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Fictive affinities in Final Fantasy XI: complicit and critical play in fantastic nations.

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Abstract: The Japanese role-playing game meta-genre is marked by structures of diegesis that suggest a distinct ontology of nationality, race, and identity. Particularly, the Final Fantasy games have become associated with a nuanced, unstable play of these identities. The most recent work in the series is the first that is presented as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. My paper will address what I call fictive affinities (in the tradition of Benedict Anderson’s discussion of national identities as imaginary communities) in the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI, and identify specific visual and ludological rhetorics and techniques of race and nationality. Some of these are coherent with themes and structures developed in earlier (single-player) iterations of Final Fantasy; others are original to the multiplayer title, and both reflect and repress the international, trans-hemispheric nature of the game itself. The semantics and thematics of this work as a product of a genre – in this case, of fantasy – can be read intertextually. Drawing examples from literary as well as ludological artifacts, I suggest that certain questions of racial and national identity are endemic to the fantasy genre in which Final Fantasy XI (but not all Final Fantasy games) participates, that FFXI can be read as part of a broader Asian, and somewhat more specifically Japanese, reading of that genre, while the mechanics of the game as well as its representative practices create structures of complicity and critique which derive from the virtual agency of the player and its interpellation by the demands of the ludological regime. The fictional world of Final Fantasy XI – called Vana’diel – is a richly articulated fantasy realm in the tradition of other pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds, both literary (Middle Earth, Earthsea, Narnia) and ludic (the World of Warcraft, Everquest’s Norrath, Ragnarok Online). Vana’diel is dominated by 3 fictional nation-states – or rather metropoles, city states with complex and changing hegemonic power over the territory of the 2 landmasses and several islands of the world – one of which a player must join upon beginning the game. This selection of fictional nationality occurs after having chosen a race and gender. These choices determine the initial demands made on the player, who is then placed in a web of quests and missions of unclear political implications. Like most of its predecessor games in the Final Fantasy series, the game begins in media res .The player-races and nations – uneasily united under the banner of a 4th, non-player city-state – are in a state of conflict, called the Conquest, with an array of humanoid enemies called the Beastmen. The player is obliged to participate in this Conquest (with implications economic as well as political – the state of the Conquest affects the availability of in-game economic resources) in the early part of the game. Both playable races and "beastmen" are roundly drawn from human cultures. The playable races refer to American, European, and Oceanic/Asian mostly first-world cultures; the "beastmen" are drawn from Indonesian, African, and American aboriginal cultures, particularly the colonial-era representations of them. A straightforward visual analysis comparing game imagery with historical ethnographic imagery makes the connection clear. I argue that the colonialist discourse of the game can be seen as a Japanese-European hybrid, while the specific complicities of the game and its negotiation of post-colonial themes is consistent with the structure of other Japanese role-playing games, particularly its immediate predecessors in the Final Fantasy series. After the initial period, the game itself requires considerable play with other players in order to adequately navigate it and reveal the epiphanies of identity and nuances that also characterize the Final Fantasy franchise. The process of forming parties of play often requires players of different linguistic, national, and regional identities, as well as different ages and genders, to work in close coordination in elaborate technical performance. English-speaking and Japanese-speaking players are able to participate in their native languages, using game software that allowed them to generate certain key-phrases that would be translated across clients. At the same time, 3rd-language communities began to form with the introduction of Spanish-language and French-language "linkshells," or in-game play communities, using the English-language client software. The game was first released in Japan in 2002; the North American version of the game was released in 2003, and a European released occurred in October of 2004. The arrival of European players has invigorated the 3rd-language linkshells – initially dominated by Quebecois, Hispanic, and Brazilian players in the Americas. In-game fictional nationalities and races would both inform play style and be compromised by real-world identities. . Nonetheless, Japanese and English language communities of play dominate, and national cultures of play style became articulated in in-game and extra-game discourse and forums. The relationship and interplay between the two domains of affinity, and the interpretation of the diegetic affinities, are the focus of my presentation. Selected cited works: Anderson, Benedict, Imagined communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Versa, 2001) Altman, Rick, "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre," Cinema Journal, 23:3 Chizuko, Ueno, Nationalism and Gender, trans. By Beverly Yamamoto (Melbourne: Transpacific Press, 2004) Harootunian, Harry D., "Ideology as Conflict" in Tetsuo Najita and J. Victor Koschmann, ed., Conflict in Modern Japanese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982) Ivy, Marilyn, Discourse of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan Iwabuchi, Koichi, Recentering Globalization: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. (Duke University Press, 2002) Kelly, William H, "Is there a Japanese way of playing?" in Hendry, Joy (ed.) Japan at Play: The Ludic and Logic of Power (Routledge, 2001) Morris-Suzuki, Tessa, Re-inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation. (M.E. Sharpe, 1998)
Contact: William Huber, Art History, UCSD,
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