Dating simulators and visual novels have been enjoying a resurgence in the mainstream as of late. Dream Daddy is a reminder that well-written, sincerely witty dating sims can break the mainstream malaise and worm its way into our collective hearts. And there’s a lot to be said for adorable anime dating sims, too. For example, Hatoful Boyfriend, an anime pigeon dating sim, was a ton of fun to both play and watch.
But there’s a difference between Dream Daddy, Hatoful Boyfriend and the freshly announced Shinobi Refle, a dating sim where you can use the Nintendo Switch’s haptic feedback controllers to massage a virtual high-school girl. It has to do with Senran Kagura’s cast of characters and their respective ages.
Is this a matter of age and consent?
There’s no question the cultural divide between Japanese and western games is a vast chasm. Localization controversy has plagued studios like Atlus and XSEED Games in the not-so-distant past as the distributors endeavored to bring Japanese titles to western audiences. But where, exactly, are the biggest divisions between the gaming cultures?
These girls are overtly sexualized in a number of Senran Kagura titles. In Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson, you can even tear off the girls’ clothing in the dressing room. I’m unclear as to the character’s consent on this particular mechanic, and that’s part of the reason why I’m so distressed by it.
At first, I thought the age of consent was perhaps vastly different between Japan and North America. While North American age of consent varies across Canada and the United States, it generally hovers around 16. In Japan, the national age of consent is 13. However, individual prefectures have consent laws that protect individuals under the age of 20 in some places.
If the age of consent and obscenity laws in Japan are much stricter than in the United States, then why are we seeing Asuka, a 16-year-old Senran Kagura character, asking for an inner-thigh massage? Granted, it’s a narrative improvement that Asuka is asking for what she needs versus having her clothing torn off.
Games like Senran Kagura skirt this age issue by failing to mention how young the characters are while you’re playing it. There’s enough room for visual ambiguity that if you’re not really paying attention to the story (and the fact that these girls are, in fact, in high school), you could mistake them for young women in college.
Shinobi Refle is a far cry from bouncy, brawling ninja girls
I won’t argue that Senran Kagura games are lauded for their excellent brawling gameplay. From what I’ve seen, I’d probably enjoy the heck out of the beat-em-up mechanics. During combat sequences, I’d likely forget how young these girls are. And hey, who doesn’t love fighting in a short skirt? Jill Valentine always found a way to look cute and kick major ass at the same time, after all.
But Senran Kagura mechanics aside, Shinobi Refle has very little to do with what players tend to love about the series: the combat. Shinobi Refle is a dating sim. And no, Asuka (the game’s main character) didn’t magically age overnight. She’s still 16. You, as the player and regardless of your age, will be able to date a fictional 16-year-old girl.
This is what puts Shinobi Refle into deeply creepy territory. While I’m uncertain as to all the details this dating sim entails, I do know players will be able to use the Nintendo Switch’s Joy Con to massage Asuka and help her “feel better” throughout the game.
I can appreciate Shinobi Refle for allowing Asuka to consent to these activities, as opposed to having things happen to her. She’s not being pushed into a corner and rubbed down, so to speak. She’s asking for a massage.
But at the end of the day, a young girl is being sexualized for the benefit of the player. While Asuka may play an important role in the main Senran Kagura games, her existence in Shinobi Refle appears to be only as a vessel for the player to touch and physically manipulate. I don’t think I could ever fully accept the overt objectification in Shinobi Refle, but I could look past it — if not for Asuka’s age.
We can’t give Shinobi Refle a pass because it’s Japanese — Asuka’s age matters
Asuka’s age, while never explicitly mentioned in the game, is still under the age of majority in Japan. She is still a high-school student, not much older than the eldest child in my household. And a large part of why I can’t get around Asuka’s age is because I am a parent to a teenage girl.
If Asuka were 18, this would be an entirely different conversation. If she wants an in-game rub down with the surprisingly interesting Joy Con physics highlighted in this video, that would be fine. She would be 18 and an adult.
But at 16, she’s still a child.
Games that highlight the hypersexualization of teenage girls, complete with distractingly bad breast physics, shouldn’t get a pass because they’re made by a different culture. We can, and should, appreciate over-the-top brawlers with excellent mechanics — and beautiful women — without having to resort to ogling underage girls.
More Nintendo Switch news and coverage
Looking for more Nintendo Switch news? Check out how blind gamers are using the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo’s left Joy-Con issue turns out to be a hardware problem — here’s how to solve it. Find out how to buy a console amid the recent restock. Learn why the Switch cartridges taste so bad. Check out our comparison photos sizing up the Switch to the Wii U GamePad (part one and part two), or find out how to make use of ethernet without the dock and the best way to get alerts when new stock arrives.