Virtual YouTubers get caught in the middle of a diplomatic spat

It’s relatively easy for those involved in the entertainment industry in Asia to get caught up in geopolitical scuffles, with with social media accelerating and magnifying any faux pas.

From the Japan Times I learned about how some hololive vTubers or Virtual YouTubers g[o]t caught in the middle of a diplomatic spat. The vTuber Kiryu Coco, who is apparently a young (3,500 years young) dragon, showed a visualization that mentioned Taiwan as different from China and therefore ticked off Chinese fans which led to hololive releasing apologies. Young dragons don’t yet know about the One-China policy. To make matters worse the apologies/explanations published in different countries were different which was noticed and that needed further explanation. Such are the dangers of trying to appeal to both the Chinese, Japanese and US markets.

Not knowing much about vTubers I poked around the hololive site. An interesting aspect of the English site is the information in the FAQ about what you can send or not send your favorite talent. Here is their list of things hololive will not accept from fans:

– ALL second hand/used/opened up items that do NOT directly deliver from e-commerce sites such as Amazon (excluding fan letters and message cards)
– Luxury items (individual items which cost more than 30,000 yen)
– Living beings or raw items (including fresh flowers, except flower stands for specified venues and events)
– Items requiring refrigeration
– Handmade items (excluding fan letters and message cards)
– All sorts of stuffed toys, dolls, cushions (no exceptions)
– Currencies (cash, gift cards, coupons, tickets, etc.)
– Cosmetics, perfumes, soap, medicines, etc.
– Dangerous goods (explosives, knives/weapons, drugs, imitation swords, model guns, etc.)
– Clothes, underwear (Scarves, gloves, socks, and blankets are OK)
– Amulets, talismans, charms (items related to religion, politics, or ideological expressions)
– Large items (sizes where the talents would find it impossible to carry home alone)
– Pet supplies
– Items that may violate public order and moral
– Items that may violate laws and regulations
– Additional items (the authorities will perform final confirmation and judgment)

I feel this list is a distant relative of Borges’ taxonomy of animals taken from the fictional Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge which includes such self-referential animals as “those included in this classification” and “et cetera.”

On a serious note, it is impressive how much these live vTubers can bring in. By some estimates Coco made USD $140,000 in July. The mix of anime characters and live streaming of game playing (see above) and other fun seems to be popular. While this phenomena may look like one of those weird Japan things, I suspect we are going to see more virtual characters especially if face and body tracking tools become easy to use. How could I teach online as a virtual character?

AI Dungeon

AI Dungeon, an infinitely generated text adventure powered by deep learning.

Robert told me about AI Dungeon, a text adventure system that uses GPT-2, a language model from OpenAI that got a lot of attention when it was “released” in 2019. OpenAI felt it was too good to release openly as it could be misused. Instead they released a toy version. Now they have GPT-3, about which I wrote before.

AI Dungeon allows you to choose the type of world you want to play in (fantasy, zombies …). It then generates an infinite game by basically generating responses to your input. I assume there is some memory as it repeats my name and the basic setting.

Replaying Japan 2020

Replaying Japan is an international conference dedicated to the study of Japanese video games. For the first time this year, the conference is held online and will combine various types of research contents (videos, texts, livestreams) on the theme of esport and competitive gaming in Japan.

This year the Replaying Japan conference was held online. The conference was originally going to be in Liège, Belgium at the Liège Game Lab. We were going to get to try Belgian fries and beer and learn more about the Game Lab. Alas, with the pandemic, the organizers had to pivot and organize an online conference. They did a great job using technologies like Twitch and Minecraft.

Keiji Amano, Tsugumi (Mimi) Okabe, and I had a paper on Ethics and Gaming: A Content Analysis of Annual Reports of the Japanese Game Industry presented by Prof. Amano. (To read the longer conferencer paper you need to have access to the conference materials, but they will be opening that up.) We looked at how major Japanese game companies frame ethical or CSR (corporate social responsibility) issues which is not how ethics is being discussed in the academy.

The two keynotes were both excellent in different ways. Florent Georges talked about First Steps of Japanese ESports. His talk introduced a number of important early video game competitions. 

Susana Tosca gave the closing keynote. She presented a nuanced and fascinating talk on Mediating the Promised Gameland (see video). She looked at how game tourists visit Japan and interviewed people about this phenomenon of content tourism. This was wrapped in reflections on methodology and tourism. Very interesting, though it raised some ethical issues about how we watch tourists. She was sensitive to the way that ethnographers are tourists of a sort and we need to be careful not to mock our subjects as we watch them. As someone who loves to travel and is therefore often a tourist, I’m probably sensitive on this issue.

Call for Papers for Replaying Japan Journal, Issue 3

The Replaying Japan Journal has issued a call for papers for Issue 3 with a deadline of September 30th, 2020. See the Current Call for Papers – Replaying Japan. The RJJ publishes original research papers on Japanese videogames, game culture and related media. We also publish translations, research notes, and reviews.

The RJJ is available online and in print, published by the Ritsumeikan (University) Center for Game Studies (See the RCGS English Pamphlet too). Inaba, Mitsuyuki is the Editor in Chief and Fukuda, Kazafumi is the Associate Editor. I and Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon are the English Editors.

Articles in either Japanese or English are accepted. The Japanese Call for Papers is here.

Sexism in the Gaming Industry

Once again we are reading about sexism in the video game industry. The New York Times has a story from June 23rd on how Dozens of Women in Gaming Speak Out About Sexism and Harassment. We have heard these stories regularly since GamerGate though many of these focus on behaviour of Twitch stars. One hopes there will be some change.

Kenzie Gordon, who is doing a PhD here at the U of Alberta described why we have this persistent sexism in gaming,

The gaming industry is particularly conducive to a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment, Ms. Gordon said, because straight white men have “created the identity of the gamer as this exclusive property.” When women, people of color or L.G.B.T.Q. people try to break into the industry, she said, the “toxic geek masculinity” pushes back in ways that often lead to sexual abuse and bullying.

One positive change is happening at Ubisoft. Endgaget has a story on how the Ubisoft CEO lays out a plan to change the company’s toxic culture. This is after complaints including an extensive post by Chelsea O’Hara on Breaking My Silence at Ubisoft Toronto.

These concrete developments at companies like Ubisoft are in contrast with what happened a year before in 2019 when there was a backlash against victims who called out their harassers after indie developer Alec Holowka committed suicide. As the Wired article by Laurie Penny Gaming’s #MeToo Moment and the Tyranny of Male Fragility points out, the trolls attacked the victims using the logic that they should have known Holowka was fragile and let him be.

The message is clear: Men’s mental health matters more than women’s. Men’s suffering and self-loathing is treated as a public concern, because men are permitted to be real people whose inner lives and dreams matter. Who cares, then, how many women they destroy along the way?

SimRefinery and Maxis Business Simulations

SimRefinery Screenshot

SimRefinery was the first simulation developed by a Maxis spin-off company called Maxis Business Simulations (MBS). The simulation was for Chevron and was developed using the development tools Maxis had developed for their games like SimCity. Phil Salvador tells a wonderful story about MBS and SimRefinery in a thoroughly research essay When SimCity got serious: the story of Maxis Business Simulations and SimRefinery. Take some time out and read it.

Part of what is interesting in the essay is how Salvador documents the different views about what such simulations were good for. SimRefinery was not a accurate simulation that would cover the complexity of the chemical engineering of a refinery; so what was it good for. Chevron apparently wanted something to help the staff who weren’t engineers to understand some of the connectiveness of a refinery – how problems in one area could impact others. Will Wright, the genius behind Maxis, didn’t think serious simulations were possible or something they wanted to do. He saw SimCity as a caricature that was fun. At best it might give people a “mental model” of the issues around city management. It was for that reason that MBS was a spin-off designed to contract with businesses that felt serious simulations were feasible and useful.

I learned about the Salvador article from a Ars Technica story about SimRefinery and how A lost Maxis “Sim” game has been discovered by an Ars reader [Updated]. The story talks about how someone found and uploaded to the Internet Archive a prototype of SimRefinery only to later take in back down so it is no longer available. In the meantime Phil Salvador recorded a Twitch stream of checking out the game so you can get a sense of how it worked.

Locative Gaming in the time of COVID-19

Jessie Marchessault at Concordia has a nice essay on the TAG site on Locative Gaming in the time of COVID-19. I hadn’t thought of how Niantic would be responding to Covid-19 and changing their locative games, except when I saw a small group obviously still playing in a park the other day. As Marchessault points out, the community and Niantic have adapted. Niantic has found ways to make the game playable at home, but they have also done it in a way that increases revenue.

It would be interesting to see if they could include bluetooth proximity services that might tell you that you are getting too close to other players.

The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination.

Evgeny Morozov has crisp essay in The Guardina on how The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level. He argues that neoliberalist austerity cut our public services back in ways that now we see are endangering lives, but it is solutionism that constraining our ideas about what we can do to deal with situations. If we look for a technical solution we give up on questioning the underlying defunding of the commons.

There is nice interview between Natasha Dow Shüll Morozov on The Folly of Technological Solutionism: An Interview with Evgeny Morozov in which they talk about his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism and gamification.

Back in The Guardian, he ends his essay warning that we should focus on picking between apps – between solutions. We should get beyond solutions like apps to thinking politically.

The feast of solutionism unleashed by Covid-19 reveals the extreme dependence of the actually existing democracies on the undemocratic exercise of private power by technology platforms. Our first order of business should be to chart a post-solutionist path – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms.

The Illusionistic Magic of Geometric Figuring

the purpose aimed at by Mantegna and Pozzo was not so much “to simulate stereopsis”—the process by which we see depth—but rather to achieve “a simulation of the perceptual effect of stereoptic vision.” Far from being visual literalists, these painters were literal illusionists—their aim was to make their audiences see something that wasn’t there.

CABINET has a nice essay by Margaret Wertheim connecting Bacon to Renaissance perspective to video games, The Illusionistic Magic of Geometric Figuring. Wertheim argues that starting with Roger Bacon there was a growing interest in the psychological power of virtual representation. Artists starting with Giotto in Assisi the Mantegna and later Pozzo created ever more perspectival representations that were seen as stunning at the time. (Pozzo painted the ceiling of St. Ignatius Being Received into Heaven in Sant’Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio, Rome.)

The frescos in Assisi heralded a revolution both in representation and in metaphysical leaning whose consequences for Western art, philosophy, and science can hardly be underestimated. It is here, too, that we may locate the seed of the video gaming industry. Bacon was giving voice to an emerging view that the God of Judeo-Christianity had created the world according to geometric laws and that Truth was thus to be found in geometrical representation. This Christian mathematicism would culminate in the scientific achievements of Galileo and Newton four centuries later…

Wertheim connects this to the ever more immersive graphics of the videogame industry. Sometimes I forget just how far the graphics have come from the first immersive games I played like Myst. Whatever else some games do, they are certainly visually powerful. It often seems a shame to have to go on a mission rather than just explore the world represented.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019

Modern Warfare 2019 (MW19) illustrates the difficulties of trying to create a first-person-shooter (FPS) that meets player expectations of the genre while also making it politically sensitive. On the one hand players expect a campaign of set pieces with different weapons (from silenced pistols to drones), different types of action (stealth to blowing things up), and different settings around the world (or off it.) On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a story which would justify the killing of so many people – so many that you can have “fun.” Without zombies or nazis it is hard to find clearly bad guys.

MW19 tackles this by trying a post-modern “forever war” setting. Most of the scenes take place in a fictional Urzikstani which feels like some mix of Kurdish Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A central character is the leader of the Urzikstani resistance, Farah Kadim, who seems modelled on the Kurdish women fighters fighting in Syria. She leads the Urzikstan Liberation Force (ULF) and you actually get to play her in a couple of the scenes.

A forever war setting like Urzikstani makes sense if you are trying to reboot a franchise by creating a setting that can sustain lots of subsequent games. It creates a context for special operations forces of the sort that people like to play. You can have all sorts of different missions with interesting playable spec-op/SAS type characters drawn from earlier instalments and remixed. Above all you can have a combination of lots of Russians and terrorists to fight.

The depressing thing is how the game draws attention to what seems to be a never ending series of conflicts set in motion by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The game, deliberately or not, serves as an essay of how forever wars keep going and metastasizing – how they are maintained by superpowers and others who can’t avoid meddling, even as objectives change. In the Piccadilly scene of MW19 you see how these distant wars on terrorism don’t end anything, but can engender more terrorism brought back home to haunt us. Forever wars are not just convenient fodder for FPS games, they are hell for those living in the war zones and one thing the game does a good job of showing is that hell. What it doesn’t do is show the longer term effects from mass migration to trauma/PTSD.

There are some deliberately disturbing scenes like where you are waterboarded and a scene where you can choose to participate in the using of family hostages to extract information. There are times where it is hard to tell the difference between civilians and combatants and part of the game is not killing the innocent. There is a scene called the highway of death which is visually modelled on the original in Iraq, though the game scene takes place after the massacre; but here it is the Russians who were the perpetrators which conveniently rewrites history. Reviewers have questioned what could be called this gamification of torture and history (see this interview with the narrative director).

To me this game nicely raises the question of whether a game in general, or an FPS in particular can deal ethically, accurately and sensitively with war. MW19 doesn’t look away from the horrors of modern war, but risks minimizing them as entertainment. MW19 tries to deal with this new state of never ending war, but doesn’t really say anything about it. It doesn’t want to glorify war, but it does want to make the simulation fun so it has to be careful not to condemn shooting. Like any expensive game/movie it seems to carefully step back from any conclusions that would alienate customers other than the game legitimizing rhetoric of exceptionalism. This is where the heroes that you get to play somehow are justified in “taking the gloves off” and doing things that would be war crimes, or at least against orders. This rhetoric of exceptionalism, where you the player are always excused from the rules that others live by, can desensitize us to the importance of rules, processes and orders. It encourages us to think everything can be solved by a Rambo figure who does what no one else can. What would the world be like if everyone did so? Why don’t we look for reliable solutions to things like wars rather than exceptional heroes that will solve it for us? Can games deal with the complexity of systems and wars?

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