Sunday, 17 November 2013

Week 11 - Games for Boys, Games for Girls... Characters as Sets of Ludic Mechanics

Gender representation is a very touchy subject that taints a lot of the perspective that some governments and media outlets have of Japan. From the Rapelay international scandal that Alex presented last week to the shocking production of erotic dōjinshi based on mainstream series that Galbraith presents, there is a plethora of case studies that suggest that Japan media production has a very different conception of where the line is drawn between what is permissible erotica and what is disrespectful representation of women. While we can understand the public outrage that comes with over-sexualization of women's body, we should also understand how, for video games and gamers, representation is only a small part of what makes a character compelling.

Ore no imoto ga konna ni kawaii wake ga nai - Kirino Playing a Little Sister-Themed Erotic Game

Indeed, as Newman points out in Chapter 8 of his book Videogames, we must understand characters as a set of gameplay mechanics, a set of possibilities of interactions with the world. Should we fear the power of games to force identification of gamers and game avatars, therefore creating a generation of passive self-conscious female teenagers? Probably not, characters in video games are as much tools as they are a set of affect. This duality is well represented in the anime Orei no imoto ga konna ni kawaii wake ga nai where Kirino, a 14 year old popular girl working as a model for a publishing agency, hides a dark secret: she is an eroge maniac, especially for those featuring pornographic representation of incest between little sisters and big brothers. For her own brother, this is very concerning; as a non-gamer, he interprets this activity as the manifestation of a potential repressed sexual desire for him, an attitude that contrasts heavily with her normal cold and detached behavior towards him. However, Kirino does not identify with any of those characters as, for her, they are a set of tool that allows her to enjoy those stories. She is able to enjoy the game for what it is and not by identifying with it herself, just like male gamers can enjoy playing Chun-Li in Street Fighter 2 without feeling uneasy about playing as a female. While Chun-Li is very attractive in her own right, it is probably for her beginner-friendly fighting style that makes her very popular among cost-players. Video game characters cannot simply be reduced to their visual representation.

Street Fighter II's Chun-Li
Understanding this very important aspect of video games, we can then look at other more controversial genres like the bishōjo games with a fresher look. Coming from the same perspective, we can hardly judge characters of Tokimeki Memorial on the same ground as actual people, those are literary figure, they are meant to convey feelings and a set of mechanics that the players must work around to be successful. Therefore, seeing characters of bishōjo games as shockingly passive people that only live through the desires and choices of the protagonist is, to me, oversimplifying the issue at hand. Bishōjo characters are a set of game mechanics and their discourse are not meant to be taken literately, but in conjunction of the goal of the game and how it measures success. Acknowledging this phenomenon is very important in order to provide a nuanced perspective on gender representation in interactive media.

Tokimeki Memorial Series - Representation of People or Challenge Settings?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Week 10 - JRPGs: National Game Genres and Transnational Circulation

     The 1990s were a fantastic period for Japanese video game developers. Amongst the successful array of genres that came out of Japan to Western shores was the Japanese RPG, a form of computer role playing games heavily influenced by the early Ultima and Wizardry series on PC.  Fueled by gripping narrative and easy command schemes, RPG made in Japan represented for many how console gaming could be used to tell fascinating long-running stories that could almost compare to literature. Until the mid-2000s, Japanese role playing games were all that gamers would want to play on consoles and North American RPG were shunned upon for not being able to keep track with the qualities of titles coming from overseas. JRPG represented quality and respectability.

Imageepoch's JRPG brand reveal video - Japan addressing the concerns of Western consumers
     Along the way, however, things went astray. Western studios now dominates the market in term of computer RPGs and Japan has been struggling to justify localizing their games to an audience that now find them either bizarre or juvenile. In recent years, the fall of grace of JRPG has led several studios to question the tradition of JRPG and to see how it could be rejuvenated to its former glory. Studios like Imageepoch and Compile Heart has led this initiative by producing brand names like JRPG and Galapagos RPG, trying to design games with the tradition of JRPG in mind first and foremost.

Tales of Fantasia - Anguish, identity crisis and self-reflection in the world of JRPG

     Those initiatives might lead us to take a more critical view on the notion of JRPG itself. Considering that the concept of JRPG itself is never used in Japan except in recent cases involving Imageepoch and Galapagos RPG, it is worthwhile to look at JRPG as a ontological video game category that is more determined by patterns of translational circulation that a real collection of formal qualities. ¨JRPG¨ have not really stopped selling in Japan, so the new efforts to redefine JRPG and re-introduce them to the gaming culture has more to do with marketization of the Western audience than a formal reexamination. At the very least, we can see that the former is motivating the later.

Galapagos RPG - ¨RPGs made for customers of the Japanese taste¨
     Another consequence of the discourse separating RPG and JRPGs is that it creates a binary opposition based on country of origin of those games. Not only is this not a very productive starting point for the analysis of what those games represent, but it also leaves no space for alternatives. What if a development studio creates a RPG on tablet that makes obvious use of the anime aesthetic? Should we call it a JRPG and ignore the fact that it does not come from Japan at all? This sort of question really put emphasis on the major issue that comes up when the discourse of video game culture is tainted by a game genre vocabulary based on national origin.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Week 9 - Why Retrogaming?

      While we don't speak of "retroreading" or "retrolistening", the practice of replaying old video games seem like a counter-intuitive initiative to many. Indeed, why would people spend time replaying old and outdated games while the contemporary offer for new and technically advanced video games are released each week? The video game industry is a business that thrives on "hyping" future products, sometimes making your last 6 months-old software purchase valueless in the process. The game industry, unlike the publishing or music industry, has issues dealing with its past in a meaningful way. We can relate those problems to the multiple challenges of recreating the specificity of old platforms as well as going back to archaic gameplay features that sometimes created very unenjoyable experiences for gamers. But mainly, those problems are related to the business world of the video game industry: the game industry is forward-looking and dividing one's attention between old software and the latest releases is not profitable in financial terms.

Cultural capital? (from Famiconblog)
     However, this does not mean that gamers blindly follow the industry's lead on the consumption of the newest digital experiences. As Suominen described in his article, retrogaming can take many forms. From the enthusiast on a mission to enjoy of the supposedly "purest" form of gameplay to the fan on a quest to collect all memorabilia of a certain franchise, gaming culture has matured enough so that at least a small part of gamers look back on those ludic objects, willing to find new forms of appreciation or criticism. With the advent of internet communication, retrogaming, as a cultural practice, is bounding thousand of players from around the world around those nostalgic experiences. In a sense, internet forums are the new school yards where hints, secrets and high scores can be posted to help fellow gamers or just for bragging purposes. The television show Game Center CX (first introduced by Sonja this term) easily represent how important communities are to the practice of retrogaming. The show itself is oriented around the character of the Kacho leading a fictional company that beats retrogames in 24 hours. However, the Kacho (despite his best intentions) is helpless and can never finish games himself. He always relies on his team of subordinates (actual gamers) to help him finish the hardest levels. Similarly, other parts of the show involves the Kacho calling television viewers randomly to ask them for hints to beat particularly obscure games. Community-making and audience participation seems to me what makes the success of retrogaming.

Kacho plays Kage
      In his article, Suominen also cites Newman, saying that retrogaming can sometimes be seen by gamers as a return to the "purest" forms of gameplay where all modern additions that seemingly plagues today's video games (probably aiming for mainstream appeal) are absent. Indeed, retrogames are notorious for their difficulty, and beating an especially difficult game can be seen as a high achievement in certain communities. That being said, it is striking to me how those ideas around retrogaming combine into the creation of what we could see as an alternative set of "cultural capital" of gamers. The notion of intrinsic value of playing, let's say, Megaman 3 over the latest Call of Duty game seem to be definitely present in the connoisseur discourse of video games just like Bourdieu identified the practice of tennis as linked to a certain social standing in France during his time.

Japanese retrogame shop. Part shop, part museum.

     On a more pragmatic level, old games also seem to have value in what they represent (history, landmark) rather than for their entertainment value for many people. In this way, they can shape into a form of commodity with their own set of value that fluctuate from time to time. Many retrogaming youtubers pride themselves with the knowledge the of trade value of games on the market rather than playing them, not unlike fine art collectors (since video games are more of a consumer product than an individualized work of art, collecting them is much more affordable and open of anyone). In this sense, old games can become akin to a commodity embedded with cultural capital that are meant to be circulated.

Participants are challenged to guess the price of retro Famicon games in a Japanese game show. (From Famiconblog)

Game Center CX videos with English subtitles:

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Week 8 - Finding Cultural Specificities in an International Business

Resident Evil: Operation Racoon City. Japanese music and original idea, Canadian development and world wide QA process.

      Earlier this term, I identified that one of the issues that makes cross-cultural analysis of games is the identification of culture-related elements in specific titles or genres. One of the reasons as to why this is difficult in modern games is that video games' means of production are now mostly deterritorialized all over the world: a Japanese games like Resident Evil might be designed by Japanese staff, but other elements of its production (voice acting, cut-scenes, programming, quality insurance testing, ... ) can now be taken care of by subsidiaries or third party companies located all over the world. Then, how is this new creation method influencing our understanding of video games as cultural texts attached to conception of nationhood? How can we tell with confidence to what extend a game is "Japanese" or not? Both major articles we read this week (Aoyama and Izushi's exploration of the creative foundations of the Japanese game industry as well as Consalvo's reflections on the hybridization of the game industry) take this issue at heart.

      In the first text, Aoyama and Izushi points out to the many cross-sectoral exchanges in the numerous media industries in Japan to explain how deeply games produced in Japan are connected to local industries. From the deep tied between hardware and software manufacturers to the cross-sectoral labor exchanges between the animation and manga business to the software companies (that offers higher wages), the Japanese game industry was born as an integral part of its contemporary entertainment industry, not as an alternative to it as it was the case in North American and Europe. From this point of view, Aoyama and Izushi's research can lead to look at Japanese video games as a homogenous package that only feeds from Japanese culture and that necessarily represent Japanese culture as well. The weak point of this argument, however, can easily be seen in the light of the recent transnationalization of video game development itself. Collaborations with foreign studios as well as the acquisition of outside subsidiaries are trends that go against this interpretation. Looking at the level of production and design, then, might be more misleading than anticipated in our search for cultural specificity of games.
Cross-sectoral exchanges in the Japanese content industry becomes very clear with Akira Toriyama who contributed to the success of many games like Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger.

      Consalvo introduces a different perspective on the same issue. Focusing on Square-Enix as a major video game publisher, she argues that the contemporary video game industry spearheads a movement towards the hybridization of business as opposed to an Americanization. The fact that a Japanese developer has invaded the American entertainment market by exporting Japanese product represent, for Consalvo, a change in culture from patterns of consumption of entertainment. But does Square-Enix really represent Japaneseness? While the company certainly wants to promote this image for marketing purposes, one can wonder to what extend the company is sanitizing the image of the Japanese content industry in order to conform to the consumers' idea of Japaneseness. At the time of the release of FFXIII for example, numerous interviews of Square-Enix staff included heavy emphasis of the Japaneseness of the design of this particular JRPG (!). One can wonder if Japaneseness is just a keyword to exoticize a product rather than a truly aesthetic exercise. In a way, basis an interpretation of Japaneseness based on Square-Enix's definition really puts us in a situation where close readings of games is not necessary because Japaneseness is just an incommensurable element of design that lives more in the imagination of slogan-makers and consumers than in the product themselves. Where, then, should we look for while searching for national culture in video games?

Monday, 21 October 2013

Week 7 - Derivative Works and the Game Players

      Are Otaku animalized database-consumers? Azuma's thesis becomes clear in the second chapter of his book where he clearly explains the difference between the main mode of media consumption from the 1980s and today's. Leaning heavily on Beaudrillard's concept of simulacra and Lyotard's conception of post-modernism (involving the grand narratives and micro-narratives), he says that the loss of grand narratives characterizes the Otaku market of today, a market that he sees as a influential avant-garde movement that allows us to speculate in future consumption behavior within mainstream culture. With the fall of grand narratives, it becomes difficult to differentiate between an original work and a simulacra, a copy or derivative work. Instead of looking for the authorial word, consumers are driven to look for the qualities of the fiction themselves through a database style of consumption focused on characters instead of worlds.

      We can see what this statement implies in the following readings. Coundry also state that Japanese media creation tend to heavily rely on characters. They become creative platforms that allows the work to be disseminated from media to media while being attached to different worldviews and situations. This particular aspect of the character is what also drives derivative media creation within the doujinshi movement: as long as the correct set of affective values in the database set are involved, the gap between fan creation and original content is irrelevant. The affective power is still there and seems to be the determining factor of a works' worth.

Hatsune Miku's database wardrobe: Hatsune's outfits can be broken down to collages of specific affective elements

      The critics of this interpretation of Otaku consumption into pattern of database assemblage can come from different perspectives. For example, can we really see Otaku creations as direct pathways to a database knowledge economy? This statement seems to imply a form of constant rationalization during the act of image consumption while the effects seem to take place prior to analysis at the affective level. Should we rather think of this dynamics as a self-reflective process rather than an outgoing one? Otherwise, how can we explain the diversity of moe and its constant reinvention by fans?

      In contrast to Azuma's reading of Otaku consumers however, Newman's concerns lies not at the sociological effects of game playing in the sense of the re-wiring of creativity patters, but rather on who the gamers are and what can the influence of gaming be on a personal level. Echoing much of the academic concerns over videogames in the 1980s and 1990s, his critique of the literature on gamers focused on violence and gender. An interesting point he brings up is that the audience of the game industry has evolved greatly since the mid-1900s. With the release of the PSX, games gained an audience that allowed them to surpass the movie industry in terms of financial power and mainstream credibility. However, that also brought forward a change in gaming: videogames became less about challenges and more about instant gratification and cinematic experiences. Less about world creations and more about mimicking Hollywood's conventions. While the issue of gender and violence has always partly been associated with videogames, one can ask the question as to what extend this democratization had an impact in the crystallization of the representation of women in games for example. 

Killer is Dead's gigolo mode: the Male Gaze gamified?

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Week 6 - ‘This place is full of Miyazakis’: Otaku as a Fringe Subculture and Media Construct

      In this week's readings, we had the opportunity to take a step back from the overview of Japanese consoles and games to focus on broader social issues that partly frame the consumption and discourses of video games. While we have discussed issues such as gender and gaming previously in the class, we now try to tackle the question of the Otaku consumer type. Who are they and how do they consume media differently than other people?

      While many writers tried to pin down what defines Otakus, we can identify several grand discourses that try to analyze them. First is what Thomas Lamarre (2009) defines as the Gainax discourse of fan empowerment, best represented by Okada’s writings. As Galbraith indicated, Okada’s Otakuology puts emphasis on seeing fans of visual medias as a form of new humans (shinjinrui) with enhanced capabilities for understanding preferentiality and visual details. While this reading of Otaku is very empowering, it does little to make sense of today’s Otaku culture and the importance of Moe for example. It also posits the Otaku on the fringe of society, excluding it from mainstream influence, but granting them agency to reinvent new way to deal with the world (social networks or masculinities). However, it seems to me that the promises of Otaku fall short to their potential as political or social mobilization of media consumers is very unlikely (Galbraith’s account of the Otaku demonstration in Akihabara is a testimony to that). Their potentiality, however, seems to be channeled in a different way.

      Clashing with this perspective of Otaku is the media and government’s harnessing of the international prestige and economic power of Otaku-related media. Japanese society has come a long way since it was first confronted with the Otaku movement; the mainstream media, anxious to make sense of horrible crimes committed in the 1990s such as the Miyazaki killings and the seemingly degraded state of the youth, created a image of Otaku that was more akin to sexual perverts than media enthusiasts. We now know that such media coverage were somehow manipulated (the journalist covering the Mizayaki incident later confessed that the shooting of Miyazaki’s room for television showing was manipulated to make it look like a very small part of his lolicon video collection made the majority of his media possessions) culminating in a famous media coverage of the Comic Market where journalists described the event as a place ‘full of Miyazakis’(Miyamoto, 2013). Nowadays, under the cool-Japan umbrella, the government has acknowledges the existence of Otaku as a form of economic resource and source of international appeal. However, this new appreciated is only the signal for yet another reconstruction of the representation of Japanese media fans. Densha Otoko, National Tourism AgencyOtaku Japan maps, the linking of Otaku and traditional Japan through Wabi-Sabi and late night shows involving Otaku as showcases of slightly unbalanced but sympathetic youth is still a misrepresentation of what Otaku are, but at least it is not as offensive as it previously was.

      Maybe an understanding of Otaku culture should involve a rethinking of our preconceptions of media fans as solitary individuals as well a close reading of their activity. What I have in mind is close to Galbraith’s recent research on Bishōjo games and their player where he demonstrates that Otaku’s patterns of communication is mediated by interactive texts put in networking situations (Galbraith, 2011). As he states, Love Plus finds its ultimate appeal by introducing each other’s girlfriend and discussing individual experiences with the simulation. 

Additional Sources 

Galbraith, Patrick. "Bishōjo Games: ‘Techno-Intimacy’ and the Virtually Human in Japan." Game Study: the international journal of computer game research volume 11.issue 2 (2011). []. Online.

Lamarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press. 2009.

Miyamoto, Naoki. Eroge bunkakenkyû gairon: Introduction to Cultural Studies Adult Games. Tokyo: Sôgôkagaku Shuppan, 2013. Print.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Week 5 - Dynamics of Mobile Gaming

            The practice of mobile gaming seem to be a particularly difficult subject to frame and situate because it itself is meant to be very flexible. However, it is possible to read this particular form of gaming through the framework presented by Ito in Mobilizing the Imagination in Everyday Play to understand part of it through the concept of hypersocialization―a form of socialization mediated by a common media-based knowledge economy.

            Cohen's text was very informative as it brought forward case studies of mobile game design experiments that gives us a clearer idea of what elements to consider while designing a mobile game for the Japanese market. He identifies the terms Personal (space of intimacy), Portable (mobility of the device) and Pedestrian (nagara gaming) as the main concepts that frames the experience of mobile phone entertainment in Japan, and there is no reason why we shouldn't look at portable console use in the same light. Indeed, from the dual-screen DS to the portable media device that was the PSP, mobile consoles in Japan have always been a save haven for gaming experiences that focus on the intimacy of the experience, the imaginary creation of a restricted relationship with the screen. Those comprise of visual novels, brain training games and role-playing games. Interestingly, those seem to also be the experiences that define the PC as a gaming space. Visual novels are often released on PC first, and then ported on mobile consoles. The PC in Japan also hosts a number of long-running franchises of real-time strategy games that are mostly unknown in the West. However, the mobile consoles have also given birth to completely different game genre, one of those―the kyotou games or collaborative combat games, sometimes called hunting games―requires thinking about the console as a vehicle for socialization in the same vein Ito talks about card games as hypersocialization tools.
Summer 2013. Kyoutou Sensei introduces television viewers to the joys of collaborative battle games.
           Indeed, on the other end of the spectrum we have games like Monster Hunter, Soul Sacrifice, Valhalla Nights and others that inspire strong community of players who meet in cafés with groups or random strangers. Even games like Puzzles and Dragons (by far the most popular mobile game) integrate a lot of social elements: players must be connected with other users in order to lean their strength to defeat difficult bosses. Such games are very customizable themselves and mobile game communities like the one associated with Valkyria Chronicle D is very intricate where players have developed hierarchical relationship with rights and duties in relation to what the game requires users to do in order to achieve something. There is plenty of space for remix and mediated but meaningful social encounters through mobile gaming from its most intricate form (Monster Hunter) to its most nagara (Puzzles and Dragons). However, I must differ from Ito's perspective when she identifies hypersocialization with contestation, there just doesn't seem to be actual rebellion against a given text in the media mix, only reinterpretation and adaptation.

        Also, brand is king.


        I found an excerpt of the Video Game Music record that Aiden introduced last week. I am posting it here for everyone to see since this is a very important event in the culture of video game music in Japan. The excerpt is a remix of the sounds of Xevious in musical form. Enjoy!