Mixed Media Landscape with Slime: Notes on the Digital Games Research Association 2019 conference

Last month I visited Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University for the 2019 Digital Games Research Association conference, where I gave two papers about my Ego Media research on videogames and life writing. But let’s not worry about my papers; let’s talk about the rat.

Chequered and chunky, red of eye and pointy of ear, the rat has page 121 all to herself. While I’ve played Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996) many times over the years, it’s only since purchasing a Japanese guidebook to the game that I’ve really felt moved to think about the rat. (The guidebook, since you ask, was going for roughly a pound at the Nishiki market branch of Surugaya Speciality Store, a retro gaming emporium located some 6 kilometres from Ristumeikan’s Kinugasa campus).

The topic for DiGRA 2019 was ‘Game, Play and the Emerging Ludo Mix’ – a reference to the ‘Media Mix’ strategy pioneered by Japanese entertainment companies, who have long focused on creating memorable characters that can be neatly slotted into new contexts and scenarios, from games, animations, movies and manga to fan works, clothes, toys and novelty foodstuffs. While the rat’s co-star Lara Croft has done quite well in the media mix-up (Hollywood movies! Comic books! A Lucozade sponsorship!), the rat herself is not, let’s be honest, such a character. But when the rat lies awake at night, wondering what might have been, it’s not Lara she’s jealous of – it’s the slime.  

The slime as it appears in the NES version of the first Dragon Quest

In a way, the slime and the rat are peers. Like the rat, the slime (who debuted in Dragon Quest (Chunsoft, 1986)) is a low-level enemy. In some ways the slime is inferior to the rat: where she, according to my guidebook, has 5 health points, the slime has just 3. And yet, while the rat has faded into obscurity the slime goes from strength. Has the rat ever starred in its own series of spin-off games? No. Are there currently rat-shaped steamed buns on sale in a Tokyo bar? Or rat-shaped PlayStation 4 and Switch controllers? No and no. While the word ‘iconic’ is sorely overused, the slime (which was designed by famed mangaka Akira Toryama) can fairly lay claim to it: how many other lumps of red, white and blue pixels have this much character? I was born under the sign of the rat, but I know this is a race it can’t win.

The Media Mix strategy has been undeniably successful, birthing globally known icons like Pokémon’s Pikachu and setting a precedent for contemporary transmedia franchises worldwide. Scholars like Hiroki Azuma argue, however, that it has had a detrimental effect on storytelling, moving the focus away from cause-and-effect narratives in which complex characters develop as they face up to the consequences of their actions. The slime might be instantly recognisable and incontrovertibly kawaii, but compared to Anna Karenina or even Lara Croft (who was saddled with all manner of issues in 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot) he doesn’t have much of an arc.

Moreover, and as Eiji Ōtsuka argued in DiGRA 2019’s first keynote, celebratory accounts of the media mix gloss over some disturbing precedents for contemporary transmedia strategies. Ōtsuka’s talk detailed the propaganda practices of Japan’s far-right wartime government, the Taisei Yokusankai, and their creation of a group of characters known as the Yokusan Ikka – a family who featured in puppet shows, picture books, radio plays, advertisements, records and comic strips. Like the slime, these were simple characters, designed to be easy to draw (especially if you bought the how-to guides the party produced). Citizens were encouraged to make their own comic strips about them and the tonarigumi (neighbourhood association) of their town. Apparently Osamu Tezuka – venerated as the godfather of manga and anime, and a schoolboy sat the time of World War II – was among those who drew Yokusan Ikka stories. Where official histories tend to cite his New Treasure Island (1947) as a germinal moment for Japanese media, Ōtsuka insisted on the importance of remembering this unsavoury episode.

A slide from Ōtsuka’s talk, showing a picture book containing advice on how to draw the Yokusan Ikka characters.

T.L. Taylor’s keynote adopted a different stance on the media mix, and was one of many presentations to address e-sports, streaming and vlogging. There are obvious areas of overlap here with Ego Media’s research into the forms of self-presentation (and self-commodification) that individuals develop in response to the architectures and affordances of different digital platforms. As Noemie Roques and Samuel Couravoux argued in their presentation, streamers and commentators must negotiate competing pressures. While fans want candour, humour and (perceived) authenticity, sponsors and publishers look for professionalism. Tom Brock also addressed the demands placed on high-profile gamers, looking at how competitive players use data to try and optimise their performance, and at how they negotiate anxiety and burnout. In a similar vein, KCL’s own Feng Zhu built on Bourdieu to address questions of strategy and skill acquisition, arguing that gamers exemplify the kinds of reflexivity and malleability that digital societies require of workers and consumers.

Mia Consalvo and Christopher Paul, meanwhile, discussed four makers of YouTube ‘Let’s Play’ videos. For some, games become props, grist for their performances of irreverence, excitability or connoisseurship; for others connecting with a community of viewers is the main focus. Where some LPers favour particular platforms, others distribute content across YouTube, Twitch, Facebook and Mixer – though one of their subjects, KPopp, had just signed a lucrative exclusivity deal with Facebook. Other talks gestured towards the power of distribution platforms like Steam. With so many games released on Steam each week, developers are increasingly focused on forms of ‘discoverability labour’ intended to build awareness and distinguish their games from those of competitors. Keeping players and pundits updated, fielding feedback and cultivating evangelical ‘superfans’ is all part of the ‘indie’ game for studios like those Bart Simon and Jessie Marchessault are researching. If I had to decant a single message from these panels, it’s that platform capitalism is forcing us all to become more like the slime: responding to changing conditions with blob-like pliancy and plasticity while aspiring to the instant legibility of long-familiar cartoon characters.

The conference’s other keynotes were essentially works of life writing, and saw industry heavyweights Tetsuya Miziguchi and Yosuke Hayashi talking through their ludographies while teasing upcoming projects. As a Sega fan I’ve long been fascinated by Mizuguchi’s career trajectory; in the space of five years ‘the Miz’ went from directing Sega Rally (Sega AM3, 1995), a hit arcade racer noted for its graphical realism, to developing Rez (United Game Artists, 2000), a strikingly abstract ‘rail shooter’ that took inspiration from Kandinsky, Tron (Lisberg, 1982) and techno, using quantization techniques to synch the sounds of players’ actions to thumping dance tracks. In the two decades since he’s released a series of games that use cutting edge technologies – VR headsets, motion sensors and haptic actuators – to explore what he sees as the ‘synaesthetic’ potential of interactive audiovisual media. Framing his life in games as a story of better technologies opening the way to more intense experiences, Miziguchi’s techno-meliorist spin on gaming’s history was winningly optimistic, if a little simplistic. If nothing else it underscored how gamers tend to understand their biographies in relation to the generational cycles of the games industry and the development of new and more capable hardware.

The 2000 Dreamcast version of Rez, since remade in HD and for VR.

Hayashi began by detailing his boyhood love of Koei’s Nobunaga’s Ambition series (1983-2017), joking that he used to use these historical strategy games, based on sixteenth-century warlord Oda Nobunaga’s bid to unify Japan’s warring states, to revise for history exams. The bulk of his talk, though, was devoted to discussing his studio’s recent hit Nioh (Team Ninja, 2017), a game (very) loosely based on the story of William Adams, a shipwrecked English sailor who became a confidant of the Shogun. It’s fair to say Hayashi’s is a laissez-faire stance on biographical accuracy; while he argued that, when dealing with figures like Nobunaga or Adams, one has a duty to accurately represent when and how an individual died, he also saw nothing wrong with taking the odd liberty – thus Adams, one of the few Westerners to be made a samurai, is reimagined in Nioh as a ruggedly handsome demon-slayer.

Also of interest were a series of panels centred on ugly feelings and bad behaviour (boredom, transgression, ‘dark play’, trolling) and an exhibition of student games on the theme of ‘danran’, or togetherness. If videogames are often seen as atomising (and are frequently invoked in discussions of the hikikomori phenomenon, which has seen as many as half a million Japanese youths voluntarily shut themselves off from the outside world) these projects sought to foster more sociable forms of play. In one, players wearing motion sensitive belts had to coordinate their movements to control two in-game turbines, blowing a shared avatar away from obstacles and towards the goal; another was controlled via a pressure-sensitive double mattress; a third invited players to challenge one another to karaoke rap battles (no one was brave enough to do this); a fourth riffed on the fact that in Japanese arcades, game cabinets are usually arranged back-to-back, so that you can’t see who you’re playing against – here a lightbulb and two-way mirror conspired to give the victor a glimpse of their vanquished foe. The back-to-back cabinet convention has always suited me just fine, but then I normally lose at competitive games – a tradition I faithfully upheld the next evening back at Nishiki market, where, having set a pretty creditable score in the singleplayer mode of Virtua Fighter 3 (Sega AM2, 1996), I rashly challenged a local to a match and saw my avatar stomped, slapped and whirled round like a ragdoll before being flung off of the Great Wall of China. Much like the rat, I never really stood a chance.

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Prior to joining the Ego Media team, Rob worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games... read more about: Robert Gallagher