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?

See reviews like:

HyperCard at the Internet Archive

Screen Shot of Internet Archive HyperCard Collection

The Internet Archive is now collecting HyperCard Stacks and has an emulator so they can be run in the browser. If you have old ones to contribute you can upload them to (which has a nerdy HyperCard like interface.)

Like many, I learned to program multimedia in HyperCard. I even ended up teaching it to faculty and teachers at the University of Toronto. It was a great starting development environment with a mix of graphical tools, hypertext tools and a verbose programming language. It’s only (and major) flaw was that it wasn’t designed to create networked information. HyperCard Stacks has to be passed around on disks. The web made possible a networked hypertext environment that solved the distribution problems of the 1980s. One wonders why Apple (or someone else) doesn’t bring it back in an updated and networked form. I guess that is what the Internet Archive is doing.

For more on the history of HyperCard see the Ars Technica article by Matthew Lasar, 30-plus years of HyperCard, the missing link to the Web.

What is cool is that artists are using HyperCard to make art like Formality* discussed in the previous post.


Formality* Screen Shot

Formality* is an interactive in browser art work about filling out forms to apply to “The Neighbourhood”. Formality* was developed in HyperCard by Ewan Atkinson and plays with the retro development environment. Having spent a lot of time on HyperCard I loved Atkinson’s use of the environment – he even has agents that can advise you (reminiscent of Brenda Laurel’s work). Formality* is part of a larger work called The Neighbourhood Project – it makes you wonder about how one becomes part of communities and the processes of applying to belong.

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.)

Update August 25th, 2019: If you are interested in Hutchinson’s ideas about teaching Japanese games see the YouTube video she recorded, Teaching Japanese Videogames: Why, How and an Example of What. She describes her philosophy of teaching Japanese games, the issues around teaching games, the issues discussed, the “texts”, and she gives some in-depth examples.