AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 540

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Session 540: The Significance of Videogames for Japanese Studies

Organizer: Rachael Hutchinson, University of Delaware, USA

Chair: Mark B. Williams, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Discussant: Dennis Washburn, Dartmouth College, USA

The boom in home console gaming over the last ten years has led to greater numbers of students and faculty in higher education possessing detailed knowledge of Japanese videogames. How do we best harness this experience, as researchers and teachers in the field of Japanese Studies? What does the study of Japanese games add to existing research on Japanese culture and society? How does game study differ from the study of other media in our field? This panel seeks to examine the significance of videogames for Japanese Studies in terms of the research projects we carry out as well as the courses we teach. The high appeal of videogames for our students is a good draw for Japanese departments, often providing an ideal opening for discussion about Japanese culture, history and society. The panel includes three research papers providing different approaches to the Japanese roleplaying game, focusing on the military, strategy and fantasy genres, as well as one pedagogical paper addressing practical problems in incorporating videogames as part of a university syllabus. We aim to avoid 'otaku' stereotypes of gameplayers, and the panel is not a sociological/demographic study of players themselves. Rather, if the increasing number of Japanese console games in our students' homes is already a given, then what does this mean for their engagement in Japanese Studies? Finally, how do we apply theories from existing fields to the new game text, and what are the problems in these applications?

“Taisho Cherry Blossoms amidst a Fanciful Storm!”: Videogames as representations of the Japanese view of history.
Shiro Yoshioka, Newcastle University, United Kingdom

Depictions of Japan’s past in Japanese videogames (as well as manga and anime), are ideal sources for research into Japan’s view of its own history because of their often stereotypical nature and their pervasiveness in the culture. The nostalgic image of the Taisho period in Sakura Wars (SEGA, Red Company) is a typical example. The game was originally released in 1996 for the Sega Saturn console, followed by four sequels between 1998 and 2005. The Taisho period in the game continues beyond the fifteenth year when, in historical reality, the period ended and the Showa period began. Nonetheless, the image of Tokyo in the game strongly reflects the lifestyle and culture of the early Showa period. While the peaceful, cosmopolitan, yet still distinctively Japanese lifestyle of the imaginary Taisho period represents a stereotypical view of the historical Taisho period, it also reflects a yearning for an imaginary Japanese history in which the country did not plunge into war, as well as an imaginary link between pre- and post-war Japanese history, as well as between traditional and contemporary Japanese culture and society. The inextricable association of Japanese videogames with other popular texts is also significant. Sakura Wars was adapted into anime, manga and theatre plays. As such, it has a textual depth that enables it to bear analysis on a par with film, anime and manga. While less attention is paid to games than to anime and manga, some videogames may thus be analysed in similar ways to these media.

Mind Games: the Meta-narrative of Kojima Hideo’s Metal Gear Solid 2
Jon P. Holt, Portland State University, USA

Kojima Hideo’s bestselling videogame series, Metal Gear Solid (MGS), has been an international success. In 2001, the second game, MGS2, by taking advantage of the technological advances of the Playstation 2, demonstrated not only the full potential of the machine’s speed and graphics capabilities, but also Kojima’s vision of the future of videogames. MGS2 is a part of ongoing story about a super-soldier named Solid Snake attempting to defeat a warmongering cabal of arms dealers; yet Kojima raised the stakes of the genre by nesting within Snake’s story a meta-narrative that relentlessly questions the player’s motivations to play Snake’s wannabe super-replacement, Raiden. As the boundaries of “hero” dissolve, Kojima unleashes a series of distracting diatribes pointing out the contradictions of games in which the hero’s struggle to prevent violence reinforces the need, on the player’s part, to become a virtual soldier. A mini-videoscreen within the main frame functions at first to help, but later only to hinder the player’s progress, by questioning the effort to complete the game. By 2001, as the gaming industry was about to explode into unprecedented success with new generation consoles like the Playstation 2, suddenly Sony’s videogame auteur created a game in which beating the game was no longer the goal. What is the meaning of Kojima’s meta-videogame? How does it function? And how did Kojima succeed in creating not only a game, but a game series, that criticizes the desire of the player to become an agent of violence?

Examining gender and Japaneseness in Final Fantasy RPG fandoms
Lucy Glasspool, Nagoya University, Japan

The majority of writing on gender and other articulations of identity in video games focuses on games of U.S or U.K origin, with limited discussion of cultural specificity and how it impacts upon analysis. I will discuss possible ways of looking at Japanese fantasy roleplaying games (RPGs) in a Western context. In examining the narrative elements of a game, we may utilise film and media theory, including previous writing on gender in other Japanese media, since Japanese RPGs reflect other elements of Japanese popular culture such as anime. I would also like to mention Iwabuchi’s concept of mukokuseki, or erasure of “Japaneseness” in games. However, analysing only the narrative elements of such games does limit us. The majority of Final Fantasy narratives, released by Square / Square Enix from 1987 to 2010, are heteronormative, with a male main character; in order to complicate this, we may examine the activity of gameplayers themselves. If we utilise some of the theories born from the “ludology” debate, we may see that some gamers are subverting the privileged heteronormative plot by the way they play. There is also the question of the fan cultures surrounding Final Fantasy, and the non-game areas of activity, in which fans may support or challenge articulations of gender found in the official games. Here we also find a certain cultural capital placed by fans on the idea of “Japaneseness,” in the recognition of which interpretations of gender are also implicated.

Teaching videogames in a university syllabus: logistical problems and solutions
Rachael Hutchinson, University of Delaware, USA

This paper details ways in which I incorporated videogames as required texts on the syllabus for my course ‘Japanese Visual Culture: manga, anime and games’. Logistical issues that need to be resolved before games can be taught as course texts include funding (buying the game consoles, games and accessories like memory cards); space (where to house the consoles, where the students should play the games); and resource management: how do the students borrow the games to play? How does the library modify its catalog system, decide on text classification and shelve the texts? I will use the example of my own Games Lab at the University of Delaware to discuss the strategies we came up with to solve these problems. Next I consider the student body, often diverse in terms of experience with games in general and Japanese games in particular. How do we balance a class with experts and novices in terms of managing game literacy and class discussion? How do we design homework assignments that every student can successfully complete? Examples will be given of four ‘Games Lab observation sheets’, addressing stereotype and representation, immersion, and player-character identification. Students were required to play four different game genres in completing these assignments: roleplaying game, binary combat game, first-person shooter and simulation. Finally, I suggest some readings that worked in class discussion, and how we can apply the vast majority of English-language writing on videogames to the Japanese case study in ways that are meaningful to students.