LEVELUP!: Jérémie, thank you for the opportunity to talk about your work. Let’s first talk a bit about your person – you are a PhD student working in the field of „Comparative Game Studies“. How did your interest in the topic start and what exactly is it you are doing?
Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon: My academic background is a little convoluted; as a highschool student, I was very interested in Japanese history and culture, so when I entered University I made sure to enlist in a the East Asian Studies and History double major at Université de Montréal. There, I eventually ditched history to find a new interest in literature and cinema. When the time to settle on a specific research topic to apply to an MA program came, I decided that it would be best for me to focus on a contemporary object. This is when I realized that my hobby as gamer could become my way to reach a graduate education; I eventually was accepted as an MA student at McGill University in East Asian Studies and was able to explore the topic of Japanese video games which, at the time, was very understudied.
After that, I had the wonderful opportunity to study game culture in Tokyo for about two years through a scholarship offered by the Ministry of Education of Japan. This was a great time for me as was constantly exposed to Japanese academia while continuing to improve my Japanese; this is also the moment when I developed an interest in the Japanese arcade scene.
At the moment, I am in the fourth year of a bidisciplinary Phd program at the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature and Humanities Computing. I am writing my dissertation on the affordances of software, hardware and space in Japanese game centers, a project that will hopefully bring more ideas and material to the studies of video games as a situated practice. Most of my work involves close reading of specific arcade games, but recently, my new specialization in Humanities Computing prompted me to mix in some elements of qualitative methods to study both games and game culture on a larger scale.
LU!:Many games have already achieved a level of complexity which rivals films or literature. However, a lot of people would argue that games are not art, but just entertainment. Are they wrong? Is it even fair to compare the (relatively) young medium of video games to other forms of art?
JPG: This is a large question that will certainly keep scholars busy for year to come, but what I can say now is that one not should base his or her opinion of the artistic value of a text or work based on its form, but instead focus on what they represent, as well as on what ideas they convey. From this perspective, all types of creative works could be considered art since they can be read in many different ways that either communicate certain ideas, or represent a societal issue, however I could understand a critic saying that Doom, for example, is not art. Here, I think that the issue is more one of distinction between the so-called high art and cultural products created for the purpose of entertainment. However, while Doom is certainly not Citizen Kane, it certainly is a complex and multilayered creative work that can be studied from many angles.
However, every once in a while, a new interesting title will come out, challenging the old idea that that games are just entertainment products, giving some sort of legitimacy to video games in general by associating it with qualities traditionally associated with high art. As games are now slowly entering museums, I feel that critics and gamers are equally starting to grasp the full potential of games and interactive media as a unique platform through which it is also possible to think about deep issues relative to the human condition. Jason Rohrer’s Passage is certainly a proof of that.
LU!: The main focus of your studies are Japanese Arcades. But isn’t it just Dance Dance Revolution and Beat ‚em Ups? How does one tackle this topic from a scientific point of view? And what kind of problems do you have to face in your research?
JPG: It is not! As foreign observers of Japanese arcade culture, game centers, as they are called in Japan, are often represented in a stereotypical manner. Arcades are often presented through games that we can easily understand since they were also exported to overseas markets at some point in their commercial life. Dance Dance Revolution is a good example of that, along with some of the most popular rhythm games. But restraining our gaze to just these specific titles and genre eclipses the diversity of games and genre that rely on technology sometimes designed expressly for them such as the trading card arcade game such as Sengoku Taisen, or the soon-to-be released Magicians DEAD, a game repurposes the player’s hand as a sort of controller monitored by a motion sensor.
Arcades can be studied from a variety of perspectives, but I chose to look at arcade games as human-machines ludic assemblages. Specifically, I focus on studying a few case studies like Virtua Fighter and Space Invaders from the perspective of their affordances as machines and software, as well as their social affordances as non-human agents occupying a space in a place. I rely on many different situated gaming theories developed in the field of game studies, as well as affordance theory (James Jarome Gibson), actor-network theory (Bruno Latour), and space theory (Henri Lefebvre and Doreen Massey). Concretely, I want to demonstrate how playing a game in an arcade is fundamentally a different experience than console or mobile gaming; the arcade play experience is very much defined by the relationship between the game, the space, the hardware and gamers in equal parts.
Virtua Fighter provides a good case study demonstrating how arcade cabinet design have a deep impact on shaping the game’s public beyond the software itself. Indeed, in 1993, the game was initially released on the the Super Megalo 50 arcade machine at launch, a large screen cabinet that attracted a lot of attention due to its size, but the position of its seats dissuaded complete strangers from playing against one another as both players would have to sit very closely together. The game was popular with casual users who wanted to try the game with friends. The game ultimately released using the Astrocity 2 hardware, which consisted of two smaller single-player machines put back to back. Opposing players would no longer have to know the player on the other side, favouring the emergence of a competitive scene. This profoundly change the culture around the game; Virtua Fighter witnessed a renaissance in popularity, spawning many hot competitive communities in central Tokyo, as well as many tournaments.
LU!: In the course of your studies, you created the „Arcade and Game Center Chirashi Database“. What is it exactly?
JPG: Over the course of this research project, I visited many game centers in Japan’s major urban areas, and I eventually realized just how much game center spaces are characterized by the circulation of many different kinds of pamphlets and other paper-based advertising. This initially might seem like a contradiction given the digital nature of the activities of these spaces, but it makes sense as an extension of the pamphlet tradition in Japanese advertising culture that is still very present today. I did not think much of it at first, but it dawned on me that these flyers constitute a great wealth of paratextual documents providing a comparison point from which we can read game centers as commercial and communal spaces in relation with past game center culture, and most importantly in relation with different contemporary game centers.
Arcade culture in Japan is very ephemeral; games disappear from venues as soon as they are no longer profitable, and venues have been closing down steadily since the 1980s. With the „Arcade and Game Center Chirashi Database„, I wanted to document and archive the chirashi (or pamphlets) that I have been able to get my hands on for the past 5 years or so. This database is a digital component of my thesis; it is meant to extend to both be a useful resources for academics, and a way for me to present three of my game center case studies from a different perspective. Presenting these primary documents is a way to, I believe, make the game center spaces readable places, or at least provide a tiny window to the elements that constituted their cultures at some point in time. Studying in-store advertisement for a game like Xevious in comparison with, let’s say, Gunslinger Stratos tells use a lot about the media ecology of both of these games, and the type of market they were targeting.
Perhaps the notion of JRPGs, with […] the WRPG […], is more problematic than helpful in the process of nurturing an academic understanding of Japanese game culture.
LU!: You don’t limit yourself to the research of Arcades, but Japanese video games in a much broader context. At last year’s „Replaying Japan“, a game studies conference, you gave a talk about JRPGs. That’s certainly very different from Arcades, which focus more on the gameplay experience, whereas JRPGs feature long narratives. How did you become interested in them?
JPG: Final Fantasy VII had a deep impact on me when I first played it as a teenager, probably like many other people of my age. It has great characters, an engaging story, and it dealt with relevant themes such as environmentalism and social classes. After FFVII, I tried to get my hands on and play as many console RPGs as a could. I knew that this particular approach at world building and the development of strong characters were a common feature that these works all shared, but I don’t think I realized that this was perhaps because they all came from a Japanese tradition at first. As I focused my gaming habits on we called “JRPGs”, this eventually became much more obvious to me, and at the same time, to a lot of other gamers out there who eventually established this game genre category as an actual field of knowledge of its own amongst video game fans.
I initially approach JRPGs with that same enthusiasm in my graduate studies (I initially wanted to work on the Xenosaga series), but being exposed to critical theory and close readings methodologies on a fairly constant basis, my academic self began questioning the assumption of my gamer self; perhaps the notion of JRPGs, like many other things, is a construct concealing problematic power dynamics at work between the West and Japan in relation to our perception and essentialization of the Other. Specifically, the notion of Orientalism developed by Edward Said denounces the construction of a pejorative image of the Oriental through literature and criticism that reduced the Oriental as a set of usually negative characteristics acting as a foil to the Western subject. Perhaps the notion of JRPGs, with its more common foil, the WRPG (Western Role-Playing Game), is more problematic than helpful in the process of nurturing an academic understanding of Japanese game culture. These issues led me to study Japaneseness in Japanese video games for my Master dissertation project, and to propose the idea that Japaneseness, and by extension, JRPG-ness, is a performative concept, one that is being constantly evaluated and renegotiated within Western gaming culture every time a new title comes up. The meaning of JRPGs is very malleable.
LU!: There have been tons of discussions on what qualifies as a JRPG. Is every Japanese RPG automatically a JRPG? I’m thinking of games such as Dark Souls or Xenoblade Chronicles X, which feel like they are more aimed at a Western audience.
JPG: Indeed. Are Japanese game developers condemned to exclusively create JRPGs? Can a RPG that looks and plays like a Japanese role-playing game, but was designed and built by a local team in Singapore be considered a JRPG? This is not an easy question, and it shows some of the problems that comes with associating specific game design elements with a culture and a country. Ultimately, however, the notion of JRPGs is a Western one; it is not before very recently (specifically, since Imageepoch’s JRPG product brand name established in 2011 and discontinued in 2015 when the company filed for bankruptcy) that the notion of JRPG finally quietly penetrated the Japanese market. Besides being used as a marketing ploy that repurposes Western terminology of Japanese essentialism as a sort of positive nationalist gaming symbol (take a look at the Galapagos RPG manifesto commercial and notice the heavy use of national anthem vibes), the genre category of JRPG is virtually non-existent in Japan.
As you say, certain games are certainly designed with a foreign audience in mind. Final Fantasy XV is a great example of that. The Japanese game market increasingly relies on international sales to keep studios afloat. Japan is aging more rapidly than many other developed countries, which means that less children are born every year, and since most casual gamers are young people and kids, the target demographic will eventually get smaller and smaller. To counter the effect of this phenomenon, Japanese publishers need to expand their business overseas, which they are doing by producing games with market potential abroad, and aggressively acquiring a foothold in other regions by purchasing or creating studios abroad. More capital is dedicated to design games that are more palatable to a foreign market, which probably explains why so many language tracks were developed for FFXV (over 4 I believe).
But it is also important to distinguish between this market, and the local market, which is heavily influenced by the specific media ecology of Japan, which we call the Media Mix. A large array of games produced in Japan tie into this marketing strategy, relying on popular characters and gameworld and spreading them across many different platforms such as manga, animation, cinema and video games, enriching their value with every different platform they absorb. Somes games, including what we could consider JRPGs, that are rooted in that system have very little chances of circulating beyond Japan, which also shapes our understanding of Japanese games by their absence.
LU!: In your talk, you focussed on the perception of JRPGs, how they’ve been approached by the media. How did public opinion on JRPGs change over the years?
JPG: Yes. One of the questions that I want to tackle in this ongoing study of JRPGs is the following: “Is the notion of JRPG useful in academic discourse at all?”. As I dived into the issue, I realized that in order to answer a question like that, it was essential to narrow down the definition of JRPG as much as possible, but given the nature of the concept, that proved to be difficult. What the term JRPG meant in 1995 is very different from today’s perspective. So, instead of a establishing a definition of JRPGs based on its formal characteristics, I thought that a solution could be found by thinking of JRPGs as a discourse, one that evolves over time based on how JRPGs games are addressed by different gatekeepers media outlets. That could be done by taking a close look at the evolution of language and discourse used by critics and commentators in gaming media over time. But to read and analyze thousands of reviews and articles would have taken too much time, so I set out to use a methodology that is currently booming in the field of Digital Humanities, that is text mining, and more specifically, topic modelling. This distant reading technique analyzes the patterns of composition in a specific text against a greater corpus, giving it a statistical probability of the prominence of specific “bags of words” (that some can be considered discourses) over the years. I analyzed about 2050 JRPGs reviews published in anglophone websites specialized in game critique from 1993 to 2014 using this method and the conclusion allowed me to confirm some discursive patterns used talk about JRPGs over time (focusing on narrative development and characters), as well as to discover some surprising ones.
My results indicated that, while the vocabulary around JRPGs was in development ever since the 1990s, it is only in 2004 that the terms would first appear in a Eurogamer review of Tales of Symphonia, as far as web publications are concerned. It also confirmed how impactful Final Fantasy VII was for the genre; the 1997 release prompted a change in language where Japanese role-playing games were more and more compared with Western ones, as well as other Japanese cultural exports like animation and manga, presumably to make sense of them and situate them within a specific media lineage. Another tendency that became clear in a shift of general appreciation of JRPGs; in 2009, negative language around JRPGs surpassed positive language for the first time since the 1990s, a tendency that only increased as years went by. There are potentially many reasons for this, but one could be the technological shift towards the first HD consoles, a shift that JRPGs and Japanese video games studios in general had a hard time negotiating.
I have to say that these conclusions have not been officially reviewed by the academic community and published yet, so you may take them with a grain of salt. But hopefully I will be able to share them in the near future.
LU!: While it has been circulating around for some time, the first huge media outlet using the term JRPG was Eurogamer in a review of Tales of Symphonia. Do you think there is a particular reason why an online medium coined the term instead of the classical print magazines? In Germany, print magazines often used terms such as „console RPG“ or „Japano-RPG“ when talking about what we now consider JRPGs.
JPG: On that point, I want to be very transparent. My analysis was focused on web publication exclusively in order to facilitate the analysis process. It could a possibility that the term JRPGs appeared in printed publications before the release of Tales of Symphonia, and I am personally very interested in finding out. Collaboration with other researchers that have access to a significant amount of printed material would be fascinating and could help us find the other pieces of the JRPG puzzle.
LU!: I think to end this interview, we will have to resort to a question which you have surely been asked a thousand times already: What are your three favourite video games of all times?
JPG: Now, that’s a tough question… but here is a list of games that really mean something to me.
- Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
What a powerful game! I really admired how Kojima balanced the game’s’ scripted narrative and its emergent gameplay dynamics.
- Final Fantasy VII
I loved this game and continue to do so for all the reasons I mentioned above. It was groundbreaking then, and still playable today.
- Space Invaders
I use this game on occasions to teach many aspects of video games, both mechanically and historically. It seems that it is always possible to go back to this seemingly simple game and find new elements to address. Despite all of the photorealistic games available on the market today, it is still very efficient; I always get reactions from the class at the culminating point of any playthroughs.
- The Witcher 3
Yes, I am cheating. The Witcher 3 is one of the most meaningful game of this generation. Every quest is filled with brilliant characters and interesting situations that always somehow reflect back on the gravity of our choices, and, to some extend, the human condition. I hope we still talk about it in 10 years.
- Jérémie’s homepage (jeremiepgagnon.net)
- Jérémie’s personal research blog (jeremiepgagnon.wordpress.com)
- Jéremie on Twitter (@JeremiePGagnon)