Games as National Culture: An Interview with Chris Kohler (Part One)

"Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture. [They]...are extensions of social man and the body politic...As extensions of the popular response to the workday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image.... The games of a people reveal a great deal about them." -- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

This qoute from McLuhan has so far served as the opening passage of two books on games. The first was David Sheff's 1993 Game Over which dealt primarily with the entrance of Nintendo into the video game market. The second was Chris Kohler's 2004 Power Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. Kohler notes that Sheff's use of the McLuhan qoute was used almost entirely to talk about video game's place in American culture where-as Kohler was interested in understanding both what Japanese games meant in a Japanese context (including some rich interviews with Japanese game designers and a vivid portrait of Akihabara, the district in Tokyo most associated with gamers and fans) and why those games have been so readily embraced within the American marketplace.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the degree to which games might be regarded as a reflection of national culture. I suppose it started when CMS played host last November to a delegation of French game designers who were touring the United States through the agency of the French Consultat and the French Ministry of Culture. It is no secret that European governments have started to embrace games as part of their policies to promote creative industries, yet in most cases, they are read simply in terms of their relationship to larger digital industries rather than as having cultural value in their own rights. The French designers and the consultat were making a somewhat different claim: that games were an increasingly important aspect of French national culture and that there was something distinctly French about the approach these designers took to their craft. In many ways, they were arguing that games in the United States were an extension of Hollywood models of entertainment and games in France were an outgrowth of the European art cinema. For anyone interested, there is both a summary of the event and some video highlights on the web.

From there, I have watched -- and discussed here -- the politics surrounding multiplayer games in China, have become involved working with Singapore in the development of a games innovation lab, and have started to see signs that the tech sector in India were moving towards producing games which would be part of a larger assertion of South Asian cultural identity.

Each of these steps represent a move away from what Japanese cultural critic Koichi Iwabuchi (Recentering Globalization) has described as a policy of "deodorization" which has long shaped the games industry. Basically, games were striped of distinguishing national characteristics in order to be shipped to markets around the world. Indeed, the assumption was that a game which felt "too Japanese" would not do well in American markets -- an assumption made both by Japanese game designers who sought a more "universal" style for their export products and by American games publishers who sought to filter out elements they found too alien for our market. Over time, however, Americans have developed a taste for the distinctly Japanese qualities of Japanese games and these other countries are betting that we may also welcome other forms of cultural diversity in games content.

So, when Chris Kohler gave me a copy of his book, Power-Up, during a recent trip to San Francisco, I read it with enormous interest. Kohler, who is now the editor of Wired's games blog Game|Life, is extremely knowledgible about games culture in Japan. He brings to the book a solid background in the graphics arts traditions of Japan, making valuable links between the aesthetics of games, manga, anime, and Japanese filmmaking more generally. He was able to interview many of the leading Japanese game designers, including some amazing insights into the career of Shigeru Miyamoto (Super Mario Brothers, Zelda), Yuji Horii (Dragon Quest), Yasundra Mitsuda (Chrono Cross),Masaya Matsuura (Parappa the Rapper) and many others. The book takes us from the origins of Nintendo as a card manufacuring company through early games such as Pac-Man all the way to the international succes of Pokemon. The writing is lively and engaging, offering insights that will valuable to game designers and players alike.

What follows is an interview with Chris Kohler which both develops some of the core ideas from the book and updates them to reflect current trends impacting the games industry.

A core premise of the book seems to be that games are a powerful reflection of national culture. You draw this idea in part from an opening qoute from Marshall McLuhan. Yet, as you note, there has been a tendency among Japanese media producers to design content for the global market as much as for the local market. And many Americans seemed unaware for a long time that the games they were playing originated in Japan. What can you tell us about the tension between the nationally specific and transnational aspects of games?

Well, this is a whopper of an opening question. To start off, I want to present a miniature case study of a game called "Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan." Literally, it translates to "Hey! Fight! Cheer Squad." It's a music-action game for Nintendo DS that was released in Japan in the summer of 2005, designed by Keiichi Yano's company iNiS, which is profiled in Power-Up.

The game's story revolved around a traditional group of Japanese cheerleaders -- who are male, deadly serious, dressed in school uniforms, and full of fiery energy which they express in booming, crowd-inspiring yells. In the game, they go to the aid of people in trouble -- a noodle shop owner whose business is failing, a kid who needs to score well on his college entrance exams. They cheer him on to the beat of popular Japanese music tracks, and the better you do playing the songs, the better they cheer.

When the game was released, the Nintendo DS hadn't yet hit it big in Japan. So it came out with a decent amount of fanfare, but didn't light up the sales charts. But since the Nintendo DS is region-free (meaning Japanese games can be played on an American DS system and vice versa), a few fans of iNiS' previous game Gitaroo-Man, including me, imported the game from Japan and found it to be simply amazing, maybe the best game in the admittedly small genre.

So we embarked on a quest to get as many people as possible to buy it, but it's tough to convince people to import a game from Japan due to the extra expense and worry that you might not be able to play it. So we also made sure to clamor for Nintendo of America to release it in the States.

Although we knew we wanted to see it here -- and here's where the tension comes in -- although the gameplay was universally fun, there were several elements to the game design that wouldn't work for an American release. The setting was in Japan, with specifically Japanese character archetypes, locations, and scenarios. The fifteen musical tracks were all in Japanese, and what's more they were licensed songs, meaning there were royalty fees to consider and possible issues with using the songs outside of Japan.

So until the E3 expo in May 2006, Nintendo was silent on the subject. At the show, they revealed what they'd done. All of iNiS had been devoted to the creation of "Elite Beat Agents", which took the Ouendan gameplay and swapped out the characters, scenarios, and songs for American ones. The main characters became sort of a cross between the Blues Brothers and the Men in Black. Songs like "September" by Earth, Wind, and Fire and "Sk8r Boi" by Avril Lavigne replaced the J-pop.

What's interesting to note is that although certain Ouendan fans were angry that Nintendo was "Americanizing" the game, that's not really what happened. Yes, iNiS went back and re-tooled the game for Western audiences, but if you look at the final product it's still very much a crazy, manga-styled presentation that's going to appeal most strongly to the kind of gamer who reads manga, plays Katamari Damacy, etc. It's only "Westernized" enough to remove the sort of "cultural odor" that would prevent it from doing well in the US, not the things that made it appealing in the first place.

That's something I also get into in Power-Up as it pertains to Donkey Kong. The breakout Japanese video game (at least in the context that I explored in the book, that of the development of games as a storytelling medium) was designed for America. Miyamoto was told that the US branch of Nintendo was in trouble, and could he please make a game that would succeed in America. Who knows what kind of story and characters he would have come up with if his primary intent was to appeal to his fellow Japanese?

I'm actually going to keep answering this same question for just a bit longer, because I want to point out that what constitutes a "nationally specific" element versus a "transnational" element is constantly changing. When the Nintendo Entertainment System first debuted, role-playing games like Dragon Quest would have been considered too focused on the Japanese market to succeed here. This is no longer the case. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find that some RPGs were actually grossing more in the US than in Japan, these days.

To what degree can we say that there is a distinctly Japanese aesthetic of game

design and how would we characterize it? How might we link this aesthetic to

earlier traditions of visual representation in Japan?

This is a tough question. The easy, cop-out answer would be for me to point to the overly cartoonish manga style that is so pervasive in Japan and note that this to a large extent informs the design qualities of many of the video games produced there. Which in fact, it does. But then, can I really look at Shadow of the Colossus and Katamari Damacy, then sum up so blithely the design aesthetic of a country whose designers produced such dramatically different visual styles?

Certainly I don't want to downplay the importance of standard manga style. If you read some of the literature on the subject you start to realize that it's more than just big eyes and misshapen heads; there's an almost codified literary shorthand at work that helps the reader blaze through manga, getting what you might call a cinematic experience. Of course that had a huge effect on game development because, as I talk about in the book, game design from its earliest moments was an extension of this national love for visual storytelling.

That said, I don't want it to seem as if there are no American designers that aren't doing similarly unique work. The major difference would seem to be that the Japanese game market supports a wider variety of design aesthetics. An American developer certainly could have come up with Katamari Damacy, but they would have had a very hard time selling it to a publisher, who'd be looking for the next gritty urban crime simulator.

If there's anything that Japanese designers tend to shy away from, it's the sort of ultra-realistic depictions of real-life violence that are so common in Western games. In fact, Japanese consumers seem to be more wary even than American ones about realistic violence. Most anyone who looks at the body of manga and anime available to kids in Japan notes how violent they are. And this is totally acceptable as long as it's done in a cartoonish style. But as soon as the same subject matter, the same stories, are rendered in realistic graphics that look and feel like real life, it's looked upon as being highly inappropriate.

Early in the book, you contrast Breakout and Gunfight, suggesting that it was the Japanese who were first drawn to games as a storytelling or cinematic medium. What role do you see Japanese designers playing in pushing games

towards narrative?

This is where I have to say to your readers: "Read the book!" It is explained in exhaustive detail with lots of diagrams and figures and circles and arrows.

If there's one broad criticism of the book that I've had to deal with ever since it was published, it's the idea that I'm completely wrong because of the fact that text adventures like Adventure or Zork were telling interactive stories long before Donkey Kong came around. And they were. But quite frankly I think we're dealing with two entirely different media. Video games, as their name implies, are a visual medium. Interactive fiction is entirely bereft of visuals.

If I may analogize, comics and books are both printed on paper, and there are works that blur the line between the two just as graphical adventure games like King's Quest pulled some of their play mechanics from IF. But play mechanics are only part of the equation when you look at what makes a video game a video game, just as the words in balloons are only part of comics. What Japanese designers -- most prominently Shigeru Miyamoto with Donkey Kong and Hironobu Sakaguchi with Final Fantasy -- did was to pioneer techniques of storytelling in this particular visual (and aural!) medium.

To look at their impact on modern-day video games, it's clear which model was the basis for all that we have today. If you look at Resistance: Fall of Man, the flagship game for PlayStation 3, and strip away 25 years of technological advancements you are dealing with something very similar in structure to Donkey Kong.

(Note that at no point in the above paragraphs did I slander interactive fiction! I love IF! It's great! It's just not video games.)

From the start, Japanese designers seemed interested in broadening the game market to include women. How successful have they been in doing so? Why do you think they sought out the female market while American companies seemed content to target only hardcore male players?

Yes -- Pac-Man, which at one point was far and away the most successful video game in the world, was designed with the intent of bringing in a female audience. Japan has generally been better at selling games to women, historically speaking. Certainly they're doing a much better job of it these days with the Nintendo DS. Actually, just today the latest Japanese sales chart was released, and the country's best-selling game right now is a Nintendo DS game called Love and Berry that's based on a franchise popular with preteen girls. They sold nearly half a million copies of this game just this week.

Add that to games with huge penetration into the girl-gamer market like Nintendogs, Animal Crossing, and Brain Age and it's clear that Japan is getting to the point where there's no longer going to be a gender divide in video games within a few years. I stress that they were really primed for this, though, as it's been totally socially acceptable for trendy popular high school and college-aged women to have a game system in their room for as long as there have been game consoles. The hardcore game nerds are still predominantly men, but there's a big difference between "otaku" and "fan."

Was America ever "content" to just go after the guys? I don't think they were -- if you look back, you'll always see attempts to go after the female market. On the game consoles it was mostly taking games for boys and replacing the space marines with Barbie and the alien base with a shopping mall and the aliens with designer purses. Why the purses were attacking Barbie, nobody really knew.

This is a drastic oversimplification, but girls were looking for something other than shooters and football games. Problem was, the Super Nintendo's input mechanism and display capabilities were pretty much only good for games with simple mechanics. So it kept feeding back on itself -- the hardware was best suited for games that appealed to boys, so they made those kinds of games, so more boys bought it, so they had to make more games for them... And the next thing you know, a piece of hardware -- a neutral piece of machinery with no pre-loaded content -- was seen as a specifically male-oriented toy. No girl would say they didn't want a VCR because all it did was play action movies for boys, but for video games the medium became the message.

And when more complex games with things girls wanted (stories, characters, beautiful graphics, exploration, slow pacing, a gentle learning curve with early rewards) started to show up -- like role-playing games -- they were ignored mostly because girls who would have liked them were locked into the mindset that all video games were for boys. The fact that the boys generally also thought this to be true didn't much help.

Of course, if you look at the "casual games" market in the US right now, women make up quite a bit (I think even the majority) of this segment. I think a lot of that has to do with ease of use. These are games that you can play just by clicking a mouse. That's the idea behind Nintendo DS; if you look at games like Nintendogs, they're controlled entirely with the touch pen. No need to learn extensive button configurations. Put simply, women aren't willing to put up with as much frustration as guys are. We see it as a challenge, they see it as being told it's not for them.

I'm not saying that Japan had a unique understanding of this, just that the cultural conditions there (half of every manga store is devoted to girls' comics) made for a better incubator.

Naturally, your book spends a great deal of time focused on Shigeru Miyamoto, who many regard as the most consistently innovative and imaginative artist to ever work in the medium. What do you see as Miyamoto's major contributions to the art of game design? Is it possible to imagine the success of Nintendo in the western market without Miyamoto? To what degree were our expectations about Japanese games defined by this one artist? What other Japanese game designers do you see as key influencers of contemporary game culture?

Is it possible to imagine the success of Nintendo without Miyamoto? I imagine it depends on your definition of "success"; other Japanese developers who don't have a Miyamoto (that is, all of them) have done well for themselves on a worldwide scale. Not to mention the fact that, as I try to make clear in the book, I think the conditions in Japan were as responsible for Miyamoto's success as was his own personal genius. That is, had Miyamoto been born in America he might have found himself designing telephones (remember, he was an industrial design student) or drawing comic books for a living. In the early eighties in America, computer programmers designed games, not art students.

This is all to say that without Miyamoto, I still think it would have been Japanese designers who pushed the envelope. But we have Miyamoto, whose major contribution was his very first project. Donkey Kong (as explained in detail you-know-where) was groundbreaking in its use of the medium to tell a story. And I define that rigidly, talking about the elements of narrative and how Donkey Kong incorporates all of them while only using one word ("Help!"). It set the stage for everything that was to come.

Now, it's not as if Miyamoto disappeared after Donkey Kong. Quite to the contrary, he helmed (and continues to head up) one masterpiece of gaming after another at Nintendo. But, ironically, after making this breakthrough, he essentially changed directions and concentrated almost entirely on improving other areas of game design. From a storytelling perspective, Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are major steps back from Donkey Kong, because they don't have any sort of expository scenes. There's no equivalent in Zelda of Donkey Kong climbing up the girders, girl in tow.

Instead, Miyamoto worked hard to give his games tight, responsive play control; give the player-character as much freedom of movement and as many interesting abilities as possible; and fill his game worlds with hidden secrets and complex environments. I'm certainly not saying this was a bad thing! Just that his focus switched pretty much permanently. But this turned out to be his real genius.

And Nintendo realized it. From early on, they spread Miyamoto out so that he was involved in a variety of different games at once (I think at one point in his career he told me that he was involved, on some level, in 40 projects). This is so the designers can deal with all the minutiae and Miyamoto can come in to make brilliant insights about how they can make the games more fun. Yes, this often results in major catastrophes when a team realizes that they'll have to work on the game an extra six months to implement Miyamoto's imperatives. (Those who've worked with him call it the moment when Miyamoto "knocks over the table.")

Nowadays I think that there are plenty of Japanese designers who are doing groundbreaking work that'll be significantly influential on their peers worldwide. There's Keita Takahashi, who designed Katamari Damacy (although depending on how much you believe the rumors, he is sick of video games and might never make another one). Fumito Ueda's Shadow of the Colossus turned out to be even more impressive than ICO. Tetsuya Mizuguchi's stylish Lumines is like playing Tetris at a rave.