asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia

Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
If you wish to contribute to Asiacape Vistas, please send an email using the form on the contact page.

Martin Roth is awarded historic PhD degree: 'Games encourage us to explore alternatives'

The Asiascape hosted Beyond Utopia is a Leiden University project funded by NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) concerned with identifying the potentials of artistic media such as manga, anime, and video games for expression, criticism, and intervention in political thinking.

On August 27 Martin Roth, one of the project's three PhD candidates, was the first to get the degree for his research on the political potential of video games. An historic PhD degree it seems; it is Leiden's Faculty of Humanities first one ever in this field.

Below a translation of an article by Bart Braun in Leiden University newspaper Mare about Martin and his PhD thesis. The original article in Dutch is available on Mare Online

 (translation by
The academic interest for games has finally reached Leiden: last month the Faculty of Humanities bestowed its first PhD degree in this field.
 ‘Games encourage us to explore alternatives’.

In the 1950’s the University of Manchester assisted in the development of the worlds first commercially available computer: the Ferranti Mark 1. It consisted of a huge box containing over four thousand vacuum tubes, built under the supervision of the legendary computer scientist Alan Turing.
This computer outperformed the mechanical calculators of the time and you could also use it to play chess. When you entered your move with a punch card, the computer presented a countermove after 20 minutes. The human opponent then had to put this move on a wooden chessboard; the Mark 1 was not equipped with a monitor to display the course of the game. If you were smart enough to understand the punch card hassle, you were likely to beat it at chess because the machine could not think more than two moves ahead. But still, depending on the definition, this was the first computer game of all time.
The computer game has come a long way since. Monitors came and more and more beautiful things could be seen on it. Apart from programmers, composers, authors, actors and artists all participate in the creation of a game and the computer games business forms the largest branch of the entertainment industry. Destiny, the console game that was released this week, cost 500 million dollars to make, almost twice as much as the most expensive movie ever.
Games have gained enormously in popularity and sales, yet they command little respect. Music and film can be considered art; the written word literature and interactive artworks in museums receive praise. But the real culture vultures turn their noses up at a mix of all these elements.
The academic interest in games is lagging behind that of other art forms too. If scientists have been doing research into games, it is to examine whether they make you smarter, faster, addicted or more violent.
This is slowly beginning to change, also in Leiden. Games did come into play, but only now they are made explicit. Recently Leiden started to offer a minor in Game Studies, in which games will be approached in a art historical and philosophical way rather than a neurological one. The introductory course has already begun and all 35 spots for the minor are taken. Professor Comparative Philosophy and Political Thought Chris Goto-Jones [Asiascape : the original Dutch text wrongly states that Goto-Jones is professor of Eastern Philosophy], has won a NWO scholarship to research the ‘intersections of visual culture and political philosophy in Japan’. Last month Martin Roth was the first of the PhD students on this project who had to publicly defend his thesis.
 I believe that gaming culture and the game industry can profit greatly from more academic research into games’, Roth says. ‘Theory-based critique and methodical inquiry offer new perspectives on the medium. I also believe in the innovative force of a research-based scholarly critique, which is not only interested in judging how „good“ or “harmful” a game was but also looks at its content critically and against the background of our lives, our history and ideologies. With my thesis -and with the book I plan to publish sometime soon- I hope to stimulate a dialogue between the humanities and gamers.’
Art, and especially literature and film, enable us to get closer to the other.  A man who grew up in the nineties can better imagine what it must have been like to be a Jewish girl in World War II thanks to the diary of Anne Frank. In a similar fashion, art and games should be able to let us imagine something reallydifferent. Roth: ‘The world won’t change when you enact a soldier even if you haven’t been one yourself. The “Otherness” I’m interested in is the kind that hasn’t existed before but seems plausible to imagine. Science Fiction authors have tried to create Otherness in their works, with more or lesser success, and my question is if games might have the potential to do something similar.
The search for new possibilities of “Otherness” is central to my work, because these days we seem to live under the impression that the status quo is the only possibility. It scares me that I am not able to come up with an alternative to the current socioeconomic system. Perhaps videogames are capable of stimulating our thinking of radical alternatives because they put us in situations that don’t fit with our common views, opinions and experiences. In other words, when we are disrupted. Games manage not only let’s us experience new roles and situations remote from our sofas and daily lives, but are also capable of profound disruption on very basic levels of our experience and thought.’
If you mainly play Angry Birds or Candy Crush and don’t recognize these kind of gaming experiences: don’t worry. For his thesis, Roth used a selection of Japanese games that haven’t all gained much popularity in the Netherlands. ‘Japan has a long and rich gaming culture, which has influenced gaming globally worldwide. There is an enormous amount of Super Mariogames but there are also many notable exceptions. Plus, Japanese games are less violence-focused. My personal favorite is the Metal Gear Solid series precisely because it plays with violence in a very ambiguous way. The games in this series feature instances in which violence is directly criticized or in which the tragedies of war are displayed in a critical way. In some cases the characters in the game even directly address the player and confront him/her with the violent actions committed throughout the game, and the fact these were done solely for entertainment’s sake.’
Another example: ‘The time travel game Shadow of Memoriesconfronts the player with a world in which our concept of time does not make sense anymore. This game invites us to question our own understanding of time and its linearity. What does it mean to measure our entire lives in the same time - I worked 8 hours, you worked 10.  We spend time although we never seem to really have it, in the sense that it is ours to distribute freely. What kind of world would it be if we did have time? Would it work?
‘This is a rough sketch of my though process while playing the game and reading Paul Virilio’s political philosophy on time and the speed of our society. Games can speak to this, express it in a palpable way. Some games, at least, and and maybe only if you want to be disrupted.

Martin Roth, Disruptive Conflicts in Computopic Space – Japanese SF Videogames as sources of Otherness and Radical Political Imagination.
Date PhD defence: 27 August

Replaying Japan in Edmonton

In August, I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Replaying Japan conference in Edmonton, Canada. This was the second gathering of scholars from all over the world working on Japanese games organized between the University of Alberta in Canada and Ritsumeikan University in Japan. The kind support from the Goto-Jones VICI project (NWO) allowed me to join the event.

Although Edmonton is not exactly next door to Leiden, I am very glad I could do so. This was a rare opportunity to meet and discuss with an expert group of scholars working on Japanese videogames in a very nice atmosphere (as you can see on the photos provided on the conference website). Combining great keynotes, a variety of technological, cultural and other perspectives on games, including regional game creators' experiences, the conference stood out in that it opened a space for dialogue between researchers and practitioners from many countries and made a serious and successful attempt at reflecting on the richness, diversity, complexity and transnational character of games. What is more, the organizers and volunteers spared no pains in order to make the conference an inspiring, fun, and even relaxing event; an unhurried schedule and very skilled volunteer interpreters for Japanese were as much part of this as raw snack vegetables and lots of coffee - not to mention a very nice dinner.

What was it all about? As the title promises, we replayed Japan - for example in the first keynote delivered by THE Nishikado Tomohiro, creator of Space Invaders (1978). He reflected on the almost single-handed creation of the game, bringing with him all the way from Japan his Space Invader notebooks from the 1970s: a mixture of graphics sketches, circuit-layouts and hand-written assembler code. In case you didn't know this: the invaders were human in the first instance, but Nishikado ultimately decided that killing humans was not a good idea, and invented his space invaders. These, in turn,

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With some exceptions, like the UFO, the aliens, as many science fiction theorists have noted, are not so alien after all...

While Nishikado reflected on his own creative process and on one of the most influential moments in Japaneses videogame culture, Mia Consalvo took one step back, tracing the influences of Japanese games on "Western" game designers and urging us to pay more attention to the creative flows across countries, regions, and cultures. She proposed to distinguish games "from Japan", which could have come from anywhere, and games "of Japan", which reflect on their cultural production context directly. Martin Picard, in turn, traced common discourses scholars of Japanese games are confronted with, in the attempt to negotiate between universalism, cultural specificity, and exoticism. He developed "geemu" (Japanese ゲーム, for "game") as a term for games in Japan that reflects on the historical development they are embedded in.
A Canadian Industry Panel, an introduction to cutting-edge AI-research by Vadim Bulitko (whether you like it or not, it seems that we feel more agency in games that automatically adjust to our preference and give us exactly what we want), as well as a very interesting poster and game presentation session, added to the variety of perspectives present at the conference, which was equally reflected in a wide range of rich papers. I'll not go into much detail here, since each paper I heard deserves much more space and time than I can offer here. Rather, I'd like to refer the inclined reader to the conference proceedings on the website, which contain all abstracts, as well as the photos found on the same site.
My own presentation was part of a great panel on violence in Japanese games, in which Mimi Okabe, Ryan Scheiding, and myself tackled violence from very different perspectives. Mimi proposed to understand the extremely violent sex and rape scenes in the Japanese BL game Enzai as a playful way of turning the body into a spectacle, which is capable of interrogating power relations as well as existent stereotypes of manga and anime character types like the beautiful boy (美少年 bishōnen). She concluded that exaggerations of violence can function as a tool for political intervention and liberation from existing frameworks.
Ryan Scheiding, in turn, looked at the problematic and often racist depictions of Japanese soldiers in historical war games. By comparing specific cases in several popular games with earlier depictions of Japanese soldiers, or "treacherous moneymen" in media like Bugs Bunny etc., he shows how stereotypical representations have persisted and evolved in contemporary games, calling for more sensitivity to such representations among scholars and the gaming community.
In my own presentation, I focussed on the series Metal Gear Solid, arguing that the games confront their player with a complex and ambiguous and provocative experience of violence, between critique and glorification, ultimately forcing the player into a state of exception in which his or her actions demand for reevaluation beyond priorly applicable frameworks and norms. Thus, the games create a free space in which play, including playful violence, is possible.

Overall, the event was rich with new ideas and acquaintances, and definitely a great contribution to drawing together scholars scattered all over the world working on the still developing field of research one of my main interests lies in. I can't wait for the follow-up event next year!

Once again, my thanks to the organizers and all participants for a wonderful event and to the NWO and Chris Goto-Jones' VICI "Beyond Utopia" for supporting my participation!

Gamification and the Japanese LDP

Image source: Internet Watch News

After some very busy months, I finally got round to writing about a fun game the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party officially released for smartphones this past summer: あべぴょん (Abepyon) is a casual jumping game in which the player has to swing the device left/right to jump from one platform to the next and climb the ladder of fame towards the top: the prime minister’s rank. And the best thing is, the character you control is no one else than Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in various outfits. Before I say more, check out these links to get an idea of the game, or simply download it for your smartphone if you have one (careful, its addictive).
youtube video 1

youtube video 2

Abepyon is surprisingly fun and addictive, because its mechanics are simple and rewarding. You climb, receive points for each meter you elevate the character, with which you can unlock new outfits for the PM. More importantly, your achievements are signaled by displaying known buildings which match the current height of your climb, and a rank in the party/government corresponding to the height you achieve before falling, from “member of parliament” over “leader of a parliament committee” to “cabinet minister” and, finally, “prime minister.”

If you are not content with simply enjoying it, you might want to ask 1. what it communicates, 2. what it wants to achieve, and 3. if it is effective to this end. However, I’m not entirely sure about 1., so 2. and 3. are even more difficult to evaluate. Let’s start with the obvious. The game creates sympathy: it’s fun, addictive, and not lacking self-irony, featuring a cute and modifyable character and a playful overall design. Maybe I should stop here. This is enough and I think the LDP PR office has done a good job in this sense. Everything else is pure speculation...
But let’s speculate for a moment. In his book Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost (2007) shows how rule based gameplay can be used to represent or evaluate simple or intricate systems by making the player part of the system and granting him or her the ability to influence it. In one of his examples, Bogost discusses the U.S. Republican Party’s 2004 campaign game Tax Invaders, arguing that by replacing the aliens in the original Space Invaderswith John Kerry’s taxes and by positioning the player as the defender against this assault, the game successfully turns the player into an active part in the campaign against Kerry and the Democrats, which are at the same time framed as alien intruders (103-109).
Whereas Tax Invaderscharges the player with defending the country against a threat, Abepyon offers a quite different message . The game prompts us to help Abe(chan), the game's character, climb the career ladder. Although one could say that this contributes to the awareness that our individual actions (votes) count, this message is weakened considerably by the fact that the ascent leads no-where, at least in terms of political direction. (By the way, I’m not sure where the comparison with all the buildings fits in, beyond its feedback function. Maybe the LDP thinks of hierarchies in architectural terms?)
But maybe that is expecting too much. What do you think?

How Video Games help fuel Space Exploration

Sean Captain for TechNewsDaily

Dr. Richard Gariott de Cayeux
Having traveled to other worlds in his game creations such as "Ultima," Richard Garriott de Cayeux (video game developer and entrepreneur) is now doing the real thing. He flew to the International Space Station in 2008 (on a reported $30 million ticket). And his company, Space Adventures, has organized flights on Soyuz craft for about a dozen other moguls.

At the South by Southwest conference in Austin this week, Garriott de Cayeux explained why he thinks that private companies can make spaceflight radically cheaper and more common. Ideas include having NASA contract with private rocket companies for human spaceflight instead of building all its own craft (which it already does to launch robots such as the Mars Rover Curiosity). Garriott de Cayeux also promotes reusable spacecraft, which he claims offer tenfold to hundredfold cost savings.

Elon Musk of SpaceX, the most successful extraterrestrial entrepreneur so far, is testing reusable technology called Grasshopper. And so is John Carmack, creator of blockbuster video game franchises "Doom" and "Quake." His company, Armadillo Aerospace, is focused on building reusable craft.

TechNewsDaily asked Garriott de Cayeux why game creators are attracted to spaceflight.

"If there was something specific to the games industry, it would have to be from exploring virtual worlds," he said. "It would have to be … creating experiences that let people go into the unknown. Noting his many adventures, including into space, to Antarctica and to the bottom of the ocean, he said, "I find my drive to go explore is identical and very closely linked with my personal drive to create things for people to explore."

But the images in many games may not be the best thing to motivate future generations of explorers, said astronaut Mae Jemison. In a panel session, she spoke about the 100 Year Starship Project she leads, which aims to kick-start the technologies to make interstellar spaceflight possible within a century.
Many of the most popular video games over the years, including "Doom" and "Quake," are also very violent. "I'm struck by the fact that we have all the slasher, blood-and-guts, shoot-'em-up movies and stuff like that," Jemison said. "It doesn't make you very hopeful for the future."

Jemison's fellow panelist Jill Tarter of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) said that games could be helpful, "to the extent that people can … build interactive experiences that aren't always shooting and competitive."

LeVar Burton of "Star Trek" fame, also on the panel, told TechNewsDaily that he was excited about the use of biofeedback in games. "I can certainly imagine games that are … first-person experience, where you really have to be in a calm and imaginative state in order to advance in the gameplay," he said. "And I think that's a lot more productive in terms of entrainment than … the first-person shooter." [See also: Video Games Improve Surgeons' Skills]

Jemison also sees games as a way to study how people interact, which is critical to creating livable conditions for a space mission that will span entire lifetimes. Games, she said, could help to, "ferret out some information about human behavior."

Burton agreed: "Using gameplay to problem-solve — fantastic use of the technology."