Sitting opposite me on a crowded Den-en-Toshi line train are five businessmen, all in black suits, each playing a Nintendo DS. What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, since we’re in Tokyo. Back home in New York, however, such a vision would seem curious.
In the West, video games are largely seen as toys, amusements for children, teenagers and 20-somethings still living in their parents’ basements. In Japan, video games are thought of more as hobbies. It doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, old or young — if you enjoy collecting game software, go nuts.
Nintendo and Sony’s historical dominance in the video game market surely accounts for much of the difference in attitude. But there’s also likely a bit of national pride involved. What Japanese person isn’t proud of the fact that Mario is one of the most recognizable faces on the planet?
Whatever the reason, Japan’s play-centric culture is a comfort to video game junkies of all stripes, including me. More so than back home, I find that my pastime is shared by coworkers, students and even strangers sitting next to me on the bus. I also discovered a more tangible benefit as I started to accumulate more and more Japanese-language titles: video games can make fantastic teaching tools.
After three years of DS gaming during commutes and playing PS3 RPGs in my apartment, I am now able to read and understand Japanese at a near-fluent level. By repeating the super-formal lines of the Elizabeth character in "Persona 3," I got comfortable with "keigo" (polite Japanese). Momohime and Kisuke from "Muramasa: The Demon Blade" gave me a crash course in advanced kanji. Solid Snake and Otacon from "Metal Gear Solid" familiarized me with technical language — so much so that I was able to fix my own computer while living in Yokohama. With a little discipline, a game can teach you hundreds of new words, improve your reading speed, sharpen your listening skills, and still be loads of fun to play.
Now, for a few qualifications. First, while I never took formal classes, I did study Japanese independently. I also made sure to practice speaking with colleagues and friends. (With few exceptions, you won’t get much speaking or writing practice from video games.) And it’s important to choose the right type of game — fighting games, for example, will introduce you to some hilarious curses, but little else. If you want to improve reading and listening, then adventure, puzzle and role-playing games are your best bet.
In fact, there are a lot of things video games can teach if you apply some imagination and effort. Nintendo’s impressive DS library is a testament to this. With various titles to help students pass the TOEIC, practice kanji, learn cooking, improve memory, or even balance the family budget (my wife loves this one), you don’t need Jedi reflexes or sore thumbs to enjoy a game system. Sadly, you cannot find a lot of these titles in the West.
Which brings up my next point. Why is it that Japanese teachers of English encourage their students to play DS games in English to review for exams while Western teachers do not? I can only offer a few conjectures. I suppose we could blame the Puritans, or religion and conservatism in general, for widely held fears about video games. "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" will likely be blamed for the next school shooting, yet no one will give credit to "Final Fantasy IV" for teaching little Jimmy 50 new words and improving his comprehension.
This is ironic, as nobody calls for banning books when some nut job mails letter bombs after reading "The Anarchist’s Cookbook" or "Mein Kampf." With few exceptions, reading books is taken as an unquestionable virtue to be endlessly encouraged. The writer Steven Johnson made a similar point in his 2007 work, "Everything Bad Is Good For You." Imagine, Johnson wrote, if video games had been invented before books. Few people would see them as great learning tools. Rather, we would decry their lack of interactivity, their inability to improve mental and physical coordination, and their extreme passivity.
Historically speaking, video games are still a new medium, and they’re constantly evolving. It will take time for us to see their full potential. Who can tell what benefit they will ultimately bring? From a young age, we’ve been hoodwinked into thinking that learning only occurs in classrooms or in the vicinity of textbooks and certified experts. Education becomes artificially limited when we think of it as happening only in a designated building or time period, rather than as a result of our own creative work and study.
None of this is to say that Western schools ought to emulate Japanese ones. Lord knows the Japanese education system has its own problems. Yet a more liberal attitude about what video games can offer has opened up a world of possibilities here in Japan, and I can only hope that this will continue to spread around the globe. Just like Mario has.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today