Recently, I talked with Mattias van Ommen, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University who is currently doing research on the Japanese communities that form the foundation of popular MMO, Final Fantasy XIV. I first noticed Mattias’ work during a panel at this year’s Association of Asian Studies Conference, where his work on FFXIV caught my eye. I had the chance to sit down with him back in April and ask him a few questions about his research and his time in the game.
(Please note that edits were made for both brevity and clarity within the following interview.)
GS: Can you give us a little bit of background on yourself? What’s your educational history and what drove you to get interested in studying XIV?
Ommen: Sure. So I’m originally from the Netherlands, born and raised. Back in the 90s, when I grew up, we did not have that many video games coming over, I was always jealous. When I saw that in the US you had games like Chrono Trigger that I’d only read about and Final Fantasy, I found myself getting attracted to these kind of [games], what I now know are JRPGs. This was before I even knew what Japan was.
When I had the opportunity as a high school kid to go to Japan, to sign up for a scholarship that took me to Japan, I just kind of signed up. Somehow I got it. So I spent one of my high school years in Nara in a suburban high school and was the only foreigner. There was one English language teacher from Seattle, but all the students were Japanese.
I couldn’t really express myself, they didn’t really speak English much. I just had to listen and copy. That was one of my ways of learning Japanese. I did play video games with them, too. But not too many, because I was part of a sports club, a soccer club. [Eventually] I returned to the Netherlands. I wanted to be a game designer, but after I went to Japan, I totally went the other direction.
I went from wanting to become a programmer designer to studying Japanese culture. That seems like a total turnaround, but, in the end, I was able to combine them. I was so happy about that.
I went to Leiden [University], which has a long historical connection with Japan and a lot of great resources. I was able to go to Kyoto University, come back, write my thesis about [Japanese] sports clubs. Then I got a Fulbright scholarship to go to the United States. I had two choices. I chose Hawaii because of the strong connection they have with Japan. I ended up staying almost 10 years now. Did my PhD here, graduated, and now I’m doing my postdoc at Harvard long distance. So, yeah, my topic became Japanese video games. I first studied the language and the culture, after a few years of that, I became confident enough to say, “I want to return to this original interest of mine,” which was video games.
GS: So when did you originally pick up XIV? Before you started studying it or not?
Ommen: A Realm Reborn came out in 2013. I was in Hawaii, getting into the PhD program. I began playing as a way to stay in touch with some of my friends back in Europe. That’s how I kind of often play games these days: in a very social way. But I didn’t [stick around] because of the time difference. We didn’t really get very far. Then, I developed this research topic into “How would it be if I was in Japan, or at least on the Japanese servers?” [In 2013], I started playing sort of on and off, very casual. Then for the research project, I really started playing [around] 3.1, which was early 2016. until the summer of 2017, right after Stormblood came out.
GS: What drove you to play Dragoon?
Ommen: That’s a great question. Well, I really liked Kain in Final Fantasy IV. Because I wasn’t an experienced MMO player, I did not want to start out as a tank or a healer. I was very anxious and self conscious about how I was going to appear to others as a foreigner. And so, on top of all those challenges, I didn’t have want to have another extra barrier, initially, by choosing to be the tank, right, who has to kind of take charge and know where to go and, or healer, where people really depend on you in a way.
GS: So you started in 3.1. What did people think? Was there a general impression that the game had improved from previous patches? Was there a general sense of positivity? Like, that everything from 2.0 to 3.1 had been a straight improvement?
Ommen: I think it was mostly positive. But you have to remember that I started playing the game at that time and my previous experience wasn’t that significant. So I really was also just kind of learning the game. I kind of joined during a time when people were generally very excited about the game. 3.0 had just come out a few months before.
GS: What server did you play on?
Ommen: Without answering it [to protect sources], it was a well-populated server in Japan, not Chocobo. But, another, really prominent, active, highly populated server.
GS: So in the States, at least until recent patches removed a large part of 2.1 to 2.55 storyline through streamlining, that storyline was seen as something of a slog. People on Reddit in the forums here in the US complained about it a lot. Did they do the same in Japan?
Ommen: They didn’t complain about it a lot. I do suspect that some of them weren’t enjoying it as much.
They would complain occasionally. We didn’t actively talk about it that much. It was much more about, “Okay, how can I help you do the next dungeon that I know is coming up?” So, it speaks again to not even just politeness but just genuine kindness that I witnessed. I was honestly kind of touched by it because it’s like, I’m just a foreigner and researcher. I was an outsider in so many ways. But, and that’s what I argue too in my upcoming book, is that having that shared fantasy world as something to bond over is something that erases some of those differences that we perceive. There’s all these moments that I’ve had during my fieldwork where I was genuinely impressed at how kind people were. They just seemed to enjoy helping new players.
GS: What sort of space does FFXIV hold in Japanese mindshare? In the United States, at least, World of Warcraft holds the crown as the most consistently popular MMORPG on the market. Does FFXIV now hold that place in Japan?
Ommen: I think so. There’s millions of people who have played the game in Japan. If you add up the people who have at some point played it, people our age, there’s always gonna be someone in your inner circle who has played this game, whether they admit it or not. The people you see meeting up at Final Fantasy meetups, they look like just a bunch of friends hanging out. They don’t necessarily look like otaku [a Japanese word for someone with obsessive interests.] You have those players too who would fall into that kind of category, but the vast majority are just people who want to hang out then they get to know each other. I do think it’s the most popular game, you meet people that play it in surprising places.
GS: In the United States, a lot of emphasis is placed on raid content by certain subsets of the community. How active were Japanese players in pushing late-game raid content?
Ommen: They were pretty active. It’s kind of funny because like I said, it’s like a theme park MMO. Everybody has their own thing. Our FC was very diverse. We had people really pushing high-end raiding and we have people doing more like fashion shows and things like that.
GS: How many, if any, of your players had come over from Final Fantasy XI? Did that impact their view of FFXIV? If so, how?
Ommen: What I noticed is that a lot of the people that have played XI were kind of like the leaders of the community, the ones that were a little bit more comfortable. They were just kind of doing their own thing, but at the same time, they were also leaders whenever something happened. I interviewed another person who played XI for a long time, but they were actually still playing XI more so. She just kind of loved XI so much, and, and she played with her family.
I think they didn’t really talk about it that much in the game. If you’re comparing it [XIV] with XI all the time, you’re kind of excluding certain people, right? I think that’s why they didn’t necessarily do that. They maybe would save that for maybe a separate linkshell.
GS: When you started playing, the PlayStation 3 was still supported as a game platform for FFXIV. Do you know if any of your Free Company members were playing on the PS3? If so, did their experience differ or was it lesser than the experiences of other FFXIV players within your FC?
Ommen: Yeah, people were definitely playing on PS3 at the time still. And they [FC members] did talk about this, but it was more usually laughing, like, “That guy again…He’s PS3, right?” It’s funny when you really talk like this for a while, you kind of notice that people don’t voice complaints publicly. They did acknowledge that it was annoying and [suggested] that, “Let’s collect some cash for this person so they can update it.” But, it was more in a funny way, you know?
You can read some of Mattias’ work here.