Daigaku Z: Protext vs. Context

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.

During the first few sessions of the lecture class, Mills-sensei took great pains to emphasize the importance of the Core Conversations assigned to us in our textbook and audio course (Japanese: The Spoken Language by Noda and Jorden). In particular, he stressed that it was critical that we learn the conversations by heart, so that we repeat them verbatim instantaneously when prompted. Most of the class seemed to accept this at face value.

And then there’s us. The 4pm recitation group. It might seem strange how quickly we bonded to each other, but in the face of our common adversary– utter confusion– we happy few, we band of bakas, we have found our communal resolve. We have met the enemy, and it is context.

Japanese is a language heavily dependent on context. A single word can itself be a complete sentence, because of the context in which it is used. Unlike English, a Japanese sentence does not necessarily need to have an explicitly referenced subject or object. The word “wakarimashita” is a sentence, literally meaning “understanding has happened”: but who understood? The speaker? The person the speaker is addressing? Is it an acknowledgement, is it a statement, is it just a polite formality? The sentences around “wakarimashita” frame the meaning of that simple sentence. But not just the rest of the dialogue; the very situation in which the sentence is said can change the meaning. This is most highly evident in the case of the word “shimasu”, which is the general-purpose “to do”. What are you “do”ing? Playing tennis? Studying? Controlling a video game?

In a way, the idea of the Core Conversations is to help provide ready-packaged context. A situation is set up, and then resolved. A question is asked, then answered. However, it can be a bit difficult to know during the recitations which conversation is being started– or even when the conversation has switched. This past week we had several instances where we answered in coherent, correct language, but in a way different from how the core conversation went, frustrating Takabatake-sensei to no end. In turn, we also became frustrated, because it appeared, to us, that the rules were being changed arbitrarily. We also had difficulty picking up the varying meanings behind certain tense-particle constructions, and that contributed quite a bit to our confusion. While the difference between “Tabemasen ka?” and “Tabemasen ne?” seem, at first blush, to be minor and interchangeable, the fact that one is a direct interrogative question and the other is an invitation took a bit of time to sink in.

Despite the trickiness of the conversation switching, I think we are making significant progress in the limited time that we have been working together. Our walks down the stairs at the end of class have us all comparing our mental notes and discussing what we thought we were doing right and wrong during the hour. One of us raised the point that we were saying the right things, but not at the right times. Outside of the context of trying to drill certain concepts of the language, a native speaker would understand us, even if they would be a bit nonplussed at our primitive grasp of the language.

That said, we can only go so far with what we know, and introducing new concepts and constructs is the lifeblood of the instruction. We need to be challenged constantly; we need to have the material reinforced daily so that we do not lose it. That’s critical for our understanding. If confusion is the price to pay for education, then it is one we should be willing to pay without question. But we also need to pay in terms of time and attention, and that means the Core Conversations, hours a day if need be. We’ve seen now the consequences of slacking on them: it creates a dangerous context for our education.

Daigaku Z: Let Me Say This To Start…

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.

I’ll be the first to admit that, when I walked in late to the recitation session, my utterance of sumimasen was prompted less by a knowledge of the disruption my intrusion would cause and more by the fact that I had heard it as an apology in countless episodes of Kamen Rider.

Wait, let me back up a bit.

At the end of last year, due to a lot of different things, I lost my job as a Java programmer; though I struggled valiantly against the monster that is burnout, I realized that I couldn’t continue working in such a “disposable” field. I had been feeling the stress of my impending collapse for a few years by that point, but had soldiered on in the hopes that it wasn’t me, it was the environments in which I was working. After a four month job search that led to no offers being extended to me, I finally decided to take the advice of a dozen or so people and try to find another line of work.

As you might have noticed from my work on the OTDT podcast, I like to talk. A lot. Communications and dialogue are really important to me, and I’ve been fascinated by the Japanese language since time immemorial. Translation seemed like it was a natural progression from there, as if you can’t understand someone, you can’t exchange ideas with them. Moreover, my background in technology gives me an edge over other individuals, as it would allow me to more easily grasp the complex vocabularies needed for, say, translating internal documentation for software inside a major company.

So in May, I started the process of applying to the University of Pittsburgh, and was accepted in very short order. I’ve spent this entire summer waiting for this past Monday, the first day of classes, to come; and with each passing day I slipped back into the self-consciousness that appears to be common to every incoming collegian, regardless of age or background. Will people avoid me? Will I make friends? How will I handle the stress of balancing studies with earning a living? Is this even something I can do? As the end of summer approached, these anxieties grew larger and larger.

Part of it is due to the rather repressive stereotype that I sort of completely embody: someone whose Japanese vocabulary comes virtually solely from anime and Power Rangers, and whose desire to learn seemingly takes a back seat to the desire to be exposed to “Cool Japan”. I’ll even admit to a slight amount of chagrin when I wrote in my notes “At least I got here before the guy in the Evangelion t-shirt”. Of course, this is an extremely toxic attitude to take, and un-learning it will be as difficult as the idea is itself pernicious.

I felt something change, though, during that first recitation class, where twelve of us sat dumbfounded at Takabatake-sensei’s gesticulations and face-faults when we failed to understand her; when we chuckled at each other’s various mangled pronunciations; when we helped each other out in silent sympathy. The same thought ran through all of our minds: “This is incredibly awkward. I feel like an idiot.” Our self-consciousness was being brought front-and-center, and we had no choice but to address it with a polite bow and stare it directly in the eyes.

For one hour, in a room where only one person knew innately what was being said, everyone understood each other perfectly. And though we entered as strangers, we were all talking and chatting as we left. That’s what communications and translation does. It unites people, it bridges gulfs that are sometimes metaphorical and sometimes very real. It is not easy, and the first stumbling moments of that new world opening up are always going to be awkward and embarrassing.

But, it’s important to remember that at our core, humans learn best by repetition and installing automatic, rather than thought-out, responses. The incessant usage of catchphrases and common words in anime, manga, and live-action media is intentional– it’s meant to stick with the audience, to become that reflexive response. The awkwardness comes from the fact that, while we are learning, we may not use the language correctly. In a sense, we’re like infants who have learned their first words; we say them because they get a response from our teachers and elders, but we don’t have a firm grasp on the context of those words. It’s this kind of attitude which leads to the trope of the “weeaboo anime fan” who litters his or her speech with mangled and incomprehensible pseudo-Japanese. We see it as someone taking an obsession too far, in a childish and immature manner, and we have a great deal of shame about it.

So, I have to offer an apology to the fellow student who showed up on that first day of class in the Eva shirt. You may have been the only one in the room who had the right approach to the class. We, as students, are never going to learn the language if we are terrified of making a mistake. That’s precisely why the recitation classes are so small and compartmentalized: so we let down our guards and can allow ourselves to make those mistakes, and learn from them. We’re not there to “count up our sins”– we’re there to, in the long run, “make it showy”.

A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi)

Despite the somewhat stereotypical presentation of high school in fiction as being a festering torture pit from which a passing grade is the only escape, it can justifiably be said that it’s still romanticized to a certain extent. Even notable “everyman” Peter Parker still had it pretty good in his school days, not quite factoring in the whole Spider-Man thing. But the fictional four years is still an absolute cakewalk compared to the reality of school, no matter where you are. And starting off behind the eight-ball– say, without the ability to hear– can make it a literal hell on earth.

Koe no Katachi (localized on Crunchyroll as A Silent Voice, though the creators subtitled the original as The Shape of Voice) by Yoshitoki Oima is a deep, insightful, and controversial manga about a deaf girl, Shouko Nishimya, and her elementary-school tormentor, Shouya Ishida. Ishida is a little hellion five years before the start of the story, jumping off short bridges for fun, and encouraged by a few of his friends. But when Nishimiya transfers into his class, he shifts his attentions toward making her life incredibly difficult, motivated only by her difference from the rest of the students. His teacher makes a half-hearted effort to keep the peace, but in the long run begins implicitly encouraging the bullying, which escalates as the rest of the class gets into it. Nishimiya is subjected to constant humiliations, including having her communications attempts treated as mockery, and having her hearing aids repeatedly ripped out and destroyed, usually by Ishida. It culminates in a brawl between the two, after which Nishimiya transfers out. Stripped of their target, the class– led by the teacher– shift their attentions onto Ishida, who endures four years of bullying equal to or worse than that which he heaped onto Nishimiya.

Five years later, when the story begins, Ishida is completely bitter and isolated, having been stripped of almost all contact outside of his somewhat scatterbrained mother. Despondent and regretful of everything that he’d done, he begins arranging his affairs prior to committing suicide, including paying his mother back for the hearing aids he’d destroyed. On what he believes to be his last day on earth, he happens to run across Nishimiya for the first time in five years, and– compelled to set things right before he dies– he tries to explain himself to her. When she instantly forgives him, to his great surprise, it sets in motion his slow, gradual, and excruciating process of emerging from his isolation and learning empathy, friendship, and even love– of others, but most importantly, of himself. And while Nishimiya might have something to say about that, she’s far from the only one from his past who’s about to speak up.

This is not, at its core, a love story. It’s more apt to say that this uses a love story to make its points. One of those points is obviously that deaf people are not to be mocked, which is expected considering that the series has the backing of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf; in this way it could be considered a follow-the-leader of series like With The Light. However, Koe no Katachi almost didn’t get published at all; the extreme attention to detail that is shown in treating the causes, process, and consequences of bullying raised the hackles of several political action groups in Japan. They claimed that it portrayed Japanese culture in a negative light. I happen to think that the situation is a bit reminiscent of EC Comics’ “Judgement Day”, which was similarly controversial for patently stupid reasons, specifically trying to elevate the comic book into the realm of social commentary. The fact of the matter is, both works tried to make a point about how something was wrong in their respective societies, and both works have beaten back the forces of malicious censorship to have their say.

This is also not an easy thing to read. Oima does not pull punches in showing exactly what happens when harmless banter crosses over into genuine terrorizing. Both Nishimiya and Ishida are deeply scarred by their actions and reactions, and the narration and perspectives reflect their inner torment very well. Ishida’s self-loathing reaches depths that are actually frightening to read through at times; the kid feels guilty for every single thing he’s done, and resents even the slightest happiness he could have in the present because of his past. The story gets psychologically brutal as characters fail to grasp what they’re doing and how it affects others. But, if the story went easy on the characters, it simply would not work; it comes at its point with the Churchillian pile-driver, hammering its well-needed moral constantly and incessantly.

Overall, though, the story (ongoing as of this writing) is engaging, and the characters who are intended as such become likeable and well-rounded. The art is well-drawn, and dialogue is clean and clever. Even details such as Nishimiya’s impaired speech come across perfectly, showing the strength and skill of the translators. I would consider this a fifth-gear series, and hope that a print release makes it into the libraries of every school in the world.

Crunchyroll Manga

This is part one of a review on Crunchyroll’s Manga service. Part Two, coming soon, will cover one of the titles available on the service, A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi).

Last year, the popular anime streaming service Crunchyroll introduced the ability to read translated manga licensed and simultaneously published on both sides of the Pacific. While it isn’t the first site of its ilk to make a splash in the United States, its predecessor, JManga, went out of business early in 2013. Crunchyroll had been a founding partner of JManga, and its own manga service could be seen as a continuation of the old service. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s just more of the same; CR Manga is as close to the real deal as we’re going to get in the States unless we speak Japanese.

CR doesn’t roll its manga service into the standard anime subscription, but rather offers it as an add-on called “All Access”; your same login that lets you watch anime on your Xbox 360 or PS Vita will let you read manga. There are dedicated clients for iOS and Android, but unless you’re reading on a tablet or Android e-reader you’re more likely to want to use the browser-based client. Curiously, the browser client requires Adobe Flash, but this is probably due to a need to prevent the pages from being saved and redistributed. Despite the somewhat outdated tech used in the browser, it still works well enough.

If you’ve used Crunchyroll’s anime apps on big-screen devices, you know what to expect with the interface: it’s clunky but gets out of the way when you need it to. You can only save one bookmark per manga title, and there’s no automatic bookmarking of the last-read page; if you forget where you left off, or a new chapter is released, you’d better remember that on your own, because the app and the browser client won’t. There’s only a generic “updated” page presenting the list of titles that have new issues. With new content being added weekly, it can quickly get overwhelming, especially if you’re following long-running series like Fairy Tail.

While there isn’t yet quite the volume of content that the anime side has, the manga side is no slouch. Titles like Ken Akamatsu’s new series UQ Holder! and the ever-popular Attack on Titan headlined the first dozen releases, but the rest of the service is mostly populated with quirky or niche titles like Coppelion, My Wife Is Wagatsuma-san, and Koe no Katachi. Titles that have US print releases are unavailable on the service digitally for the chapters that have books released; the first few books of Attack on Titan, for example, are absent from the online service but the simulpubs are ongoing and available as far back as when the title was added to the service. If you’re thinking about using the service to get caught up on twenty books of Fairy Tail without, y’know, buying twenty books, think again.

Even with the somewhat rocky start, the service is still an excellent value because of the content provided. Translations are clean and familiar, without any stilted phrases or tortured grammar. The text replacement is also neat and precise, and the variety of fonts used help to keep the typographical representations of dialogue stresses and other idiosyncrasies consistent. As always, there’s cultural notes for folks who might not understand some of the more obscure bits being referenced where needed, although these can be almost unreadable on a phone. This is quality you’d see out of a print book, and not a cheapo run, either; I’m genuinely impressed by the care taken in localization.

Over the coming months, I’ll be reviewing manga available on the service. Look forward to the first review, A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi), to hit OTDT in a day or two. UQ Holder! and Silver Nina are also on my list, and as CR adds new titles, we’ll see if they need to be reviewed… or reversed from.

Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Blu-Rays To Be Released

Seven Arcs has announced on the official Nanoha web site that Blu-Ray box sets of the franchise’s three TV anime (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS) will be released in the final quarter of 2014. The sets are being released to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the original series’ premiere, in October of 2004. As Blu-Ray Region A includes both Japan and North America, importing the series is a viable option again, particularly since the series’ license was held by Geneon and was one of its final releases (distributed by Funimation) before the localizer’s demise. If the precedent set by the Blu-Ray release of the compilation/reboot movies is followed, all sets should include English subtitles. The dub of the first two series, starring Cristina Vee as Nanoha, is not likely to be included; this will be the first official English-language release of StrikerS if it does include subtitles.

On an unrelated editorial note, the sound that this monoglyphic editor made upon reading the news was something beyond the range of human vocal chords and if you get these for me I will replicate it for you on air which was highly disturbing and may never happen again.

Wii/DS Online Play Shutting Down May 20

On the 20th of May, 2014, Nintendo will be deprecating their online gameplay servers for all DS and Wii software, according to a press release from February 27th. Only online play features for the software are affected, including online leaderboards and downloadable content. The Nintendo eShop will still be available for both systems. Even when played on the updated systems (Wii U and 3DS), the software will still not function online, as the servers providing the functionality are being shut down.

It is very likely that the services are being shut down to facilitate new features of the Nintendo Network, Nintendo’s newly-unified online infrastructure for the 3DS and Wii U. This type of planned obsolescence is not uncommon. Microsoft kept the lights on for Xbox Live on the 2001 Xbox until 2010, four years after the release of the Xbox 360. Sony has not declared an en masse end to Playstation 2 online play simply because, as the servers for those games are run by the software publishers and the PS2 does not use a centralized online service, it is impossible to shut them all down at once– in fact, Resident Evil Outbreak’s online functionality was restored using unofficial third-party servers in Japan earlier this year. However, even if Nintendo is planning on major upgrades and changes to the Nintendo Network in the wake of this shutdown, they have not announced anything concrete.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

The concept of high schoolers trapped in a murderous locked-room mystery isn’t anything new; from Battle Royale through Drifting Classroom, the plot is so old that it’s even starting to attract parodies, such as Persona 4 Arena’s story mode. So, you can imagine that at first blush, Danganronpa (or Trigger Happy Havoc, as NIS has localized the title) doesn’t sound like it’s a terribly original game. Then again, tremendous fan outcry leading to a fan-translation which practically forced an “official” localization isn’t new, either (see: Cave Story for starters). In pretty much all of those cases, though, it’s been warranted.

Makoto Naegi is a student selected at random to attend the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy, as the so-called “Ultimate Lucky Student”. Hope’s Peak is attended exclusively by students who have reached the pinnacle of their respective talents, from Mondo Owada (Ultimate Delinquent) to Sayaka Maizono (Ultimate Pop Idol). Unfortunately for all fifteen of these exceptional kids, as soon as they set foot in the school they’re knocked unconscious and transported to a twisted, sealed-off version of the academy. There, they’re greeted by the adorably psychotic Monokuma, who tells them that they can never leave the school again. The only way out is to commit the perfect murder: if a student can kill another and leave no traces behind as to who did it for the remainder to figure out, that student will go free— and the rest will die. But, if the murderer is discovered, they will die for having committed murder, and the rest live on to fight another day.

Serving as a delightfully unhinged cross between Ace Attorney, Tokimeki Memorial, Final Fantasy Theatrhythm, and a David Lynch movie, Danganronpa puts players in Makoto’s hoodie as they try to get through the bloodbath unharmed. Most of the game is spent in the investigation mode, where you travel throughout Hope’s Peak Academy looking for clues to the murder du jour. This plays out like your standard point-and-click adventure game, with a few conveniences to prevent pixel-hunting from creating unnecessary frustration. Once you’ve collected all of the clues, you’re whisked away to the trial phase of the game, where you engage in a series of mini-games that literally blast holes in your classmates’ arguments. Like Ace Attorney, you’re permitted a handful of mistakes, dressed up as your “integrity” meter: go too far off the rails and the class quits listening to you, and it’s game over. In between the cases, you have periods of free time where you can hang out with the surviving students, give them gifts, and learn more about them that can make each of the murders to follow hurt that much more.

As stated above, the game came to the attention of most North Americans through a Let’s Play series, wherein viewers became enamored with the characters and story. And for good reason: the plots are very well-written, and the characters instantly likable (when they’re supposed to be). When I said the murders would hurt, I meant it. The first couple of them are absolutely brutal and out of the blue, and happen to characters you’ve probably got a little bit of an attachment to even that early in the game. The murders are suitably complex, too; while you’ll probably figure out the killer in the first case way too quickly, there is a layer of intrigue to the proceedings that makes it far more than it appears.

The excellent voice acting helps, but the fact that only the trial phases are fully voiced hurts the immersion overall: outside of trials, most everyone only has a handful of randomized voice snippets to utilize, and they get annoying fast, aside from the rare lines where the voice is reading the text verbatim. Still, even in the limited lines, everyone puts real emotion into their acting, and the whole thing just kinda works. The music is catchy, but ultimately nothing to really get overly excited over.

Danganronpa started life as a PSP game, but North America got the Vita re-release. The graphics are stellar, with virtually no chunkiness in the hand-drawn portraits and gorgeous 3D sets. Probably as an artifact of the PSP, however, characters appear as 2D “cardboard cutouts” in the investigation scenes, which is very jarring as the camera can be manipulated to get at hidden clues. Still, that’s a very minor flaw in the big picture; the whole visual package just works, and there’s a very self-aware 8-bit aesthetic in use for signs and certain cutscenes.

Overall, I can’t recommend this game highly enough, especially if you liked Spike Chunsoft’s other works, such as Virtue’s Last Reward (the achievements even have some subtle nods to that game). Equally hilarious and horrifying, Danganronpa is not to be missed. I place it at Fifth Gear (on our scale out of six).

The Infinite 1-Up Cheat Code

In a relatively unsurprising move, Nintendo has slashed its financial forecast into taking a loss for the fiscal year ending in March of 2014. Until 2012, Nintendo was considered an evergreen company: it had not posted an annual loss in over thirty years. However, this year’s forecast will mark the third consecutive year of monetary bleeding for the company, and most analysts are pointing the finger at the Wii U.

From a consumer’s standpoint, the blame is understandable: Nintendo’s latest console has more or less done nothing in its year and change on the market, and third-party developers have fled from the system en masse, leaving only two heavyweights (Activision and Ubi Soft). The latest entry in the Mario series, Super Mario 3D World, barely registered in retail against the one-two punch of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 being released, and the horizon looks grim for any first-party titles, as few have been announced. There have even been rumors circulating that Nintendo has internally given up on the system and is focusing on its successor, after several developers have (anonymously) blasted the machine for being woefully underpowered.

It’s actually kind of amusing to me to hear these reports of doom and gloom come in, because they’re for the most part identical to the ones that came in about the Wii, and the 3DS, and the GameCube, and the Nintendo 64. In a fit of irony, most of the complaints about Nintendo “only releasing rehashes and more of the same Mario baloney” are in fact copy-and-pasted from the last console generation’s whining. What makes things different this time isn’t necessarily that the consumer moaning is omnipresent, but that the fiscal success isn’t there anymore to put the lie to it.

I own a Wii U, I’ll say that much. And I enjoy the machine for what it does, which is at the moment streaming videos and playing Wii discs. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t some serious problems with the hardware, because there are: the lack of internally-upgradable storage, the lack of quality games for the system, the criminal underuse of the GamePad by other developers, and so on. But do I think that Nintendo is going to fold because of the machine’s lack of adoption and enthusiasm? Not in a million years.

And that is because of the other piece of Nintendo kit that I own, and that I’d wager a lot of people own: the 3DS, or one of its ilk. People tend to forget that during the dark days of the mid-to-late 90’s, Nintendo was kept afloat solely by the sales of its handheld division after its biggest third-party developer of the time, Square, jumped ship for the Playstation. Pokemon is literally the only thing that kept them going through the N64 and GameCube eras, and that’s not a bad thing. But the introduction of smartphones, and the ability for high-quality gaming experiences to be had on those devices, put a serious dent in the forecasts for the 3DS.

Again, it’s easy to think that Pokemon was the sole savior of the 3DS, but Pokemon X and Y only came out this past October. The system gained traction through the support of some very dedicated third-party developers like Atlus, Sega, and even Square-Enix. The handheld has made strides on both sides of the Pacific, and because of this Nintendo’s future looks relatively bright in that arena.

But that still leaves the question of the three consecutive annual losses. On the bright side, the amount of each loss has been dwindling: from a half-billion US dollars in 2012 to just over 300 million USD reported today. Some of this could be attributed to the lousy exchange rate of yen to USD in ’12 and ’13, but certainly not all of it; the rate has hovered around 100 to 1 for about a year now. If I had to guess (from an outsider’s perspective), I would say that the fault lies in the development and rollout of the ill-fated 2DS device, released alongside the Pokemon games in October of 2013. Exactly nobody was excited for the device, Nintendo failed to make a compelling case for its existence, and it honestly should have just been scuttled before they could blow millions on production and distribution on something which stores are having a hard time justifying shelf space for.

Three straight years in the red obviously looks bad for Nintendo, especially after three straight decades of profitability. Things look especially dismal for company president Satoru Iwata, who after last year’s losses made a public commitment to a 1 billion dollar profit for the coming year. To say he has egg on his face is a bit of an understatement at this point, and while there were rumors that he would resign in 2013 as punishment for the previous losses, I imagine several investors will be calling for blood this week. As exits go, Iwata’s would be bittersweet: while he’s run the company into some choppy waters, he also ushered in an era of unprecedented showmanship with the company’s marketing tactics, eschewing big trade events like E3 and CES in favor of more frequent, understated Nintendo Direct events. The company has also moved towards day-and-date global releases and pushed its digital infrastructure (somewhat) into the 21st century through the use of the eShop and full digital releases.

But Nintendo has been dead-last before, and they will be after their next resurgence. This is a company that will not die, no matter how badly their consoles sell, simply because they know how to make good games. Nintendo has always maintained that they will not make the switch to third-party development, and I imagine that’s a promise that their next CEO intends to keep. If that means that they continue to throw money down the “goofy unnecessary project” black hole, it just means that they have to work that much harder with their games. The company has never been one to rest on its laurels nor to wallow in defeat after a few bad steps. We may see a true next-gen system from them make its announcement this year, or we may see an “Ambassador” program similar to that which stimulated 3DS adoption. The form of the recovery is, by and large, irrelevant. What matters is that it’s a good bet that it will happen.

I mean, come on, this is the company that invented the 1-Up Mushroom; do you honestly think that they don’t have a few in reserve for themselves?

The Choices We Make

2013 is the 15th anniversary of the Pokemon games in North America, and it also heralds the release of the sixth-generation set Pokemon X and Pokemon Y. The two games are important not just because of their novelty, nor for their immense profitability to Nintendo and Game Freak, nor even for the fact that they are the first primary-series Pokemon games on the 3DS. There is a much deeper reason for why the Pokemon games are important, and it relates to something I spoke about in Episode 7 of OTDT.

When we recorded that episode, X and Y were still a week and a half out, and we expected to have the episode up prior to the release. A family emergency prevented this, and so it might seem like a little bit of paranoid hysteria when I was so fervently afraid that people were going to spew forth spoiler upon spoiler for the games prior to their release (the games were widely leaked in advance of the October 12th launch date). I do sort of regret being so worried, because it shows off my tendency to overanalyze things, but then again, something miraculous happened: absolutely nothing.

There was no coordinated effort to spoil the game for unsuspecting people. The people who were posting spoilers marked them clearly, so that fellow trainers could choose for themselves whether or not they wanted everything revealed to them. And while Nintendo did come down hard on people who were posting screenshots and revealing information, they only did so as absolutely necessary, and only within their previous patterns of behavior (stores who broke street date deliberately were informed that they would no longer be getting new titles on time for an unspecified penalty period, which is standard industry practice for such an act; the players themselves were not told to return their games). In short, the doom and gloom I predicted didn’t come to pass. And you have no idea how glorious it feels to be wrong about this.

Let’s face it: video gamers have a bad reputation. We’re often seen as whiny, entitled brats who do nothing but complain to the companies who sell us entertainment, if not about the lack of content, then about the quality of it. The free-floating hostility of video game culture is so ingrained that when I worked at a video game store in the early 2000s, I was baffled to learn that parents deliberately avoided bringing kids into the shop because they thought that all of us, to a man, were going to turn their kids into monsters. To be fair, given the predominance of lurid content in games these days, it’s not an unfair assumption: think back to what the last video game advertisement you saw was, and what its ESRB rating was; the odds are good that it wasn’t E.

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve watched the release of Pokemon X and Y develop and kept a browser window open on Reddit, I’ve noticed something really astonishing about how the games have affected the people who play them. Most notably, a thread emerged discussing how people who played the original Game Boy versions, Red and Blue (in North America at any rate), found that their choice of starter offered by Professor Oak fifteen years ago affected them when Professor Sycamore presented them the same choice once again today. A significant majority of people chose the same starter as they did back then, with many citing sentimental reasons as their primary motivator. One person even mentioned that, in the original games, players were cautioned to choose wisely, as the companion they picked “would be with [them] for a very long time”. Prof. Oak wasn’t kidding around.

Pokemon have been a part of our world for fifteen years now. It’s important to stress this: there are people starting high school who have never known a time in their life where there weren’t Pokemon. For many gamers my age, we’re seeing our own children take an interest in the classic game of adventuring through a world full of friends to be made. And, for its part, the original purpose of the game– to strengthen bonds of friendship by collecting, trading, and competing with the people around you– has been continually reinforced with every advancement in the series. Players can today have a battle with someone on the other side of the world just as if they were sitting next to them. They may not speak the same language or have the same physical characteristics, but they are united by a common goal: to win against their new friend.

To think that making digital friends could lead to making friends in the real world is not an unusual thing; we do it all the time through tools like social media. But the thought that a simple game with a four-word pitch– “Gotta catch ’em all”– could bring together millions of people across the world and help them see their commonalities instead of their differences is itself not unique, either. It’s just so vanishingly rare that any time it actually happens, it’s in danger of being subsumed under the deluge of horrific news about the world. We see in Pokemon a better world, one where we can work through our conflicts without resorting to the kind of atrocities that make headlines, and we wonder why we can’t live there instead of here. Maybe that’s the other true purpose of the games: to teach us that we have the responsibility, and the power, to make our choices so that world of peace and adventure becomes a reality in our own.

Choose wisely.

1 3 4 5