Hutchinson: Japanese Culture Through Videogames

Examining a wide range of Japanese videogames, including arcade fighting games, PC-based strategy games and console JRPGs, this book assesses their cultural significance and shows how gameplay and context can be analyzed together to understand videogames…

I’ve been reading Rachael Hutchinson’s Japanese Culture Through Videogames and it is excellent. The book nicely does three things:

First, it is about important Japanese videogames like Katamari Damacy and Okami giving them a serious reading. Hutchinson treats them as art, but videogame art. She clearly plays the games and writes about the way the mechanics are important to the experience.

Second, she deals with the ways these games are interpreted by both Western and Japanese critics (and fans). This book could serve as a great introduction to Japanese game studies, weaving important Western and Japanese theory into a dialogue around individual games.

Third, and most importantly, she connects the games to reflections about Japanese culture, or I should say, she shows the different ways these games reflect Japanese culture. She deals from the beginning with the way some Japanese games are designed to be mukokuseki or “culturally odourless.” She also talks about how games can have the culture washed out of them in localizations. Above all, she shows how Japanese culture comes through games. This book, as the title suggests, introduces approaches to Japanese culture as seen through games by introducing larger discussions about space and time.

I particularly liked the generous footnotes that allow one to follow up on the critics and cultural theory she weaves in. This is an academic book at its best where every footnote promises a pleasurable exploration of some facet of game studies or Japanese culture.

I have taught a course on Japanese Game Culture a couple of times and always felt that I wasn’t well enough prepared for the potential of the course. This book strikes me as a perfect guide and text for such a course. It is clear that Hutchinson has taught Japanese games for some time and this book benefits from the experience. She talks about how students might interpret a game and contrasts that to more obscure interpretations in a way that hints at how one might teach Japanese games. One senses echoes of class discussions in the balanced way she handles questions about games and I can’t help feeling that she has a rich syllabus up her sleeve for teaching the subject.

In short, this book does what I’ve felt we needed for some time: it provides a serious and rich introduction to Japanese game studies suitable for scholars and useful as a textbook. (Full disclosure: I know Hutchinson from the Replaying Japan conference series and she thanks me in the Acknowledgements.)

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Screen Shot of Harry Potter: Wizards UniteI’ve been playing the augmented reality game, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and rather enjoying it. It is a locative game that resembles Ingress and, in fact, is from the same company Niantic which also made Pokémon Go. It encourages you to walk around to finish daily goals and to get portkeys.

In the game you trace spells to free people who have been confounded and you get into duels. It is free to play, but you have to buy gold with which to buy other things if you want to move the game along faster. I found that I didn’t need much gold as long as I didn’t want to play for more than an hour a day.

The game has a Harry Potter feel with a certain amount of humour. At times I felt I was grinding and there were bugs. I liked the portkey idea which lets one see through to another space.

Di GRA 2019 And Replaying Japan 2019

Read my conference notes on Di GRA 2019 And Replaying Japan 2019 here. The two conferences were held back to back (with a shared keynote) in Kyoto at Ritsumeikan.

Kieji Amano deserves a lot of credit for putting together the largest Replaying Japan programme ever. The folks at the Ritsumeikan Center for Games Studies should also be thanked for organizing the facilities for both conferences. They have established themselves as leaders in Japan in the field.

I gave two papers:

  • “The End of Pachinko” (given with Amano) looked at the decline of pachinko and traditional forms of gambling in the face of the legalization of casinos. It looked at different types of ends, like the ends of machines.
  • “Work Culture in Early Japanese Game Development” (with Amano, Okabe, Ly and Whistance-Smith) used text analysis of Szczepaniak’ series of interviews, the Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, as a starting point to look at themes like stress and gender.

The quality of the papers in both conferences was very high. I expect this of DiGRA, but it was great to see that Replaying Japan, which is more inclusive, it getting better and better. I was particularly impressed by some of the papers by our Japanese colleagues like a paper delivered by Kobayashi on the “Early History of Hobbyist Production Filed of Video Games and its Effect on Game Industries in Japan.” This was rich with historical evidence. Another great one was “Researching AI technologies in 80’s Japanese Game Industry” delivered by Miyake who is involved in some very interesting preservation projects.

CIFAR Amii Summer Institute On AI And Society

Last week I attended the CIFAR and Amii Summer Institute on AI and Society. This brought together a group of faculty and new scholars to workshop ideas about AI, Ethics and Society. You can see  conference notes here on philosophi.ca. Some of the interventions that struck me included:

  • Rich Sutton talked about how AI is a way of trying to understand what it is to be human. He defined intelligence as the ability to achieve goals in the world. Reinforcement learning is a form of machine learning configured to achieve autonomous AI and is therefore more ambitious and harder, but also will get us closer to intelligence. RL uses value functions to map states to values; bots then try to maximize rewards (states that have value). It is a simplistic, but powerful idea about intelligence.
  • Jason Millar talked about autonomous vehicles and how right now mobility systems like Google Maps have only one criteria for planning a route for you, namely time to get there. He asked what it would look like to have other criteria like how difficult the driving would be, or the best view, or the least bumps. He wants the mobility systems being developed to be open to different values. These systems will become part of our mobility infrastructure.

After a day of talks, during which I gave a talk about the history of discussions about autonomy, we had a day and a half of workshops where groups formed and developed things. I was part of a team that developed a critique of the EU Guidelines for Trustworthy AI.

DH 2019 in Utrecht

I am back home after two conferences, first the CHCI conference in Dublin and then DH 2019 in Utrecht.

The CHCI (Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes) had its annual conference in Dublin, Ireland. The Kule Institute for Advanced Studies (which I direct) is a member. The conference was held at Trinity College and featured some extraordinary talks including a Silent Shakespeare performance talk by Judith Buchanan. My (flawed) conference notes are here.

Next I was in Utrecht, Holland for DH 2019. As always, my typo-ridden conference notes are at philosophi.ca : DH 2019This was the biggest DH ever with over 1000 participants. There was a real feel of the explosion of the field and all its directions. Before the conference proper I attended a workshop on DLS (Digital Literary Stylistics) Tool Criticism: Use Cases. I was asked to give a paper at the workshop and presented on Zombies as Tools: Revivification in Computer Assisted Interpretation. Revivification was my variant on replication as inspired by the Silents Shakespeare performances reviving silent movies. I also gave a short paper in a panel organized by Micki Kaufman on XR in DH: Extended Reality in the Digital Humanities. My short paper looked at Campus Mysteries: Playing with Serious Augmented Reality Games.

The conference was closed by a great keynote by Johanna Drucker on Complexity and Sustainability.

 

Conference notes for CSDH 2019

In early June I was at the Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences. I took conference notes on the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities 2019 event and on the Canadian Game Studies Association conference, 2019. I was involved in a number of papers:

  • Exploring through Markup: Recovering COCOA. This paper looked at an experimental Voyant tool that allows one to use COCOA markup as a way of exploring a text in different ways. COCOA markup is a simple form of markup that was superseded by XML languages like those developed with the TEI. The paper recovered some of the history of markup and what we may have lost.

  • Designing for Sustainability: Maintaining TAPoR and Methodi.ca. This paper was presented by Holly Pickering and discussed the processes we have set up to maintain TAPoR and Methodi.ca.

  • Our team also had two posters, one on “Generative Ethics: Using AI to Generate” that showed a toy that generates statements about artificial intelligence and ethics. The other, “Discovering Digital Methods: An Exploration of Methodica for Humanists” showed what we are doing with Methodi.ca.

Facebook refused to delete an altered video of Nancy Pelosi. Would the same rule apply to Mark Zuckerberg?

‘Imagine this for a second…’ (2019) from Bill Posters on Vimeo.

A ‘deepfake’ of Zuckerberg was uploaded to Instagram and appears to show him delivering an ominous message

The issue of “deepfakes” is big on the internet after someone posted a slowed down video of Nancy Pelosi to make her look drunk and then, after Facebook didn’t take it down a group posted a fake Zuckerberg video. See  Facebook refused to delete an altered video of Nancy Pelosi. Would the same rule apply to Mark Zuckerberg? This video was created by artists Posters and Howe and is part of a series

While the Pelosi video was a crude hack, the Zuckerberg video used AI technology from Canny AI, a company that has developed tools for replacing dialogue in video (which has legitimate uses in localization of educational content, for example.) The artists provided a voice actor with a script and then the AI trained on existing video of Zuckerberg and that of the voice actor to morph Zuckerberg’s facial movements to match the actor’s.

What is interesting is that the Zuckerberg video is part of an installation called Spectre with a number of deliberate fakes that were exhibited at  a venue associated with the Sheffield Doc|Fest. Spectre, as the name suggests, both suggests how our data can be used to create ghost media of us, but also reminds us playfully of that fictional criminal organization that haunted James Bond. We are now being warned that real, but spectral organizations could haunt our democracy, messing with elections anonymously.

Schools Are Deploying Massive Digital Surveillance Systems. The Results Are Alarming

“every move you make…, every word you say, every game you play…, I’ll be watching you.” (The Police – Every Breath You Take)

Education Week has an alarming story about how schools are using surveillance, Schools Are Deploying Massive Digital Surveillance Systems. The Results Are Alarming. The story is by Benjamin Harold and dates from May 30, 2019. It talks not only about the deployment of cameras, but the use of companies like Social Sentinel, Securly, and Gaggle that monitor social media or school computers.

Every day, Gaggle monitors the digital content created by nearly 5 million U.S. K-12 students. That includes all their files, messages, and class assignments created and stored using school-issued devices and accounts.

The company’s machine-learning algorithms automatically scan all that information, looking for keywords and other clues that might indicate something bad is about to happen. Human employees at Gaggle review the most serious alerts before deciding whether to notify school district officials responsible for some combination of safety, technology, and student services. Typically, those administrators then decide on a case-by-case basis whether to inform principals or other building-level staff members.

The story provides details that run from the serious to the absurd. It mentions concerns by the ACLU that such surveillance can desensitize children to surveillance and make it normal. The ACLU story makes a connection with laws that forbid federal agencies from studying or sharing data that could make the case for gun control. This creates a situation where the obvious ways to stop gun violence in schools aren’t studied so surveillance companies step in with solutions.

Needless to say, surveillance has its own potential harms beyond desensitization. The ACLU story lists the following potential harms:

  • Suppression of students’ intellectual freedom, because students will not want to investigate unpopular or verboten subjects if the focus of their research might be revealed.
  • Suppression of students’ freedom of speech, because students will not feel at ease engaging in private conversations they do not want revealed to the world at large.
  • Suppression of students’ freedom of association, because surveillance can reveal a students’ social contacts and the groups a student engages with, including groups a student might wish to keep private, like LGBTQ organizations or those promoting locally unpopular political views or candidates.
  • Undermining students’ expectation of privacy, which occurs when they know their movements, communications, and associations are being watched and scrutinized.
  • False identification of students as safety threats, which exposes them to a range of physical, emotional, and psychological harms.

As with the massive investment in surveillance for national security and counter terrorism purposes, we need to ask whether the cost of these systems, both financial and other, is worth it. Unfortunately, protecting children, like protecting from terrorism is hard to put a price on which makes it hard to argue against such investments.

Amazon’s Home Surveillance Company Is Putting Suspected Petty Thieves in its Advertisements

Ring, Amazon’s doorbell company, posted a video of a woman suspected of a crime and asked users to call the cops with information.

VICE has a story about how Amazon’s Home Surveillance Company Is Putting Suspected Petty Thieves in its Advertisements. The story is that Ring took out an ad which showed suspicious behaviour. A woman who is presumably innocent until proven guilty is shown clearly in order to sell more alarm systems. This information came from the police.

Needless to say, it raises ethical issues around community policing. Ring has a “Neighbors” app that lets vigilantes report suspicious behaviour creating a form of digital neighbourhood watch. The article references a Motherboard article that suggests that such digital neighbourhood surveillance can lead to racism.

Beyond creating a “new neighborhood watch,” Amazon and Ring are normalizing the use of video surveillance and pitting neighbors against each other. Chris Gilliard, a professor of English at Macomb Community College who studies institutional tech policy, told Motherboard in a phone call that such a “crime and safety” focused platforms can actively reinforce racism.

All we need now is for there to be AI in the mix. Face recognition so you can identify anyone walking past your door.

WINDOWS 93

Screen Shot of Windows 93

hug + hack = infinity

At one of the talks at CGSA 2019 I learned about WINDOWS93. It is an emulation of a non-existant early version of Windows that looks a bit like Windows 95, but has all sorts of joke applications in it.

This and other examples of interactive games that mimic everyday software was presented by Benjamin Unterman in a paper titled, “Games Imitating Life.” Unterman theorized that there are three types of such games:

  • Realistic interface designs where a game pretends to be a real interface like that of a cell phone, but you end up messaging fictional people.
  • Complicit designs use realistic interfaces to bring people into a satire or joke interactive. I think Windows93 would be such an example.
  • Antagonistic designs pretend to be some productivity tool, but they subvert the interface as you play.

My conference notes for Congress 2019 are here.