Daigaku Z: Gaming The System

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Also, thank you for bearing with the absence last week; I was rather ill and couldn’t get much done until Monday. With any luck this will be the last break before the end of the semester.

The preface to every Daigaku Z column thus far has included the assertion that I am learning Japanese in order to become a translator. This is true. It sounds rather absurd to have to state that, but there it is. As with everything, though, while it is true, there’s more truth to it than what’s in that statement.

A couple years ago I was made aware of Andy Kitkowski’s translation of the 1997 tabletop game Tenra Bansho Zero, which fuses steampunk aesthetics to jidai geki style (classical Japanese history) swashbuckling. It was a fairly ambitious Kickstarter, but the more I read through the book’s rules and its game principles, the more I realized it was something truly unique among tabletop role-playing games. Mr. Kitkowski’s work turned out to be an excellent introduction to this world of games that we, as English speakers, have very little insight into.

Of course, even before that, I had an interest in what’s colloquially known as “import gaming”. I’d picked up Ewen Cluney’s translation of Maid RPG; I had collected a few of the Super Robot Taisen games for PS2; and Z-Man Games had brought out an English edition of the Shadow Hunters board game that I really enjoyed. The subsequent releases of OVA and Golden Sky Stories were also fantastic products that I’m proud to have supported, but through it all I realized that there was so much more out there that is being left more or less untouched.

Games are an excellent tool, not just for passing the time on a snowy weekend, but for learning a number of skills that we use daily without thinking about them. I’m sure everyone who’s had an elementary-level Spanish class wound up playing Uno to learn the numbers and at least four colors. But there are other skills we learn through games: fast mathematics, spatial skills, inductive and deductive reasoning, short term behavior modeling… The list is as long as there are games in the world. There’s a reason we correlate high intelligence with strong chess skills. (For the record, I am terrible at chess.)

But even more than that, the Internet age and the advent of smartphone app stores means that we have access to, in theory, any game we could ever want at any point in time and on any point on the globe. We no longer need to find someone out there to teach us some of the less commonly played card games like euchre or contract bridge: all we have to do is run a search. Where things get complicated is the extreme provincialism of some app developers, who may never think for even a second that their best-selling mahjong app might be worth translating into English.

Back in 2009, a Chinese developer thought they were going to make it big in America through their introduction of the first true mahjong game on the Xbox 360. Funtown Mahjong was a break from what the American audience generally perceives mahjong as being– instead of the tile-matching game Shanghai, it was the original multiplayer melding game. It was a day-one purchase for me, because I’d always wanted to learn how to play. Unfortunately, it was a torturous experience, and to this day I still don’t know how to play to any great satisfaction.

It’s the same with more or less any of the “classic” games. Hanafuda (koi-koi), mahjong, go, shogi… All those great and in some cases maddeningly rich games that we’ve seen for decades in anime, and nobody on that side of the Pacific has bothered to try teaching the North American audience how to play. There’s been mahjong and pachislo (pachinko-slot) games on every console since the days of the Famicom and they’ve all been awkardly inward-facing. It drives me up the wall, to be honest.

So, allow me to reiterate this point. I’m going to be a translator. I’m going to find the best versions of mahjong, the best versions of shogi, the best versions of any weird or unusual game that hasn’t been brought out in North America, and I am going to give them the same level of care and polish that fan translators have given games like Cave Story, Danganronpa, and Yume Nikki. That’s my plan. I estimate I’m about six months away from being able to start on a game– that would put me at the end of the summer accelerated session, with the equivalent of two years of study under my belt.

Consider this your head start, game industry.