The End of a Journey: Thesis Officially Deposited

As I am traveling back to Japan to attend the 2019 Replaying Japan and DiGRA conferences in early August, I want to take a moment to official announce that my journey as a graduate student came to an end last week when my thesis deposit was officially accepted by the University of Alberta. This marks the culmination of a seven year-long adventure that started by discovering the fascinating world of Japanese arcades when I was living in Japan in 2012. Little did I know when I started my initial research on this topic that this world would occupy the main part of my intellectual life for almost a decade. I feel grateful for my institution, the University of Alberta, my thesis supervisor, Prof. Geoffrey Rockwell, and for the support provided by the many agencies (MEXT, SSHRC, and GRAND) that funded the project along the way. But as I enjoy this weight being lifted off my shoulders, still feel that I am leaving a project that still has many more facets lefts to explore. As I am reflecting on these past years I wonder, is this really the end? Are there really ends to this type of endeavor?

Many meaningful observations and pages of notes did not make it into the final version of my dissertation. While a part of me longs to engage them in complementary projects, I also feel the desire to explore entirely different topics as a junior academic. The field of game studies changes drastically in the space of ten years. The GamerGate controversy shook the foundation of game culture, virtual reality is bringing a new aesthetic paradigm to the market, and, most importantly for me, Japanese game studies is more visible than it has ever been. On a personal note, I am also much more involved in the exploration of the potential of text mining techniques in the study of games and gaming communities. I would seem that, for the time being, work on the spatiality and material conditions of game centers will have to wait until an opportunity to reexamine my ideas arises.

Perhaps a research project can never be over, but should be voluntarily halted for others to evaluate its contributions and suggest new paths of investigations. It is important to remind oneself that research is not conducted in a vacuum. Punctual releases of the status of one’s thoughts in the form of papers and, in this case, a dissertation, be them imperfect or incomplete to the eyes of its author, is an important step towards the production of knowledge. Perhaps this realization is the only way to cope with my current feeling of leaving a whole range of questions unexamined.

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Sakura Taisen in the time of Reiwa

Two historic announcements were made in Japan during the past week. Both are completely unrelated, but I nevertheless decided to force them into a comparative framework. Let’s see how well that works.

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Image CNN

Japan is right on schedule with the plan of turning the page on the 30 years of the Heisei era by announcing the new gengo, or era name, much to the delight of twitter users and idea-starved food conglomerates. Commemorative potato chips anyone? The new era name, starting May 1, 2019, is set to be Reiwa, or “auspicious peace” if we refer to Abe’s press conference. Other, probably more concrete meanings based on the characters’ common understanding, would point at a translation closer to “commanding peace” or “commanding harmony”. In both cases, the new era name seems to translate the current administration’s tendency towards a stronger right-wing national affirmation in the face of contemporary challenges and conflicting international relationships in the East Asia region. Considering that Heisei could be, in retrospect, defined by the two major natural disasters that bookend the era, major epoch-defining terrorist attacks, both foreign and domestic, as well as the more tangible aging crisis and the spectre of unruly North Korea, the choice is probably meant to inspire optimism in Japanese society. A new emperor will not solve any of these problems, but might breathe some much-needed vitality to Japanese public life.

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Image Zerochan

The second announcement does not quite have as much gravity as the first. Indeed, SEGA is set on breathing new life to Sakura Taisen, a franchise that, for all instances and purposes, had been lying dormant since 2005.  Shin Sakura Taisen, the announced project’s name, is still very short of specifics since the only available information released about the game is but a single two minute-long promotional video, but already certain elements are worth a closer look for fans of the series. No gameplay elements have been revealed, but it is already clear that recent developments in the Japanese VR design principles are bleeding into more mainstream products. Looking at the first images of the game, it seems obvious that SEGA is taking account of Summer Lessons’ camera work and the sense of scale that characterize VR products so as to renew bishōjo games’ old formula. More than anything, it is the first-person perspective and the focus on eye contact that reminds me the most of Summer Lessons.

However, one should not forget that, primarily, this game as always banked on feelings generated by its unabashed nostalgic national affirmation through the reinterpretation of Japan’s pre-war prosperity that eschews issues of colonialism, war of expansion and fascism. Themes of the series have focused on the domestic struggle between tradition/modernity and mysticism/science in an era of transition. In Sakura Taisen, Japan is at the centre of the Asian world, and “commands” a form of harmony between colonial territories under the auspices of the Empire that the fighting maidens of the game protect against domestic demons. The visual identify of Sakura Taisen is rife with flags, military uniforms, and other symbols that echoes the national and military mobilization of social life that emerged in the Taisho era.

Shin Sakura Taisen is announced at a time when Abe’s government is taking steps to direct the country’s symbolic direction, as opposed to a constitutional one, towards a stronger affirmation of nationalism that could be characterized as more authoritarian. It is because of the insistence of fans’ desire to re-actualize the series’ cleaned-up depiction of the Taisho period, perhaps in need of some empowering representation of Japan, that SEGA has finally decided to approve the project after a hiatus of fifteen years. Taking into consideration that Sakura Taisen originally came out in 1996 in the middle of the ¨lost decade¨ where optimism was at a very low point after the financial crash, its runaway success as a social phenomenon could be read in conjunction with the catharsis that its worldview provided to gamers, a demographic that has often expressed sympathy for nationalist right-wing politics. It offered an imagined window on the Taisho era, a time when Japan could confidently compete with Western nations for global influence, without considering its darker moments.  The series lost its purpose when its characters started to travel to France and the United States in the fourth and fifth opuses, but a return to Japan, set chronologically in 1940 just before the start of the Pacific War when the Empire of Japan was arguably at its most authoritative, signals that SEGA finally understands the appeal of this series of games and its broader media mix: its function as a device for positive national representation relying on a rewriting of history. It presents a fantasy of what a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere could have been.

It is still unclear if this new game represents the desire to recapture this untamed national affirmation and positivity for Japan’s future made possible by an authoritarian leadership, but it raises enough few time-sensitive questions that justifies keeping an eye open on it in the coming year. Indeed, newsworthy events sometimes echo one another in revealing ways. Will Shin Sakura Taisen be the first significant gaming product of the Reiwa era? In any case, it is time to dust off my Sega Saturn and Dreamcast to do justice to the series’ previous entries that I have yet to play and, at the same time, see how much of the ideas presented here hold up.

Dissertation Update: The Last Few Miles

I realized recently that I haven’t been mentioning my thesis on this blog for a quite a while. While this platform’s original purpose in 2015 was to keep contact with the outside world during the writing process, little was said about the thesis that I have been putting together over the last four years except for a few posts where I shared some of the discoveries I made at Ritsumeikan during my field trip in 2016. I am happy to report that it has been submitted to the Modern Languages and Cultural Studies department of the University of Alberta for external review, and that a defence date will be decided upon in the coming weeks.

The whole project is longer than I had anticipated, while not covering the entirety of the points that I wanted to raise, or the phenomenon that I wanted to account for. Some difficult choices had to be made to remove what I thought were important aspects of game centers, but ones that did not fit in with the general direction of the thesis. More research will be needed before these ideas can be shared, but I am looking forward for the opportunity to expand the scope of the original thesis in the future to match my original vision.

I will report on the defence date as a later time, but for now I just wanted to share a short excerpt of the introduction that I think describes the whole project with a decent degree of eloquence.

The objective of this dissertation is to provide an understanding of public video game playing from a holistic perspective, one that accounts for the materiality of the machine, the affordances of the software, and the space as the context of the play activity. At its core, this project considers video games primarily as the purveyor of a play activity and as a practice, and thus it aims to interrogate how these practices play out in the context of Japanese video game arcades while considering in equal part the influence of its texts, material conditions, and spatial context.

From Playing in Public: Situated Play at the Intersection of Software, Cabinet and Space in Japanese Game Centres, page 6.

北アメリカのアーケード(1)エドモントン編|ビールケード(Beercade)

Image: Carpe Diem

西洋のビデオゲーム文化が進化するにつれ、北メリカアーケード文化もどんどん変化して、新しい店のタイプが現れます。今日はカナダのエドモントン市において、「ビールケード」という去年設立されたビデオゲームアーケードを、西洋ビデオゲーム文化に興味のある日本人の読者に紹介したいと思います。ビールケードの雰囲気は、日本ゲームセンターとの雰囲気と全然違うことが過言ではないです。

Image: Yelp

ビールケードは元のナイトクラブので、アーケードとしてけっこう広いです。たくさんの古い筐体が並んでいて、ビールを飲みながら客さんはゲームやピンボールマシンを遊んでいます。筐体自体は、ちょっと見立つ特徴を持っています。まさに、筐体のよこに付けられたカップハンドラーがあります。その特徴で、ナイトクラブの雰囲気がまだ残っている気がします。

他の面白いところは、確かに、支払い方法です。通過を利用する代わりに、ゲーム筐体はメダルを利用して、遊べます。「シグマ方式」のように、お金を使わずにゲームを遊ぶことがビールケードのシステムです。理由はあまり説明できないが、北アメリカアーケード全部はそうらしいです。

最後に、客さんのトラジェクトリの点です。ビールケードに入るときに客さんの目標はゲームをプレイすることじゃなくて、ビールを飲むことです。そのため、ゲームをプレイする雰囲気や、ゲームを中心にする文化を作る空間でわありません。それは、たぶん、日本ゲームセンターに比べると、重要な違いと思います。

Replaying Japan 2019 – Japanese Games: Past, Present and Future

There are only five days left to submit your abstract to the Replaying Japan Conference 2019. This year, the conference travels back to Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, which will be a great opportunity for me to reconnect with two of my former dissertation case studies from winter 2016. I cannot wait to see how Tsujishoten and A-cho have turned out after the last three years. Will I find the same cabinet layout and selection of games? I hope to report on the matter at some point this summer.

Here is the recently unveiled conference theme.

Since 2012, the Replaying Japan conference series hosted researchers from various fields conducting research on “Japanese Game”. However, for the upcoming edition of the conference, we would like to address a foundamental question.

What are “Japanese games”?

For example, when we talk about our first play experience of “Super
Mario Bros.” or “Pokémon” with researchers all over the world, what we mention is a mysterious “shared experience” rather than the “Japaneseness” of these games.

In other words, these games have surpassed domestic circumstances and
cultural differences to deliver common surprises and
excitement to players all over the world. This universal nature
can be said to be the specificity of games as media.

In this conference held in Kyoto this summer, let us again re-think the past and present of “Japanese Game” and examine “Japanese games” and the future of research on the subject.

Arcadecraft – “Hangers”, espace et obsolescence

J’ai pris le temps de me lancer dans un des jeux que j’ai acheté il y a trop longtemps déjà sur Steam: Arcadecraft. Le jeu propose la simulation de l’exploitation d’une salle d’arcade au cours des années 1980s aux États-Unis, objectif plus ou moins réussi, car l’expérience demeure assez minimaliste. On y représente une certaine conception nostalgique de ce qu’étaient les salles d’arcades durant leur âge d’or. On comprend très vite que l’arcade est ici comprise comme un espace qui s’articule uniquement autour de la consommation économiquement viable de l’expérience ludique et non comme espace de vie. Chaque joueur/consommateur apparaît soudainement aux machines pour disparaître aussitôt sa séance de jeu terminé sans circuler dans l’établissement virtuel. Pour paraphraser Samuel Tobin, la figure du “hanger”, le non-joueur préférant se déplacer d’une machine à l’autre en observant d’autres joueurs, est complètement évacuée de cette simulation alors qu’elle est essentiellement à la compréhension des dynamiques qui structuraient ces espaces durant les années 1980s. Le jeu est donc en phase avec le discours dominant de l’histoire de l’arcade qui met l’accent principalement sur l’activité économique qui s’y déroulait.

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La façon dont l’espace est traité dans le jeu est aussi symptomatique de cette interprétation. Placer les machines en groupe est important afin de maximiser leurs revenus, mais la circulation des joueurs dans l’espace n’est pas prise en compte, ce qui peut aboutir à des situations assez absurdes, mais économiquement viables. Résultat, l’espace se réduit à une fonction utilitaire: une surface sur laquelle les machines sont posées.

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Ces mêmes machines font aussi la démonstration d’un problème d’obsolescence inévitable des jeux dans un contexte de salle d’arcade. Au fil du temps, chaque machine perdra de sa valeur jusqu’à ne plus rien rapporter de considérable si le joueur doit la vendre. Il s’agit donc de cerner le moment parfait où la machine est au zénith de sa popularité avant de la vendre pour en acheter une autre plus récente… Le roulement des machines est donc bien implémenté dans les mécaniques de jeux, mais force est d’admettre que cette dynamique semble faire abstraction du fait que, même à l’époque, il était aussi possible d’interchanger les circuits imprimés des machines afin de diminuer les frais de renouvellement de l’offre ludique. Considérant que l’existence cette fonction demeure un des facteurs importants expliquant le succès de Space Invaders au Japon en 1978, il est curieux qu’elle soit omise entièrement dans Arcadecraft.

Youtube Channel: “Games Inspired by Space Invaders”

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I have been conducting research on old Japanese arcade games for the last few years now, and I came to realize some time ago that there is not many accessible resources for footage of old arcade games from the 1970s and early 1980s. The architecture of these games, combined to the difficulties associated to keep the hardware up and running, typically make them difficult observe in person. Besides tiny pictures published in a few obscure Japanese mooks that are now out of print, it remains difficult to obtain footage of old games of the period that mostly fall in the shadow of epoch-making games like Western Gun or Space Invaders. While one can easily find original footage of a game of Space Invaders, footage of a game like Astro Fighter remains much more elusive. Both for satisfy my personal curiosity and to provide some sort of easy-to-access resource for reference purposes when teaching about arcade games from that period,  I started a little Youtube channel called “Games inspired by Space Invaders” back in 2017. I just though now about formally introducing it…

The plan for that channel is to make available footage of a corpus of games immediately released after Space Invaders in 1978 and that take design inspiration from Tomohiro Nishikado’s famous title. Historically speaking, the wild success of the game took the industry by storm at the end of the 1970s and inspired many companies to adapt some of the mechanics that made the game so exciting, or to simply copy the game entirely. In all of the games featured on the channel, one can identify specific design tropes such as the advancing invaders, the iconic shooting mechanics, and other fictional elements. Maybe the juxtaposing the games through platform that Youtube provides will help formulate a narrative of the impact that Space Invaders exerted over the arcade industry during its early years. Keeping this possibility in mind, the channel will stay updated as often as possible to reflect my latest discoveries of titles of interest.