Fresh out of high school, Aoba Suzukaze lands a dream job at the game studio she’s admired since childhood, Eagle Jump. Clearly the studio saw a spark of the exceptional, hiring her off the bat with no apparent experience in game design, something unimaginable here in England, or the further western world for that matter. Set as part of a wider environment that has a near institutionalised distrust of women’s abilities, the occasional gender-political duality of the portrayal of women in shonen has appeared as a fixture of yet another new season, calling back to our exploration of the springtime series Bakuon!! and sisterhood as seen through shonen.
In New Game!, the all-girl company is an empowering fantasy striking a chord with any girl who’s been dismissed as ‘faking’ their fandom. But even so, the fact remains that our protagonist is a cute, bumbling waif, bound to make lots of charming slip-ups for a presumed straight male audience. Shizuku Hazuki, the design department’s director, has a platonic interest in cute girls, which goes some way to explain how the design floor came to be populated by women. But outside of being a pretty glimpse into a fairly improbable microcosm for geek guys, it’s difficult to find any practical substance in the show.
Now, we’re not saying that its all-girl milieu would be impossible. For a start, there are movements like Girls Make Games and Girls Who Code letting girls come together to design and develop their own games. But it’s highly unlikely factoring in our current society’s wider population, especially where the male:female workers ratio in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers is concerned. Even taking into account that Japanese businesses hire post-graduates en masse, Aoba’s sheer dumb luck is a ridiculous notion. In a field where women make up less than 12% of the worldwide workforce, she couldn’t have dreamed of jumping straight in at what seems like a AAA-level studio in Eagle Jump’s case. Any young button-masher would have the most minute chance of actually achieving that feat, even if they had a basic grasp of programming from their high school years.
More on Japanese attitudes later, but speaking from a strictly British perspective, people considering their career paths and going to university are being deterred from courses and vocations in and around Aoba’s new field. There’s a dire lack of encouragement as to what paths can be taken in the STEM sectors, with Engineering perpetuated as a load of low paid blokes standing around in hard hats, hi-vis and pouring rain on roadworks and construction sites. And for women in particular, these fields are trapped in a perception cycle of being dominated by the kind of men whose views on women could be politely described as prehistoric. When not considered a distraction by male colleagues, women are being subjected to objectifying, demeaning and condescending behaviour that all too often drives them out of their chosen vocation. Even though things were looking up where representation in schools and universities was concerned, with figures of girls taking computing at A-Level in the UK doubling from 2013 to 2015, there was a 5% drop in women graduating from STEM degrees last year. And even still, girls as young as eight aren’t having their minds opened to the possibility of a job in science or technology, with such subjects seen as favouring the abilities of the ‘practical, right-brained’ boys in their class.
New Game! could, of course, be seen as a show driving home a positive message that women are just as capable coders and computer scientists as their male counterparts, diverse in their various levels and natures of nerdiness. While Eagle Jump’s lead character designer Ko Yagami will fall asleep in the office but strive to get the job done on time, and motion designer Hajime Shinoda is a sentai and sci-fi fanatic who customises her workspace with replicas and collectibles, they have the freedom and support to work hard in a way that’s comfortable for them. But even considering that eight women occupy this Themiscyran professional paradise, these apparently dissimilar characters have still been crafted within the borders of male heterosexual caprice. Hajime is the hot yet approachable geeky girl, and Shizuku the horny guys’ cipher, keeping the cuties coming under the camouflage of a quiet but sultry cat lady. Hifumi Takimoto, Aoba’s character design compatriot, can only communicate comfortably through instant messaging, but although so desperately introverted, she takes teasing steps out of her shell to reveal other adorable quirks such as her pet hedgehog, Sojiro. And Ko Yagami presides over all as a mature, patriarchal presence; irreverent, moody, able to hold her drink, but flashing her panties on occasion for good measure.
It just so happens that Ko is the character designer who first inspired Aoba to become one herself, when she first played the Eagle Jump game Fairies’ Story. Whether intentionally or not, this lands on another major issue in the STEM fields’ drastic gender imbalance. Girls with the potential and interest in these careers simply weren’t seeing women that they could aspire to until, in recent years, western movements like WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering) and the aforementioned Girls Who Code began to call on women in STEM to talk and teach about their work in dedicated events and workshops. Aoba seeing a woman’s name on something she loved, and realising she could be a vital part of it too, is something that should happen for girls worldwide as much as it does for boys, but sadly doesn’t.
Although girls in Japan are encouraged by their parents on relatively equal levels with boys to go into higher education in the STEM fields, the percentage of women in these industries in Japan stays at around 14%, in what is a conservative if highly technologically advanced country. 39% of girls were being willed towards pharmaceutical studies over 9% of boys in 2014, which reflects the country’s traditional societal and gender ideals, with the family held sacred and women still considered the nurturers of the family, even though it’s now more acceptable for them to pursue careers. Although this is shifting slowly, with women striving for equality and many Japanese men wanting to be present fathers, men are still expected to live for their work above all else, strict schedules seeing senior staff grow older in their jobs as the generation gap widens, exhaustion stifling change. Spring and summer schools which focus on the sciences, and favour girls in a similar sense as the blossoming UK and US initiatives, have been gaining in popularity and support from science and education institutions since they began opening in 2005. Still, their students’ numbers are a pittance at 100 to 120 junior and high school students per school each year, especially when considering Japan’s population was over 126 million in 2015.
Even with all the fighting women have done to get ahead in STEM, against domineering colleagues and discouraging educators, UK women made up 14.4% of the STEM career force in 2015, with Japan reflecting that proportion in the sciences at 14.6% in 2014. And putting aside the positive messages which can and should be read into New Game!, in the end it doesn’t portray equality, but idealised segregation of the genders. In an all-female utopia free from toxic manly chutzpah, women can be successful creators of sword and sorcery games. But only if they’re cute or alluring, and only in a way that would be entertaining and inoffensive to men if one ‘just happened’ to be watching through the wall.