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?

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.

Gekiga’s new frontier: the uneasy rise of Yoshiharu Tsuge

Cover of The Swamp

In honour of Drawn & Quarterly‘s publication of Yoshiharu Tsuge’s The Swamp, Boing Boing has published an essay on Tsuge by Mitsuhiro Asakawa, titled Gekiga’s new frontier: the uneasy rise of Yoshiharu Tsuge. The essay sketches Tsuge’s rise as an early original manga artist and it explains his importance. Now Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly is publishing a series of seven translations by Ryan Holmberg of Tsuge’s work. (Holmberg also translated the essay by Asakawa.) Asakawa is also apparently important to the series being published.

Mitsuhiro Asakawa finally convinced Tsuge and his son to let the work be translated into English. Mitsuhiro is the unsung hero of Japanese comics translation. He’s the guy who has written the most about the Garo era, he’s the go-to guy to connect with these great authors and their families. Most of the collections D+Q have done wouldn’t exist without his help.

(From the Drawn & Quarterly blog post here.)

One of the things I discovered reading Asakawa is that Tsuge worked with/for Shigeru Mizuki, my favourite manga artist, when he was going through a rough patch.

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.

TOKYO IDOLS: A Look at an Intriguing, Disturbing Culture | Film Inquiry

Tokyo Idols (2017) is a fascinating look at the idol culture in Japan. Directed by Kyoko Miyake it mostly follows an older (19) idol called Rio and her fans. The documentary confronts the creepiness of older men who find it too much work to have real relationships with women, but also shows their vulnerable side. These men spend all their savings on following idols and it gives them a sense of belonging. Miyake shows how the men (and some women) form fan clubs and follow their idol. It shows the constrained hand-shake meetings and photo opportunities that they pay for. It makes the connection to otaku culture and Akihabara.

The documentary nicely shows what it is like for the hard-working idols. For Rio it is a full time job, she has to practice, she has daily live sessions on the internet and she even packages up the schwag she sells. She even goes cycling around Japan (with live internet connection?) in order to connect to fans outside of Tokyo and to try to boost her popularity. As this TOKYO IDOLS review points out, you can’t help rooting for her.

What the documentary doesn’t cover much is the big idol stables like AKB48. Rio manages herself, but most idols are managed by professionals. I would have liked to learn more about that side of the business.

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.

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.

Doki Doki Literature Club!

The Literature Club is full of cute girls! Will you write the way into their heart?

Dr. Ensslin gave a great short survey of digital fiction includ the Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC) at the Dyscorpia symposium. DDLC is a visual novel created in Ren’Py by Team Salvato that plays with the genre. As you play the game, which starts as a fairly typical dating game, it first turns into a horror game and then begins to get hacked by one of the characters who wants your attention. The character, it turns out, has both encouraged some of the other girls (in the Literature Club) to commit suicide, but they edits them out of the game itself. At the end of the game she has a lengthy face-to-face with you breaking the fourth wall of the screen.

Like most visual novels, it can be excruciating advancing through lots of text to get to the point where things change, but eventually you will notice glitches which makes things more interesting. I found myself paying attention to the text more as the glitches drew attention to the script. (The script itself is even mentioned in the game.)

DDLC initially mimics the Japanese visual novel genre, down to the graphics, but eventually the script veers off. It was well received in game circles winning a number of prizes.

Home – DIGRA 2018 Conference

Last week I was at the DIGRA 2018 Conference in Turin, Italy. The conference was well organized and the quality of papers was high. As always, I kept conference notes here.

I was struck how game studies is less and less about games. Of course, games are the subject of research, but game studies is less about the appreciation of games and more and more about what we can learn about other things through games. Games, like literature, have become a lens for looking at other things making the field richer and better aligned with other fields like media studies or literary criticism.

Next year the conference will be held in Japan and linked up with Replaying Japan. I look forward to the encounter between these different game studies cultures.

Kompu Gacha: Banning Loot Boxes

I’ve been meaning to write for while about Kompu Gacha (or Complete Gacha), a game mechanic that was popular in Japanese mobile games until it was banned in 2012 (see this story too). Kompu gacha is an extreme (or complete) form of the gacha game mechanic which was in turn inspired by the ubiquitous gachapon vending machines you find in Japan where for a couple of coins you get a small loot box (sphere) with a random gift in some theme or series. Children collect items by buying the loot boxes with the hopes of getting new trinkets in series that they collect and trade. Mobile games in Japan borrowed this well known play mode and began to include virtual loot boxes that you could buy in-game. Developers fine tuned the system to the point where millions of yen were being spent on vanishingly rare items. This led to a public controversy after there were cases of youth spending thousands of dollars that then led to banning the loot boxes.

There are a number of reasons why this mechanic and its banning are interesting:

  • It is an example of the grey area between gaming and gambling. In fact, Belgium has also outlawed video game loot boxes as gambling.
  • Gacha mechanics in general are economically important to Japanese mobile/social game design.
  • They are an interesting mechanic in and of themselves and show how an element of randomness that has consequences can be fun. Philosophers and historians of gambling have noted the importance of the element of real risk to the intesity of gambling. It gives everyone a chance to be heroic.

I should mention that it was Mark Johnson and Tom Brock who drew my attention to loot boxes. They have been doing important research on loot boxes and giving papers on the subject.