A DiGRA Report, of sorts


I wrote the bulk of this post right after the DiGRA Tokyo event, on the plane ride home. Jet lag and job responsibilities delayed the editing and posting. But, hey, what am I gonna do. For what it’s worth, some reflections on key game research event of the year).

I’m wrapping up my visit to Tokyo and attendance at the Digital Games Research Association International conference. And respecting my tradition of frankly summing up the whole experience after the fact, I’ve sat down to see what I can remember, and what feels like it still matters once it was all over.

I think the best way to tackle this particular conference is to relate a series of contexts and by contexts I mean “stories” that I think will thread or bang together in such a way as to say something useful.

So let me start with talking about the last meal I ate in Tokyo, at the airport.

If you are a seasoned air traveler, and by “seasoned” I mean that you’ve spent more than an hour in any airport in the world and succumbed to eating the overpriced crap they foist on you because you simply have no other choice, then you know about how bad and overpriced airport food is. I thought the same thing until my dinner at a joint in Narita airport while waiting for my flight home.

I have this rule about eating in new cities or countries. I do my best to dig into whatever might be considered fair local fare. And all the while in Tokyo, other than sticking to a few standard Japanese dishes that I’d had before including curries and sushi and such, I pretty much ate whatever was in front of me. Admittedly, this wasn’t a moral choice, since I was ordering blindly most of the time. By the time I got to the airport to head back to Denver, I had earned the right to give up on local cuisine. Pizza seemed like a good idea. Or even McDonalds. But I realized that would be giving up early and besides, I felt great sticking to a more-or-less Japanese diet that week, so I picked a Japanese place, even if it was airport food.

The place I walked into looked sort of like a Denny’s in the US but the menu was decidedly Japanese. Dutifully pointing at a picture of what looked like some sort of tuna sushi set with all kinds of little extra plates on the side, I promised myself that if the food wasn’t that good, then air travel ethics required that I simply not eat what they brought and then go pick up something in the convenience store across the way.

IMG_2363The thing is, I had about the best sushi I can remember. And in case you think l live in some backwater where scraping the breading off fish sticks counts as sushi, let me assure you that my favorite fish joint at home boasts a full-time seafood buyer who lives in Tokyo and shops the Tsukiji fish market for their Denver sushi bar.

Yes, my generic airport sushi dinner was about as good as anything I’ve had at the Sushi Den.

And I am baffled beyond words.

Somewhere, after 10 days of soaking, steeping and saturating in Japanese culture, I still don’t understand how a waiter snaps to attention in a generic place and delivers fresh fish that would make the place a Zagat favorite back home. What I mean is, I came to Tokyo to better understand Japan and I left with equal amounts of information and confusion. My culture shock came at the end of a visit when, in the idiom of a dream, I found myself waking up and everything that I thought made sense just dissolved.

This story sits at the center of my feelings about the DiGRA conference. I had about as good a time as you can have at an academic event while still attending pretty much every session. I learned as much as I ever have at any conference, networked my ass off and still I felt like in a significant way, the conference sort of failed at crucial level.

To explain that, the next story.

I’ve had the good luck and great fortune to attend all three of the DiGRA conferences. While the initial DiGRA held in the Netherlands is probably still my favorite, because that’s when I met the vast majority of people I know in game studies to this day, the Tokyo DiGRA was probably my most productive and and most deeply satisfying.

In Tokyo, I cornered former DiGRA president Frans Mayra at a banquet in order to remind him of something I doubt he had forgotten, but something that I think the game studies crowd at large has let slip. Namely, back in Utrecht, when the idea of “game studies” was a joyous madness shared by the participants and Frans was standing up in front of hundreds of would-be games researchers, putting his professional credibility on the line, and telling people that there was a future to this crazy thing. While he was at it, he predicted that one day, we’d be big enough to return to the motherland of gaming and have a conference in Japan!

Five years later, that dream, that promise, came true.

The trouble with spinning dreams into reality is that once you do it, you sort of forget the cool qualities of the dreaminess. It’s sort of like finally going on a dream date only to discover your companion was so much better in your mind that slurping soup and laughing too loud at dinner. Even when things work out, sooner or later it’s hard to remember the dreamy phase of what it felt like to be in love.

And by way of close metaphor, I mean to point out that the proposal to have a DiGRA conference in Japan was not just an ambition to reach across the globe. Instead, it was a vision of a discipline studying a fundamental human urge sublimated throughout culture, ignored by the structures of power and undeniably reemerging through the medium of videogames. Going to Japan was always a two-fold move, then. It was a desire to find the common thread of gaming that strings across all cultures and races and to bow at the feet of the culture that always seemed to understand that videogames were more than products. Ask any game studies person, whether they study Japanese games or not, and they have to admit it’s kind of weird that a tiny island of industrious people have left such a giant footprint on games. Surely, as your academic Spider-sense is tingling, that’s worth looking into.

So, to arrive on the shores of the orient, to walk the streets of Tokyo and to consider the homeland of Sega, Nintendo, Sony, Square, Namco, Taito and more, was a pilgrimage as much as an international academic boondoggle.

Frans and I only talked for a few moments, but I like to think that this is what we would have talked about if schmoozing and drinking Asahi hadn’t taken over.

So the reality of the conference was that the Western world arrived, set up camp on the Tokyo University and pretty much talked to itself. Sure, we were surrounded by obliging and friendly Japanese. And I think most of us made an effort to engage our hosts in conversation. But whether it was the language barrier, or some unexpectedly huge cultural barrier, I come away from Tokyo with a greater appreciation of Japan, but much less idea what is going on.

And maybe that’s just a Western thing.

Here’s another story.

Jason Della Rocca put together a panel of ex-pats who moved from all over the world to work in Japan. Like me, they came to the ancestral home for so many things gaming to work and live. The trouble is, when Jason asked these guys (and they were all guys) why games in Japan were different, to a man they had no idea. They live in Japan and speak the language and still find the answer to that question as inscrutable as anyone else.

Then there was this little event, the Marc Prensky keynote. Without going into a bunch of detail about the presentation, Marc gave the wrong speech to the wrong crowd in the wrong tone and seemed oblivious to the fact that he was, as it were, the engineer on biggest train wreck I’ve ever witnessed at a conference. I tend to disagree with most everything Prensky says, but even I was a little a sorry for him in the aftermath.

What doesn’t add up is while the Western academics publically or privately chided his speech (many using their DSes and Pictochat to heckle the presentation real time, albeit silently) as far as I can tell the Japanese really liked his talk. Maybe I’m misreading a general cultural politeness for liking it. But based on the comments and the overall mood of the Japanese in the audience, I really think what he said struck a nerve with them.

And I just don’t get that. I keep looking for common ground and I keep coming back to East versus West.

Maybe it’s naïve to expect a pat answer, and perhaps it’s arrogant to demand one quickly. And surely the reason I keep asking the question has to do with my baked-in American willingness to make demands.

So, another story.

I respect Barry Atkins work and wit as much as anyone’s in the game research racket. So it was with some irony I listened to Barry talk about soul of academia in a talk the morning after taking Presnky to task during the Q&A following the catastrophic keynote. Barry’s morning talk was clearly aware that telling academics what they should do after telling Prensky that he had no business doing the same thing was close to a double standard.

To my mind though, Barry’s early morning rant would have made an ideal keynote. And what he had to offer in contrast to the various layers of hype, hyperbole and speculation was, “Slow down.”

Pointing about that the game industry hurtles forward at a breakneck pace fueled by quarterly milestones and iron clad ship dates, game researchers are always tempted to try and keep up. Blogs and all manner of online publishing temp the hasty scholar to push material out while it’s hot, and ensure that brilliant insights into BioShock and Halo 3 reach the masses before BioShock and Halo3 reach the budget bin.

IMG_2011What Barry urgently wanted to impress on the crowd was that it is in the nature of scholarship that it takes time. It takes time to come up with the right questions, those really worth answering and it takes more time to answer those questions in a way that matters, in a manner that will stand the test of time.

So, like the slow food movement, Barry wanted to remind his colleagues that the fast food mentality ported to game studies would produce a similarly fat and unhealthy (intellectually speaking) cohort of game scholars.

Reflecting on Barry’s words, I think again that Japan should have meant more than an exotic location to host a conference. In the five or so years that game studies has thought to identify itself as such, it has had the time to simmer some wonderful ideas. But often, DiGRA Japan seemed dangerously close to intellectual stagnation.

But, for me at least, there hope. Hope that there more researchers like Barry who will dwell on a subject and interrogate it for as long as it takes to find a single truth. And I have hope because of a random scheduling fluke that sent me into a games and values workshop.

So, a few more anecdotes.

On a personal level, I was struck by the work of Tracy Fullerton, Mary Flanagan and Celia Pearce. Their efforts to unearth and use values in games to my mind holds more promise that raw serious games to change the way we think about games. Following the mantra “The mechanics are the message”, this group’s work mirrors that of Ian Bogost (he of softwares that mount procedural rhetorics). Their \f game design workshops focused on monkey-wrenching popular games to change their value statements. Engineering social inequity into a game of Monopoly or playing with indigenous rights in a game of The Settlers of Catan, their approach helps focus on decisions, and thus the implicit value structure, of the games we play.

Tracy’s demo of a new art project/game done in conjunction with video artist Bill Viola left me basically speechless, and probably in a way intended by the artist. Video of Mary’s 9-foot-tall Atari joystick shared a sense of joy and play rarely seen in an art gallery and makes me want to visit the new installation in California. And a talk and demo of Cloud and flOw by Kellee Santiago showed that smart games do come from smart people. As she whipped through an entertaining and illuminating talk, I was struck by how much her style and presence reminded me of another super smart developer, Will Wright.

I’ll stop here. And not for lack of things to discuss. The conference proceedings were printed in a telephone book of rich promise. And I had so many wonderful conversions and personal connections that this conference could have taken place on the moon and been valuable to me. I might snipe, but I believe that game studies is emerging in a new world of digital culture, practice and research as one of the models for how academic things will work in the future. Whatever its faults, I believe it will survive to evolve into an interdisciplinary discipline that produces important scholarship.

And that reminds me of just one more story.

I’ve long said that I love the games research community because everyone seems to share two common values. Game researches like to think hard about stuff and they like to have fun. That’s as good a summary of my personality as I can think, and the obvious reason why I feel like the broader game research community is sort of my extended family. On the morning before the second day of the conference, my pal Mia Consalvo and I got up early to head to the Tsukiji Fish Market—the largest wholesale fish market in the world. Mia had been before, witnessing the endless display of fresh fish, but wanted to go back. We went in a perfect combination of basic curiosity and something that just seemed, well, fun.

IMG_2147We toured the staggering market, ate sushi in a strange little stall situated in the facility and made the train back to the conference before the first sessions. For a little extra effort, we got to do something funky and fun.

I’ve talked a lot about Tsukiji with people when I got home. It’s simply something you need to experience, a moment when you can understand just how big Tokyo is and how much effort it takes to feed that many people. It tells me something about how little difference there is between the East and West. Tsukiji was a market, not a Japanese market, just a bustling market selling a commodity. We all eat, and even though we might eat different things, when you pick up a bunch of grapes bigger than your thumbs, you realize that we have common values.

Games are one of those common values. And while I’m not sure why Japan and the US buy different games, I am sure that we all care about them. That’s not an answer, I know. But it’s the basic truth that makes me want to keep asking questions.

6 Responses to A DiGRA Report, of sorts

  1. The idea and pratice of gaming, the virtual environment and ideas of space can be very different between western and eastern cultures. So why differeent cultures buy different games depends on the culture.

  2. Hey Mike! Long time.

    Anyway, of course I agree, to a degree. My question is, “Why?” Why different/ What is it about culture that changes what people want about games. It’s not that I am completely without some idea. But I was disappointed that you put a core of the smartest game researchers in the world in the middle of Tokyo and we really don’t talk about that subject.

    Just found it odd. Or perhaps, more about Western culture than anything!

    — David

  3. I wouldn’t expect the developers to talk about it. My experiences in graphic design has shown me that while many may be designers, few talk about it. I’ve learned that I am the odd ball. That sucks, but what do you do.

    I need to talk to you, so e-mail me off line and I’ll give you my number.

  4. Hey! 😛 I talked about the Japanese history of games, tracing things back to art history and east/west borrowing, but strangely I was perhaps the only person doing that type of thing at the conference. William Huber does similar things, but it remains odd to me that given the Japanese influence on games, there aren’t more of us out there studying the topic, no matter where we gather…

  5. Hi Mia:

    And thanks for pointing that out. I knew I drug that telephone book of a conference proceedings home for a reason! I’ll read your paper tonight.

    So, perhaps you, rather than Mark Prensky, should have delivered the keynote! At the very least, I should have asked you to explain Japan:)


  6. Hi Mia (I’ll pretend I haven’t gatecrashed David’s blog),

    You could add David Surman to the (very short list) of yourself and William. I’ll see if I can dig up links, or even ask him when I see him at work later…


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