- Pursuing One’s Own PrinceLove’s Fantasy in Otome Game Contents and Fan Practice
Video games have long been considered to be a leisure activity for children, and have usually been considered as a pastime for boys and not for girls. As a result, games for girls and the relationships between girls and games has not been an object of social science research until recently. Pioneering studies have highlighted various gendered dimensions of gaming,1 and describe video games and the industry as a media perpetuating underlying gender stereotypes and prejudices.2 Yet they also report that video games can be a space to question the gender identities built into our society and reflected by mainstream cultural industries.3 Video games targeted to female audiences are often designed for young girls, and studying them allows us to interrogate how gender is constructed for players and how it may shape their perceptions and practices. Among such video games, otome games are a part of a niche market that has developed in Japan and has spread to other countries in the last few years. In these games, the player is incarnated as a heroine surrounded by young men and she is supposed to cultivate their affection for her and to develop one or several romances. These games feature particular tropes and characters and distinctive plot lines that draw from and also influence broader constructions of love and fantasies of romance among young girls in Japan today.
Otome is an archaic but nostalgic term in Japanese that traditionally refers to an unmarried young girl, evoking the ideal of her femininity and virginity. In his book about the otome, Kunimitsu Kawamura evokes otome as an imaginary state. For Kawamura, the otome figure only exists in images;4 anyone can be otome with the commitment to dive into a world of emotion. An otome culture consisting of video games, manga, anime, licensed goods, and fanmade products has resuscitated this word in popular culture, and infused it with new meanings. The development of this otome culture owes much to the shōjo aesthetic developed since the 1970s. As Deborah Shamoon has shown, the shōjo aesthetic emerged as a safe place “for girls to fantasize [End Page 166] about their own sexuality and sexual and social agency through the use of same-sex romance,”5 and it is characterized by images of young girls and modern women with a particular feminine style that is seen as being specifically oriented for young women themselves. While similar in its aesthetic, otome cultural products refocus fans’ attention on men and the depiction of heterosexual relationships, and thus it seems to enable the extension of this “safe space” of the shōjo aesthetic for broader female audiences, including both young and teenage girls. As otome games in particular depict conventional ideas about heterosexual relationships, they present a way to investigate gender construction through media and to interrogate the reception of those representations by young girls themselves. As the shōjo aesthetic models fictional images of girlhood, otome cultural products inscribe “girls’ straight but queer pleasure retrospectively while incorporating novel aesthetics and sexuality.”6
If the term otome is now out of use in mainstream Japanese society, where the figure of the otome is not supposed to exist in reality, it gains new meanings when it is integrated with popular cultural products. In Japanese popular culture today, the term otome has both a broad and a narrow meaning. In a broad sense, otome refers to a girl who likes consuming otaku cultural products, and is used to describe a female otaku.7 In accordance with this definition, the “Otome Map,” released in the district of Ikebukuro in Tokyo, indicates a road called “Otome Road” that is home to many otaku-related businesses and sites. From a more narrow sense, the particular otaku-related goods on offer in this area are often related to otome cultural products, in particular otome video games and related anime and manga. Thus, the term otome also refers to the appreciation of leisure-implicating products from the otome game industry. In this way, we can identify an “otome culture” as the realm of...