The Sound of the Switch – Raising the Curtain on Nintendo’s New Console

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Nintendo unveiled their upcoming home/handheld console this week, a machine that put versatility at the forefront. While presented primarily as a home console, it is clear that the Switch (previously known as NX) is also meant for a variety of other uses through its detachable controllers that can accommodate single or multiplayer experiences. In addition, by featuring the logo multiple times over the duration of the unveiling video, Nintendo is making sure that the name “Switch” is fully penetrating market consciousness a long time before its release (unlike what they did with the Wii U). In fact, the rhythm of the video is very much dictated by appearances of the logo, and the later is itself punctuated by a sonic hook embodied in the sound of the hyōshigi. Tchak!

My first thought watching this video was to speculate as to the link between the console itself and this traditional Japanese musical instrument. While the hyōshigi is used for music and religious ceremonies, it is primarily used in traditional theater performance to signal the beginning of a play. Its use thus evokes traditional arts and crafts, from both the classical and popular sides of Japanese culture. Drawing from such elements is not completely surprising in the case of Nintendo. The company is, after all, firmly rooted in Kyoto, the traditional arts capital of the country.

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Hyōshigi

The hyōshigi is played by smashing two blocks of wood together to generate a single sharp note. The rhythm at which one hits the blocks together is what turns these blocks into a usually short musical performance. But beyond music, it is striking how similar the design of the console’s controllers is to that of this musical instrument: two blocks of plastic equipment with various buttons (Joy-Con) that can be attached to either a main controller unit (Joy-Con Grip) or a tablet, thus turning the devices into either a potent home console controller or a handheld machine.

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I might be reading too much into this, but there seems to be a connection between the hyōshigi’s as a instrument that signals the beginning of a performance and the  Nintendo Switch’s signature controller. As a an object designer, Nintendo is most likely consciously creating this marketing narrative around the metaphor of the Switch’s controller (or the action of attaching them to another device) as the start of the gamic performance. Doesn’t the video end with the glorification of the idea e-sport, which is itself a large-scale performance in front of an audience? Perhaps a message that consumers outside Japan will not catch on, but a metaphor that could be efficient locally.

 

 

Games of our Lives: Pac-Man

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I am attending Replaying Japan 2016 held in Lepzig at the moment. This year, the conference puts emphasis on Pac-Man, Toru Iwatani’s legendary arcade video game from 1981. While I won’t be speaking directly about the game this year (my paper is about JRPG instead), I still wanted to express a few of my memories and thoughts about this important game. There is no better platform that this blog to communicate these ideas to the attendants of the conference, but also beyond to anyone interested.

When I was around 10 years old, my parents sent me to summer camp in a remote corner of rural Quebec, probably as a way to get some vacations of their own, but also to broaden my horizons beyond the monotonous everyday life of June-July-August vacation time period as a kid. There, we would do all kinds of activities, playing in the woods, at the lake or playing variations of Dungeons and Dragons. There was also a crafting session taking place in a shed in the middle of the woods, and I remember trying my hand at a papier-mâché workshop where kids had to come up with a project involving a round wireframe structure around which we had to creatively put the said piece of paper-mâché around, hopefully turning out into a ball/head structure. I ended up making a spherical structure, on which I put two eyes and a big mouth. When I declared the project done, the workshop supervisor walked towards me and said: “Oh, you made a Pac-Man!”. A what? I cannot remember the color of the whole thing, but let us say for the purpose of this story that it was a big yellow.

Of course being born in 1986, the post Pac-Man era, I had no idea what character that person was referring, and, by 1996 or so, Pac-Man was no longer a household figure. The Pac-Man fever had come and go a long time ago. I was living in Gaspésie, and had virtually no access to video games, and, besides, the killer app of the NES was the more fledged out Mario Bros. I remember, however, that eventually we inherited from a Colecovision console form my grandmother, and one of the cartridge would turn out to be the famous porting of Pac-Man, the Colecovision’s own killer app over the Atari 2600, of which the Pac-Man port was a disastrous mess. I had no idea of what Pac-Man was at the time, but it soon slowly creeped into my life.

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So the fever had come and go, but in its wake, it left of an entire generation with a rough understanding of what video games were, but most importantly, a familiar face. Pac-Man’s success was to reach a new layer of people to engage with video games for the first time. While Nishikado captured the space-themed zeitgeist of the late 1970s through Space Invaders, Iwatani created its own by providing gamers with a very different ludic metaphor, one that was easy to understand for anyone, anywhere.

Eat.

Eat.

Eat.

The game was popular in Japan, but it was in the United States that the game turned into a form of culture of its own brought forward by an endless amount of paraphernalia produced for fans wanting to bring home the spirit of the game. This was certainly instrumental into turning Pac-Man into the recognizable figure that it is still today. It amazes me that my first contact with Pac-Man was not with the game itself, but through its character that I “copy” in an art project in a cabin in the Gaspésie woods.

The question now become to what extend is Pac-Man still influencing game culture these days? What does Pac-Man mean to the younger generation now that Pac-Man is featured in many other games which often have nothing to do with the original game gameplay-wise. I am thinking of Super Smash Bros for example. We might not come up with all answers at this year’s conference, but I hope the event will trigger the community to ponder on these issues in years to come.

L’objet Pokémon à l’âge de la réalité augmentée

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J’ai eu l’opportunité de traduire et de publier le premier texte de Nakazawa Shin’ichi sur le jeu vidéo au courant de l’an passé; un des premiers textes savants portant sur le sujet. Durant ce long processus de traduction, j’ai pu me familiariser avec la pensée de Nakazawa, plus précisément en ce qui concerne son interprétation du “boom” du jeu vidéo au Japon. À l’origine spécialiste du Bouddhisme tibétain, Nakazawa consacrât une partie de sa carrière à étudier d’abord les jeux d’arcade dans lesquels il voyait une nouvelle forme de textes mythopoétiques, et par la suite le jeu vidéo en général tout en restant à l’affut des derniers développements en la matière à une époque où tout ce qui s’apparentait aux jeux électroniques était largement diabolisé. Son angle d’approche est singulier; dans Game Freaks Play with Bugs, Nakazawa compare Xevious à un texte religieux.

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Avec la récente sortie de Pokémon Go, il est de mise de jeter un coup d’oeil aux écrits de Nakazawa concernant la série Pokémon. J’ai récemment pris le temps de me familiariser avec La naturalité dans la poche (Poketto no naka no yasei) lors de ces dernières semaines, un ouvrage traitant principalement des premiers jeux de la série à travers le prisme de la psychanalyse. Pour l’auteur, Pokémon, une adaptation électronique de l’activité enfantine populaire au Japon de la chasse aux insectes, est une fenêtre vers le monde de la pensée sauvage à travers de ce qu’il appelle les “sciences de l’enfance”. Ces “sciences”, d’après Nakazawa, permettent aux enfants d’approcher le monde qui les entourent à leur manière au-delà des contraintes sociales, et, surtout, du système du language et de l’inévitable chute du sens. De quelle façon? Pour Nakazawa, le Pokémon représente l’objet a dans psychanalyse Lacanienne, cet objet insaisissable et en constante mutation qui représente le désir symbolique (le manque), mais dont l’acquisition réelle ne peut jamais vraiment s’accomplir. Ne pas réaliser que cette quête de l’objet a est impossible serait à la base de plusieurs trouble psychanalytique et du développement du “moi”.

Pour Nakazawa, les Pokémon (dans leurs formes diverses) représentent l’objet a, mais leurs conceptions leur permettent de transcender les problèmes normalement associés à la quête de l’objet a. Les Pokémon ne sont jamais directement possédés, ils sont stockés dans un espace virtuel (la pokéball) où ils sont à la fois présents, mais distants. Lors de la capture, ils sont transformés en information pure dans le pokédex. Nakazawa explique que cette situation permet aux enfants d’apprivoiser la distance entre l’objet a et eux-mêmes, et que cette situation est en fait le but du jeu (attrapez-les tous, complétez l’encyclopédie). Ce dernier élément est associé au principe de pensée sauvage de Lévis-Strauss, principe voulant que les sociétés primitives (ou les enfants dans ce cas-ci) approchent la compréhension de leur environment par l’observation directe, et non en applicant des théories aux manifestations de la nature. La science des Pokémon comme une économie du savoir est ici associée à la pensée sauvage en raison des stratégies dont les enfants doivent se doter afin de bien naviguer le jeu (habitats des différents types de Pokémon, affinités et faiblesses, etc.) mais aussi lors d’échanges avec d’autres enfants (négociations et communication).

L’autre noyau important du jeu, et celui qui permet de transcender le régime du language imposé par la société, c’est l’échange de Pokémon. Chaque Pokémon est unique. Élever et nommer un Pokémon permet à l’enfant de laisser une trace de lui-même sur chaque monstre, et, lors d’échanges, ces informations se déplacent de console à console. Puisque ces créatures n’ont pas de valeurs pré-établies, ces échanges se fondent davantage sur le contact direct avec autrui. L’échange de Pokémon, selon Nakazawa, est un processus de communication sophistiqué et de grande profondeur invitant l’enfant à véritablement interagir avec l’autre sans autre interférence socio-économique externe. Échanger c’est un peu accepter l’autre. Nakazawa y voit une forme d’affranchissement de la société de consommation contemporaine contribuant au sain développement d’une psyché personnelle durant l’enfance.

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Considérant l’enthousiasme avec laquelle la sortie de Pokémon Go fut accueillie au État-Unis, il est évident que le public de la série ne se limite plus aux enfants, et que la chasse à l’objet Pokémon captive bon nombre de gens dans la vingtaine avancée, et ce malgré l’incompréhension de certains. Mais cette fois, la pensée sauvage devra s’exercer à travers une technologie qui est à son meilleur en milieu urbain, et commercialisé. Le jeu n’est pas encore disponible au Canada, mais déjà la lecture du texte de Nakazawa permet de questionner le phénomène sous l’angle de la psychanalyse: jusqu’à quel point il est possible “d’augmenter” le monde réel tout en respectant la capacité du jeu à soutenir le développement émergent d’une science de l’enfance et, du même coup, générer l’intérêt à développer une plus grande conscience de l’environnement direct chez les joueurs? Les Zubat éliront-ils domicile dans une véritable grotte, dans une ruelle de Parc-Extension ou devant une franchise de Poulet Frit Kentucky? Ou alors dans tout ces endroits à la fois?

 

Histoire du jeu – Montréal

Je serai à Montréal cette semaine pour le symposium annuel de l’histoire du jeu. J’y présenterai mon projet de base de données regroupant ma collection de pamphlet de jeu vidéo d’arcade japonais tout en faisant la démonstration de l’utilité d’utiliser ce genre de matériel afin d’approfondir notre connaissance du jeu d’arcade, mais surtout de l’espace du game center japonais.

La conférence elle-même porte sur les questions gravitant autour de la préservation du jeu vidéo.

C’est gratuit et ouvert au public.

 

Digital Scholarship in the Humanities Guidelines

I could not attend Congress this year, but my colleagues from the University of Alberta had the chance to present the latest updates of our twitter analysis project that our research group worked on during the past year. I am glad this project continues to reach the broader academic community once again.

Geoffrey Rockwell shared a document of interest following the conference. The Digital Scholarship in the Humanities Guideline document was presented at this year at the CSDH/SCHN conference as a document to help the academic community to establish guidelines regarding the evaluation of work in the digital humanities that takes forms other than papers or articles. This is worth reading for any students working in the humanities looking to submit DH projects as part of the requirements of their degree, as well as instructors who have to review or mark them.

Arcade and Game Center Chirashi Database 1.1

I just finished upgrading the Arcade and Game Center Chirashi Database with the latest documents I gathered during my research trip earlier this year. I also made a handful of little improvements, just enough to warrant a version change. Here is the full list:

  • Added documents acquired from January to April 2016
  • Added database values for tags, researchers, timestamp and venue
  • Added new type of query in relation to the Playing in Public project: Game Center
  • Multiple code enhancement

I did not implement the tag system in the search query modules yet as I do not know how to implement it in an efficient manner yet. I also need to upgrade the viewer page for plain readability. This will be part of a future update.

 

 

Cleaning up the Chirashi Database

I have not been feeding this blog properly for a little while now. Since my return to Edmonton, I have been working exclusively on my dissertation; the objective is to get the first chapter done before the start of the next round of conference travels in Montréal and Leipzig. I will share my thoughts on this aspect of the project one it becomes clearer to me.

In the meantime, I have been working on cleaning up the Chirashi database. As it stood, the file names were not rational, and finding a specific document without the use of the php interface was difficult. I now have a document naming protocol which should help streamline the integration of the documents I acquired since January. Look forward to another announcement about that in the near future.