One of the main goals of video and computer games since their inception has been the realisation of virtualised world. In other words, the simulation of the real world. The most common examples that people across the world can recognize would be the multitude of driving simulators (with varying levels of realism across the board) and The Sims, a life simulation game series that has been acting as a huge time sink to many players since its inception in 2000. Seriously, all the people I’ve known who played The Sims had a mania towards it to the point of one girl wrecking her four-year relationship.
The thing is, certain type of simulation games aren’t really common in the West. The main reason I chose driving and life simulation above as examples is because of their widespread nature. Sports overall can be counted as sort of simulation, depending how the level of realism they have, but without a proper controller such games always fall tad flat. Sure you can do realistic dribbles in Fifa, but that’s all in the controller. You’re not standing up and actually dribbling the ball in a virtual environment. That’s currently impossible, the technology isn’t at the level of Star Trek‘s holodeck yet.
Alpine Racer had a control rig of two sticks and slots that emulated skis. The game require complete physical movement to be controlled, and was fun
The main difference between American, European and Japanese cultures when it comes to simulation games, which also reflects our approaches to games in general, is that there is a level of separation. Sure, driving games and such are fun thing to play, but ultimately a Westerner could just go and try these things himself for real. In Japan, however, this is not the case due to geographic and overall cultural influence. The reason Japan has so many golf games is that it’s a status symbol. To have a membership in a golf club is a sign of financial success and socially high status. These golf clubs are much more than just tracks to play golf, as they offer a complete spa and vacation resort experience. It’s a prestige, and simulation of that prestige is invaluable.
Similarly, due to the limited space Japan has, the experience of e.g. owning a dog can be a challenge. It’s also a financial risk that some people can’t simply do. Hence games like Nintendogs became a success, though Nintendogs wasn’t the first dog simulation game. There has been a few in the past, with one of the more notable ones being Sega’s Inu no Sanpo, or Walk the Dog. The game works on a treadmill and on force feedback leash. You are given instructions when to walk normally, run or dash, while the screen would have a realistic Japanese scenery going on while your dog just stumbles along events that can happen. Like a runaway cat taking your dog’s attention or car almost hitting it. All the while you can feel the force feedback through the leash in your hand.
Walk the Dog may be a curiosity for a Youtuber to rant on, it’s a case study how Japanese simulation games do allow people to do things they couldn’t otherwise. Of course, there is one specific simulation game that doesn’t only hit the cultural nerve but also has a mania following with train otakus. Densha de Go! or Go by Train! is another example of simulation games allowing something desirable in the culture, as trains are nearly revered in Japan.
Armed with a special controller replicating a train’s control panel, Densha de Go! was a massive phenomena in the late 1990’s and gained a legendary status as far as train simulators go
Densha de Go! isn’t just about achieving something that’s beyond most people. It’s also a sort of taking control event, where the player can move from being a simple passenger to the role of the train driver. The game also benefits from having realistic environments for the tracks, which has been argued to relieve stress in many ways, e.g. allowing a salaryman to travel and see new sights without moving away from his home, or bringing back childhood memories through seeing familiar train routes from back home.
Of course, one of the most Japanese simulation game genres out there is the raising genre, or ikusei games. Or sodate-ge, if you want to be informal bastard. Without a doubt the most well-known title in the genre is Gainax’s Princess Maker, in which the player character takes control of raising a girl from childhood to adulthood. The game’s a contrast to The Sims‘ controls, where the player doesn’t exactly control much of the character in the end. In Princess Maker, the player is responsible is one individual’s growth into the ideal women, and the game offers 74 possible endings, ranging from your daughter ending up being a solider, bishop or a whore.
Princes Maker can be seen as another way for Japanese men to ogle at young girls of different ages in a perverted way, but the more likely reason why Princess Maker became popular is that it allowed lonely men to experience some resemblance to family happiness. Which is one is the sadder option is up to you.
The most popular and well-known raising game however isn’t Princess Maker when it comes to global population. That would be Tamagotchi, which experienced its explosive boom in the late 1990’s. These eggfriends was a bane of many school’s existence, with the fuckers beeping in the kids’ bags every so often requiring to be fed or their shit be cleaned out. The basic idea is that you have an egg that hatches into a creature that must be taken care of and raised well in order it to flourish, until it dies. Early in the game the creature gets sick easily and there has to be rather large amount of effort to keep it alive in the first place. Balancing with its diet and mood was important as well, as sweets tended to get it sick while normal food kept it alive in the first place. The reason why the game became a bane was that the device beeped every time the creature needed attention, and you can imagine how teacher’s felt when thirty Tamagotchis went off during every hour, demanding their shit be cleaned.
Not everyone saw the device as a terrible bane. Some teachers and adults saw Tamagotchis as a device to teach responsibility to the child playing it due to the whole death of the creature if its neglected thing going on. What Bandai didn’t see with its raising pet simulator dangle thing was the psychological effects it had on the player. The Tamagotchi Effect describes the development emotional attachment towards non-living objects, like robots or software agents. It’s not necessarily a negative effect, as it can be used as a form of therapy, as is the case with the PARO Therapeutic Robot. The choice of the creature dying in Tamagotchi has caused some trauma with the player, but this sort of permanent deaths in a massively popular game was something new. It brought a level of realism to a game that was expected to be cute lil’ thing. Instead, it brought adult responsibility and death.
To be honest, I never got into Tamagotchi, but it’s a subject that really necessitates its own post with an analysis of its effects.
Whether or not we can count a software like Summer Lesson a game on its own rights is for another time, but it can’t be ignored that it is essentially an evolution of life simulation, where the player takes control, or rather becomes, a tuition teacher to a schoolgirl during summer. While its raising elements are a more limited than Princess Maker‘s, the player is expected to set up a schedule for Miyamoto Hikari, the student character. Much like Princess Maker, it has been criticised for being a game for perverts, where in reality its intentions are anything but. After all, Japanese culture has always added a small hint of sexuality to its cute things in a positive fashion, which Western culture often misunderstands.
In the end, Summer Lesson emulates real life much like any other in its genre. It just managed to get unnecessary flak way too much, whereas the game’s main content really isn’t anything far off from other manager/raising simulators that have been around on Japanese PCs and consoles since the 1980’s. Summer Lesson also allows the player to take part in a valued job, much like in Densha de Go!. Perhaps it too is a way for the player relive their youthful years or experience some sort of life they couldn’t otherwise achieve, much like what other simulation titles offer as well.
Maybe I should skip buying Switch this year and get PS VR for Summer Lesson after all.