Distinguising WRPGs from JRPGs and Western Animation from Anime

So I was browsing the old r/memes, and I saw this:

Naturally, my initial reaction was, well, it's so simple, right? Avatar: The Last Airbender is not anime, and Dark Souls is a JRPG. Avatar is not made in Japan, so it can't be anime, and Dark Souls was Japanese in origin, so it is a JRPG, which stands for "JAPANESE Role-Playing Game".

But then I dug into the question over what makes a JRPG a JRPG as distinct from a WRPG (Western Role-Playing Game). I learned a lot, but I still hold to my initial belief, and I think people are essentially wrong to call something not made in Japan a Japanese game and to call something made in Japan a Western game. They've conflated the country of origin with certain stereotypes based on the most popular games from that culture. But the names themselves refer to culture of origin, or at least, I think that they should, to avoid confusion.

So what is this debate about? Well, some people say the distinction between a Japanese RPG and a Western RPG is a distinction of gameplay and style, not origin. This is because many other game descriptors and genres are about gameplay. For example, a "platformer" game is so named because you jump onto platforms (Super Mario Bros. being the most popular). A "first-person shooter" is a game where the camera is first-person in perspective and you walk around shooting. Pretty simple, right?

But "Western" and "Japanese" are not game-play related descriptors, like "side-scroller" or "shooter". They're treated as such in the gaming community, but I don't believe that they should be. They are cultural adjectives that describe the geographic origin of a game. I would be really confused and maybe a little mad if I saw a game marketed as a JRPG that was not made originally in Japan or created by Japanese developers. Similarly, I don't think Avatar: The Last Airbender should be called an anime just because it has an Eastern style. Not everything about it is Eastern, either; for example, thinking of the elements in elemental magic as Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, is a Western idea coming from Aristotelian philosophy. The elements in traditional Chinese folklore are Wood, Metal, Earth, Fire, and Water.

With anime, the distinction is cut and dried. If it's from Japan, it's an anime. If not, it's a work of western animation, if you want to be snobby, and a cartoon if you don't. The term "anime" is a Japanese word for all animation. So, in Japan, Avatar: The Last Airbender would be an anime, but so would things like Scooby Doo or South Park. But outside of Japan, the only sane definition of anime is "animated work from Japan". That's all it means. It has no bearing on style, cultural lore or setting. For example, the anime series Fullmetal Alchemist and Fairy Tail are heavily European-based in terms of their real-world inspiration, but are very much still called anime. Calling an animated work anime or western animation based on style could mean calling Frozen anime because the characters have big eyes, Kung Fu Panda "Chinese animation" because it's set in China, or Aladdin "Arabic animation" because it's set in an Arabian city. This would lead to basically anarchy when it comes to categorizing animated works, so we categorize films and animated works by place of geographic origin first, and by style and genre second. So Avatar: The Last Airbender could be called a "cartoon inspired by anime", or a "western cartoon with anime stylistic influences" or something like that. But never "anime", because outside of Japan, the name "anime" implies a Japanese origin.

The problem really is that the gaming community decides the distinction between a JRPG and a WRPG differently than the anime community decides the distinction between anime and western animation. To the people using the terms, "Japanese" and "Western" have come to represent styles of game design, such that they call any game like Final Fantasy a "JRPG" regardless of actual geographic origin, and any game like Skyrim a "Western RPG" again, regardless of actual geographic origin. This is confusing to me, because it seems to me like passing off an inauthentic product as genuine and blurring the lines of culture of origin. To me, calling a Japanese-made game a "western RPG" is a bit like calling sushi "Chinese food", simply factually incorrect.

But to the people heavily invested in RPGs (I personally only play Skyrim and only completed two minor JRPG games for GameCube, so I'm no expert), the important thing to distinguish is gameplay, not location of origin. They say there are distinct gameplay elements Japanese RPGs are known for and others that are more known in Western games. But then these gameplay elements, like whether an RPG is turn-based or not, are not exclusive to Western or Japanese-made games.

But I think if you want to use gameplay descriptors to describe a game, why not just use the gameplay descriptors? To me, the terms "western" and "Japanese" refer to geographic and cultural origin, and cannot be divorced from that meaning. Something can be styled like games from somewhere else, or set in a foreign setting. But that doesn't mean the actual geographic origin of the game changes. If you want to talk about gameplay, talk about gameplay. But don't conflate terms originally simply designed to name the geographic origin of the game with connotations about the style typically associated with such geographic origins.

Do you think the terms "JRPG" and "WRPG" should be used to describe origin or style/game-play aspects of the game?

  • Origin. If it comes from Japan, it's a JRPG. If it comes from the west, it's a WRPG. Case closed.
  • Style. Just like how "Chinese food" is not called "American food" in America, JRPG and WRPG refer to styles of games, not necessarily a place of origin for that particular game.
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