Industry-academic engagement focus of upcoming Japan-Canada game studies symposium
The International Conference on Japan Game Studies held in Kyoto, Japan this May will bring together scholars from Ritumeikan University and Canadian universities for a cross-cultural discussion on game research.
Posted by GRAND NCE, March 18, 2013

A player taps to the music of Jubeat, an electronic game at an arcade in Nagoya, Japan. (Photo: Geoffrey Rockwell)
A player taps to the music of Jubeat, an electronic game at an arcade in Nagoya, Japan. (Photo: Geoffrey Rockwell)

(Vancouver) Game researchers and developers from Japan and Canada are set to convene at the International Conference on Japan Game Studies in Kyoto, Japan in May 2013. Following on the inaugural Re-Playing Japan held in Edmonton in August 2012, the conference is the second in a series of symposia on Japanese games, industry, and education intended to span the cultural gap and bring the global game industry in closer contact with researchers.

The series is jointly organized through GRAND, the University of Alberta and researchers at the Ritsumeikan University’s College of Image Arts and Sciences in Kyoto – one of Japan’s leading research centres in digital media.

Conference participants will explore the state of game studies in Japan and Asia with an emphasis on industry/university collaboration. Topics include the games industry in Asia, preservation of game culture and artifacts, among others. A larger third conference in Banff is also being planned for 2014.

Dr. Geoffrey Rockwell, Professor at the University of Alberta, began organizing the conferences following a recent three-month fellowship to study Japanese game culture at Ritsumeikan University funded by the Japan Foundation. Impressed by the calibre of the research and the involvement of new scholars, Rockwell wanted to broach a new exchange on game studies among Japanese and Canadian researchers.

“These conferences are designed to bring together researchers, people in the games industry and students from Japan and Canada,” said Rockwell. “GRAND has been very supportive of the idea of trying to build a network and build connections with various players in Japan. It’s something that crosses, not just Japan-Canada, but industry-academia.”

The initiative has helped spawn other collaborative projects with Ritsumeikan researchers within GRAND’s PLAYPR project, such as locative game platforms and experimental artifacts ranging from games to interactive toys.

Game research network to bridge cultural divide

Digital game production is decades old, but the study of games is an emerging field in both Japan and the West. As an interdisciplinary field that crosses computer science, media studies, arts, and the humanities, game studies critically examines the aesthetic, cultural and communicative aspects of game design and players. Differences of language, culture and focus, however, have kept Japanese game researchers and developers isolated from their Western counterparts.

“In the West, game studies are about a critical engagement with games – games as a form of literature. In Japan, game studies are very connected with business studies. If your research doesn’t benefit industry, you’re [considered] an amateur. That sort of summed up a difference in the culture and relationship,” said Rockwell.

During his fellowship, Rockwell was struck by the close, reciprocal relationship between the game industry and academia in Kyoto. Many Ritsumeikan researchers and faculty maintain strong ties or worked with Kyoto-based Nintendo. This presented a very different level of involvement with industry than among Canadian game researchers.

He also noticed a growing interest among Japanese researchers in game studies outside of Japan, and realized the tremendous value of building a cross-cultural network with scholars and developers in Canada.

“[What] we can learn from [Japan] is how to understand games as an industry – and they are a big industry. Likewise, they can learn from us about how to think about the aesthetics of games. I think there’s a real opportunity to learn from each other’s academic questions and literature. That’s been a real eye-opener [that] their relationship to business is very different from the way I look at it.”

Experts to explore game culture and the global game industry

The game industry in Japan and Asia will be a focal point at the May 2013 conference. Japanese game culture is extremely important to the global game industry, and Canada’s rival game industry (third in the world after the United States and Japan) stands to benefit from learning both how games are perceived and the culture of play in Japan.

Conference presenters will also discuss China’s potentially enormous market for interactive entertainment and the challenges of the country’s lax copyright enforcement. One trend has been a diminishing investment in console games susceptible to piracy that exploits this lack of enforcement. Meanwhile, online games, which cannot be pirated, have become an immense and growing industry in China and elsewhere.

Another cross-cultural research problem concerns how to document and archive game culture and digital assets. Given that much of the creative output of the past several decades is interactive media, this issue is critical for cultural historians. Japanese researchers are developing innovative techniques to preserve that culture’s distinctively "trans-media" stock of games and artifacts that cross multiple platforms. Some have gone so far as to video record live game play. The Japanese government, a significant funders of the research, sees Japan’s classic games as valuable cultural and economic assets to preserve and promote globally.

Rockwell’s own study of Japanese game culture has examined how play elements are integrated into everyday life. A recent focus has been the pachinko machine: a digital-mechanical pinball game similar to the Canadian video lottery terminal. Gambling is illegal in Japan; pachinko players play to win prizes or tokens rather than money. Nevertheless, more money is spent at pachinko halls (an estimated $378 billion) than on cars – an indication of the enormous popularity of the game in Japan.

Through interviews with pachinko designers, Rockwell hopes to delve into the thinking behind the game’s astonishing power to hook players. He believes his research will shed light on the design principles of what he calls “addictive interfaces,” from video lottery terminals to “addictively fun” computer games that compel players to make it to the next level.

“My hypothesis is that the designers know what they’re doing. My hope is [to learn from them] how they design the experience so that people will not want to stand up and step away from. I’m guessing people who are designing computer games and video lottery terminals are doing the same thing.”