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Playing with Culture:

Gaming Across the Pacific Rim

by Christopher Head

An American gamer walking into a Japanese arcade would probably find themselves quite confused. At first glance, everything appears as it should be; Flashing screens, deafening sounds, and a token machine in the corner, waiting for your cash. After one converts their bills into the ubiquitous golden funny money, tokens, they may notice something has gone awry: The games theyíre so used to are nowhere to be found. There isnít a single Centipede machine! In its place, however, there is a game in which the player can take the place of a percussionist in a virtual band. In fact, not only are the games different in theme, but many of them donít even have a joystick, the staple control scheme Americans expect to find on just about every arcade game and are instead replaced by guitars, bongos, and dance-pads.

While Iíve never had the opportunity to travel to Japan, I had the good fortune of experiencing an "authentic" Japanese arcade while living in Los Angeles. I traveled from my West Los Angeles apartment to Rowland Heights, where inside a shopping center called "Life Plaza" (aka: "Diamond Plaza") there is deceptively small arcade by the name of "Arcade Infinity" that specializes in arcade games imported directly from Japan. The importation is not for novelty, as the Rowland Heights area has a large Pacific Rim population, to many of whom these games arenít as rare or unique as many visitors may assume. The space itself looks tiny, but itís packed as densely as possible with all manner of arcade cabinets. I had come on a mission to play the latest version of the Super Nintendo classic "F-Zero," which had just been released, and would not officially be released in the United States for months to come. While I was there, however, I got a taste of just how different life must be for the average Japanese arcade fan. For example, take this list of the current lineup of games at Arcade Infinity (affectionately known as "AI" by the regulars):

"Crackin' DJ 2, Dance Maniax 2nd Mix JPARADISE, Guitar Freaks V, Keyboard mania 3rd Mix, Para Para Paradise 2nd Mix, Shakka to Tambourine, beatmania IIDX 11 RED, beatmania III 7th Mix, drummania V, pop'n music 12 Iroha"1

Those names may not mean anything to someone unfamiliar with the Japanese arcades and the unique games that inhabit them, but they represent an entire genre that flourished for years in Japan while being at most under-represented in American arcades, and in most cases totally absent: "Rhythm Action games," also known as "Bemani," a shortened version of the title of one of the first and most famous Rhythm Action games, "Beatmania," created by Konami Japan.

There are cultural forces at play that drive the development of the games that we play and the genres they reflect, where ever we happen to reside, no matter the culture to which we claim affiliation. But games donít seem to directly mirror the culture in which they are produced. If one were to assume that the games that are unique to any culture or nation are a reflection of its citizens, it would follow then that Japan game players, and the populace as a whole, find music more culturally significant than other nations. This, however, is clearly quite impossible to prove, and I would find it highly dubious if it were claimed as fact.

If we look a little deeper, though, it becomes apparent that something else entirely is at work here. Itís not a love of music in particular that drives the market for music themed games in Japan. In fact, there are many other types of games that are similar in their use of "non-standard" control methods like dancing, playing guitar, even riding a race horse. These games are an outgrowth of a Japanese tradition of using arcades as a destination for dates. In United States the arcades are slowly dying because there really isnít an incentive anymore to go to a dimly lit room and pay a dollar a play for a game when it can be bought for a home console for fifty dollars. By contrast, the games in Japanese arcades are colorful, fun, and more importantly, they appeal to a much wider audience, that is gamers who play occasionally as opposed to obsessively. Over the past few years, Rhythm Action Games have made an appearance, most conspicuously in locations outside of traditional American arcades, like movie theatres, or even the San Jose Student Union bowling alley. While Iím somewhat skeptical of the ability of Rhythm Actions Games to transform the arcade market in the United States, they have gained a foothold, because it wasnít only the games themselves that were imported, but and attitude about gaming, and in this case, dating.

Unfortunately one of the best indicators of which games are popular in global markets, quarterly sales reports, doesnít track sales of arcade games. Even with the lack of arcade revenues, these reports tell us not only what games are being bought for the home, but also which genres are the most popular at any given time. These reports are usually generated by the trade-groups representing the video game industry in the specific country of origin. In the United States, these numbers are compiled by NPD Funworld, which describes itself as "the premier source of market information for the toys, PC games and video games industries,"2 while Japanís figures are compiled and published by the trade magazine, Famitsu. A quick glance at the sales figures in both countries for the first quarter, 2005, shows something fairly remarkable: The number one selling game in both the United States and Japan was Gran Tourismo 4 for Sonyís Playstation 2 console. Gran Tourismoís appearance on both lists may be due to a few different factors: It is a driving simulator, which is inherently cross cultural, especially since it represents both cars from the United States, Japan, and much of the rest of the world. Also, due to the fact that itís a simulator, there is very little text to translate, meaning that a near-simultaneous release in both markets was achieved with relative ease (the delay between the Japanese and U.S. releases was under two months).

The similarities end there, however, as we move further down both charts. In fact, not only to the similarities end, but the most of the games listed on either charts are not on the other at all. There is a long tradition of games being developed in a particular market (Japan, the US, etc) and not being released outside of that particular market. Historically this has been related to issues of cost associated with translation and distribution, but there have been more than a few instances in which a game was not slated to be released in other markets for fear the gamers there wouldnít "get it" because the cultural themes may be too foreign to them. In fact, a recent example of this was Namcoís release of Katamari Damacy in the United States, which took place after fans insisted that it be officially translated and released outside of Japan. Only when Namco was sure there was a market for the game did the start the process of exporting it from Japan. In effect, what this means is that American gamers and Japanese gamers are playing completely different games. And in fact, not only are the games themselves different, but the most popular genres are also different. This is also true of not only Japan, but many other nations as well. South Korea, for instance, has a very different "game culture" than either the United States or Japan, regardless of the fact that for many years South Koreaís most popular games were developed and produced in the United States.

After the videogame crash of the early nineteen-eighties, gamingís "second wave" took different forms in different places: In the United States is was primarily home computing, while Japan began producing home entertainment consoles (which were later sold in the United States), but the post-crash gaming development in South Korean was driven by cultural seclusion. It wasnít until the late Nineties that South Koreans could purchase anything from Japan that was deemed a "cultural import," which of course included video games.

"For decades, the South Korean Government maintained bans on Japanese cultural imports - ranging from films to pop music. But soon after taking office in 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung took steps to improve ties with Tokyo."3

Because of the complete absence of the wildly popular Japanese gaming consoles, South Koreans turned to another form of gaming entertainment: The personal computer. They had no problem playing games from America that had been designed by American developers for use on home computers. But personal computers, as weíve discussed, were developed originally as business machines. While they werenít much more powerful than the consoles in terms of raw computing power, they did compute in a different manner. These werenít purpose-built machines for making flashy, colorful, fast-moving graphics. But because the same hobbyists were still active, with more advanced hardware and software at their finger-tips, it wasnít long before the "strictly business" home computers were able to create a new type of game that the consoles of the time just couldnít match: the simulation. PC gaming spawned the FPS genre with the release of id Softwareís "Catacombs 3d" (and the more popular "Wolfenstein3d." Instead of guiding Mario along a horizontal plane from the 3rd person, Catacombs 3d put you inside the game, looking through the eyes of the main character. Games much more grandiose in scale were now possible, where previously the console hardware had been the limiting factor.

The most notable gaming obsession to grow out of personal computing is the South Korean favorite, Starcraft, developed by Blizzard Entertainment, based in the United States, for Windows and MacOS-based personal computers. Starcraft is whatís known as a "real-time strategy" game, or "RTS," in which players control large an entire army in a battle simulation. These games became so popular that they became to South Korean cultural force in their own right, with PC gaming centers springing up almost overnight, and eventually the development of a national gaming league.

"That snowball has now reached the bottom of the hill. Starcraft is not just a game in South Korea, it is a national sport, what football was in America in the 1970s. Five million people - equivalent to 30 million in the US - play. And three cable stations broadcast competitive gaming full-time to a TV audience."4

Of course, with the advent of the Internet, and especially broadband access, new and unique avenues of cross-cultural communication were been opened. And with that communication, new gaming opponents can now be found easier than ever, which lead to the huge popularity of games like Starcraft. In nations like the United States and South Korea, this meant that computer gaming had found a niche that consoles canít match, at least for the moment: Multiplayer network gaming. Japan, however, with its limited broadband access and the ongoing popularity of arcades and consoles has been left out of the race to create the most immersive online environments. And as a result of this ease of communication, post-broadband boom South Korea has seen a sharp increase in the number of locally-produced "massively multiplayer online role-playing" games, or MMORPGs, like NCSoftís "Lineage," and "Lineage 2" built upon the infrastructure provided by the Internet. In this case, South Koreaís gaming culture was imported, in part, from the United States thanks to ubiquitous Internet connectivity.

"Koreans spend an average of 16 hours a week on the Internet -- compared to 10 hours for Americans and four hours for the British -- with housewives who shop, trade shares, take classes and get information online generating some 45 percent of all Internet traffic, Son said. Korea also has over 20,000 Internet cafes, which the Koreans call 'PC baangs' (literally, 'PC rooms')."5

Taken as a whole, gaming culture, with its high level of technical sophistication in the form of personal computers, purpose-built home gaming machines, and public arcades has become a part of many different cultures across the globe, and in particular those that are a part of the Pacific Rim. Gaming culture isnít homogeneous by any means. Specific games, and in fact entire genres that are popular in one area may be virtually unknown in another. And again, it must be noted that due to the popularity of the internet, especially as a distribution method for PC games, we can assume that a wide array gaming information is available virtually everywhere that videogames are played. Of course this can be confounded by the fact that not all platforms are available in all areas (as weíve seen with South Koreas former ban of Japanese games), however itís getting rarer every day, as established consoles push into new markets.

And as new gaming markets are discovered, they essentially become new "markets" for memes as well. Because gaming is now so closely linked with the Internet as a communication method, and gamers themselves are closely linked by virtue of Internet-enabled multiplayer games. In fact, some one of the more famous Internet memes came not only directly from game culture, but also from the interplay between to markets. The once-funny "All your base is belong to us" was derived from bit of text that had been mistranslated in the English-language Sega Megadrive console port of the Japanese arcade shooter "Zero Wing." Seemingly over night, the text appeared on countless web-pages as form of nonsensical Photoshop-enabled parody. And as memes tend to do, it spread far beyond the small number of fans the relatively obscure game had, and proceeded to infiltrate the mainstream of American culture, appearing in numerous mass media publications, including on oft-cited article by Eric Umansky in the online magazine Slate, entitled "All Your Base Belong to U.S."6.

Comedic memes and Starcraft competitions on South Korean television are clearly the lighter-side of trans-national gaming culture, but evidence suggests that thereís a more sinister side to the global trade in games. MMORPGs arenít just a hit in South Korea, but games like NCSoftís lineage have been running, uninterrupted for years. Widely considered a classic, Sony Online Entertainmentís "Everquest," has been providing a persistent, online world for over five years. Since the launch of Everquest, which brought Massively Multiplayer Gaming to the mainstream, a black market has developed sounding it and similar games. In a persistent environment, one of the goals is the accumulation of wealth and valuable items that remain with oneís character (also known as an "avatar" or "toon"), even after the player logs out. Some enterprising players took it upon themselves to sell in-game currency for real dollars via services like eBay to gamers who either didnít have the skills or the time to gather it themselves. As MMORPGs grew in popularity, the market for their associated virtual currencies did as well. Gradually what had once been a niche market turned into an extremely profitable business venture, and larger and larger organizations moved in to fill the demand for virtual gold. One player, in an interview with Mike Musgrove of the Washington Post explained one method of gathering massive amounts of virtual currency:

"We call them Ďgold farmersí. Some people call them Chinese gold farmers because often it is people in China who play hours a day for very little pay to do this."7

In effect, the result has been "virtual sweatshops," though while the products arenít tangible, itís thought that the operations work very much like the traditional sweatshop, in which as many people as possible work in a small space for long hours with very little pay in return. The market works, of course, because the sales of the virtual gold are usually in USD and workers are paid very little in Chinese Yuan. Exploiting the Chinese working poor works just as well for gold farming operations as it does for making t-shirt for Old Navy. At the time of writing, one site tracking the "virtual currency exchange" has World of Warcraft gold trading at .09 per USD. The realization that video games have created a highly organized capitalist system within communist China is startling, and reinforces the fact that not gaming is a force that is difficult if not impossible to contain. The Gold Farmers also illustrate its power to bring with it extremely complex cultural ideas and the ability to transform the lives of thousands of people virtually overnight.

I havenít returned to Arcade Infinity in some time, now, but Iím confident that if I walked through the door tomorrow, there would be a fresh batch of imported games waiting for me that are just as mysterious as the ones that I played the first time. While nay-sayers have predicted the doom of video gaming for years, itís only grown stronger as a market force and cultural phenomenon, and has since become a more unified global phenomenon. More than that, though, itís become a cross-cultural force that helps drive the Pacific Rim.

But where will gaming take us as a global culture of players? Societies are becoming more sophisticated every day with respect to their ability to communicate with the rest of the world quickly and efficiently, especially through global networks like the Internet. I would imagine that in the near future weíll see game developers releasing their games on a wider variety of platforms (both home computer and consoles) as well as in multiple markets simultaneously. Gamers know what they want to play, and I canít imagine a company would continue to refuse to oblige them. Weíre already starting to see a move toward this sort of unfettered distribution. There have been quite a few rumors that some or all of the next generation consoles will not have "region-locks" that prevent the direct importation of games from other markets, allowing gamers to have the games they want, when they want. Not only that, but weíve seen lately, for example with Namco and Katamari Damacy, that companies are much more responsive to fan-pressures to translate and distribute a game globally than they once were. The danger with this model of global distribution is that it may produce a situation in which games lose their cultural significance. If we end up with truly a single, global market, games may be made with as little cultural significance as possible, in a homogenized effort to produce games that are the least unfamiliar for as many people as possible. I hope this wonít be the case, and that gamers will continue to demand both the best games from home and abroad, without losing what makes each special, because I plan on discovering places like Arcade Infinity for a long time to come.

  1., Arcade Infinity listing
  3. "Row revives memories of bitter past," Caroline Gluck, BBC News
  4. "The Bandwidth Capital of the World," J.C. Herz, Wired News
  5. "Korean Housewives want speedy net," Karlin Lillington, Wired News
  6. "All your base are belong to U.S.," Eric Umansky, Slate
  7. "Virtual Gaming Economy," Mike Musgrove, The Washington Post