Animalism, the Database, and Femininity.

It is time for another in-blog confession!  I am a female academic, who knowingly takes advantages of all of the rights and benefits that the feminist movement has fought so hard for, but actively avoids dealing with feminist discourse.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, most of which I will not talk about in this post, but some of which will surely become evident as I move forward with my discussion of some of this week’s readings.  I consider myself to be a pretty open minded individual who is rarely afraid to challenge the status quo, develop odd theories, or discuss almost anything (no matter how taboo).  However, I make an explicit effort to avoid debates within feminist discourse, out of fear of saying the “wrong thing”  I am not completely ignorant to the actual theories behind, and reasons for, such discourse, and I am in no way saying that it is unimportant.  It is just one of those topics, like civic engagement, and socialism, that I have limited knowledge of, little desire to focus on and that I do not feel qualified to analyse or debate.  Of course, there is always the inevitable time in each course when I must address various feminist issues.  Because this blog has been so helpful in allowing me to experiment with different ideas and challenge various terms and theories, I am just going to go ahead and write without fear.  As a disclaimer then, because I know that what I am going to say will be slightly controversial, I am only dealing with some brief ‘non-journal’ readings (someone else’s blog, a news story, and a Wikipedia entry) and my own personal opinions and experiences.  I will start by briefly summarizing the three pieces in order to provide some context before tearing off into my inevitable rant.

The Wikipedia article is the entry on the 3D eroge video game RapeLay.  The game “centers on a male character who stalks and rapes a mother and her two daughters.”  It was released on April 21, 2006.  The story and characters are outlined in the article, but what is important is the controversy surrounding the game.  “The game has also earned the dubious honor of being the first, and only game to date, to be effectively banned in Argentina.”  Ultimately, what the game does is test the boundaries of what societies expect from video games.  Rape, which is a horrific and damaging crime (mostly against women) is not only portrayed, but practically celebrated in this game.  Of course, defenders of the game draw attention to the nature of physical violence and murder in other ‘acceptable’ video games.  I will talk about where I stand below.

The blog Sailor Moon and Femininitytalks about the ‘beautiful fighting girls’ (or ‘magic girls’), portrayed in the popular manga series Sailor Moon.  The author states that Sailor Moon is “a story about women, created by a woman, edited by a woman, written for a popular female audience, and enthusiastically embraced by an adult female fandom…an example of a homosocial female space in which women can talk about women and femininity without having to worry about what men are thinking.”   Her core argument is that the ‘male gaze’ is actually removed from Sailor Moon, and the femininity that the characters portray is a source of power.  She talks about the evolution of the Sailor Scouts (Sailor Moon and friends) who “gradually mature into capable and competent young women who must shoulder great responsibility and make difficult choices, usually without the support or interference of men.”

This picture, which portrays the Sailor Scouts, is evidence of where the debate around the femininity of Sailor Moon comes from.  On the surface, the girls embody many of the tropes associated with “beautiful girls” – short skirts, big eyes, youth, ‘cuteness’.  The author of the blog, however, argues that the scouts safely explore these feminine characteristics without a concern for men or the masculine gaze.

The news article “Dating simulator games inspire legion of followers – and detractors” discusses the business of adult oriented games or dating simulators.  These games range from simple (and tame) virtual conversations to explicit ‘eroge’ (erotic games) and ‘yaruge’ (sex games).  The controversy over RapeLay is discussed, however it is made clear that rape games are only a small minority in a popular and thriving genre in Japanese game development.  In an interview with Azuma (whom I have mentioned in previous blogs), the reporter learns that “dating sims offer patterned characters and relationships that can be consumed and reproduced in pursuit of a pleasant experience.  The ways characters are created and approached is a distinct cultural style that in fact has very little to do with reality.”  The point is made in this article that the majority of dating sims do not contain ‘hard’ or ‘explicit’ sex and are more focused on the idea of love than actual sex.  Regardless of specific content however, with a “ready supply of creators in Japan, and the growing demand overseas, the genre is simply here to stay.”

So, why did I feel the need to start this blog with a ‘disclaimer’ about my potentially controversial reaction to these readings?  Because I believe that the argument made about Sailor Moon and the power behind the sort of femininity explored and portrayed in the series, is far more offensive and controversial than what occurs in RapeLay (or other ‘eroge’ or ‘yaruge’ that take on a male gaze).  Ok, so why?  Well, lets talk about RapeLay first.

This game does not try to hide what it is.  The name itself is a combination of the words ‘rape’ and ‘play’. It is an example (albeit an extreme example) of a fantasy simulator that allows a player to ‘play’ out taboo fantasies in a fictional, virtual world full of empty, unrealistic characters.  It is an interactive, animated, modern-day version of the experiences sought out by readers through the works of the Marquis De Sade (for example).  Azuma’s point (made in the news article) about “patterned characters and relationships that can be consumed”, is that the characters in these games are meant to be exactly that – consumed.  If you look at Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, you can see a similar mechanism at play – empty, ‘trope’ laden, ‘symbols’ are consumed by the reader. There are some superficial story lines surrounding the various protagonists and antagonists, but they are ultimately unimportant outside of pure symbolism.   Hollow, empty, stereotypical, symbolic objects are exploited for pure, animalistic pleasure.  Granted, Sade’s work tended to have a deeper, political meaning in that it represented a resistance to the development of ‘biopower’ where external forces were gaining greater control over the bodies of the citizenry; while RapeLay seems to be aimed more at satisfying the needs of Azuma’s “Database Animals”.  The point, however, is that in either case, the work is not being deceitful, trying to hide the fact that it is blatantly exploiting these ‘objects’.   I also have to say here, that the argument made by some defenders of RapeLay, that the rape portrayed in this game is no worse than the murder portrayed in other games, holds some weight with me.  While Mortal Kombat seems to be the most commonly referred to game that explicitly promotes brutal murder, I think that the Grand Theft Auto series is even ‘worse’ due to the deeper relationship that you develop with the protagonist.  In RapeLay, the ‘protagonist’ Masaya has one obvious motivation and goal – to rape the family – he is an empty character designed with one purpose, to act as a tool.  In GTA Vice City, I have gotten deeply involved with the protagonist Tommy, who has an intricate back-story and series of relationships, and have used him to murder thousands of innocent people, including more than a few prostitutes that he had just had sex with (killing them means that you get your money back…so why not?)  Now, I am not denying the fact that in all of these examples, women are typically the the objectified ones that are taken advantage of, while men act as the powerful protagonists who are in control and positions of domination.  And, I do agree that such objectification can and does have a negative impact on women and can act as a method of maintaining patriarchal power.  However, whether one of the prostitutes in Vice City, one of the family members in RapeLay, or one of the victims in 120 Days of Sodom, the ‘women’ or ‘girls’ under attack have no more ‘body’ or personality or subjectivity than an NPC that might fall victim to an assassin in Skyrim or Fallout.  And this is where I turn to my issue with Sailor Moon

File:RapeLay screenshot 01.jpg

This image is of one of the characters from RapeLay.  Now it is not hard to look at this and the above picture of the scouts to see the similar ‘tropes’ (although the scouts are obviously younger, and ‘cuter’).  However, as mentioned in the blog about Sailor Moon, these ‘tropes’ are not really an issue.  The scouts embrace their femininity, not to please men, (which is likely the reason that the RapeLay character is ‘helplessly’ dressed in such a similar fashion), but to be powerful despite men.  Sailor Moon is supposed to teach girls/women that ‘girliness’ and being ‘pretty’ is not something to be ashamed of – instead it should be embraced as powerful, as ‘weapons against evil’ so to speak.  As such deep and developed characters, the scouts represent the struggles faced by so many young women, to find themselves, to stand apart, to do something important that has nothing to do with impressing the opposite sex.  The problem that I have with this argument is that they are only making an argument for the power of one ‘type’ of femininity, a ‘type’ that is so stereotyped and limited that most young women I grew up with could never fit the bill.  What is the best way to be a powerful, independent female according to Sailor Moon?  Embrace your “typical chick attributes” while developing your skills, relationships, and talents.  The second part, I totally agree with – to be a powerful person, the development of skills, talents, and relationships, is extremely important.  The message of teamwork, evolution, and allowing your personality to shine through, is a fantastic one.  But, the ‘typical chick attributes’ part has me a bit perplexed.  What does it mean to embrace femininity?  Obviously it seems to involve being ‘pretty’ – so makeup, jewels, and cute clothes are a must.  And everyone knows that high-heeled shoes are the best choice for any heroic defender against evil.  I realize that I am being a bit superficial here – the point is supposed to be that you can wear all of these things, and look ‘pretty’ without caring what men think.  But so many of the things associated with being a ‘typical chick’ developed specifically to make the female body more attractive to men.  As a woman who has done martial arts and been in the army, I can testify first hand that the absolute last thing I would want to wear when attempting to accomplish anything physically demanding is a school-girl outfit with a short skirt and a pair of heels.  I guess what I am saying is that the argument made about Sailor Moon and femininity just rubs me the wrong way, because it still seems to dictate what it means to be ‘feminine’ and powerful.  In my opinion, if Sailor Moon was really about expressing the power of ‘femininity’ removed from the gaze of men, it would celebrate all different types of femininity in an obvious way…granted, I do realize that the characters do each have their own unique personalities etc.  For example, Sailor Mercury, has short blue hair and is the smart, serious, ‘nerdy’ one of the group, BUT she still runs around in a mini-skirt and high-heels…

So to conclude…why is the Sailor Moon argument from this week’s readings far more offensive to me than the idea that a game like RapeLay exists?  Because the power behind the message and characters of Sailor Moon has so much more potential to offend what it means to be a female.  Rape games, must like a lot of pornography, explicitly exploit and objectify women who “need to be dominated” by men…but they are objectified to the point that they are not really women any more – they are symbols that exist only to be consumed.  Sailor Moon, on the other hand, (if we believe the argument made by the author of the blog) uses powerful, well developed, complex young women – women with whom the audience creates a relationship – to dictate an ideal of femininity that is ‘supposed’ to exist external to the masculine gaze.  The message is that to be a powerful female, it is ok to embrace certain ‘girly’ characteristics that girls/women SHOULD possess.  So what about those girls/women who don’t want to embrace such ‘girly’ things?  Are they less feminine and powerful as a result?

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Rituals, Narratives, and Retro Gaming

As I have already posted an entry on retro gaming (in the form of a presentation summary) I wanted to take this opportunity to explore the topic from a different angle – one more directly related to my sociological research interests.  

I am interested in the way in which collective, shared, social play leads to the development and maintenance of social solidarity – the ‘glue’ that holds a society together and allows people to live together with a collective understanding of a general shared morality .  Social solidarity does not need to be an explicit set of rules, or a specific code of conduct…it is simply what allows for people to feel a certain sense of integration with society.  It is what regulates our behaviour through an overall connection to others.  Healthy social solidarity prevents us from feeling isolated, disconnected, and lost as a collective.  Certain social theorists, beginning with Emile Durkheim, and including Marcel Mauss, Randall Collins, and Victor Turner, argue that solidarity is developed and maintained through participation in rituals.  Rituals being the social rules and behaviours that are associated with various objects, symbols, and ideas.  (I am just presenting a very simplified version here, it is far more complex than this).  Rituals are traditionally associated with things like religion (Durkheim, Turner) and exchange (Mauss).  However, as we have been discovering in class, the things that used to hold societies together (religion, tradition, etc.) are fading away in our ‘postmodern’ world.

So what does all of this have to do with Retro Gaming (and narratives in gaming)?  Well, my ‘theory in progress’ is that ‘play’, as something that transcends national, political, and religious boundaries, is what can/does allow us to create and maintain social solidarity.  “Play” in its simplest form is a ritual, a shared understanding about certain ways to behave in certain situations that exist outside of ‘reality’.  One specific form of play is obviously games, and it is the social meanings and interactions that occur through games that I am addressing here.  Video games (and table-top games, though I am not really talking about those here) are concrete artefacts of play, they have specific characteristics that allow for social meaning creation.  When I refer to the game ‘Space Invaders’, it is a specific artefact that has meaning – it is a game that other people have played and experienced.  Whether we are talking about a ‘popular’ game like ‘Super Mario Bros’ or a relatively obscure one like ‘Pin-bot’, they all have a social aspect, in that they exist outside of any one individual person.  Certainly, each person will have had unique experiences with various games, but it is their shared ‘game-ness’ that I am interested in.  Even if we are talking about single player games that are played in relative isolation, there is still something social about the game in that it is an experience that other people have had and can relate to.  There are certain rules, and narratives that all players of a specific game have shared (even those who ‘mod’ or ‘cheat’ will have to have an understanding of what rules they are breaking and what environments/objects/narratives they are ‘modding’).  The narratives and rules of these games can be said to exist in a form resembling (or the same as) Azuma’s ‘Database’…’small’, free-floating narratives that are freely consumed and not connected to any sort of grand social narrative.  

So…while I am actually talking about ‘play’ in general, and games overall, I think that the ‘retro games’ that we are talking about in a nostalgic sense are central to the development of widely shared rituals surrounding play.  Games that were played on (and narratives that were developed through) systems like the Atari 2600, the Sega Master System, and the Famicom/NES, come from a time pre-internet, when interactive, digital technology was starting to really ‘take off’.  Arcades and livingrooms became places of shared, playful interactions.  Magazines like “Nintendo Power”, and high-score screens on arcade machines, allowed players to share their achievements and compete in ‘virtual worlds’, outside of reality.  Franchises that are still producing new material today were introduced (Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros, Bomberman).  Games connected to TV shows and movies were also coming out (Star Trek, ET, Knight Rider).  Symbols, characters, and environments that people could consume, interact with, discuss, and share were becoming more and more common.  

As kids, these games were novel, fun, new ways to play.  As adults, they represent something beyond our individual childhood experiences…there are certain shared, social meanings behind the games that contribute to the social solidarity that I referred to above.  The specific details of the individual narratives are not important in this case – what matters is that these retro games were central in the development of a ‘database’ of social meanings around which rituals of shared play developed.  New games also have the effect of solidarity creation (World of Warcraft was the focus of my MA thesis) – but I would theorize that our fascination with retro games (and retro style games) grows as our dependence on shared play for social integration grows.  Retro-gaming is a nostalgic return to the origins of something (that I personally think) has become more powerful than religion, nationality, or political affiliations in postmodern solidarity creation/maintenance.  

Reflecting on “Japanese Game Culture”

With the semester nearly 2/3rds complete, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on where I am in my understanding of Japanese Game Culture…

My first blog post – “How can we look at “Japanese” game culture” – asked the question “what IS Japanese game culture?”  I ultimately came to the conclusion that the concept of “Japanese game culture” is fluid and widely open to interpretation. Admittedly, this answer was somewhat of a tentative ‘cop-out’, but not necessarily a bad one.  I actually still believe this to be the case – that attempting to strictly define Japanese game culture would be like trying to count the number to individual water droplets you can hold in one hand: you know that there must be something resembling an answer available, but it will never be totally precise.  This does not, however, mean that I have not gained a must better understanding of what Japanese game culture CAN be or MIGHT be.

Through readings and various in-class presentations, we have explored a wide variety of topics that all relate to the experience of Japanese game culture.  We have explored many specific games, from Catherine to Ni No Kuni to Ico to Super Smash Bros. Melee.  We have shared and discussed a variety of topics from Mecha to game music to magic girls to retro games.  And our readings and in-class discussions have explored video game theory (Newman), Anime and Manga, portable games, game centres, and Otaku culture.

Otaku culture, at this point, seems to hold the key to answering the Japanese game culture question, although not in a way we might expect.  As has been pointed out in class on a few occasions, there seems to be a lack of what we in North America call ‘game studies’ in Japan. Instead, there seems to be a focus on ‘Otaku studies’, part of, but not all of which includes the study of games.  Otaku studies, if we borrow concepts from Azuma, seems to involve the study of the people, places, and objects that consume, and exist within, a massive database of loosely connected or disconnected symbolic objects and settings.  So how does this answer our question?  Well, ultimately, we need to acknowledge the need to participate in Otaku studies if we want to look at Japanese video games, due to the ‘transmedia’ nature of games.  A game rarely develops and exists in isolation from anime, or manga, or fan culture… Not only that, but the ways in which we study and interpret games have almost a ‘database’ like quality in themselves; that is, we might look at something specific like the in-game music, use of genre, developer history and significance, connections to other media, character development, intended and actual audience, etc. etc.  An understanding of the exact narrative of the game often seems less important than where the game fits in to our technical and theoretical understanding of various types of games.

BUT, acknowledging that we are involved more in a study of Otaku culture than specific game culture, does not mean that there aren’t important issues and concerns that are specific to Japanese video games.  This is pointed to in some of this weeks readings which talk about the actual process of game development in Japan and its place in the global market.  Returning again to my first blog post, I pointed out that I was uncertain where my youth spent playing Nintendo and Sega placed me in Japanese game culture.  Companies like Nintendo, Sega, Capcom, Square, and Hudson (to name a few) were key players in bringing a video game culture to North America.  When I think of great video games from my past, – Final Fantasy, Shining Force, Super Mario Bros. 3 – I am thinking of Japanese games.  However, when I attempt to name off some of my favourite games from my present – Minecraft, World of Warcraft, the Elder Scrolls series, Portal 2 – I am thinking of North American games.  Yes, I have a 3DS and a Wii U with many games, however, while entertaining, they don’t come immediately to mind when I think of great modern games.  (except for Fire Emblem Awakening…but I am a sucker for tactical/strategic rpg’s)

My point?  Returning again to my first post, I noted the danger involved with attempting to talk about game culture using specific national boundaries.  This danger can be specifically seen when looking at the current North American – Japanese divide when it comes to successful game design.  We live in a globalized world where cross-boundary collaboration is likely the key to global success.  I wonder how long these two worlds of game development can exist as separate entities?  I worry that the financial powerhouse that is North American game design runs the risk of overpowering and eventually eliminating Japanese game developers.  As much as I say that I love North American games, I also value (and love) the unique and ‘magical’ styles that Japanese games bring into the mix…I can’t imagine a game collection without Ni No Kuni, the New Super Mario Bros., Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy, and Gran Turismo.  The database from which I draw my affinity for a diverse range of characters and settings (as noted in my last blog) is not a “Japanese” or “North American” one.  It is a globalized one that celebrates what I think is great about nerd or otaku culture.

 

Retro Gaming Presentation Summary

This is a summary of the presentation titled: “Retro Gaming and the Showa Retro Boom: Cultural Nostalgia, Using the Past to Help Us Face the Future in the Present” given to the HUCO 617 class at the University of Alberta on October 23, 2013.  This summary is meant to compliment the accompanying Prezi which can be accessed here.

MEGAMAN

We begin with a look at the history of Rockman (Japan) / Megaman (North America).  The video (linked in the Prezi) compares the 1987 game Megaman with the 2010 game Megaman 10.  It is important to note the similar use of graphics, sound, and gameplay style despite the 23 years that separate the two.  Even the cover pictures for the games are done in the same style:

Megaman_nes_palMegaman10

As can be seen through a comparison of screenshots (in the Prezi) of the various Megaman games over the years, there was an evolution that took advantage of the technological advances in graphics and gameplay.  However, as seen when looking at Megaman 10, there has been a return to the retro style that made the series so popular in the 1980’s into the 1990’s.

Megaman is a great example of a game series that is creating new games using ‘retro’, 8-bit graphics.

Showa Retro Boom

The Showa period in Japan is the period from 1926-1989 that marked the reign of Emperor Hirohito.  This period was the longest reign of any Japanese emperor, and was a time of immense social and political change in Japan.  Of particular interest for our purposes is the Showa 30’s (1950’s) which marked the post-war period and the beginning of the development of the economic boom that resulted in an era of prosperity in Japan which survived until the asset price bubble burst in 1991.  For a detailed analysis of the bubble, refer to “The Asset Price Bubble and Monetary Policy: Japan’s Experience in the late 1980’s and the Lessons.” by Okina, Shirakawa, & Shiratsuka.

kamadogami mask  In his article “Japan’s Showa Retro Boom: Nostaliga, Local Identity, and the Resurgence of Kamadogami Masks in the Nation’s Northeast”, Thompson outlines the interest in the cultural revival of the Showa 30’s and the collection of associated ‘retro’ items.  He outlines 5 characteristics of what he calls the Showa Retro Boom:

1) Thought to be precipitated by Japan’s economic downturn of the 1990’s (the bubble burst)

2) Coincides with the aging of Japan’s dankai (baby-boomer) generation

3) A questioning of the principles by which life was lived over the past 40-50 years

4) The inclusion of consumers from a large cross-section of society across the country

5) The inclusion of consumers from the post-dankai generations

The first four characteristics can be explained by a nostalgic desire to return to/remember ‘the good times’ – a period of enlightened peace/harmony.  The 5th one is more interesting as it involves the consumption of retro items by generations who did not experience the Showa 30’s first hand.  Thompson provides a potential explanation referencing another author:

“According to Inamatsu, the participation of post-dankai Japanese as consumers of Showa retro products occurs not only because they are financially able, but also because they are genuinely interested in what is represented by the period goods and practices themselves.” (1312-1313)

Keep this in mind as we return to more examples of retro video games…

Other Retro Gaming Examples

bomberman  Bomberman: A series that has evolved graphically, but remains true to the original gameplay style.  ~73 games released between 1983 & 2010!  This is a great example of a game series that has been extended throughout the decades.

Ducktales-Remastered-NPC-character-roster-Wubba-duck-1024x463Ducktales: The original game was released on the NES in N.A. in 1989 and on the Famicom in Japan in early 1990.  The remastered version of the game was released this year (2013) on multiple platforms.  Considered (by some) to be one of the best platforming games ever released, this is a good example of repackaging a successful game to be more appealing to a new generation of gamers.

ni-no-kuni-wrath-of-the-white-witch-ps3-e3-2012-screenshots-6

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch:

Although not necessarily widely know or linked to a ‘retro’ franchise, this game, that was released for the PS3 in Japan in 2011 and N.A. in 2013, is praised for its return to a genre that was considered to be lost in the late 1990’s (having fallen victim to the Trading Card Game (TCG) genre) – Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs).  It is a great example of a new game (and franchise) that references ideas and genres of the past.

images (1) Final Fantasy IV:  Like Ducktales, this game is another example of a popular retro game being remastered  and updated to make better use of modern technology and to appeal to the new generation of gamers.  Originally released at Final Fantasy II on the Super NES in 1991, the game was re-released for the Nintendo DS in 2007 with upgraded graphics and the addition of beautiful cut-scenes.  It was also released this year for Android devices.

Collecting:

A discussion of ‘retro’ gaming wouldn’t be complete without referencing the collection of old consoles and games.  Conducting a search for “retro Japanese gaming”  on Google, results in links to numerous stores selling retro games and gear.  This is the reason that I have had to take a North American perspective in this presentation – without speaking Japanese it has proven extremely difficult to find any information (that I can understand) about retro-game behaviour in Japan (hence the focus on Japanese games but not Japanese gamers).  There is one exception to this however:

arino3 Game Center CX This is a Japanese TV series that first aired in 2003 staring Shinya Arino.  The series basically involves Shinya participating in marathon, retro gaming sessions where his goal is to complete certain challenges (like beating the game).  He is known outside of Japan as the “Retro Game Master” and his popularity likely reflects the popularity of retro gaming in Japan.

avgn

The reason I have not explicitly focused on collecting in this presentation can be partially explained through examples of popular North American retro game ‘masters’.  The most significant and worth mentioning is James Rolfe – The Angry Video Game Nerd (formerly The Angry Nintendo Nerd).  He achieved internet fame when his review of the NES game “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” went viral.  His affinity for collecting retro games can be seen in his video about his NES collection.  Other “angry” retro gamers also gained popularity alongside of James, including the Nostalgia Critic, Spoony, The Irate Gamer, and the guys from Awesome Video Games.  While each has their own unique (or not so unique) style of review and critique, the general theme is that re-playing games may not bring as much pleasure as we might hope to get from a nostalgic return to the past.  The quote by Molesworth in the Prezi nicely sums up the idea that replaying old games most often leads to disappointment, boredom, and/or frustration.  This is the reason I have focused mainly on the other types of retro gaming – remastered classics, new games done in the 8-bit style, extensions of classic series, and new games that revisit ‘retro’ themes and genres.

Mario

big-boss-of-the-day-the-koopa-kids-20091207040557944-000 big-boss-of-the-day-the-koopa-kids-20091207040606823-000The “New” Super Mario Bros. franchise is probably the most significant example of the love for retro-style games.  Watching the commercial (linked in the Prezi and here)  for New Super Mario Bros. 2, it is likely very familiar to anyone who has played a ‘classic’ Mario platforming game (Super Mario Bros. Super Mario Bros 2., Super Mario Bros 3, and Super Mario World in particular).  The first “New” Super Mario Bros. was released on the Nintendo DS in 2006, following a flood of games that featured Mario (without any real link to the ‘classic platforming’ style) in 2005.

As the Prezi attempts to show, it would seem that the years following the Mario Flood of 2005 were very instrumental in developing the ‘retro gaming boom’ that we appear to be currently experiencing.

Conclusion (So what?)

Remember the quote from Thompson mentioned above?

“According to Inamatsu, the participation of post-dankai Japanese as consumers of Showa retro products occurs not only because they are financially able, but also because they are genuinely interested in what is represented by the period goods and practices themselves.” (1312-1313)

I would argue that the same phenomenon is occurring with the ‘retro video game boom’ we are currently experiencing.  People in my generation (those that grew up with consoles like the NES and Sega Master System) are now financially able to collect (and control their collection of) games and consoles from their youth.  More importantly however, is the increased consumption of retro influenced games (remastered, old styles, etc.) not only by adults but also by youth who did not grow up with Megaman or Mario in the ‘classic’ style.  The desire to experience the past reflects a genuine interest in what was represented by those games and that time period.

I would personally argue, though more research is indeed required, that the nostalgic consumption of video games is a reflection of our postmodern move away from a shared grand narrative and of our increased reliance on technology that is almost impossible to keep up with.  Retro games have the power to remind us of ‘simpler’ and ‘better’ times when renting an NES cartridge on a Friday after school meant that you would be spending your weekend playing that one game: When there was a stronger divide between the virtual and the real: When gaming took you away from the demands and interactions of everyday life.

Articles Referenced:

Molesworth, Mike. “Adults’ Consumption of Videogames as Imaginative Escape From Routine.” Advances in Consumer Research 36 (2009): 378-383. Print.

Thompson, Christopher S. “Japan’s Showa Retro Boom: Nostalgia, Local Identity, and the Resurgence of Kamadogami Masks in the Nation’s Northeast.” The Journal of Popular Culture 44.6 (2011): 1307-1332. Print.

A “New Breed” of Human: The Postmodern Database Animal

Confession time…

I have never read any of the Lord of the Rings books.

I have never made it through an entire episode of Star Trek: The Original Series.

The Star Wars movies?  I could take them or leave them.

I have only seen one Godzilla movie and have almost no knowledge of the back stories of the monsters.

And yet…

I adore the Lord of the Rings movies and love looking at maps of Middle Earth.

I proudly display stuffed dolls of Kirk, Spock, and Yoda on my desk.

I think Spock is one of the most intriguing and symbolic characters ever.

And I just purchased a set of six, cute little Chibi Godzilla toys that also sit on my desk (I can recall the names of 4 of them).

So?

I am what Azuma calls a “Database Animal“, and I don’t think it is necessarily such a bad thing.  At first I struggled to fight this idea that I have no need for a grand narrative; that I am a somewhat ‘primal’ animal gaining pleasure from the consumption of characters, symbols, and settings that have no logical or meaningful connection to anything important or consistent.  But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me.  Sure, I am an adult who surrounds herself with toys and video games, someone who finds comfort in cute figurines and maps of fictional worlds, but I am also someone who has (in my own opinion at least) achieved a reasonable balance between the demands of the ‘real world’ and my own ‘animalistic’ needs.

As a PhD student I spend much of my ‘work’ time looking at how the world has moved, and continues to move, away from traditional conceptions of community, cohesion, solidarity, and ‘relative’ predictability (this last point, it could be argued, may or may not have ever existed).  Increasing populations, chaotic economics, and an ever weakening common morality are characteristic of the postmodern, globalized world in which we live.  Now when I say “ever weakening common morality”, I am not implying that the world is becoming ‘immoral’ or bad.  What we see happening is the increased ability to debate almost any moral issue.  Everywhere we are exposed to conflicting ideas of right and wrong (oil pipelines, fracking, gay marriage, government corruption, poverty, the free market…).  Making any concrete sense of the world is an impossible task. Why have we moved toward a love of the “grand non-narrative”?  Because there is no longer any unifying “grand narrative” to hold us together (a point made quite well by Azuma).

I happen to believe, and base my research on the idea, that shared ‘play’ is the key to social cohesion and solidarity.  The ‘database’ that Azuma describes seems intimately connected to the idea of play.  If I understand it correctly, the database is the shared network of ideas and symbols with socially created meanings that are somewhat free floating and only, if ever, loosely connected.  Looking at my desk right now, I see figurines of: Yoda, Sonic, Mario, Spock, Kirk, Leonardo, The Lich King, Godzilla (and friends/enemies), ‘Pop’ dolls of Sheldon and Amy (from The Big Bang Theory), a map flip-book for Guild Wars 2, and a red, Swingline stapler.

Image

These objects each hold a wide variety of socially constructed meanings that are ultimately individualized.  I said that I am not a huge fan of the Star Wars movies, and yet I have a prominent character from the franchise sitting on my desk, judging me as I type.  To me, the meaning behind Yoda is not inherent to the narrative from which he comes, instead, he symbolizes certain abstract concepts like wisdom, paternal love, martial arts skills in old age, and a comical way of talking.  The stapler, pictured above in a scene from the 1999 movie “Office Space” is a symbol of reliability, safety, and predictability.  Yes, it is linked to the movie, but for the life of me I can’t remember exactly where in the narrative the stapler actually fits in.  The point is that any of these symbols that I surround myself with do not need to be connected to some intricate narrative to have special meaning and importance.  As a “database animal”, I not only gain pleasure from the ‘consumption’ of these symbols, but I am also comforted by them.  I feel a sense of relief knowing that things can matter in this world without a ‘grand narrative’ holding everything together.  My own sense of disconnection to the world as a whole (if the world is or ever was “a whole”) feels somewhat less threatening when I can feel a strong connection to virtual worlds and fantasy characters.

Maybe I can still have value even if I am just some random individual in a world of random, unconnected individuals.

 

Thoughts on otaku

This week we had a plethora of readings, all of which provided an interesting perspective and insight into Japanese “otaku” culture, a culture which places emphasis on, and is quite passionate about, things like anime, manga, video games, computers, and comics.  Otaku seems to be most generally linked to the western concept of the nerd or geek (depending on which definition of each you choose to embrace) – the non-masculine, ‘anti-social’, awkward, young man (although women can also fit the definition, replacing non-masculine with non-feminine), who attends comic-cons or Star Trek conventions, often participates in cos-play, and typically collects/obsesses over a particular comic, character, tv series…that sort of thing.

We were introduced to “Train Man” whose transformational journey from an ‘awkward’ otaku to a norm-accepting man in love, was depicted online through anonymous posts on the 2-Channel internet forum.  Freedman argues that “Train Man presents an important image of masculinity that arose from the interrelationship between new media, communities and a historical context of changing gender roles.” Although championed as a ‘nerd hero’, Freedman points out that “this tale of love, in the end, advocated conformity instead of alternative forms of marriage and family.  While Train Man is an entertaining role model and exemplar of the power self-achievement [sic], he has helped champion the status quo.”  The story, on the surface, seems to be about a ‘loser’ or ‘nerd’ who wins the attractive woman, but ultimately it sends the message that in order to succeed, one must ‘transform’ into what is expected of them by society.  The idea of the typical transformation scene is important here – the message that it is ok to start out as a nerd or ‘otaku’ as long as you learn to change and adapt to ‘reality’…or ‘grow up’ at some point.

We were also introduced to the idea of the “Database Animal”.  At it’s most basic, it is the idea that humanity is becoming ‘animalized’ in post-modernity – seeking out grand ‘non-narratives’ and finding comfort not within the intricate story-lines associated with ‘human’ consumption, but within the “categorization of traits” of the various characters that exist within the narratives.  Azuma, in Chapter 1 of “Japan’s Database Animals” argues that “The study of otaku culture is…deeply tied to political and ideological issues.” The obsessive consumption and fetishization of imaginary characters in imaginary worlds, according to Azuma, “should be grasped as one manifestation in Japan of a grand trend toward the post-modernization of culture that began in the middle of the twentieth century.  It is precisely for this reason that otakus’ works transcend national borders to be well received around the world.”  While this chapter has lots of important points to make, I think one of the key ones is that otaku culture cannot be viewed as an explicitly Japanese phenomenon – we are not looking at a symptom of post-war issues in Japan (although those can certainly be found), but more at a result of various things that are happening in post-modernity.  As society/societies become more fragmented, and globalized, there is some sort of connection being lost.  With a global reliance on communication technology, a move away from community life, secularization, an ever expanding population, and the fragmented and challenging world of global economics (to name a few), there is a loss of “human” connections – the disappearance of a grand narrative that connects humans to one another – which results in a move toward the sort of consumption found in otaku culture.

Another of the issues found in post-modernity is expressed through the concept of ‘love capitalism’.  Not only are we greatly individualized, with fragile and fleeting connections to society as a whole, we are constantly moving toward a trend of ‘marketing’ ourselves, less as people and more as objects of desire (money and good looks are what get the girl so to speak).  Based on the problems with post-modernity, Galbraith discusses the importance of the concept of ‘moe’ in otaku culture.  He argues that “the word moe indicates a response to fantasy characters”, a response to virtual potentials found in two dimensional, ‘ideal’ characters.  The particular image that causes the response of moe is not as important as the response, and the appeal of the response, itself.  He states that “The crucible of moe is a de-emphasis on the reality of the character and relations with the character…(described as) ‘pure fantasy’ – pure in the sense that it is unrelated to, and unpolluted by, reality.”  Moe, then, represents the pleasurable response felt through an escape from the demands of reality.  For those who may not have the good looks and/or wealth to fit-in and seduce an appropriate mate, otaku culture provides an ‘escape’ from the ironically unrealistic demands of reality.

Much more can be said about the other readings that we covered, but following the above summary, I just want to play with the relationship between otaku culture and ‘nerd’ culture. As noted above, I believe that both share very similar definitions and characteristics, although there does seem to be a greater emphasis on the lack of masculinity in otaku culture.  The story of Train Man is particularly interesting here – in order for him to conform and ‘become’ masculine, he had to step away from otaku culture.  It would seem then that from a Japanese perspective, it is impossible to be both otaku and socially acceptable.  Turning to North America however, there seems to be a growing trend that is making ‘being a nerd’ into something desirable.  Although I may be somewhat biased and misled based on my own claim to belong to the ‘nerd’ culture, I am finding that the portrayal of nerds in popular culture is transforming in itself.  The tv series “The Big Bang Theory” provides the optimal example of nerds who embrace their culture while still making the money and winning the girl (with the exception of one character, Raj, who is in ‘theory’ the most attractive and wealthy one in the group).  The popularity of the series, currently in its 7th season, hints at a greater acceptance of nerd culture.  Additionally, there seems to be a media trend (particularly related to movies) where stereotypically ‘nerdy’ things like superheroes, Star Trek, and Dr. Who are being transformed and marketed to a larger, less ‘nerdy’ audience.  It is not uncommon to walk through the university campus these days and see a typically ‘non-nerdy’ looking person wearing a tee-shirt with a superhero emblem or a Tardis displayed proudly, almost like a badge of belonging.

What is happening with nerds in North America does seem to be happening to otaku culture in Japan as well, as demonstrated in Galbraith’s ethnographic study of Akihabara, the technology and otaku ‘hub’ of Japan.  He describes what has occurred in Akihabara as ‘schizophrenic’ in that otaku culture is promoted and praised, but for all the wrong reasons – i.e. economic ones – referring to it as ‘a branded Japanese pop culture’.  He ends his Akihabara article with the statement that “Akihabara is a showcase where everyone and no one is on display, the symbolic and ultimately empty center of otaku culture.”  I can’t help but wonder then, what exactly IS happening with “nerd ‘culture'” as I know it?  Can we look at Akihabara and say that it is still related to otaku culture, or has a new culture been created? Is it just that the corporations have finally ‘tapped into’ the power of moe and have sapped it of all meaning through clever marketing techniques?  Has otaku and nerd culture become so ‘main stream’ that it can no longer represent the culture that it once was?  …

Or, perhaps…dare I say it…are we missing the ‘point’ of the culture?  Yes, we live in a world of corporations that will market and sell whatever it takes to make money.  But looking back on the readings, the definition of otaku did not seem to necessarily involve being ‘non-capitalist’.  The idea ultimately seems to be that otaku and nerd culture involves a playful, passionate, break away from the demands of reality…so what if corporations have pushed the things that help us feel moe into the popular mainstream?

But then again…perhaps otaku, and nerds, are rightly upset at being turned into commodities themselves?  By having ‘ideal’ representations of otaku/nerds marketed to the public, those that don’t fit a particular ideal are now being pushed out of their own culture.  I have admittedly felt like ‘less of a nerd’ because I am not into superhero comics for example.  I imagine there is the same pressure felt by otaku who aren’t ‘good’ otaku unless they look a certain way or do a certain thing.  I guess this whole line of thought brings up the question of what makes a culture a culture?

Hmmm….

Readings:

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.

Freedman, Alisa. “Train Man and the Gender Politics of Japanese ‘Otaku’ Culture: The Rise of New Media, Nerd Heroes, and Consumer Communities.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 20 (2009). Web.

Galbraith, Patrick W. “Moe: Exploring Virtual Potential in Post-Millenial Japan.” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies (2009). Web.

Galbraith, Patrick W. “Akihabara: Conditioning a Public “Otaku” Image.” Mechademia 5 (2010): 210-230. Web.

Murakami, Takashi (moderator). “Otaku Talk.” Japan Society. Web.

Slater, David H. and Patrick W. Galbraith. “Re-Narrating Social Class and Masculinity in Neoliberal Japan: An Examination of the Media Coverage of the ‘Akihabara Incident’ of 2008.” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies (2011). Web.