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For years I’ve struggled to understand Japan’s Monster Hunter craze. The series’ popularity and sales are one thing, but it always mystified me that dozens — even hundreds! — of Japanese gamers would get together in large rooms to play Monster Hunter together. It’s more than just the Japanese preference of seeing other gamers during multiplayer sessions. It’s a phenomenon. Thankfully, my friend Shane explained it to me last week.
The topic randomly came up over lunch and Shane told me that it has to do with Japan’s cultural concept of senpai and kohai. After a quick search on my T-Mobile G2, I confirmed that they weren’t Dragon Ball Z characters that I forgot about. In round-eye terms, the relationship between senpai and kohai is akin to the relationship between mentor and protege, older student and younger student, veteran athlete and rookie athlete, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, or Nightwing and Red Robin. Here’s a quote from the WikiPedia:
More than simple seniority, senpai implies a relationship with reciprocal obligations, somewhat similar to a mentoring relationship. A kohai is expected to respect and obey their senpai, and the senpai in turn must guide, protect, and teach their kohai as best they can.
In Monster Hunter terms, the senpai guides the kohai around and helps them level up. Experienced players are expected to guide and protect. Newcomers have to do some menial grunt work. Both find their roles satisfying. The novices are also expected to field strip their mentor’s PSPs, restoring them to factory condition (okay, I made this part up). It’s similar to the closeness of guilds in World of Warcraft, but it goes beyond social enjoyment. From what I gathered from Shane, there’s a distinct cultural satisfaction in the senpai/kohai relationship.
In the (sometimes wonderfully) self-absorbed West, most players like to go at it alone or conquer all others. Individual accomplishments in games are more gratifying than shared accomplishments. American gamers love going for glory on their own, saving the day by themselves, or beating all of their friends online. (I blame the Rambo movies.) The complex subtleties of the senpai/kohai relationship aren’t as common. Instead it’s more like master and servant, boss and employee, or Kobe Bryant and Luke Walton.
So yeah! I’m jazzed that Shane dropped some knowledge on me and explained one of the most puzzling videogame phenomenons I’ve ever encountered. It makes much more sense to me now. How about you? Do you “get” Monster Hunter in Japan? Or is it still a mystery to you?