RCGS Part 2: Games Research in Japan

What is the state of game studies in Japan? The inaugural conference of the Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies (RCGS) that I blogged about before, had a session titled “Game Studies in Japan: Past and Future” that was dedicated to introducing game studies in Japan to the Ritsumeikan audience through speakers invited from other universities. While one session with three speakers hardly covers the variety of game studies in Japan, it (and the discussion that followed) were my introduction to how the Japanese talk about the field among themselves.

Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts about Japanese game culture and game studies with support from GRAND, The Ritsumeikan Art Research Center, and the Japan Foundation. Many of these talks were in Japanese translated simultaneously for me which means I could have misinterpreted things. If you think I got it wrong, email me!

Hiroshi Yoshida introduced the session with a question, what is the significance of doing games research? In different ways we returned to this issue throughout the conference. Game studies or games research is new to Japan even if people have been doing it for a while. It is perceived as a young field that is coming out and therefore there is both a need to catch up with the discourse elsewhere and an opportunity to establish a trajectory.

The first talk was by Akito Inoue from Center for Global Communication (GLOCOM) of the International University of Japan and it was about “Gamification.” GLOCOM, as you can see from some of the papers in English that they have made available, does more than game studies. They look at,

the information society and Japanese society from diverse perspectives, while at the same time aiming to be an “intelprise” that actively pursues joint activities with enterprises and the state (government).

Inoue, like many of the Japanese speakers, started by describing himself. He made a point of mentioning that he was a gamer that likes philosophy and theory. Unlike the more senior researchers he grew up playing games. Now he looks at the play experience, the history of games and the phenomenon of game culture of games in general.

He talked about how people think of games as only entertainment and therefore as not a serious topic for study. But think of novels – they are also entertainment. Stories are everywhere – in politics and in business. He gave the example of President Obama’s 2008 victory speech when he told the story of Ann Nixon Cooper a black woman who survived the depression, racism and sexism to vote. Stories are told everywhere, novels are packaged stories (and we study them seriously.)

He then asked, what is a game? He distinguished the phenomenon of a game and the phenomenon of playing a game. Games are not as simple of stories as the author can’t control communication reliably through game. There is even a gaming aspect to the bureaucratic world because in bureaucracy there are rules, though it is sometimes hard to tell what the rules are.

This brought him back to gamification, an idea that comes from abroad. Gamification is being seen from the perspective of American marketing as a way of promoting things. For Inoue, gamification makes sense now for three reasons:

  • We know a lot about games and can use this to make things playful,
  • We have technologies that can log everything in your life to the cloud (thus making it possible to gamify life),
  • And, we have the technology in smartphones so you can document your life and play anywhere.

Inoue in his research likes to think about how to gamify bureaucracy though he admitted such games are difficult to design. But, if walking can be made into a game, as the success of Pocket Pikachu showed, then other tasks should be possible. Then he gave the example of the Nike pedometer, iPhone app and social site called Nike + which virtualizes walking and running activity. Nike + makes walking/running a social game you can play with others and it visualizes your exercise.

To close Inoue introduced the Denkimeter, a popular game he designed to save electricity after the March 11 tsunami (which led to rolling blackouts in parts of Japan because of the loss of power generation from affected nuclear power plants.) The idea of the Denkimeter is to record your power usage at work or home, many times a day and then find ways to save power. You get “combat power” and supportive messages if you succeed and readings are tweeted.

Inoue concluded that if games can be included in our daily life it may make a difference. Imagine games that visualize our daily life. Would they help us understand ourselves?

Nobushige Hichibe gave the second talk on, “Game creation culture and industry recommendations.” He is associated with the Center for Agent-Based Social Systems Science (CABSSS) of the Tokyo Institute for Technology and gave an powerful talk about the need for change in the gaming industry in Japan.

Hichibe also introduced himself and his background. He studies information sociology and has studied the creative culture of amateurs and how the content industry is changing.

He began by talking about the decline of Japanese game industry on global stage. In 1995 Japan had 70% of the market while it now has 30% of the market. Manga and Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPG) are down while Holywood design is up. Western game companies learned from Japan and are open to new technology. In the West the top universities are active in computer science and the arts and Western game companies make game development environments available to users.

This was the heart of his talk and he explained the modding phenomenon to the audience. In the West game companies encourage modding (the modification of games.) They make their game development environments available as it can lead to new content (that can be commercialized) and extends their franchise. When companies support modding they also develop a fan culture and outsource training and development costs. Modding environments can establish defacto standards for development environments.

By contrast Japanese companies don’t make development or modding tools available and strictly control their IP. There have been game development circles since the 1970s but they get no industry support. By contrast in the manga and anime spheres fan circles are encouraged and allowed to sell their fan works. It is easier for someone who wants to get into the business to do derivative manga and get noticed than games. It shouldn’t be so.

Hichibe ended with some recommendations for industry:

  • Amateur game development circles should be supported by
  • Industry should respect and pay tribute to amateur creation culture. Industry needs to respect and understand the value of having a vibrant amateur development scene.

Munieyuki Takahashi was the last speaker of the session and he talked about games in general, including analogue games. He is a graduate student studying micro-sociology at Hitosubashi University. His research involves looking at how players see themselves; he wants to understand culture of board games.

In his talk he started by theorizing games asking What is a game? What is play? And what is game design? Academic research starts with definition and Takahashi discussed definitions of game design by the likes of Chris Crawford and Eric Zimmerman. He argued that game designers create a context for play, not the play itself. Game designers create structures or spaces for play, but it is the players that play.

This led him to ask where is the border between design and play? To answer this he proposed a simple topology of analogue games and design:

  • With traditional games we don’t know who the authors are – many people create house rules and the game evolves.
  • With new games we know who the authors are. We know the game components, standard rules, player roles – there is a flow from designers to players.

But, in the middle is the (game) mastering domain. Many analogue games are played with game masters who adapt rule sets and components  and run the game. He connected this to Japan’s loss at Midway in WWW II when the Japanese apparently did a bad job at simulating or war gaming the situation. This led Takahashi to give a quick and interesting history from floor gaming and war gaming to dungeons and dragons in the 1970s and from there to role playing games and modding.

Returning to analogue games Takehashi asked Who is designing the games? Is it the players, designers, or game masters? There are clearly overlapping fields of design, play/use, and mastering.

The challenge for the future in game design is how to share design with masters and players!

After the papers there was a discussion chaired by Yoshida. The issues that came up included:

  • How are designers and players separated and brought together? The speakers asked about the common spaces that bring developers and users together like the magazines in the 1980s that were a shared zone. Now they seem more separated perhaps because of the difficulty of governance of intermediate communities, perhaps because of industry policy.
  • Do modding and game mastering make money? The
  • Hichibe asked Inoue a fascinating question as to whether we can use gaming as a concept to understand other things the way gamification is helping us master other activities? Can we gamify theory?
  • Intellectual property and the control of IP. Why did the availability of modding happen on PCs and not consoles? While modding may be a Western phenomenon, the strict control of IP seems to be American. This raises all sorts of issues about soft power and the global control of IP by companies and how it is different across countries.
  • They also talked about the need to do game studies in English. Do they have to publish in English in order for their research to be taken seriously? Should key texts in English be translated into Japanese?

Since this conference I have heard variants of these questions around industry, globalization, IP, and the language of game studies. Stay tuned as I find interlocutors to guide me through the issues.

Next Part 3: Game studies beyond Japan and other issues