If you’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Fire Emblem Fates on the 3DS next month, you may have noticed a veritable shitstorm that has boiled over in the community regarding the exclusion of certain content from the North American (and likely European) release. This is not the first time that this subject has been up for not-so-friendly debate; when the game was released in Japan last June, there was a similar controversy over the revelation that this content existed in the first place. Some are declaring the changes “censorship” and even vowing not to purchase the game, while others are expressing relief and deeming the game better off this way. Censorship has become a very pervasive subject within the gaming community, especially in the last few years, and so I really wanted to take a moment to address what censorship means and how it may or may not pertain to this particular franchise, which admittedly is dear to my heart.
Censorship is a tricky subject to tackle, especially here in the U.S., because of the cultural symbolism it bears. Americans tend to readily identify with the idea of freedom in a very broad emotional sense; it served as the ideological foundation for our independence, and various types of freedoms were immortalized by our Constitution and Bill of Rights, some of which were revolutionary for their time. As a result, we tend to associate the term as intrinsic to our national identity, turning it into a “buzzword”; a word that is often used in a broad sense to invoke a particular emotional response, or as Wikipedia phrases it, “which privileges rhetoric over reality.” You may have already inferred that censorship also has the capacity to be a buzzword, serving as an opposite to freedom in some ways. It is extremely important when having these conversations to pinpoint the exact intended definition of a buzzword, lest we get swept up in the rhetoric. Therefore, we need to examine several types of censorship to figure out which ones might apply to this particular issue.
Perhaps the most dangerous and most thought-of form of censorship is the one that Freedom of Speech protects us from: political censorship by the government. In the U.S., as well as many other nations around the world, legal or penal retaliation by the government for speaking out against or criticizing said government is illegal. You cannot be outright silenced. This protection is often overstated, however; Freedom of Speech does not protect us from social consequences for expressing our views, such as criticism, protest, and ostracisation. We’ll get to that shortly.
The other form of censorship we tend to think of right away is institutional censorship. This is when an official organization is designated to determine the standards of what is and is not acceptable to say or show via a particular medium—usually one that is readily accessible to the public—and is then responsible for enforcing those standards. An obvious example of this is the federal requirement to “bleep out” or remove obscene language and images from cable television. Social media such as Facebook will often outline and enforce similar standards for user content, even if not required to. This type of censorship is generally based on a sense of ethics and seen as ultimately positive, although individual standards are periodically challenged and revisited as our cultural values shift. For example, there is an ongoing criticism of Facebook and other social media’s policies regarding the censorship of the female nipple.
From here, the term gets murky. It is possible to achieve a kind of social censorship when a group of people, organized or otherwise, harshly criticizes, boycotts or ostracizes an individual, organization, or company who has said or done something deemed inappropriate. This can include anything from a product being considered insensitive or offensive to an individual publicly expressing unpopular views. Often times, this form of censorship is attempted in the name of either social justice or conservatism, and particularly personal attacks can often be described as harassment or bullying. It is also in no way absolute; some give in to social pressures, but some feel that their message is too important to cease or that their product is performing too well to adjust their strategy, or simply that the criticisms against them have no merit. There’s a debate all its own as to whether or not this should even be considered censorship, but for the purposes of this conversation, we’ll say that it is.
We tend to think of the word “censorship” with inherently negative implications, and for good reason. We are trained, in a way, to perceive any kind of censorship as an attack on our personal liberties. However, there is a substantial argument to be made that this particular form of censorship, when applied in a civil manner, is actually a very important and in fact healthy process by which a culture evolves and measures its current values. To give an example, within a century ago, our vernacular included various racial slurs which have since been filtered out largely by social censorship, and the majority of our culture today would attest that this has been for the best. It is also worth noting, although it may not be relevant to this particular controversy, that often times the goals of those who issue such criticism are not explicitly to censor or ban a product. Media critics often herald games that contain problematic content as an example of a greater issue, in the hopes that publishers will approach the issue in question with more sensitivity in the future.
So we’ve defined censorship and confronted some of its nuances. Now let’s look at how it applies to the localization changes in Fire Emblem Fates.
In the month or so following Fates’s Japanese release, a flood of new, unofficially-translated information saturated the community about what to expect from the highly-anticipated title. Amid rave reviews from Japanese gaming sites and news of the first-ever homosexual S-Support options, two somewhat questionable details emerged about the game’s content.
The first was that there would be a mini-game using the touch screen that would be similar to the Pokémon-Amie feature that debuted in Pokemon X and Y. This mini-game, known as “Skinship,” offered an additional way to increase support between the player avatar and other units by physically stroking their faces. It was accompanied by somewhat suggestive sound bytes and generally fed further into the secondary function of recent Fire Emblem games as fantastical dating simulations. (It is worth noting that the term “skinship” is a pseudo-English Japanese term used “to describe the intimacy, or closeness, between a mother and a child” as denoted by Wikipedia. It is not intended to be a reference to “shipping,” as in fan preferences as to which characters should be romantically paired).
Those who expressed disapproval of Skinship claimed that the feature would make them uncomfortable, and many asserted that this feature detracted from the game’s primary function as a turn-based strategy RPG, feeling that it had no place in the franchise. Proponents of Skinship argued that the feature was optional, and that if someone didn’t like it, they could skip it. These same proponents now argue that the removal of Skinship would deprive them of the additional content locked behind that feature. They feel that without this mini-game, they would not be receiving the full product. The inherent problem in this situation is that any feature that would alienate a portion of the player base from accessing all of the game’s content is by definition not a good feature.
The second came within an unofficial translation of one particular string of Support conversations between the male player avatar and a woman named Soleil. Soleil has a predicament in that she becomes flustered and somewhat useless at the site of a cute girl, and this has presented a danger to her during combat. The male avatar decides to slip her a potion that swaps her visual perception of men and women in an attempt to help her work through her dilemma. This is made somewhat more problematic when in the S-Support, Soleil confesses that the effects of this potion have led her to fall in love with the male avatar.
While Soleil does retroactively consent to this idea, the problem remains that the male avatar does elect to effectively drug her without her knowledge or explicit consent. This is a narrative decision meant to allow for a comedic reveal, but the problem is that drugging is a very real danger for many women and to derive comedic value from it is legitimately troubling. Retroactive consent is not something we should condone as viable, as it is not something that can be guaranteed.
There was also a general ambiguity to the translation, as well as to Soleil’s sexual orientation as a whole, that led to comparisons between this scenario and gay conversion therapy. Soleil seems to represent a Japanese archetype of a woman who is obsessed with adorable girls in an entirely asexual manner. This is not really a concept that we have in the U.S., and therefore her sexual orientation appeared to be ambiguous in the translation; she flirted with women often, but all of her marriage options were men. This sparked the notion that she was in fact meant to be a lesbian, or at least bisexual, but was “converted” to heterosexuality—something that has been institutionally attempted here in the U.S. and has been disastrously harmful to those subject to the process. While this does not ultimately seem to be the intention of this plot, leaving it as it is in the American localization would have made little sense to the casual player, as it is a cultural concept that we simply lack.
Both of these revelations were met with criticism if not outright revulsion from a large portion of the community as well as critics from outside the community. The ensuing flame war wrestled with whether or not the localized version of the game should remove any of this content. This controversy eventually simmered down and laid dormant until a few days ago, when Nintendo of America stated that “In the version of the game that ships in the U.S. and Europe, there is no expression which might be considered as gay conversion or drugging that occurs between characters.” Shortly thereafter, a Kotaku article alleged that the Skinship feature would also be removed in its entirety. As a result, a vocal portion of the community are railing against what they are calling censorship, and some are even threatening to cancel their preorders and boycott the game. Meanwhile, some supporters of the decision have been quick to gloat over the opposition.
This leads us to the crux of this debate: can the localization process be called censorship?
Opponents of the changes have in some cases taken to blaming critics, or those who perhaps aren’t particularly enamored with the series, for Nintendo’s decision, filing this case into what they believe is a larger crusade of sorts to censor various aspects of the gaming industry. This is frankly unlikely. While publishers do feel the pressure of social progress in some ways, ultimately a little negative press is unlikely to hurt the overall sale of a game—in fact, by definition, it is more likely to help sales at least in the short term. Some publishers base a significant portion of their marketing strategies around this irony. But if a majority of voices within the projected consumer base have expressed displeasure toward a certain aspect of a product, addressing this displeasure is a necessary step in almost any company’s business model if they want the franchise to enjoy continued success.
In reality, this was likely a combination of feedback from the target audience, as well as concerns that this material might not be suitable for younger players. Traditionally, Fire Emblem games published in the U.S. have always received a Teen rating. Some argue that the rating could have been raised in order to accommodate this content, but this is an unreasonable expectation. It is virtual market suicide to bump the rating of a traditionally Teen-rated franchise into a Mature rating, as this dramatically narrows the target audience. If anything, publishers tend to aim for greater accessibility if they can.
This is also not a new or unusual procedure. Our culture is fundamentally different from that of Japan, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. They have cultural concepts and values that we don’t, and vice-versa. And that’s perfectly fine. But when a game is localized, it takes into account these differences and adjusts based on what the new audience will or will not receive well, based on a wealth of market research. There have been numerous changes made to previous Fire Emblem games that made it to the U.S., some of which have been noted by this Redditor for example. To expect a game from Japan to be released here in America in its pure, original form is simply unrealistic, and we really shouldn’t be asking for that either, because not that long ago it looked very unlikely that we would see another Fire Emblem game at all because of its poor performance stateside. Fire Emblem needs to continue to mesh with non-Japanese values, because I for one want it to still be a thing in another five years. This isn’t meant to be a study of Japanese culture—it’s a product, and it needs to be marketable wherever it’s being sold.
I get it. It’s awful being part of the minority. Hell, pretty much every Fire Emblem fan that started playing before 2012 knows that feeling. Many still feel it with these newer incarnations of the game, and their increased focus on dating simulation. But it’s really kind of disingenuous to call this censorship; it’s a necessary step if we want to see games succeed outside of Japan, and I would hope we do. I certainly do. If you really find that things you like are being stripped from the American version of games, maybe it’s time to address the bigger picture; why are these our cultural values? Are they right? Do they need to change? And if you think the answer to that last one is yes, then go get vocal and try to change them at the roots. Our culture is constantly evolving.
In the meantime, you have options. If you’re really interested in Japanese culture, then get out there, learn Japanese if you haven’t already, and be awesome and worldly and well-traveled. Just, you know, don’t expect it to come to you.