Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Selling to Social Selves

I'm in the process of migrating to zoyastreet.com. I must emphasise that it is a process, and I'm not quite finished making the new site everything I want it to be, but it has become the main place I go to post new ideas. My latest post is about advertising, and Facebook's frictionless sharing policy. It’s illustrated with beautiful Shiseido ads that, I suspect, speak not to the social self, but to those things that don't belong to our public face, the things that really drive our purchasing decisions, the things that Facebook can’t touch in its current state.

Zoya Street

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Falling in love with Akihabara again: Retro Games

Mandarake Nakano Broadway

Early on in my stay in Japan this year, a friend of mine introduced me to the Mandarake store in Nakano broadway. It's huge, and sells many beautiful books and Pullip and Blythe dolls, and also has a handsome collection of retro games and consoles for sale. It's the place I bought my Dreamcast from, and although it was a little on the pricey side at 10,000 yen (about 80 British quid at the moment, due to the absurdly expensive yen) it's in mint condition and is a historically interesting limited edition, so I'm fairly happy. However, the retro games stores I later found in Akihabara still kicked its ass.

Super Potato, Akihabara

Super Potato is a hilariously named retro games store that exists on about four or five floors. Each floor is dedicated to another console generation, except for the top floor which is full of vintage arcade machines. It's a lovely place, and has a fairly encouraging, well-organised Dreamcast section at the back of the third floor. Unfortunately, they were missing some of the most popular Dreamcast games, including Eternal Arcadia, the one I really needed to buy as I'm writing my thesis about it. If I wanted to buy dating sims, though, I'd be in luck at Super Potato. It's also worth noting that Super Potato and Game Camp sold unboxed, body-only Dreamcasts, and had plenty in stock, while Mandarake just didn't offer that option. If I was spending more time in Japan, Akihabara would be a great source of disposable Dreamcasts - they probably don't have much life left in them, but if I wanted to I could buy a cheaper one knowing that I could replace it with another when it breaks.

Retro Game Camp, Akihabara

Retro Game Camp looks much less reassuring than either of the other two shops I visited. It's a tiny shop that appears to be fighting for its place on the main north-south road of outer Kanda, and it looks like a complete mess. While Mandarake uses its window space and the area nearest the door to showcase its most prohibitively expensive rare items, Retro Game Camp's doorway is adorned with crates of suspicious-looking, bargain basement CD-ROMS. Their website didn't indicate that they sold Dreamcast games, but since they are located so close to Don Quijote I thought it worth taking a look on my way around. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did the bargain baskets provide me with a dirt cheap, unboxed but completely legitimate, copy of Crazy Taxi, but their Dreamcast shelves were packed full of multiple copies of almost all the most popular Dreamcast games. Shenmue 1 and Eternal Arcadia were both only available at this shop when I was looking around. Retro Game Camp basically gave me exactly what I wanted in huge quantities. I left the place shaking with joy and excitement.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Falling in love with Akihabara again: Queen Dolce

I've just come home after a month-long research trip in Japan, during which I re-discovered my love of Akihabara. I loved the things you find in Akihabara long before I ever set foot in the place - in fact, by the time I actually went on my first trip to Japan, my university course had peed on my geeky parade by immersing me in more acceptable things like Edo period woodblock prints and religious history. So most of the magic of Akihabara passed me by, because the lonely teenage otaku in me was lost behind a head full of academia. But no longer! Now I'm lucky enough to be studying computer games, pursuing electronics as a hobby which artists sometimes pay me for, and occasionally writing about genderqueer fashion. All three of those things are great excuses for me to spend endless hours trawling the streets of Akiba.

FTM crossdressing cafe

I've been to your standard maid cafe before, and it was genuinely fun but didn't really feel worth the expense. I'm starting to think that it's actually a case of finding the theme cafe that suits your own taste. Aside from maid cafes there are butler cafes, cat girl cafes, old japan style cafes, and many other places where the serving staff dress up and take on a particular role. A few months before this trip I became interested in the small number of female-to-male crossdressing cafes that exist (dansou cafe). Most of them describe themselves as 'dansou gyaruson' cafes, meaning 'crossdressing garcon', although garcon itself is a pun as the first two syllables are homophonous with 'gal'. Garcon suggests french waiter-style dress, and the non-crossdressing garcon cafes are staffed by cute young men who look like pop stars. In the dansou gyaruson style, women dress up in sharp shirts and waistcoats, style their mid-length hair into spiky bird's nests and masculinise their Japanese language. And it's totally awesome.

I'll probably never be able to work out whether the theme cafe Queen Dolce constitutes a queer space. While I was there I felt as though the pretext of crossdressing staff members had created a uniquely relaxing and open atmosphere for anybody with non-normative gender identities. The clientele were mixed male and female, with more effeminate men and masculine women around than you usually see in Japan. More impressive was the was people were talking in a very relaxed tone, laughing loudly while discussing their tastes in women - I couldn't follow most of the conversation because they were using so much slang, and it was so far removed from the polite Japanese I'm used to hearing! It's not common for people to be able to open up and be themselves in public in Japan, and leaving the space of the cafe to go back to the real world was jarring. To this extent, it felt similar to Bar Wotever at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

The clear difference is that while Bar Wotever is declared to be about creating community and supporting people who exist outside of the mainstream, Queen Dolce is basically about spectacle. It so happens that the nature of the spectacle sets a tone that allows the guests to be as masculine or feminine as they wish. While the aesthetic and symbolism of Bar Wotever are set by the guests, Queen Dolce consciously makes use of specific visual effects to spark the imagination of visitors - the bar staff are dressed like pop idols or characters from romantic manga, their mannerisms and voice inflections evocative of Takarazuka theatre, the projector shows clips from old timey black and white hollywood movies with old-fashioned handsome male heroes - all together, it makes it clear that what brings the visitors to the cafe together is an admiration for a very specific form of masculinity in the female body. Whether the cafe staff like to express themselves in that way outside of working hours is a complete mystery. In short, Queen Dolce is about one specific non-normative performance of gender, while Bar Wotever is about not having to perform anymore, or performing as a way of getting closer to who you really are.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Gamification in history: game mechanics as social models

Being a grown-up is not fun and games. To amend this, some cheerful people from a nice part of the world, probably California, invented gamification. I've seen some Stanford computer science lectures on iTunesU from a few years ago that seem to express the first buds of gamifying theories. Now we are beginning to see the fruits of those theories. Apparently more and more workplaces and commercial enterprises have modified their working practices to incorporate reward badges for hitting targets, points systems, sometimes level-up mechanics to represent your productivity/consumer loyalty.

As has been said time and again, gamification often, but not always, boils down to pointsification. Points systems do not automatically make a job into a game. That bit in Mary Poppins where you 'find the fun, and snap! the job's a game' wasn't about creating points and merit badges. It was about animating the dull world of chores, seeing the things that other people can't see that make the world a bit more awesome. My jobs feel like games because I get to do them in my underwear at 3am while drinking tea and listening to punk rock.

Points are, of course, analogous to money. They're not the same as money, but in a time of redundancies, unpaid internships, high unemployment, and consumer price inflation above wage inflation, points are sometimes the best we can do. Game mechanics (and meta-game mechanics) that reward effort with points and reward points with status labels reflect a very specific vision of how a heirarchical society functions. They depict the conceit of meritocracy - the people at the top are far superior to those on the bottom, not because of arbitrary social distinctions such as taste, dominant personality types or place of birth, but because the people on the top have superior skills and have put in more effort. The people at the bottom are there because of their own ignorance and laziness. No, it's not equitable to live in a heirarchical society, but at least people get what they deserve, and in any case, if there weren't any losers in the world nobody would have any hope of becoming a winner.

I believe that one of the addictive things about games is that they take heirarchical distinctions out of the hands of fate and put them in the hands of players. The heirarchies of points mechanics can be gamed, while the heirarchies of the real world can't. I know some people think they can 'win' at life by creating games out of business or seduction, but I reckon that those people tend to learn very little about the parts of business or seduction that lie outside of their game mechanic - economic crashes are a case in point, as is the inability of pick up artists to really love a woman.

Edo period Japan didn't have gamification, but games were used as analogies for society and politics. The mechanic used was not pointsification, but the 'rock, paper, scissors' mechanic, known as 'Janken'. Janken games were modified to incorporate social metaphors, such as 'kitsune ken', a drinking game performed with the whole body that equalised the feudal social heirarchy - village elder trumps huntsman, huntsman trumps fox, but fox trumps village elder because foxes were believed to be magical, mischievous creatures that could possess the elder. Therefore, although the heirarchy remains intact as a part of the game mechanic, it is revealed to be preposterous and empty, because the person on the bottom-most rung can overpower the person on the top. (There's a chapter about this in Japan at Play by Joy Hendry) In the print above, the characters are playing a game of janken that analogises scholarly debates over civilisation dominance between India/Buddhism, China/Confucianism, and Japan/Shinto.

Songs were written about janken games, and then parody janken songs were written to spoof recent real-world events. Woodblock prints depicted further layers of playful metaphor. Throughout this early-modern example of transmedia creative output, the janken meme always applied the circular mechanic to a social order that was supposed to be a perfectly linear heirarchy. Janken games made people feel like they could game the system, because they could finally play with heirarchy rather than quietly live under it. Ultimately, janken made the entire system appear futile, because if its true circularity - those at the bottom can topple those at the top. 'Rock, paper, scissors' is a game of chance - one's final position remains in the hands of fate, and cannot be changed by simply trying harder as in a points system. However, in janken, the heirarchy itself is exploded into a ridiculous playing ground.

When applying game mechanics to our own society, there is more at stake than might first meet the eye. One thing that interests me as a historian is the way that game mechanics have both reflected and subverted the existing order. Game mechanics create an order of their own that must make sense to the player, must speak to something that is real for the player, and might lead to creative constructions of player agency. Many points systems reflect our heirarchical and capitalist society, and focus on the extent to which that heirarchy is meritocratic to create a system in which anybody can become a winner. In Edo Japan, janken reflected a fixed heirarchy that could not be changed or gamed, but demonstrated the preposterousness of that heirarchy.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Desktop Wallpaper 19.8.11

It's been a while! Here's a photo I took in the underground walkway near South Ken station. Don't thank me, thank Illford film.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Maoist DapperQ

Just a quick note to say that I've written a new article for DapperQ.com which you can check out here - it's a summary of someone else's work on female masculinity in Maoist China.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Virtual Reality Design Logic in Copenhagen

Today was the last day of my brief visit to Copenhagen for the Against Procedurality seminar at IT University. After going to the Design Center (meh) I decided to take myself on an architectural walk using a map provided by the Architecture Centre, which I visited a couple of days ago. I popped into the Royal Library to use their internet, so that I could go on the CopenhagenX website and get information about some of the sights I was going to see - you're supposed to buy the book to go with the map, but this way was cheaper and I was perfectly happy with it. I planned a 2-3 hour walk that would take me out of the city and home again. This was kind of a strange thing to do, because it meant leaving a lot of historical sites behind me and heading into a post-industrial wasteland, but it turned out to be very interesting. I wish more cities had architectural maps available like this, because it really does turn the cityscape into an exhibition of sorts, and with an extensive map such as the one made by Copenhagen X you end up finding very striking buildings in unexpected places.

One of my first stops was Havneholmen, which is full of dramatic projects, all screaming out for your attention. The name implies that it's a harbour, and indeed there is a lot of water there, but almost no boats. Presumably, the mooring fee is too high for most people to afford. You'd think they'd lower the fee since nobody's buying, but maybe the people who own and rent these expensive architectural projects don't want people's pesky boats ruining their view of the 'harbour'. My perception of Havneholmen as a fake place led me to start thinking about video games. I felt a bit embarrassed last night reading a kotaku post that made mincemeat of Square's design practices. What an idiot am I, I thought, for thinking it wise to write a paper about design history in the Final Fantasy series when this stupid company's idea of a development process apparently may consist of:

Tetsuya Nomura went on making characters, the other artists went about drawing concept art for environments and the 3D artists went about gleefully making objects until, at some point after they’d cut a demo out of the gelatinous marble of game-material they’d slammed together over a period of three years, a new producer stepped in and said, “Guys, let’s turn this . . . thing into . . . something.” Hence: half of the environments were unused. Hence: when the characters banter during levels, their banter never has anything to do with the scenery of the psychedelic racetracks down which they shamble: it’s always “Hurry”, “This way”, “We have to keep going”. Though hey! It sure looked great!

I'm sure that's no way to make a game world. Game worlds are supposed to make sense, in a very constructed, planned and artificial way. Games are designed environments, and they are also screen-mediated spectacles. On the very rare occasions when virtual environment design is exploited for great results, you wander around them knowing that everything is perfectly in its place, the whole world intended to be not only a space for movement but also a series of perfectly composed snapshots. Square don't design things in a considered way, they make a bunch of cool stuff and then throw it all together. This is why the weapons that you find lying around landscapes don't seem to belong the same material culture as the architecture.

It's probably no way to make a game world, but in fairness, I think it might very probably be how real worlds are made. Havneholmen looks like what happens when many disparate architecture firms have lots of money thrown at them and are told, 'make something cool'. So they made cool things, mostly out of glass, often with more cool things inside of them, like giant spiral staircases. Not only does the cityscape as a whole get built up into an ever intensifying state of insane layering, but within each object forming part of the layering you see even more layers. Is it a harbour? Who knows! Each building sure looks great, though.

After Havneholmen I spent a long time walking on cycle paths alongside piles of rubble, but eventually I came to Sluseholmen, home to the Fyrholm project. If I had any remaining doubts about the real-world value of studying the history of the design of virtual worlds, Fyrholm dispelled them immediately. Stepping into Fyrholm is like finding a glitch in the matrix. Only the bafflingly beautiful Teglvaerks bridge marks the transition from the heaps of formless material that make up the industrial site from an area that appears to be the middle of a full-fledged city. Like a mirage in the desert, you know it can't be real, and yet there it is, standing there in the middle of nowhere. Having said that, I've never seen a mirage in the desert, I just imagine that this is what a mirage feels like, based on movies. And I've never been to Amsterdam, but the internet tells me that canal towns of Amsterdam inspired Fyrholm.

I soon noticed that the designers of Fyrholm had used game design techniques to make this town feel deceptively real. When designing a European-style town in a virtual world, game designers will often create a single facade that looks like several different buildings connected together to make a busy, eclectic, historical cityscape. Here I'm stereotyping, but they are too - the conceit is that European cities are 1) old 2) crowded and 3) haven't had to be rebuilt much, because of the relative shortage of earthquakes. So you end up with streets that look cute and jumbled and patchworked. This knowledge should never have helped me to understand real-world architecture, but lo and behold, Fyrholm was designed in exactly the same way. To make it feel like an eclectic, established town or city, they hired one architectural firm for the artificial islands and basic building structures, and twenty more firms to design a set of unique facades that all nevertheless follow a set of unifying principles. It's not that I don't like it. I think it's an ingenious way of making large residential developments feel more personal. Then again, I probably wouldn't mind living in a computer game.

After walking through a lovely, real harbour, with cheap and cheerful houseboats, I crossed a swamp, got bitten by my first mosquito of the year (yay, summer!) and reached Bella Sky Hotel, which I have seen every morning and every night during my stay here. Bella Sky Hotel is completely batshit insane. It leans 15 degrees in all directions. The leaning tower of Piza only leans by a little less than 4 degrees. It stands in the middle of nowhere, its surface made entirely of triangles, its structure probably also made of triangles come to think of it, bending every which way, visible for miles and completely implausible from most angles.

The stated purpose of Bella Sky Hotel is to make foreigners who have come to Copenhagen for conferences make funny noises. It works. I came here for a seminar, and when I first saw Bella Sky Hotel I made some very funny noises indeed. It exists for the same reason that so many buildings in JRPGs float weightlessly off the ground. In many games, we're like people who are just flying in on business - we're really busy doing all these quests, and we need these visual reminders that we're not slaving away for nothing, we're high-flying businessmen, we're professionals, we've been playing this game so long and finally we've earned the right to come and look at this thing that's like a moomin crossed with a gundam. A lot of people talk about pointlessly flashy buildings in games as if it's a bad thing. Like buildings need a reason to float several feet in the air, or to lean 15 degrees in all directions. Yet in reality, just like in games, looking awesome is big business.