whether or not they are aware of the cultural symbolism.  The second way discrepancies are able to be understood is that gamers accept the Japanese culture as part of the gaming experience and as a member of their group.  Japanese culture is considered part of the drama or message and is often considered as a benefit to game play.

Japanese games are able to translate to an American audience because gamers have accepted their message into the group.  Also because gamers create dialogue between the game and their own understanding in both a real life and game life setting a sense of community continues to be reinforced.      

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