Required Gaming: Persona 5 and #MarchForOurLives

It’s March 30th, 2017. I’m sitting in class, discussing Frankenstein for the third time in three semesters when I get this text: “Yo, [name of store redacted] broke street date on P5 today. I’m coming to get you now.” As a student with aspirations for a PhD, who cares deeply about their GPA for considerations to top schools, I responded in the only way possible.

“Meet you at the entrance.”

The first teaser image for Persona 5 Credit: BagoGames

Don’t judge me. The Persona series was the one that made me fall in love with the Japanese Role Playing Game genre, one that escaped me in my childhood much to my chagrin later in life. To say I was excited for this game would be the understatement of the century. The last entry into the series released in 2012. Persona 5 was slated for a February 14th release date, until it was delayed until April 7th. Then there were the media blitzes, game play teases, trailers. Music reveals. I was excited about the damn menu animations. The anticipation was already too much to handle and then I got presented with the opportunity to play early? Dr. Frankenstein would just have to wait.

Plus I really needed to escape into a different world. Get away from the constant blare of the news. Like everyone, I was reeling from the election and its aftermath. It was overwhelming to hear about budget cuts to the EPA, ongoing investigations into our new presidents alleged ties to the Russian government, the imminent construction of the keystone pipeline, that, for whatever reason, people allowed Betsy DeVos to decide the fate of public education. Needless to say, I was burnt out, exhausted, and made apathetic by the world.

And then I played Persona 5 and was reminded just how powerful a good game can be. By the end, I knew I’d never regret skipping that class.

Some of The Phantom Thieves, From left to right: Ryuji, Morgana, Ann, and The protagonist. Credit: BagoGames

To any of you who’ve already played the game, I imagine you must have had the same feelings. To the uninitiated, Persona 5 is set in modern day Tokyo, where you take control of a high school student, navigating through the story of an apathetic society on the brink of electing a corrupt politician. Only you and your group of friends can course-correct, using – stay with me here – their supernatural powers which enable them to force individuals to face, reconcile with, and confess their inner prejudices and crimes. The main party calls themselves “The Phantom Thieves,” modeled after a group of legendary thieves in history, as they journey into the subconscious minds of corrupt individuals to steal their “hearts” and sway them to repent for their crimes. There’s a lot to unpack there, but it’s worth doing. The narrative is one of empowerment. And it felt good. Good to play a character who reminded me so much of myself in that moment, jaded, and worn out by a government “elite” who enforce the will of their citizenry without actually remembering what it was like to be one of them (if they ever knew). And it felt good to see the world through his eyes, building camaraderie with his friends, and truly making a difference in the world, supernatural powers aside. The game tells you these kids are in high school, but the issues and subjects being dealt with are easily applicable to college students.

The end of the game especially hit close to home. Accomplishing their goal felt like I’d accomplished something I’d thought impossible. They made a real difference. I felt good for them, but also for me, like I’d been taken out of the rut I was in. Maybe, eventually, things wouldn’t be so bad. The game made me feel like my voice mattered and had real weight.

The protagonist in his Phantom Thief costume. Credit: BagoGames

The game floated around in my head for the next year, like any great piece of media. It represented all the aspects of video games I hold so dear. It was, first and foremost, all kinds of fun. The game oozes style, from the film noir style costumes the main party receives in their supernaturally empowered forms, to the jazz-funk fusion music that perpetuates the ups and downs you experience traversing the world. But it was more than mere entertainment. It spoke to my world in profound, intelligent ways. It commented on the nature of corrupt politicians, the toxic and sometimes abusive nature of student athletics, the depths of guilt and depression after the loss of a loved one, and that’s just scratching the surface. It showed that the voices of the young always have an important role in society, even when the voices of their elders try their best to keep them quiet. Causing change through rebellion was central to the narrative theme. It was a perfect storm of time and place, the kind of story and adventure I needed to overcome the dread that was the world around me. It truly made things better. For a time.

On February 14th, 2018, seventeen students and staff tragically lost their lives at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen others were injured in the shooting as well.

The response of our government brought me back to 2017. I was weary and exhausted of the world once more. Half a year later, we’ve still done nothing. I could go on and on about the debates over the gun control issue and the absurdity of the “now is not the time for politics” argument we hear whenever a tragic shooting like this happens, but that’s not why we’re here. As silly as it sounds, if I’ve learned anything from Persona 5, and I certainly have, it’s to never stop fighting and never lose your voice.

The Parkland students certainly learned that lesson, after all. Watching the rise of the brave student voices like Emma González, David Hogg, and the rest of the Parkland survivors was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Their drive, relentlessness, and fire sparked the #MarchForOurLives movement across the country. Watching that movement and attending a march of my own made me feel empowered. I still look up to these kids for the badasses they are.

Throughout all of this though, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about Persona and how prescient it was. For a game made across the globe, released a year prior to this, that was in development since 2011, it was incredibly poignant. It spoke to the temporality of video games, that like any good piece of literature, it can be read and be relevant regardless of when it was made, who it was made for, or by whom.

Around that time, I went back and replayed the game again. This time, it wasn’t about the music, or the combat, or any of that. It was about accessing a piece of culture that made me feel like my voice mattered. And in a time when so much of the actions of young people are criticized, taking something so powerful from a medium so young and so often derided as nothing more than crass entertainment and an activity for slackers or layabouts felt liberating. Through Persona 5 and the Parkland students, I found my voice again. And I know my voice matters.