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Being an Anime Fan is Too Easy Now; Let’s Make it Harder

At a local comics store recently, I found something totally unexpected on the shelves: a used copy of Anime: The Berkeley Journal of Japanese Animation, Issue II. It’s a magazine from 1991, published by a Berkeley-based anime fan club, with a lovely picture of Gainax’s Nadia on the cover. The book is mostly comprised of episode scripts and summaries for Nadia and other contemporary shows, so it doesn’t have a whole lot of value as a magazine (no fascinating articles on anime from an early-’90s perspective), but it was such a cool little piece of anime history that I had to pick it up.

I’m assuming the reason why the book is mostly scripts is because the fans who read this journal were watching Fushigi no Umi no Nadia on raw VHS, taped off of Japanese television, and needed the scripts and/or summaries to follow what was happening on screen. That got me thinking about how much danged work it was to be an anime fan back then; anime didn’t show up to your house, you had to go to it. You had to go to club meetings, to watch grainy copies of a show on a tiny screen in a foreign language with no subtitles, and the only way you could understand what was going on was if you followed along in your guide, which needed to be specially designed and printed by other fans.

And the fans who made these zines and attended these viewings were the lucky ones, because at least they had access to something; in most of the country (basically anywhere that wasn’t NYC or California), the only option was to buy tapes for $34.95 for anime that had come out years ago. This was one instance where geographic privilege was very powerful, because only people on the coasts were likely to even see a show like Nadia anywhere near the time it aired on Japanese TV.

Compared to now, obviously it’s like night and day. I can load up Crunchyroll or Netflix and gain access to more anime than I could possibly watch; not just the old classics that have gained popularity in the West, but most of the same shows that are airing in Japan now. If for some reason you don’t like streaming media, you can buy anime box sets on DVD and Blu-Ray for a fraction of what anime used to cost decades ago, and the visual and audio quality is vastly superior. We are living in an Otaku Paradise…okay, the fact that CR now has something close to a monopoly on anime streaming is not good for consumers, but nevertheless, compared to 1991 we are living like royalty.

And yet, I can’t help feeling we’re missing out on something. When you have to work that hard to do something, you invest in it more, and therefore get more out of it. The Berkeley journal era was before my time as an otaku– I was still into original My Little Pony and She-Ra: Princess of Power back then– but later on, during my teen years, there was still a much higher level of risk involved in being a fan. Anime tapes cost $29.99 or $34.99; when I went to the store, I could only afford to buy maybe one, and it was a serious decision. And if I bought an anime I didn’t like, well, by the time I’d finished watching the tape to death, I would have found something I liked about it. I’d invested way too much in anime to just watch the tape once and throw it in a drawer somewhere.

Still, when I did buy a tape and bring it home from the mall, there was that bubbling excitement; I got a new anime! A whole new anime, maybe even with multiple episodes on it! My anime collection was increasing! There’s nothing like that excitement today; partially because I’m old and jaded, but even young fans don’t feel that same sense of excitement that I once did if they have access to nigh-unlimited streaming anime, I don’t think. I don’t see how they could.

I need to be careful here…it’s true that when you have less, you appreciate it more, and that’s the phenomenon I’m talking about. Yet that comes dangerously close to saying “things were better back when they SUCKED,” which is just stupid. I wouldn’t want to go back to the time when I spent $30 for one episode of the Oh! My Goddess OVA, no matter how excited I was to bring that tape home. No, things are better now, but I don’t think any of us are quite as invested and passionate in anime as fans were circa ’91, or even 2000; it’s just not possible. It’s become too easy, too automatic to watch new brand-new anime.

What I’m wondering now is if there’s any way we can somehow nurture the same passion fans had back when anime was a scarce, precious resource, but without making people jump through ridiculous hoops to cut off access. I mean, I suppose you could make some kind of “Old School Anime Challenge,” where people could opt-in to try to live like an old-school fan for a while and only watch one (raw) show per season or something*, but that seems more like a silly exercise in masochism than anything else. Unless some cataclysm destroys the internet and sends us back to the VHS-and-Betamax days, we can’t return to that time.

I was kidding in the title of the post about how we should make it harder to be an anime fan; obviously, we don’t really want to do that. But I think we should maybe be less forgiving of those who take anime for granted; those “fans” who talk about how every show sucks, how in general anime sucks, how people who are really into anime suck. Obviously, these people have the right to watch anime if they want (although why they even want to, when they apparently have such a low opinion of it, is an open question). But we don’t have to take their opinions seriously either, which is what we’ve been doing for the past 15 years or so.

I don’t really have a plan here. I’m going to be thinking about ways to be more passionate and appreciative as a fan, the kind the Berkeley Anime Club would have recognized, without going to another extreme and becoming a completely non-critical anime zombie. If opening your browser to watch all the latest anime from this season has started to feel more like a chore than a privilege, maybe you should give it some thought too. It could be that you’d be better off watching less anime, only spending time with the stuff you really love, or maybe you could try to have a different perspective on what you’re already watching.

All I know is, this feeling where anime is cheap and disposable is icky and I don’t like it. I’m not going back to hoarding VHS tapes, but I’m going to try to act a little bit more like the person who thought that spending all of her babysitting money on anime tapes was a good idea.

*Only if you live in NYC or California though: if you live anywhere else in the world, you will watch reruns of Golden Girls and you will like it.

Are Video Games Art?, Part III

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments for why video games can’t or shouldn’t be art. These are only the arguments I’ve personally encountered, so I could be missing a lot here. Feel free to provide other arguments in the comments (either in the spirit of “This is why your whole series of blog posts is wrong,” or “This is what my idiot cousin from Philly says,” either is fine with me.)

  1. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They Are Items of Consumer Electronics and Must Be Judged on That Level

This is, by far, the most sensible argument against games being art, and the one that’s creating a lot of friction among gamers right now. We’re dealing with clashing paradigms that don’t play nicely together.

An example: You can look at the Mona Lisa for a couple of seconds, and unless you’re a real art buff, at that point you’re done with it. Still, despite the short engagement time, that image will probably be ingrained within your mind for the rest of your life, you’ll see references to the Mona Lisa for the rest of your life, and the painting’s value is considered priceless, beyond rubies. If you only engaged with a $60 game for a few seconds, when you were expecting 20-60 hours of gameplay (or even several hundred hours, if you just bought an in-depth SRPG like Disgaea), you just got ripped off.

In theory, someone could make a game that was five seconds long and have it be priceless, but due to the differences between the visual arts and interactive media, that’s highly unlikely. This whole idea of judging something based on how much time it occupies relative to it’s price is something that doesn’t gel well with art appreciation as a concept. No one ever goes to a museum and complains that the exhibit sucked because they only stood in front of each painting for a moment.*

And yet, other mediums have been dealing with this for years, and that somehow doesn’t disqualify them from being art. Films are judged in part by how they use their runtime, and whether they’re an entertaining or informative use of 2 or so hours; a film that seemingly wastes 2 hours of your time is considered a rip-off. However, just because films can be judged in this manner, and are judged that way more often than not, no one then counters that cinema can’t be art. It’s simply different ways of judging the same thing; you can judge film as a consumer product, but that’s not the only viewpoint there is. If this works for film, why shouldn’t it work for games?

One thing fairly specific to games that I don’t believe applies elsewhere is the fact that a game has to be a functioning piece of software. If the X button is jump, the character better jump 100% of the time, not 75%, and the graphics better not bug out every time you enter a new room. A game could have the most brilliant artistic ideas imaginable, but if the controls don’t work, it fails as a piece of consumer electronics, and therefore as a game.

There’s some wiggle-room here; some games with slightly wonky controls and bug issues are often given a partial pass if the content they feature is otherwise high-quality. But in general, a game has to work as software first.

The problem is people think that a game can fail as software, but then use “art” as an excuse to completely avoid responsibility for its failures. “Oh the game is buggy as hell, but what a wonderfully nuanced look at a romance between two one-armed seamstresses in the 1730s!”

And you know what? That happens (not the seamstresses game, although now I’d kind of like to see something like that). Games can fail either in controls or amount of content and use art as an excuse. Sure, it’s a five-minute long walking simulator that costs $60, but dammit, it’s art! You can’t put a price on art!

Actually, you can, and being classified as art isn’t some magical Get Out of Jail Free Card that makes everything okay.  Because you see, bad art exists. If your five-minute long walking simulator isn’t interesting to play and is overpriced, it’s still art; it’s just bad, terrible art that isn’t of much consequence.

Basically, once you accept the premise that art can be bad, you lose the problem with art becoming a failsafe justification for anything. An “art game” can be artistic and also bad, and the idea that priceless art only requires a few seconds of active engagement simply does not apply if the art in question is not good. You can judge games as consumer electronics, and you can judge them as art, but if it fails on the first level, chances are it’s going to fail on the second level too, because the medium is the message. If something has great artistic value in regard to music and visuals or whatnot but fails as a piece of interactive media, chances are it shouldn’t have been made as a piece of interactive media.

2, Video Games Can’t Be Art For STRUCTURAL REASONS Having To Do With Authorial Intent

I first read this in a newspaper, in a film critic’s column. It was a small, regional paper, so it wasn’t like this was coming from a famous critic whose name would mean anything to you. The argument was basically that film directors make choices, these choices create certain responses in the audience, and within these choices we find the art of cinema. In video games, people make their own choices, so games aren’t art; they are simply entertainment.

Okay, so…where do we even start with this? It’s contingent on the idea that game creators don’t make choices. Like, someone just starts making a game, throws the telephone-book sized design document out a 100-story window, and says “let’s do whatever, no big.” I could say that this might be true if you’re just screwing around in RPG Maker, but I have screwed around in RPG Maker a lot, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true even then. This argument is just complete, utter nonsense.

The problem is that it uses intelligent-sounding terms like “structural” and “authorial intent,” so people still get snowed by it. I find most of the ‘intellectual’ arguments against games being art are all very much like this; they might sound logical at first, but they make less and less sense the more you think about them.

3. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They’re Addictive

Video games can be very addictive, but if you don’t think reading good books can be addictive too, man have I got a nice bridge to sell you. It’s not exactly the same thing; games tend to create more of a dopamine rush than reading does, making them more addictive for many people. But so what?

Video game addiction can be a real problem, and it’s something we’re going to have to grapple with more and more as virtual worlds become more important in our lives. But it’s irrelevant to the question we’re trying to answer.

4. Roger Ebert/Hideo Kojima/Insert Famous Person said that Games are Not Art

I have a lot of respect for late Roger Ebert, and many people doing media criticism today could learn a lot from him. That said, his medium was film, not games, and he freely admitted that he didn’t play games or know much about them. You can have all the respect in the world for Ebert as a film critic without thinking that his opinions on all other media were equally valuable.

Hideo Kojima though…man, that kind of gets me. I mean, the only excuse for most of Metal Gear Solid 2 is art; if you’ve played it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. So I don’t really understand where Kojima’s coming from there, but what’s more important is, no one person– no matter how famous, no matter how talented– is qualified to be the sole arbiter of what is and is not art.**

5. “I Don’t Need Games to Be Art.”

I’ve heard this one from several people lately, and I think I know what they mean, but the logic has already struck me as a little odd. I mean, I don’t NEED for Van Gogh’s Starry Night to be art either; some snooty agency could put out an international bulletin, “Starry Night NO LONGER ART!” and it wouldn’t cause me to think that my needs had been compromised; my needs are pretty irrelevant to the whole situation.

What people mean when they say this, I think, is “I don’t need the intellectual validation of games being considered art; it’s okay with me if games are just entertainment.” This viewpoint depends on believing in the art/entertainment divide, and I already explained in Part 1 why I don’t buy that. So in essence, while I think I know what people mean when they say this and I see the validity of those feelings, the reasoning itself is irrelevant to the question. You might as well say “I don’t need Nutella to be a sandwich topping,” or “I don’t need Die Hard to be a Christmas Movie,” (yeah, I went there.)

Sometimes people say this because they find the whole debate tedious as hell and want to move on, and given how these discussions tend to go on social media, I can’t say I blame them. But the debate doesn’t stop existing just because you happen to be tired of it, you know?

6. Games Can’t Be Art Because [Insert Bad Game] Exists

“LOL, you think games are art? Look at this screenshot from Custer’s Revenge, and try to say that with a straight face. Oh and Superman 64 LMFAO CHECKMATE.”

As we’ve already covered, bad art exists. I would bet money that right now, there are at least 10 nearly-blank canvasses hanging in museums all over the world, with one tiny dot of black  paint the only point of interest. And the titles are something like “The Overpowering Oppression of Whiteness,” or “White Supremacy, Visualized,” or even “Unbearable Loneliness No. 8.” Chances are, if you’ve ever been to an art museum even once, you have seen this sort of thing. Lots of it.

This is terribly lazy, cynical art, but it doesn’t invalidate painting, or the visual arts more generally, as an art form. It may lead you to wonder about the motives of some museum curators, but that’s a different problem.

————————————————————————————-After going through it all, the only genuine area of concern we seem to have is the one about the expectations for consumer electronics and the expectations for art being different things at this point in time; that is changing, however. Every other argument against games being art seems to depend on some kind of false technicality, an appeal to authority, or pretending that bad art is something that doesn’t exist. I don’t see how you can be a logical person and find any of these arguments convincing.

And yet, after all this, I’m not entirely without sympathy for those who don’t want Tetris included in the hypothetical World Pantheon of Art. There’s something special, something refined about sitting down with a 19th-century novel that I don’t get from a JRPG, no matter how good the game is. There is something special about the texture of paint on canvas, the sound that comes out of a beautiful brass instrument, the mesmerizing nature of classic film. These are all special things.

I think people are afraid that if we allow games to be classified as art, we are somehow making all of the above less important, less special. And if you’re worried about that, games qualifying as art can seem extremely threatening. But we have to face facts; there is no good reason why games aren’t art, and if that makes us have to reconsider the value of other art forms and how they stack up against the interactive version of themselves, then that’s a challenge we’re going to have to grapple with whether we want to or not. Right now, I think a lot of people are running away from that challenge, and we can’t afford to anymore.

*This does somewhat work with music, because if you went to a concert and it was only five minutes long, you’d probably feel pretty cheated. That doesn’t mean the one song that the orchestra played during that five minutes wasn’t priceless, though.

**Well except for me, obviously. I wrote these blog posts and everything.

Are Video Games Art? Part II

Art Is Cooperative

To illustrate how the viewer always customizes the experience of art, let’s turn away from videogames for a moment and look to something that is clearly “Art with a capital A,” painting. There’s a Kandinsky painting called Inner Simmering that I have a special connection with. I don’t know what Kandinsky intended with the painting; if I ever read any sort of commentary on it, I’ve long since forgotten. However, for me the painting is about the turbulent feelings of going from childhood to adulthood.

When I was 11, my mother took me to the Guggenheim Museum to see a Kandinsky exhibit. I was tremendously excited to be going to a museum and not a “kids” museum; a serious art museum for sophisticated, cultured adults. Inner Simmering was the painting that stuck in my mind; I felt like I was “simmering,” boiling over with excitement at taking the train, then the bus, then going to the museum, then going to a trendy cafe for lunch, all being treated like an adult and seemingly being initiated into this beautiful adult world of symposiums and garden parties. But I was also still a child, and I was a little afraid, worried the wonderful day would somehow fall apart, and my mother would lose me somewhere. Maybe I’d get lost in the city and end up begging in Central Park, or run over by an angry cab driver; there were dangers everywhere. My stomach wouldn’t stop churning.

Even now, over 20 years later, I can’t look at an image of that painting without thinking of the “simmering” feeling I had that day, the day when I felt my childhood and my adulthood bumping into each other in the pit of my stomach. This feeling was probably not what Kandinsky intended, but I think most appreciators of art would agree that my personal interpretation is a valid one; that, without getting into a tiresome “Death of the Author” debate, it’s widely recognized that the viewer’s experience of every work of art is customized to their own experience; not by choice, but by necessity. I can never be in Vassily Kandinsky’s head, only my own.

Returning to games now, I have the same kind of customized experiences. Tomb Raider was about the fantasy of overcoming my own natural timidity and going out to explore the world, maybe not ancient tombs but, say, hiking on a local trail without fear. Parasite Eve was about a fantasy version of Manhattan, a Manhattan that, while being full of monsters, was mostly devoid of people, meaning I could explore at my own pace; something I’ve never felt able to do when I’ve actually been in real-life Manhattan (and to this day, I feel far more at home in PE’s horrifying version of Manhattan than I do in any of the actual locations featured in the game, despite having visited many of them several times.) Final Fantasy VII was about…Final Fantasy VII was about a lot of things, and I don’t want to go on for 30,000 words here, so I’ll leave it at that.

I’m pretty sure Vagrant Story was somehow about sex, but I’m still figuring that one out; yes, Ashley’s famous pants played a role there, but that was only part of it. .hack was about trying to figure out why imaginary items in imaginary worlds were so important to me, among other things, and I still haven’t cracked that one; I keep replaying the .hack quadrilogy once every couple of years, hoping to figure it out. In fact, I think one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to get into World of Warcraft is because I’m still waiting for the simulated MMO of .hack to reveal whether or not I should care about real MMOs or not.

I think everyone has these kinds of personal experiences of games; they may not all be as elemental as my association with Inner Simmering, or even Parasite Eve, but they’re still there. However, this is where we get into how videogames differ from other media; because while we all perceive a painting differently, we’re all still standing there in front of the canvas, or the browser; our “participation” as it were, is all in our heads. In videogames our different experiences are acted out, sometimes in relatively simple ways (ex. taking a different route in a platformer), and sometimes in more complex ones, like purposely playing the game “wrong” to create a different experience. In games, the cooperative nature of art– something that has always existed– can be taken to the next level.

My Affair With Yuna

Screenshot taken from Youtuber Hellbent Revenge’s Yuna Only Challenge video.

Time for a confession: while I’ve never recorded myself doing Super Mario Speed runs or tried to beat Resident Evil in under 2 hours with only the knife, I am a challenge gamer at heart. In fact, I am the originator of the Final Fantasy X Yuna-Only No-Summoning Challenge.

*Pause for most people to go “the hell’s that?” while everyone who’s actually played FFX winces in terrible, sympathetic pain.*

For a while after FFX came out, people were making up all kinds of difficult challenges for the game, like the No Sphere Grid Challenge and the Tidus-Only Challenge. This sort of thing is pretty common among Final Fantasy fans in general, but it seemed like this trend was reaching its peak around the time X came out. While eventually every character had their own solo challenge, for years, Yuna was left out. Yuna was considered a bad character to try to solo with, because the whole premise of the game was that she was too weak to survive without protection. Yet, if you allowed her to summon her Aeons, then she became the most powerful character in the game*, completely destroying the “challenge” element of a solo run. The conventional wisdom was that a solo run that allowed summoning was too easy (and given the length of the summoning animations, too tedious anyway), while prohibiting summoning made it impossible.

Sometime in 2006, during a cold Albany winter (which was probably more relevant to all of this than you might think), I had a dangerous thought: What if a No-Summoning run with Yuna wasn’t impossible, only extremely difficult? I had to find out.

People on Gamefaqs were skeptical. How will you get past this boss, they asked, how will you survive this section where the enemies can kill poor little Yuna in one hit? And yet, I always found a way. I discovered that if you were willing to spend enough time leveling up Yuna by herself, you could pretty much brute-force your way through the entire game. Between farming for rare offensive weapon drops and power-leveling to get Yuna a support spell she wouldn’t normally learn until the end of the game, it all became possible. Check out this FAQ for more details; the user named Crystal Bangle is me.

What this meant, practically, was that I spent dozens of hours in front of the TV, staring at Yuna’s back. It was a time in my life when I needed a distraction, and did I ever find one. It was also a time when I felt very alone; I had moved to Albany after college with high hopes of building a new life for myself there, only for my few preexisting relationships to sour, while I was stuck in a dead-end job where I never met anyone. It felt appropriate to have Yuna’s companions run like cowards and leave her alone to face the monsters; it felt right for her to be all alone, hour after hour.

Even though I knew I was intentionally playing the game wrong, doing something players weren’t supposed to do, it still colored my perception of the game’s story. When the characters would talk about their duty as Guardians to protect Yuna, I found myself thinking. “What are you talking about? You guys haven’t done SHIT to protect Yuna, she’s all alone! Shut up Auron, even though you’re hot.”

What I essentially did was made another game within the larger game of FFX; a game where instead of being treated as a precious resource who was to be protected at all costs, Yuna was cast aside and had to fend for herself. While I’ve played through the storyline of FFX normally a few times, I can’t think of the game now without thinking of this “alternate” game, where all of Yuna’s companions abandoned her every single battle; hundreds, probably thousands of times over the course of the game.

To this day, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I proved that a challenge that people assumed impossible was not, and that’s kind of cool. On the other hand, I projected my problems onto this game, and spent dozens of hours staring at Yuna’s back when I could have been doing something to actively fix my problems. Maybe in a way I was addressing my problems, and I needed to do something like the Yuna No-Summoning Challenge to process what was even happening to me, but that’s an area of inquiry that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.

My torrid affair with Yuna was the only time I did a “challenge” with very specific parameters, but I’ve still spent plenty of time making games-within-games, albeit in a less anal manner. I’ve played the quest mode in Ehrgeiz as a religious zealot, using the game’s obtuse (and usually ignored) religion system to power up my weapons and steamroll through the game. I’ve played Vagrant Story while only using certain weapons, or certain spells. I’ve played Parasite Eve with a kind of God Eater Aya, using odd exploits in the game to power up the character far beyond what’s necessary to complete it. I’ve played X-Men Legends in an effort to experience the kinds of team-ups I wanted to see happen in the comics, but never did.**

Even when I’m playing the game the “normal” way, I still have certain quirks that usually customize my playthrough to a certain extent. Since I like exploring mechanics and hate replaying boss fights, I’m usually stupidly overleveled in any game with a leveling system. I also hoard items like a Doomsday prepper, regardless of whether or not I actually need them. I enjoy picking my favorite characters and giving them “Most Favorite Character” status: giving them all the best weapons and armor and stat boosts, while their teammates lag behind. This is especially satisfying to do when my MFC is technically one of the weaker ones, and I make her into an insane powerhouse for no earthly reason.

To return to my earlier point, I think having these kinds of customized gaming experiences are very much like my special meeting-of-the-minds with Kandinsky. I know I’m looking at the game in perhaps a different way than was strictly intended, yet looking at it in more than one way makes my personal connection that much more powerful. However, in traditional art, the personal experience is expressed as a kind of declaration: “To me, this painting is about ____”. In video games, it’s more of a dialogue with the game’s creators. Why did you make this character do this, when she could have done that? Why are you trying to encourage me to fight this boss now, when I still have imaginary crops to grow? Why are you trying to sell me on the power of friendship, when I feel more alone than I’ve ever been?

Let’s Play (Another Version of) This: Gaming As Performance Art

I didn’t record my YONS challenge; it was still hard to record gameplay at that time, and to be fair, it wouldn’t have made for very interesting viewing anyway. But the growing popularity of Let’s Plays adds several more dimensions to this idea that we create customized narratives and experiences within games. With an LP you can:

A) broadcast your customized narrative, so other people get the benefit of seeing the game through your eyes

and

B)Turn your gaming experience into a kind of performance art, using custom images, songs, and even roleplaying to add an element of improv theater to your gaming.

and

C)Turn your gaming experience into a communal experience of performance art, with viewers sharing their own custom art, songs and roleplaying.

Obviously I find the artistic possibilities of Let’s Plays and other performative gaming events to be fascinating, but let’s not ignore the obvious; a lot of LPs, perhaps most, are not worth watching. Most are riddled with lines like “I thought there was a health potion over here in this corner, oh wait it’s a green herb,” stuff about the logistics of playing that doesn’t add much to the experience. In a lot of cases the only reason to watch an LP is either because you’re such a huge fan of the game that you’ll watch any content related to it, or you’re stuck somewhere in your own first playthrough and are trying to figure out where you need to go next.

Sometimes though…sometimes people hit it out of the park. Take this Animal Crossing Screenshot LP, where someone turned a seemingly innocuous children’s game into a harrowing tale of psychological horror. Some LP’s can become hilarious screwball comedies, others can introduce a level of poignancy that wasn’t in the original game, particularly when the player shares a personal story that resonates with the games themes. I don’t know if I would consider Let’s Playing an art form– it’s more a weird, bastard child of several art forms, including theater and graphic novels– but to deny that there’s at least an element of art to a good LP seems quite ignorant to me.

Not only that, but the community that can build around an LP– suggesting strategies, coming up with character names, drawing LP-specific fanart, or just making funny quips at the right time– is also a creative entity. It’s art spiraling out and creating more and more art, as art in general tends to do, but this time, maybe even more so.

LPing may not be the most fascinating thing in the world, but let me put it this way; if there aren’t at least 20 Master’s Theses being written about LPing in Media Studies departments all over the world,  right this second, then I no longer have any hope for academia. Because you can scoff if you want, but this is the future of art; not all art, certainly, and not all the time, but some art. Maybe even Art with a Capital A.

In the third and final article of this series, we’ll look at some of the arguments against games being art and why they’re all shallow and dumb break them down a little bit.

*I’m a big FFX fan so OF COURSE I know that the most powerful character in the game is actually Wakka once you get Attack Reels, don’t send me hatemail. Or, do send me hatemail, that sounds interesting, just not about Wakka. 

**Just FYI, Jean Grey is stupidly overpowered in the original X-Men Legends. I mean, canonically, she should be, but what’s kind of funny is I think it might have been accidental.

 

 

 

Jews, Otaku, and People of the Book

I’m Jewish. You could probably tell due to my penchant for using words like “shtick.” Even if I hadn’t mentioned it before on this blog, which I’m pretty sure I have, this would be one of those reveals that surprises no one.

What’s odd is, I don’t really believe in the Old Testament. I believe that parts of it are historical (or at least based on real historical events, the facts of which have become distorted through time); I believe that some Biblical stories have good morals, and I believe the entire thing has value as a piece of literature. But if you were to ask me, point-blank, “Do you believe in the Torah?” the answer would have to be no.

And yet, if I don’t believe the Torah, doesn’t that mean I’m not a Jew, pretty much by definition? If you want to be pedantic about it, I’m a Jewish-born person with non-Jewish beliefs, I think. However, many Jews, if not most, are like me: people who self-identify as Jews, but don’t take the Torah literally, or even think about the Torah much in particular. How does that work? How do you have a group of increasingly secular people who still cling to a religious label, and cling to it with no small amount of pride?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the base concept of Judaism is the idea of a People of the Book, and what that means when you really break it down. If you really love one Book, chances are you’re going to want more than one. You’re going to write books about the one Book, then commentaries on the books about the Book, then eventually other books entirely. And the more you get into all these different books, the less importance the original Book has to you.

Really, a religion of People of the Book is self-annihilating, because once they become People of BOOKS, PLURAL, they’re not the same people anymore. The irony of Jewish history is that people were trying so hard to kill a religion with built-in obsolescence. It’s like, guys, stop trying so hard to kill the Jews. You’re just expediting the production of stuff like Maus, where People of the Book become People of the Comic Book, and then the whole thing goes topsy-turvy and we don’t know who’s who anymore.

Wow, I may have reached a new level of twisted logic; asking the people of Earth stop killing Jews not because it’s wrong, but because it creates literary confusion.

Anyway, this has relevance to the sciences, where a lot of the people who came up with all the great stuff about physics that tells us about how the universe actually works were Jews. It’s primarily the people who are supposed to value the Book of Genesis most who have told us all the reasons why the Book of Genesis is a fairy tale that makes no sense.

Where am I going with this, other than Judaism is weird and I too am weird? Well, I think that the core idea of being a People of the Book is something that may have started with Judaism, but now extends far beyond. To me, the enthusiasm for the likes of Star Trek, X-Men, anime, etc. is the new version of being a Person of the Book; having tremendous enthusiasm for one text, a text that is parts fictive and parts real. Nerd arguments are the new Talmudic Commentary. They say that the great Rabbis go to the Academy on High after they die, where they can argue about Torah for all eternity in heaven; I wonder if the same thing is true of TV Tropes. Anyway, Jews could cease to exist tomorrow (don’t get too excited, alt-righters), and our culture would still be deeply embedded with the legacy of Judaism.

Now, I have a certain amount of respect for Orthodox Jews; I mean, if you’re going to live by the Bible, do it, don’t half-ass it because you want to go to the movies on Saturday and shrimp happen to be delicious. Commit to it, own it, the way the Orthodox have. However, I don’t feel much kinship with Orthodox Jews; we may have common ancestors, but that’s about the extent of the connection. I feel more of a connection with the people arguing about whether or not Avatar: The Last Airbender counts as an anime than I do with “my people.” In fact, anywhere people are arguing about the minutia of a book, or any piece of art really, that’s where I feel like I’ve found “my people.”

To bring this back to Otaku, I’m not saying that Otaku are Jews, really; more that they are a step on the same continuum. The Japanese are a different kind of People of the Book, starting with The Tale of Genji, the world’s first proper novel. After World War II, Japan reinvented itself partially based on manga, on a book of a different nature. For the Japanese, the key foundational document isn’t the Torah, but Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Oversimplification? Of course, but talking about any topic this huge is going to require that.

But think of Comic Market. Hundreds of thousands of people, sweltering in the summer and shivering in the winter, standing in line for hours because they want to get a book (doujin) that’s based on another book (manga) that’s all ultimately based on something Osamu Tezuka and his friends drew in the 1950s, after a cataclysm. If you don’t see a parallel with religion here, well, I don’t know quite how else to put it to you.

I guess all this is a roundabout way of saying that I feel close to Otaku because I recognize fellow People of the Book, which has long ceased being defined by religion; Most of the passionate People of the Book are not Jews, do not need to be Jews for any reason. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had to marry a Jew; I married someone who loved the same things I loved. I’m not religious, but I am in the sense that I am the natural evolution of a people who believed the things they believed very passionately, and maybe that makes the question of whether or not I’m religious a non-issue; I’m not religious, but religion created me. Maybe God did too, but I’m not talking about God right now.

This is why whenever your typical smug internet atheist talks about religion being stupid, or how it makes no sense that the Red Sea would actually split in two, blah blah blah, I have to file that under the category of “not even wrong.” Like sure, that whole part about stoning people to death for not following the Sabbath is pretty dumb and self-defeating and I think even the most Orthodox Jews can admit that now, but that’s not why religion is important in this day and age.  There’s a reason why, even though I believe in the Big Bang Theory (the actual theory, not the sitcom, although the sitcom is okay) and not the Garden of Eden that I still call myself a Jew instead of, say, a science-believing person. I don’t see a conflict there, because being a Person of the Book was always going to include science eventually.

I don’t know, maybe this post is just hilariously offensive not only to Jews, but to everyone who likes Star Trek and Yowamusha Pedal alike. I’m not a good judge of what’s offensive anymore, if I ever was. It’s just me trying to explain my world view, which is that while I feel my Otaku and more general geek interests are entirely consistent with my Jewish background, I don’t feel like these interests are in any way limited to people of Jewish lineage. The idea of a People of the Book may have started with Judaism…or maybe with some other people that history has forgotten, who knows (and I’ve heard some provocative things about the Zoroastrians.) But the concept has spread far beyond a small and insulated group of people, far beyond DNA, and now exists out in the wild.

Synagogues are nice, and the art is beautiful, but wherever people are arguing about anime or Battlestar Galactica on the internet, that’s where I feel “my people” truly are. Someday, I may succeed in getting this to make sense to someone other than myself; I sense that day is not today.

Are Video Games Art? Part I

This is an interesting topic that I feel doesn’t really get its due. People argue about it a lot, but what they mostly seem to argue about are issues regarding accountability and pretentiousness, and not the very nature of art and whether or not that can change. I want to attempt to get to the heart of the matter, with the caveat that any question about art can go off in a lot of different directions, some of which may not seem relevant.

I should probably start out by saying that I’m conflicted on the existence of a division between art and “entertainment.” Some people answer this question, not just about games but with any medium, with the statement that something can be art, but it isn’t necessarily art just by virtue of belonging to a particular medium. For example, Schindler’s List is an example of the art of cinema; the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest is not. This is a useful way of framing things, because it allows for a pretty broad view of what art is without seemingly cheapening the very idea of art by including any piece of nonsense that just happens to be recorded on paper or film. The reason why I can’t quite buy this is because sometimes, works of supposedly derivative, cheap entertainment have more meaning to me (and are therefore more artfully done, in my view), then so-called artistic productions, meaning I would be a hypocrite to say I really believed in the art/entertainment distinction. I kind of wish I could, because it has a lot of advantages, but that’s just not how I see it.

Okay, disclaimers out of the way, is a video game art or not? Well, you’ve got a bunch of concept artists creating visuals for the game,  sometimes making beautiful watercolor paintings of the characters and settings, which is unquestionably art. You’ve got musicians writing scores for the game, which is unquestionably art. You’ve got writers writing scripts for the games’ story, which is a little harder to justify as art (since a lot of people have a low opinion of games writers, and not for nothing), but nevertheless, fiction writing in general is art. That doesn’t seem to be in dispute.

So in order for a game not to be art, you would need for all of these different artistic elements to be combined, at which point they somehow magically cancel each other out and the finished product is not art. Despite the watercolor paintings, despite the musical scores, despite the character writing, despite the cinematography, they are not art. Art +Art +Art +Art= NOT ART.

Does this make sense to anyone? Because I’ve never seen the logic of it myself. I guess people use the entertainment/art workaround to say that in the case of games, Art +Art +Art= Entertainment, but as stated above I’m not comfortable with that distinction. So, just based on very simple logic, it seems clear that games are art. However, that covers the act of making the game: the game was made by different kinds of artists, who expressed their feelings within the game to some extent. Fair enough, not too controversial. However, is there art to playing the game? Are you experiencing art when you level up in an RPG, or are you just like a digital hamster on a wheel, finding a pleasant (if somewhat numbing) way to pass the time? This is where things start to get interesting for me.

The Art of Item Farming

I picked an image from Atelier Rorona as the header for this post for several reasons. One, I think it’s a good game and I had a lot of fun playing it, and two, I think it provides a good illustration of the problem we have if we just glibly say “Games are art, dammit,” and leave it at that.

The Atelier games have pretty, detailed character images, soothing music that makes you long to explore the world, and well-realized characters that all have their own struggles and quirks. The quality of the art that goes into it– drawing, scoring, writing– is always solid, if not exceptional. It seems like a no-brainer that Atelier contains lots of art, and therefore is art, but what are you actually doing when you play the game? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re hoarding tons of imaginary items, in the hopes of making better imaginary items, in hopes of accessing the area where you can get the very BEST imaginary items, at which point you will no longer need any of them, because you already beat the main game 50 hours ago.

Is that really the food-for-the-soul that art is supposed to be? Is waiting for a rare drop– a kind of playing chicken with a soulless random number generator that seems to be unique to video games– really an enriching experience, something that makes you question your perspective, your entire reality? Does it make you feel and think the way art is supposed to?

Well, from experience I can tell you that hunting rare drops does make you wonder “Why am I fighting this monster for the 500th time to get the rare wand it’s probably never going to drop? What am I doing with my life? WHAT IS MY LIFE EVEN????” so, err, I guess if you want to be strict about it, even the most banal parts of video games are thought-provoking; it’s just that the one thought they usually provoke is that you were stupid to get so obsessed with the damned game in the first place. But, beyond provoking that particular line of internal questioning, does often tedious gameplay qualify as art?

I’m still working this out. To return to Atelier, the game has definitely made me feel things; I am slightly in love with Sterk, Rorona’s gruff but caring protector. I felt pride when I got good scores on my alchemy tests, an almost parental sort of pride that I was turning Rorona into a skilled alchemist. I’ve related to some of the characters stories, which made me experience certain emotions, albeit not super-strong emotions; Atelier isn’t a dramatic type of game, but you don’t have to break down in tears for something to have touched you emotionally, right? So, I feel safe calling at least part of the experience art.

However, the time I spend hoarding items, grinding, and experimenting with the crafting system– sometimes spending hours to accomplish something of no more significance than adding a few points to the stats of one imaginary sword– is that art? If it’s not, does that mean that the experience of Atelier Rorona is only intermittently art? So I’m consuming art during the story sequences, or when a particularly nice track of music plays, but not during the bulk of the experience, which is the play itself?

The idea of intermittent art probably sounds weird, but I think it’s one possible way of viewing the experience of video games. The alternate way is to include the entire thing as art– even those hours of seemingly pointless item farming. This may seem like a stretch, but bear with me here: after all, what disqualifies this experience from being art, exactly? It’s tedious, but as tedious as making it all the way through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? Doubtful. Don’t get me wrong, Proust’s saga is a work of genius and all, but anyone who’s read it and claims never to have been even a little bit bored or annoyed is a liar, full stop. The operas that make up Wagner’s famed Ring Cycle take about 17 hours altogether; riveting for some true opera fans, but stultifying for others. And in the visual arts, well…just imagine looking at a whole exhibit full of Jackson Pollocks. The first one is kind of cool, but by piece number 5, you’re left with nothing left to keep you occupied than try to spot the cigarette butts still sticking out of the paint.

So clearly tedium isn’t a disqualification, in and of itself. However, with Proust and Wagner and Jackson Pollock, at least they created things that meant something, right? Sure they could be tedious to consume at times, but in the service of a noble goal. On the other hand, plugging away at video games is completely and utterly pointless, and therefore, not art, right?

Except…what is the point of a narrative where a man recounts his boring childhood in ridiculous detail and never amounts to much of anything? What’s the point of slapping some paint on canvas and putting it on the wall? I’m tempted to say “What’s the point of a Wagner opera?” only I’m afraid music fanatics would hunt me down and shoot me*, so let’s just say that everything that Wagner created is an end in and of itself.

Seriously though, of what practical use is a lot of art? In the pre-photography age, portrait painting at least qualified as a form of documentation, but that hasn’t been necessary for a long time. The only use for a lot of art, maybe most art, is “I enjoy it,” or “It makes me feel something,” and so on.  Those are justifications that can apply to video games too. What’s the difference?

This is where I fully expect to lose people. “Okay, so maybe most art has little practical use, but still, there’s a huge difference between looking at a Rembrandt and grinding for a rare item in Final Fantasy! What the hell are you even saying?”

I admit, I’m not entirely sure yet. But it seems like the tedium of most gameplay is rejected as art not because it’s practically useless (which most art is anyway), but because supposedly it doesn’t make you feel and grow and change. If you spend an hour looking at a great painting versus an hour playing a game, in the first instance you have presumably thought various deep thoughts and in some sense, enriched yourself; in the second instance, you have only passed time with an activity.

Is that really true though? Are we all effectively brain-dead when we play games, and when we stop playing, it’s as though we’ve awakened from sleep? I don’t think so. I know I’ve had thoughts and feelings while doing tedious tasks in games; sometimes, I think it’s because of the tedium that I have deeper thoughts– the front of my mind is occupied with game mechanics, while I’m contemplating something a lot more important in the background.

To bring it all together, if the defining difference between art and not-art is that art enriches as well as occupies you, who decides what counts as enrichment? And if you honestly feel more from playing a certain game than you do from looking at a certain painting– even if the gameplay is derivative and repetitive– is that a flaw in you? Or a flaw in our conception of how art is supposed to work?

Still love this game even though I can't stand gore, go figure
This is what poor Claire used to look like when I played RE2; in desperate need of a green herb.

Nostalgia for Terrible Controls

Another problem with trying to excise the gameplay from the definition of art, while allowing other elements to remain art, is that gameplay can enhance other artistic elements. For example, the early Resident Evil games were notorious for their sluggish “tank” controls; it was hard to get your character to go anywhere fast, which was a problem when surrounded by ravenous zombies. Some consider the controls to be a shortcoming of what was otherwise a good horror series, but personally, I think they were an integral part of the experience.

Traditionally, zombies are slow enemies. The pitiable regular enemies in RE moved at a snail’s pace; if your character was nimble, how would they even catch you, let alone hurt you? The controls, along with the claustrophobic way the environments were designed, were what allowed the game to feature challenge. More importantly, the controls intensified the feeling of helplessness and despair that the game was trying to evoke. Have you ever had a dream where something terrifying was after you, but your legs felt like lead and you couldn’t move? That’s what the RE controls were like. This is a case where mechanics interfaced and contributed to narrative intent. If the mechanics are playing a role in the narrative, aren’t they part of the entire emotional package, otherwise known as art?

Things have changed in regard to game controls. In the ’90s, while people certainly complained about controls, there seemed to be a certain allowance for games having idiosyncratic control schemes that took a while to master. Currently, if a game’s controls aren’t immediately intuitive to the majority of players, that seems to be considered a flaw. So if anything, it seems like controls being reflective of narrative is something that’s becoming LESS important over time, but nevertheless, it’s still a phenomenon worth considering.

Also, don’t get me wrong: a lot of people hated the RE controls with good reason. Making the controls sluggish as a way to control the game experience was not necessarily the best way to create a certain mood; nevertheless, it worked, at least for some players. Another seminal game where the controls were integral to the experience was Tomb Raider; how did we know that Lara was cold, aloof, stand-offish? For one thing, because no matter how you fiddled with the controls, you could never get her to turn around and look at you.**

So if we want to separate game mechanics from the more obviously art-qualifying parts of video games, like story and visual design and music, we would have to discount the way that the controls and general gameplay can interact with those artistic elements. Which they do, always and constantly, in every single game.

So, yeah…being able to make a clean separation between game mechanics and other game content would give us a clear line of demarcation. Unfortunately, in order to divide games into parts that are art versus not-art, you would have to ignore how all the different parts of games play off and resonate with each other, and who wants to do that? No one who cares about video games, that’s for sure.

So far, we’ve looked at the creation of games and the consumption of them as two different elements; in the next part, we’ll go into how a big part of art is creating your own experience of it, and how that applies to video games.

*I’ve read that Wagner always ranks really high whenever anyone does a ‘Best Composers of All Time’ list, and music lovers seem to be quite enamored with him. Saying that Wagner’s work is “pointless” may be grounds for war among chamber orchestra members, and I never pick fights with people holding brass instruments.

**This is an oversimplification: You could see Lara’s face in the early Tomb Raiders, but usually, only if you backed her into a wall…which, err, is not as bad as it sounds. Still, most of the time you only saw Lara’s back.

 

 

 

What’s the Point of Aniblogging, Anyway?

I realize the question I’ve posed above has a very simple answer: there is no point to anime blogging; there is no point to anime, for that matter. In fact, we are only primitive water-based lifeforms clinging desperately to a piece of spinning rock in space, and ultimately, nothing matters. Now that we’ve covered the ultimate answer, which I see as a matter of doing my due diligence, let’s move on to something worth talking about, because the ultimate/existential answer happens to be really boring.

Seriously, why do we blog about anime? To entertain? To some extent that’s true, but then you run into the problem that certain kind of shows lend themselves to that much better than others. I had a lot of fun blogging Wizard Barristers, which was a pretty bad show, primarily because it was a mess and it gave me tons of material to make fun of. I also had fun with Madhouse’s X-Men anime.* However, doing episodic blogging of a show that’s actually good is of questionable value. For a lot of shows, all you’re left doing is speculating about what’s going to happen, which is kind of pointless; it’s not like you’re going to win a prize if you’re right. And for some shows, like Girls Last Tour or even March Comes in Like a Lion, providing the kind of flippant commentary that blogging seems to lend itself to would feel downright disrespectful.

So episodic aniblogging can be entertaining, providing you’re covering a bad show that wouldn’t be worth watching on it’s own merits…meaning, it’s a format best used for shows that really shouldn’t be worth the effort in the first place. For better shows, especially shows of a more serious nature, it’s better to watch the whole show (or at least a significant chunk, like a season), and then blog about it. This produces better writing, at least in my experience, but it does feel rather limiting. So you watch a 12-episode show, about 4 hours worth of anime, and then produce maybe a 1,000 word essay. That’s it? Seems a little anti-climactic.

There’s another problem with episodic blogging, regardless of show quality, and that’s the tendency for the blogger to become a wanna-be writer; we start predicting where the story’s going to go, then get upset when it doesn’t necessarily go there. With a lot of shows I’ve written about, I’m not sure if they were disappointing because the writing wasn’t that good, or because I was irritated that the show didn’t do what I felt it was supposed to based on the hints that I thought I’d picked up on. So in this case, reading an episodic blog of a show is watching the blogger finish the story in their head, then have a gradual angry breakdown when the story reveals itself to be something entirely different. Maybe that’s fun if you have a sadistic streak, but it doesn’t seem like something we should be aiming for here.

I guess what I’m really wondering is, what are people really looking for from anime blogging, assuming they want it at all? I like it when a show first airs and people are posting all kinds of screenshots, jokes and speculation; I like the community that forms around that process. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s something tailor-made for social media and chat services; Twitter, Discord, etc. It’s a collaborative play on the show that needs multiple people to work, and not something a single blogger can do.

Well, I suppose you could do a blog about an anime and just post screenshots and jokes and silly captions, but then you’re just doing what social media does, only worse. I’d like to think that there’s still some use for the blogging format without watering it down.

I like writing about anime, and I’d like to continue doing it. I don’t think it’s pointless, even though some of the more popular models of anime blogging seem increasingly pointless to me; I think there’s a better way of doing it, and I just haven’t figured out what it is yet. I feel like there’s an obvious answer right in front of my nose, and one day I’m going to smack my forehead and yell “Aha! This is how anime blogging should work in 2018! This is what this format really has to offer!”, but that day is not today.

If you’d like to help me out, you could let me know in the comments what you enjoy about anime blogging and why. Then, if I ever discover the secret to Aniblogging 2.0, I’ll be sure to credit you in my upcoming book, “How to Justify Spending Huge Amounts of Effort on Wastes of Everyone’s Time.” It’s a working title.

*Blogging about X-Men was a little different from blogging about another bad anime because the X-Men were pretty much my first love when I was first getting into the whole geek lifestyle. I wanted that show to be good, and when it wasn’t, I enjoyed making fun of it, but it was still kind of bittersweet overall.

An Open Letter to Funimation

I have some concerns about the way you’ve been handling anime localization lately. It appears that Funimation staff members in charge of dub scripts are taking liberties with the material, such as inserting lines that were not present in the original script in any form. This is not only distracting, but disrespectful to the creators of the anime.

Now, I’m not completely ignorant of the complexities inherent in localization, and translation more generally. I understand that a good translation is more art than science, and there’s never going to be a true consensus of opinion on what the “correct” translation is for any given line. While calling a translation an art form in and of itself is perhaps further than I’m willing to go, there’s definitely an element of artistry to it, which makes it hard to set the kind of parameters for right and wrong that we would be able to for a more  technical task. I also understand how difficult it can be to balance literal meaning with emotional resonance, which can be a thankless job; after all, the people who are quickest to criticize translations usually aren’t fluent in both relevant languages, meaning they may not really understand the nature of the choices the translator and localization team had to make. It’s not an easy job.

However, even with full knowledge of all of the above, the localization of episode 7 of the anime Hajimete no Gal crossed a line. Items of dialogue like “Plus, most of the freaks who come in here hate women, so seeing girls degraded gives them boners and makes them happy,” and “Maybe they don’t want to be debased just so you can sell a few more [bleep] chickenwings to horny losers with mommy issues,” are incredibly liberal translations of what was actually said (to put it mildly), but more importantly, they change the nature of the scene. While the original scene definitely had some implied criticism of otaku culture, the explicit and mean-spirited lines directed at the customers in the dub seemed to truly be directed at fans who enjoy sexual content in otaku media; in other words, the exact audience for a show like Hajimete no Gal. The localization added explicit insults to the show’s audience that were very subtle in the original (arguably subtle to the point of non-existence) and pretty much invented new dialogue out of whole cloth.

There are of course many discussions to be had about sexually explicit otaku media, and to what extent these properties may be misogynistic, but that is not the point; regardless of any merit to the issues the dub was raising, it was inappropriate to insert them into the script. If the writers of the anime wanted to include a statement about the apparent misogyny present in light novels, they would of course be entitled to do so, but in this case, the choice was taken out of their hands.

This may seem to be a small thing; only a few questionable lines in the English dub of a rather low-profile anime. Obviously, when considering the scope of problems in the world that I could be worrying about right now, it is a small thing. However, as the western market becomes increasingly important to anime, I think it’s more important than ever to ensure that the intentions of the original Japanese creators are respected; it’s also important to respect the fans who want to see this original work, without added changes or commentary by a third party.

If the way anime financing is going is any indication, western companies are going to have more and more power over anime in general; I don’t think it’s paranoid or unreasonable to have concerns about that power being abused. Choices like those made in the dub script for Hajimete no Gal indicate to me that Funimation is either unaware that this potential for abuse exists, or worse, does not care. If this were an isolated incident, I would likely shrug it off, but after the controversial choices made with the recent dub of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, this kind of irresponsible localization appears to be becoming a pattern with Funimation.

I do not plan to purchase any more Funimation products while the company displays this chronic lack of respect for both anime creators and fans. I understand that, due to the volatile nature of social media, some of the complaints that Funimation has already received about this issue have been vulgar and abusive; that’s upsetting to hear, and a shame. However, because of these inappropriate responses, it may be easy for Funimation staff to believe that the only people upset about recent dub choices are angry internet trolls, who are unlikely to purchase anime legitimately in the first place; I’m writing today to tell you that this is not true.

My Funimation DVDs. Some of these are technically my husband’s (since I’m far too chicken to buy Hellsing: Ultimate), but you get the idea.

I’m an anime fan of over 20 years, I have an anime disc collection, and I’m a Funimation customer. I even subscribe to the Funimation NOW! service (although that won’t be true for much longer). I know other people who fit the same description (although the younger ones haven’t been fans for 20 years, yet), and they too have stopped purchasing Funimation products due to these concerns. If you have any illusions that the people who have been complaining about your current practices are not your real customers, than I hope to disabuse you of that notion. Dedicated anime fans want to see the creators original intent when we watch an anime, whether subbed or dubbed; please respect our preferences, before you do any more damage to your brand.

All I want from you is for these irresponsible dubbing practices to stop; if your localizations do not display these issues going forward, then I see no reason not to go back to buying your products. If this behavior continues, I can’t in good conscience send any more money your way. Anime is too important to me.

Sincerely,

Karen Mead of The Otakusphere

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 12: There is now a WordPress blog where people can submit open letters to Funimation, provided they are respectful and on topic. I just submitted my letter.

Submit Your Letter to Funimation

My First Comic Book Store Experience

There’s been some talk lately about how comic stores have been “historically” unwelcoming of women. Normally I would post the tweet of a person who said this, but whenever I do that sort of thing, I get a few of their friends yelling at me that I’m “being mean” for continuing a dialogue that was started in a public forum, and I don’t want people yelling at me today, so whatever. In any case, the idea that “women are made uncomfortable in comic stores” is something of an old chestnut in the realm of geek-shaming, so it really doesn’t matter who happened to say it today.

This idea is completely at odds with my own experience, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself; Just because I had, and continue to have, mostly good experiences in comic stores does not mean that all women necessarily do, and vice versa. In fact, my one, anecdotal story really doesn’t have any value, other than the fact that it’s my personal story, and I don’t feel like I’ve seen a lot of that. How many times have you seen a woman say “This is what happened the first time I went into a comic store?”, and talk about what actually happened? It could just be me, but I never see those stories; it’s always seems to be taken as an article of faith that “comic stores are creepy, amirite?”

So here’s one story of what happened when one woman, or young girl in this case, went into a comic book store for the first time, just for posterity.

*************************************************************************

I was 11 years old, and I was obsessed with X-Men. The Saturday Morning cartoon wasn’t enough to sate my mutant cravings, so I decided it was time to seek out these strange things I’d heard of called “comic books.” I think I had been dimly aware that comics existed for a while, but it wasn’t until X-Men that I suddenly felt a need to know more.

My mom went with me to a comic book/toy store in a local shopping center. Standing behind the counter was a petite, 30-something brunette lady with a friendly smile; thinking back, she probably looked close to the way I do now, only I doubt my smile is as warm. A little nervous, I asked if they had any X-Men comics, and she cheerfully recommended several titles to me, and answered some of my questions, which I don’t remember, but I know I had some.

My mom, never one to miss an opportunity to make things awkward, asked “Is it unusual for a girl to like comics?” The lady laughed and said that some of the store’s regular customers were women who worked at Grumman nearby (this was before they merged with Northrup and became Northrup Grumman– hahahah DATING MYSELF HERE), and women reading comics was not uncommon anymore, if it ever was. My Mom was mollified, I walked out with some issues of X-Men Adventures, and everyone was happy.

The brunette woman who had been there that day co-owned the shop with her husband, and on return visits, it was usually the husband that was there. The sight of him didn’t fill me with the same warm-and-friendly feeling that his wife did, but he was still perfectly nice and was happy to answer any of my questions about comics. So began a period where, on Saturdays, my Mom would drop a friend and I off at the shopping center, with $10 to pay for lunch. If I had any money left after lunch, I went and bought comics. Amusingly, I thought I was supposed to give the change from lunch back to my Mom, so I used to hide my comics in my room like they were stolen booty. I only found out later that my Mom didn’t actually care that I was spending maybe $4 a week on comics, which was an amazing relief at the time.

This store was my first exposure to back issue bins, which were kind of overwhelming and a little bit scary at the time; the whole comics world seemed so huge, and I had maybe $3.50 from my Mom on alternate weekends, and it just seemed like I would never know all of this extensive comic lore that cool people knew. Nevertheless, I found it interesting flipping through those stacks and stacks of comics, imagining the day when I could get a job and buy them all. One day, I happened to find this issue:

SHE’S BACK, BITCHES!!!!

I was entranced. My favorite character, Rogue, fighting some kind of terrifying zombie creature? OMG so cool! I kept looking for stories about Rogue, and I always seemed to end up with issues about Jubilee finding herself, or some crap.  I wanted to find out how Rogue was going to get out of this jam so badly, and the fact that the cover art was kind of scary and grizzly only made it more appealing; it felt like reading this comic would be an initiation into a fascinating, dangerous adult world.

Sadly, the back issue was marked up to $8, which put it out of my price range. I remember begging my Mom to let me buy it, who said something like “Wait until you’re making $20 bucks a weekend babysitting, then you can buy expensive comics.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait that long– I don’t remember exactly, but I think I scrounged up some birthday money or something to buy Uncanny X-Men #269. I think the issue had been marked up too high (even during the speculator boom), but I will say that I got my money’s worth out of it; I copied practically every Jim Lee illustration in the entire comic. When I expressed interest in drawing comics, the guy at the store special-ordered How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way for me, which I devoured. I never really did learn to draw comics The Marvel Way, but I did learn how much I loved drawing.

Unfortunately, this was during the ’90s speculator boom, and barely a year after I’d first started buying comics, the crash came. A huge number of comic stores closed, including my store. I went on to frequent other stores over the years, all staffed by guys who were always encouraging my interest in comics without crossing the line into being patronizing…which, looking back on it now, is a pretty difficult balance to hold. I’m amazed I happened to luck into several people who could do that.

I’ve really only had one “bad” experience in a comic book store, and it was kind of questionable whether it had anything to do with me. At one store in Buffalo, the guy at the register seemed kind of dismissive of me when I was buying my comics, but he didn’t say or do anything specific, so for all I know, he could have just been in a bad mood that day (and to be fair, virtually no one in Buffalo is in a good mood, with good reason. Try living in Buffalo, you’ll see what I mean.)

I’ve drifted in and out of buying American comics since then, largely because I lost interest in X-Men and other titles I used to love (which is a topic for another day.) Lately though, I’ve started reading some comics again, and my local store is pretty cool. They have a big kids section, and I’ve gotten some children’s books for my daughter there, as well as gifts for other people’s kids. Plus, the owner is a family man, so he’s understanding on those occasions when I’ve had to come into the store toting a stroller with a cranky toddler. Sometimes his kids hang out in the store, reading My Little Pony and generally being adorable.

So…yeah. If comic stores have “historically” been hostile to women, this was a period in history I never experienced. I’m not saying it never happened, and there aren’t women who had legitimately bad experiences. The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy may be a stereotype, but it was inspired by something; some people like that surely exist. I’m not trying to invalidate anyone else’s experience.

What I am saying, is this: please don’t erase me from comics history. Please don’t pretend like all girls and women faced animosity when entering so-called “geek spaces”, when it’s simply not true. It’s unfair to the genuinely nice men and women who ran most of the stores I frequented, and it’s unfair to me as an individual. If I say “I’ve always had a good time in comic stores,” because it happens to be true, I shouldn’t be accused of lying, or other nefarious intent.

Is my comic store story any more important than anyone else’s? No. But it isn’t any less important, either.

X-Men and The Fake Comics Diversity War

Some people think a female Wolverine is a cheap gimmick; this would be a more important concern if original-recipe Wolverine didn’t start out as a cheap gimmick too.

If you’re not a regular reader of American comics, you may not know that die-hards on all sides have been waging a ferocious culture war over them for the past several years. One side says that old, crusty comic book fans just can’t handle women and minorities taking over the roles of beloved superheroes, and these regressive, bigoted people need to either (preferably) die out, or get with the times; the other side says that a lot of the so-called “diversity” in modern comics is a cynical sales ploy used to deflect criticism from lazy, uninspired writing. They’re both right to a certain extent (in the same way that a stopped clock is still going to be right some of the time), but more importantly, they’re both kind of delusional.

But that’s not special; nonsensical arguments over pop culture that take place primarily on the internet are a dime a dozen. No, what makes this particular kerfuffle interesting to me is that it seems to take place in some kind of alternate universe where X-Men comics never existed. Now, considering the fact that Marvel has done basically everything to kill that franchise outside of taking it back behind the barn and shooting it, you may not believe this, but at one time, the X-Men were the most popular superheroes in the entire world; yet if you acknowledge that, the argument for not one but BOTH SIDES of this argument falls apart in pretty spectacular fashion. As tiresome as I find the “You’re a bigot!” “No, you’re the REAL bigot!” arguments, I have to admit to some fascination with this opportunistic, selective memory regarding comic book history…or, more bluntly, how can you ignore the evidence that’s right in your face?

Let’s examine the “Diversity is used as a cynical marketing ploy, and that just sucks,” side first.

Diversity for Diversity’s Sake…is Good?

The pushback against more diverse character types in comics is not about hatred of women and minorities…in most cases. (I mean sure, you can find a small group of legitimate bigots for whom that is the issue, but that’s a subject for another day.) No, the pushback is how diversity is shamelessly used as both carrot and stick for readers. Example: GenericHero, who has been portrayed as male for 40 years, suddenly passes the torch to a female successor. Marketing goes crazy: “It’s GenericHero, like you’ve never seen HER before! Forget everything you ever knew about GenericHero, it’s a new era of Ass-Kicking!” Every ad for this “event” features heroic pin-ups of GenericHero looking hella awesome, complete with her sexy (but not TOO sexy) redesigned-yet-classic costume, and from all the hype, you’d think this was the biggest thing to ever happen to comic books since Batman decided to put on a cape.

Then the new comic with GenericHero debuts, and the character does exactly the same boring shit he/she has been doing for the last 30 years; the only difference is that she often makes snide comments about how the bad guys underestimate her now because she’s a woman (or if the writers want to be REALLY edgy, they might insert a comment that vaguely alludes to the fact that she has a menstrual cycle.) When readers complain, “This is not the revolution of GenericHero that we were promised,” the answer from the creative team is invariably “Shut up, you just can’t handle the fact that there are women in comics now, you pathetic, basement-dwelling misogynists!” Then comic fans go “Umm, excuse me?”, and sales plummet. Then industry pundits say “Sales of GenericHero plummet since the mantle was taken up by a woman; indisputable proof that comic book readers CANNOT HANDLE CHANGE!” Rinse and repeat with the next costumed hero.

God, it’s tiresome.

Anyway, so we can all agree that Diversity for the sake of Diversity, or Diversity used as a mercenary selling point, doesn’t work, right? It’s always forced, and boring, and never as good as if the writers had just focused on the traditional char…..

…Oh, right. Uncanny X-Men happened. Diversity For the Sake of Diversity can actually be awesome when done right.

Make no mistake, the 1975 relaunch of the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men started out as tokenism at its finest. “Look, there’s a Native American! And a Black Woman! And a Russian, and a German, and a Japanese Guy! There’s even a Canadian named ‘Wolverine,’ because wolverines are from Canada!” Seriously, the entire concept behind Wolverine’s initial character was “let’s have a Canadian superhero, because we don’t have one yet;” then when the character failed to become popular immediately, the only thing that kept him from being written out of the book was the fact that the one Canadian who worked for Marvel lobbied for him. The only thing missing from Giant-Sized X-Men #1 was a giant sticker that said “Look How Progressive This Comic Book Is! Do We Get A Gold Star????”

If things had continued in this vein, it would probably have been a pretty cringeworthy comic, and sometimes it was (See: Banshee the Irishman and his literal castle full of leprechauns.) But writer Chris Claremont took these created-via-checklist characters and did something interesting with just about all of them. Instead of being a stereotypical Earth Mother type, it turned out that Storm’s “all-loving African Goddess” shtick was a lie she told herself to escape from the horrors of her past, and when she let go of that role, she wasn’t sure she liked the person she was underneath. Nightcrawler explored religious guilt while still being charming and swashbuckling, and never committing the cardinal sin of becoming humorless. Soviet-born Colossus struggled with life in America for reasons having little to do with his superhero identity, especially when he started to have feelings for a young Jewish girl with a vastly different upbringing. And of course, Wolverine’s character went on to explore all these huge themes that have made the character one of the pillars of the genre: the nature of violence, which victimizes even its perpetrators; the role that memory, which is fallible, plays in identity; the concept of Logan as a sort of quintessential war veteran, suffering a kind of ongoing PTSD that never gets better, because there’s always another war.

This was stuff that really hadn’t been explored in comics, and rocketed the comic to a completely unexpected level of popularity; instead of being an oddity, UXM became the standard against which other comics were judged, rightly or wrongly. And it all happened because Claremont made good use of the “Diversity First” concept he was given; taking the opportunity to tell stories that hadn’t been told, couldn’t be told, with someone like Spider-Man. The promise of all-new, all-different stories wasn’t a marketing ploy, because the stories actually were new…and that’s something that’s much easier to do when you’re starting from a different place than you were before. Diversity, whether you want to tag it with the label “forced” or otherwise, can be a great jumping off point for creativity.

So the argument “Forced Diversity Never Works,” is somewhat undermined by the fact that, historically, it can work. And as to whether or not it’s cynical…how do you even judge that? “Let’s call the Canadian character Wolverine because wolverines are from Canada and it’s a new gimmick,” sounds pretty cynical, not to mention simplistic, but look at what writers have done with that character; look what James Mangold did with the film Logan, earlier this year. Just because someone has the gall to be cynical enough to hope that something catches eyes and makes money, that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be thematically cynical. It doesn’t mean anything, really. If a great story comes from a cynical place, it’s still a great story; if a bad story comes from an idealistic place, the best you can say is “Well, at least your heart was in the right place, dear.”

Old Comic Fans Can’t Handle Diversity, Except When They Do

Okay, so we’re all on board that diversity in comics is awesome, right? No, we still have to worry about those old, regressive comics fans, who think a character named “Iron Man” should probably be a man and not a fifteen-year-old girl. These old fossils just can’t handle women, particularly minority women, in positions of power, and all of their arguments about so-called “forced writing” and “cynical marketing” are just a smoke screen for their hate! They just want to go back to the bad old times when superhero comics were predominantly WHITE and MALE and–

In this issue: Strong black woman beats up white men because they are dumb and totally deserve it.

In this issue: Strong black woman demands the return of her superpowers from brilliant Native American engineer/shaman, because that’s just how the ’80s rolled in superhero comics.

…Oh, right, the time when Uncanny X-Men was the best-selling comic in the world was during the time when it was led by Storm, who happened to have no superpowers at the time; having lost her powers, she was leading the team with a combination of street smarts and pure chutzpah. I’m confused: are these crusty old comics fans who can’t handle minority women in the spotlight, the same comics fans who were buying Uncanny X-Men in droves during the ’80s? Or were these different fans? Considering the fact that UXM was the best-selling comic, if readers had a huge aversion to minority women in positions of power, they had a really funny way of showing it.

it’s almost like readers accept diversity without comment when diversity leads to characters they love and stories they feel invested in, and only have a problem with it when the diversity itself is used as a stand-in for telling a decent story. So the argument was never really about diversity in the first place, but about the fact that many, if not most, American Superhero comics have been fundamentally directionless for decades and need a new raison d’être if they’re ever going to be worthwhile again. What we hear over and over again, bleated as though from a group of sheep, is “Diversity this, Diversity that, grrrr!”, when what we could be talking about is “What role does the superhero comic serve now in the age of immersive videogames, where you can really feel like you have superpowers? What can a superhero comic do to remain vibrant beyond serving as mere fodder for the summer movie franchises that have all but replaced it in popular culture?” These, to me, at least, are interesting questions. “How many of the people who loved Storm in the ’80s have become misogynist bigots since then?” is not an interesting question.

An admission: yes, I’m basing a lot of this on the one-time popularity of UXM, which was only one comic among many. That said, it was not only the best-selling comic, it was essentially the flagship title of the entire industry for many years; it was the comic people gave to their friends to get them into comics. While UXM may have only been one title, I don’t think you can brush it aside as an exception when it was seen as not just a good comic, but the standard to be emulated. How can we act like “Old” comic fans are the problem, when the most popular comic from decades ago was filled with all of the things they supposedly aren’t progressive enough to handle today? How can we act like all sales-driven diversity initiatives are bad when they gave us Wolverine, which led to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine? It boggles the mind.

TLDR: This whole fight over diversity in comics is a total sham. Yes, some bigots exist among comics fandom, and yes, some writers use gender and racial diversity as a shield to deflect criticism of otherwise poor writing; both of these facts are largely irrelevant to what the medium is and where it’s going.

Hi y’all

One thing I learned the hard way a while back is that you should never talk about whatever creative thingy it is that you’re doing on the internet: either do it, or don’t. Post the episode, post the art, post the episode recap, post the comic page, whatever, and if you have nothing, let it be nothing. What you absolutely should not do is write a long, detailed post about “Why I am taking a hiatus from [insert thing]” or “Why it’s is taking me longer than expected to create [insert thing],” and so on and so forth. It’s just boring, and no one cares, and they’re right not to.

Yet, here I am breaking my own rule, because I’m talking about what I am doing with my blog as opposed to just blogging, and I swear I learned this lesson something like 15 years ago back when I first tried to do webcomics (and on that note, OH GOD has it been a long time). But, hey, my life is very different now than when I first started doing any of these little internet projects, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to stop for a moment to take note of that. If it comes off as a massively self-indulgent rant, well, there’s plenty more internet for you to read out there, I guess.

I realized a few months ago while struggling to keep up with editing of the Otakusphere podcast that I just don’t love anime the way I used to. Don’t get me wrong, I still like it; I’ll probably be watching it, to some extent, for the forseeable future. I just don’t feel the huge need that I used to to know as much as possible about it and be included in “the conversation” about it, whatever that means. Maybe I’ve just realized that there really is no Greater Conversation, there’s just tons of little private ones, and do I really feel the need to make my private conversation public? (which, come to think of it, is literally what a podcast is.) Podcasts are another thing that, while I still like them and I’m glad they’re around, I don’t feel this compulsion to try to be a part of them.

I’ve been trying to figure out for the last few months what I should do with this little blog named Otakusphere. Shut it down and start something new that doesn’t have anime associations? No, that’s dumb. I’ll probably have the urge to start something new a few years from now anyway, and then I’ll just be on a treadmill of constantly starting new blogs that never get anywhere. Besides, this blog has been around long enough that there are nifty links to it from all sorts of weird corners of the internet, and it seems like it would be a waste to just discard that; I like the fact that people come here all the time because they followed a link about Tomb Raider, or wanted to read commentary on the 2011 Madhouse X-Men anime.

But I’m not sure how much blogging I’m going to be doing. As I get older, and free time to myself becomes more precious (parenting will do that), I’d rather spend time doing my own creative stuff rather than commenting about other people’s creative stuff. I thought I was done with drawing comics, only to realize I could probably enjoy making comics and make some good ones if I didn’t approach it 100% completely wrong, in the wrong format, with the wrong goals, which is what I did the first time. So I’m currently working on a comic book, albeit very slowly. I also have my fantasy books, which I’d like to do more of; they’ve been pretty well-received, but they need more professional presentation and they need some form of marketing that’s more aggressive than “you can find them on Amazon.”

And yet, there’s going to be a time when I want to write 10,000 words here about some old game, or cartoon, or something, and on one level it’s a total waste of time, and on another, well…that’s just what I do. So I guess what I’m saying is, I still want to do my semi-random enthusiast blogging about sundry topics, but I don’t want to be responsible for a regular podcast, or anything too time-sensitive, really. I do apologize to those who were enjoying the anime podcast especially, because I think that was filling a niche that still needs filling, but at this point in my life, I have to find what works for me. I’m not some college kid who can stay up all night writing recaps of five of the latest anime episodes and then sleep through my biology class; sometimes I wish I were ten years younger, but I’m not, and engaging in any kind of fandom is a smaller part of my life now.

Really, with the exception of discontinuing the podcast, nothing has changed much; this will remain a sporadically updating blog that will feature whatever nerdy stuff I’m psyched about on that particular day, and probably occasional sociological rants with no pictures that will become an immediate embarrassment five minutes after they’re published. I’m just saying that I’m no longer going to make periodic attempts to make this more of “an anime site,” or a whatever site; it’s just my lil’ blog, and maybe for the first time, that’s okay.

Or, you know, I could start blogging One Piece and Attack on Titan from the beginning tomorrow, because sometimes I’m just random and stuff. But probably (hopefully?) not.