The Legend of Soft Power

9 June 2023, 1934 EDT

Like millions of other people around the world, I have spent much of the past few weeks playing The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (TotK), the nineteenth installment in Nintendo’s widely acclaimed series. With ten million units reportedly sold in its first three days—and other metrics on the prevalence of gaming and significant industry profits even after a rough 2022—I have started to wonder why the study of popular culture and International Relations (IR) has given video games relatively little attention.

Work on popular culture and IR has identified various ways in which films, television series, popular literature, and other cultural artifacts (often in the science fiction genre) might reflect and even affect real-world politics. It stands to reason that video games could have similar effects, but with few notable exceptions, these products have received much less attention than those in more established media. I will more systematically consider how video games might affect our political world in my next post. For now, I want to focus on TotK.

TotK might not seem like a game that offers much fodder for IR scholars. There is plenty of fun to be had, but at least in the first half of the game that I have completed, there is little explicitly political content. The story is a fairly straightforward tale of good versus evil, and our valiant hero, Link, is asked to find damsel-in-frequent-distress Princess Zelda.

At most, TotK scandalously asks you to corrupt a local mayoral election by gifting mushrooms from one of the candidates to potential voters. [Spoiler alert] Your election interference matters little—the two candidates decide to share power because, as it turns out, “The best way to keep Hateno Village vibrant is to work together to combine traditional culture with new ideas!”

Where TotK might matter most clearly for IR scholars is in the scope of the game’s reach. This will likely end up being one of the best-selling games of all time, and wherever it falls on that list, it will join many other Nintendo products. Given Nintendo’s world-wide popularity—as well as that of other Japanese game developers and publishers—we might consider whether popular cultural exports like TotK act as a source of “soft power” for the exporting country.

As Joseph Nye originally defined the concept in 1990, soft power is “co-optive” rather than “command” power displayed “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants”. Nye identified “culture” as a “soft power resource” because a state that “stands astride popular channels of communication has more opportunities to get its message across and to affect the preferences of others”. (See the Duck’s own Peter Henne on this topic for a more detailed discussion of this concept.)

For Nye, soft power was a central aspect of his argument—developed more fully in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power—that the United States would not soon be eclipsed by any other potential competitor. The volume and uptake of American cultural exports constituted evidence that the United States could remain the world’s leading power even if others made some relative gains in the military or economic domains.

Nye saw various kinds of cultural exports as generative of American soft power. “Young Japanese who have never been to the United States wear sports jackets with the names of American colleges. Nicaraguan television broadcast American shows even while the government fought American-backed guerrillas. Similarly, Soviet teenagers wear blue jeans and seek American recordings, and Chinese students used a symbol modeled on the Statue of Liberty during the 1989 uprisings.”

By contrast, Nye saw Japanese cultural exports as unlikely to overtake American popular culture on the world stage. “Although Japanese consumer products and cuisine have recently become more fashionable, they seem less associated with an implicit appeal to a broader set of values than American domination of popular communication.”

Whether one is playing TotK or, say, watching 2020’s highest-grossing film, Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, today’s ubiquity of Japanese cultural exports would suggest that such products have broader appeal and may be a more reliable source of soft power than Nye expected.

Writing a year before Nye, Francis Fukuyama made such an argument—”the triumph of the West” could be seen in part through the spread of its popular culture, and Japan’s popular cultural products had helped make it one of the world’s leading powers. Japan had “follow[ed] in the footsteps of the United States to create a truly universal consumer culture that has become both a symbol and an underpinning of the universal homogenous state”.

Fukuyama was not concerned that Japanese cultural products would rival those of the United States. Rather, the successful post-war infusion of “the essential elements of economic and political liberalism” into Japan produced a popular culture that complemented American cultural products and that affirmed “consumerist” liberal democracy as a path toward prosperity and influence.

For me and many others, the hours we log restoring order to TotK‘s Kingdom of Hyrule represent a fraction of the exposure we have had to Japanese cultural exports. Do all those experiences—perhaps the experiences of watching Studio Ghibli films, reading Haruki Murakami novels, or decluttering with Marie Kondo’s assistance—translate into soft power?

If enough Americans engage with images of Japan that generate fond feelings for (or “affective investment” in) the country, does that mean that the United States as a government will be more likely to “want what [Japan] wants” in at least some areas?

I do not yet have firm answers to these questions. At a time when Chinese officials are seeking to enhance their own country’s soft power, however, and when Japanese game developers are fretting about the rise of the Chinese gaming industry, it would be worth building on some of the scholarship I have cited here to answer such questions. We might thereby bring video games more fully into the study of popular culture and IR.

Author’s note: I have edited the original post to specify that “IR” is an acronym for International Relations and to add a spoiler alert for a side quest.