There’s a Soldier in All of Us? Gender in Call of Duty’s Live Action Trailers

It’s said in life only three things are guaranteed: death, taxes, and a new Call of Duty (CoD) release each year. The imminent arrival of each subsequent installment of the juggernaut first-person shooter franchise is heralded by entertaining live action trailers featuring fantasy gunplay and celebrity endorsements. These short but bombastic videos capture the high-octane gameplay that gamers have, for better or worse, come to associate with CoD games.

Yet the advertising of CoD in live action trailers arguably represents the systematic gender-biases present in video game marketing at large, especially for genres that assume an overwhelmingly male audience, as often the case for first-person shooter games. Even prior to the development of the live action trailers, masculine themes that marginalize women and homosexual men were emphasized in other CoD promotional videos. Let’s not forget the time Infinity Ward released a YouTube video in 2009 that disparaged the use of random grenade throws in the game’s online mode as a phony public service announcement sponsored by a ficticious organization called Fight Against Grenade Spam, or FAGS. While the video was quickly removed for its insensitive language, official promotional videos with homophobic undertones clearly stigmatize minorities from the CoD online community.

15091-399365-mw3jpg-noscalePerfect soldiers? “The Vet and The n00b” specifically hails a male demographic.

Activision, the publisher of the CoD franchise, has consistently advertised new releases for a predominately male demographic at the expense of female representation. I genuinely applaud the original live action CoD trailer for Black Ops (2010) for featuring a diverse range of male and female actors engaging in fantasy gunplay. The trailer showcases a diversity of body types and ethnicities equally kicking ass in an absurd abstraction of both authentic reality and actual video gameplay. Recent live action trailers, however, are noticeably (and unfortunately) less egalitarian. Modern Warfare 3’s (2012) live action trailer started the trend in “The Vet & The n00b” which starred Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill in the respective roles of the “veteran” and “noob.” Their relationship, in which the veteran trains the novice player/soldier in CoD tactics and weaponry, values skilled performance as a masculine ideal.

15091-399365-meganfoxcallofdutyjpg-noscaleMegan Fox’s brief appearance in “Epic Night Out” might be boiled down to eye candy.

Indeed, men are typically active subjects in the narratives of the live action trailers while women are subjected to a male gaze that frames females as objects to be gazed upon. Actress Megan Fox was briefly featured in a CoD: Ghosts (2013) live action trailer titled “Epic Night Out.” While Fox is depicted as a tough, competent, and fiercely independent a male character blatantly flirts with her, emphasizing her role as a mere object for male pleasure. The men exit the scene after the male character’s unsuccessful attempt at chatting her up and she’s quickly forgotten about.

15091-399365-codawpng-noscaleEmily Ratajkowski in “Discover Your Power” is selling sexiness – not CoD. 

Roughly a year later, the CoD: Advanced Warfare (2014) live action trailer positioned a male viewership to “Discover Your Power” from the first-person perspective. While the actor’s face is never seen the hairy arms are noticeably masculine when the actor runs and guns across an advanced battlefield of the future. In the same video, the heterosexual male gaze is catered by the quick appearance of model Emily Ratajkowski, clad in tiny shorts and a belly shirt, after the character-viewer temporarily blacks out. The scene is used for humor when it turns out that the sexy visage is actually a slobbering goat – in other words, the trailer’s only female representation is actually a hallucination. In the world of Advanced Warfare’s trailer, power is the exclusive domain of men.

15091-399365-codblops3png-noscaleCara Delevingne’s role in “Seize Glory” is an improvement on the formula.

Fortunately, the trend of objectifying women in CoD trailers is shifting, if somewhat gradually. Actress and model Cara Delevingne ultimately dominates the subject of the narrative, a male character named Kevin, in the CoD: Black Ops III (2015) trailer “Seize Glory” but only within the video’s final seconds.Some women viewers may certainly enjoy strong heroines like the ones portrayed by Delevingne and Fox. Indeed, they are framed as tough, badass, and capable of keeping up with the men (Ratajkowski’s sexualized appearance more the exception than the rule). Yet it remains that these advertisements offer a variety of masculinities on display – black, white, and overweight – while a particular type of woman, who is beautiful and conforms to a thin ideal, is given enough time and space in the trailers to please a heterosexual male audience, first and foremost.

15091-399365-codghostspng-noscaleMale victims of CODnapping receive access to games, big comfy chairs, and beverage service in “CODnapped.” Women are framed as potential obstacles to accessing these privileges. 

A trailer selling downloadable content for Ghosts, titled “CODnapped” (a play on CoD and kidnapping), is the most egregious example of CoD as exclusively a “man’s world.” The trailer depicts a fantasy scenario in which several men are relieved of their everyday burdens by a clandestine military group who abscond them from the likes of attending a business dinner and shopping with a wife and baby. The objective of CODnapping is that these men might have uninterrupted time to play CoD: Ghosts away from their families and girlfriends. In this world, a variety of masculinities are interpellated as subjects while women are not even considered a group who might want to be “CODnapped” from their own mundane existence. Surely the women featured in the video – the female student driver, the wife and mother of a toddler, the girlfriend fussing over her appearance – might also need a relief from their daily pressures?

This November’s release of Infinite Warfare (2016) introduced a new live action trailer titled “Screw It, Let’s Go to Space.” While initially showcasing a number of diverse characters prior to the combat scenes, once the actual fighting erupts women appear far less frequently than men in the one minute and forty-six second trailer. The trailer is a welcome departure from objectifying women yet does little to increase female visibility compared to past commercials.

15091-399365-codiwpng-noscaleOne of two prominent women soldiers who appear in Infinite Warfare’s “Screw It, Let’s Go to Space.”

So, why is this important – why scrutinze gender portrayals in CoD commercials? Especially given the fact that many gamers no longer take seriously CoD as more than just a cash cow? Representation in any medium is always important given that as humans we naturally identify with similar others. And given the contentious status of women in online gaming communities, where harrassment and hostility is not uncommon, would it really harm the franchise to acknowledge women players more broadly, to represent women in ways that disrupt stereotypes? To consider the female demographic as more than just an afterthought? These trailers started strong with Black Ops, dipped to an all-time low with Advanced Warfare, and addressed previous wrongs in Infinite Warfare’s recent commercial – but there’s still room for improvement. For CoD to diversify the range of representation within the live action trailers would go a long way towards conceptualizing CoD as a game for the “solider in all of us.”

Note: Gender and Call of Duty is currently a topic I am developing and wrestling with for a book chapter on the series. This discussion was originally going to appear in condensed form in the book chapter, which is actually more specifically about gender in the Modern Warfare games and associated fandom, but due to word-count limitations and a desire to have this conversation more broadly, I’ve decided to share this piece in blog format. And a disclaimer: I acknowledge that I am by no means an expert on the Call of Duty series at large. I’ve only played Black Ops, Modern Warfare 1-3, and Ghosts.
Originally posted on Destructoid.
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Bros Before Tangos? Narrative & Parasocial Friendships in Military Shooters

[Spoiler Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Star Wars: Republic Commando and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2]

What’s a Parasocial Friendship?

A good story and compelling characters can provide players with a sense of friendship and belonging within a gameworld. Parasocial interaction explains that audience members may experience one-sided relationships with mediated characters. In other words, spend enough time with a fictional character in book, movie, or video game, and you might just start to think of them as a friend. I’m of the position this effect contributes to media enjoyment; in my case, I’ve found that parasocial relationships with game characters can go a long way to differentiate an otherwise generic game.

With the interactive nature of videogames, the medium is particularly successful at inculcating such feelings. Perhaps one need only reference the “Garrus Vakarian is my Space Boyfriend” t-shirt to gauge the level of attachment some players may experience with fictional romantic pursuits in the Mass Effect series of roleplaying games. But what about games where character roleplay isn’t an option? Or for games that emphasize combat over narrative? Can parasocial friendships with characters make an otherwise generic military-themed shooter more meaningful?

star_wars_republic_commando_wallDon’t let the space-marine armor fool ya, there’s a lot to like about Delta Squad.

In video games, such relationships are likely encouraged when a player-character shares a close bond with one or more characters. Military shooters often exhibit themes of professionalism, duty, and camaraderie between the player-character and their allies. These relationships, paired with gameplay that emphasize interdependency rather than independency in the military squad, go a long way towards encouraging parasocial friendships and empathy towards game characters. Importantly, this bond has implications for plot twists that disrupt the empowering fantasy of the traditional, first-person military shooter game. I discuss in the context of Star Wars: Republic Commando and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

mw-group#SquadGoals. The only Call of Duty cast that made me care about the plot are the Modern Warfare playable and non-playable characters.

Star Wars: Republic Commando

Star Wars: Republic Commando (2005; RC) is a squad-based first-person shooter (FPS), and probably the first FPS that I ever played and actually enjoyed. Admittedly, this gamer was already a diehard Star Wars enthusiast and sympathetic towards the clones prior to playing the game, but the excellent characterizations of the individual soldiers distinguish RC as particularly suited for ‘virtual’ friendship.

When the player assumes the role of Boss, the leader of Delta Squad, they give commands to his clone brothers Scorch, Sev, and Fixer on the battlefield. The player can position each member strategically to combat the enemies as a force. In my experience, RC is far more challenging when this feature is ignored as the mechanic emphasizes the role of the squad over the lone warrior. Importantly, when members of the squad go down for the count, the player can use a healing command to pull them back from the brink of death. Likewise, the squadmates can resuscitate the player-as-Boss, which enhances the interdependency of the squad. These game mechanics, which are fairly standard for squad-based shooters (Spec Ops: The Line also comes to mind), are paired with excellent dialogue between Delta Squad – usually incorporating humor to balance out the game’s rather grim tone – and emphasize the bonds among them.

commandosDelta Squad kickin’ some droid butt. Photoshop by me, render by n3rdskillz.

Boss: [player in need of healing from squad] Need help, commandos…
Scorch: All right, but if I get shot in the back, I’m blaming you.

Sev: Damn, I don’t believe it!
Scorch: What’s wrong, Sev?
Sev: I’ve lost count of my kills!

Scorch: [Sev shoots a corpse excessively] Sev, did that corpse give you a nasty look?
Sev: Rule 17…
Scorch: We know, always make sure they’re dead.

Good mechanics and characterizations help make RC, or what could have been a generic FPS set in the Star Wars universe, stand out. As a player, I was invested in protecting my squad, not just to win, but because the gameplay and characterizations facilitated a relationship with Scorch, Sev, and Fixer. And I don’t think I’m the only one, either. In a ‘Let’s Play’ video of the game on YouTube, a gamer tells Scorch to “hold on buddy” during a heal and makes other statements to the squad amidst a particularly difficult assault. While commentary is standard for ‘Let’s Play’ videos, the one-way dialogue directed at a game character indicates a parasocial experience.

The character bonds are intensified by plot twists that disrupt the power fantasy of the FPS and emphasize the vulnerability of life (virtual or not). The expectation for squadmate healing and the “we’re better than the enemy we’re fighting against” bravado is painfully disrupted in RC’s finale. Just when you, the player-as-Boss, expects a beautifully executed victory, Sev goes missing in action. Boss, stricken and devoted, attempts to disobey a military order from the Jedi generals to search for Sev.

Boss: I don’t care if they [the orders] came from Master Yoda himself!
Clone Advisor: As a matter of fact, they did, solider! Now get your squad out of there.

Unfortunately, shortly after this exchange – even though the player-as-Boss might start running back to Sev’s position – the gameplay abruptly ends and a cutscene plays of the forced evacuation of the commandos. It’s frustrating as a player who starts to genuinely care about your squad and the fate of your missing brother, and the loss of Sev packs an emotional punch in the otherwise tidy ending. My concern for Sev lingered after gameplay and part of me will always pine for the RC sequel to address his whereabouts.

15091-390212-rcendjpg-noscale.jpgRC’s point-of-view ending forces the player to directly confront Sev’s absence. 

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Modern Warfare 2‘s (2009; MW2) story is easily dismissed as a jingoistic military jaunt but it’s a big-dumb FPS shooter where the characters are generally likeable and the missions intensify the squad interdependency. Although you play as several characters over the course of the narrative, I argue that the most memorable missions in MW2 involve playing as Gary “Roach” Sanderson of Task Force 141, partially attributed to potential parasocial feelings for the player-character’s allies.

At first glance, your superiors Captain John “Soap” MacTavish and Lieutenant Simon “Ghost” Riley look like one-dimensional masculine archetypes: a buff dude with a mohawk and another dude who is so badass he obscures his face with a skull mask and sunglasses. But there is a good amount of dialogue peppered throughout MW2’s levels that facilities an understanding of the bond between these characters that the player might also experience. It probably helps that Soap and Ghost are wonderfully voiced by Kevin McKidd and Craig Fairbrass, respectively, who always convincingly convey the drama of MW2’s story (and damn if their Scottish and English accents aren’t bloody amazing). As an aside, solid voice actor performances certainly enhance believability.

mw2-soap-ghostCaptain “Soap” MacTavish and Ghost, the badass Brits. Photoshop by me, renders by BHD595 & 74540.

Although the gameplay of MW2 is not nearly as active as RC, in which you play the squad leader issuing orders, your mission objectives are integrated into a cooperative framework. The below exchange is just one example of the teamwork exhibited in the Task Force 141 missions. If you’ve played the game, compare how the dynamics change when you’re in the role of Private James Ramirez of the US Army Rangers, constantly following the orders of Sergeant Foley. The dialogue of those levels spawned an entire meme, after all (Ramirez, Do Everything!). Foley isn’t so much a friend as he is an announcer of game objectives.

Captain MacTavish: This is it! We go in, grab Prisoner 627, and get out! Check your corners! Let’s go! [Mactavish, Ghost, Roach and Task Force 141 enter a control room and engage the hostiles positioned there.]
Ghost: That’s the control room up ahead! I can use it to find the prisoner! I’ll tap into their system and look for the prisoner! It’s gonna take some time!
Captain MacTavish: Copy that! Roach, we’re on cell duty! Follow me!
[Ghost hacks into the control systems. MacTavish, Roach, and the rest of the team go down into the first level and engage hostiles while looking for the prisoner.]
Ghost: Alright, I’m patched in. I’m tracking your progress on the security cameras. [Ghost continues to provide remote support to the team as the others search for the prisoner.]

Not unlike the disappointment of losing Sev in RC, an unfortunate twist in MW2’s campaign disrupts the power fantasy at the same time it cinches a connection with a game character. In a harrowing mission to retrieve intel at a terrorist safe house in the level “Loose Ends,” the player is bombarded with waves of enemies. When the extraction team arrives heralded by the overseeing General Shepherd, the player-as-Roach must flee from another round of approaching gunmen and mortar fire, only to temporarily blackout after a near-hit by a projectile.

A cutscene interrupts the gameplay, the camera revealing that you-as-Roach are being saved by your lieutenant, who frantically tells you to “hang in there.” Gameplay resumes and you’re able to return the enemy fire for a brief moment as Ghost literally drags your avatar to apparent safety. Another cutscene displaces gameplay, as you see through the eyes of your wounded avatar as they approach the landing zone. Only the relief is quickly replaced by shock and horror as General Shepherd shoots Roach at point blank range, followed by the man who just risked his own life to save your avatar.

mw2_ghost_s_death_by_jailboticus-d6uzm4v.gifSix years ago I first played the game, and it still hurts to watch…

While this moment is one of the most infamous in Call of Duty history in terms of frustrating plot twists, the near seamless blend of point-of-view cutscene into gameplay that concludes with another point-of-view cutscene, as you see the final moments of your dying avatar from first-person perspective, is powerful in terms of narrative impact and produces an affective response in players. Just try to find a YouTube video of this scene that doesn’t include a “nnooo! ghost and roach are still alive!!!11” comment; those feels are real. Additionally, taking revenge later on Shepherd as MacTavish is particularly satisfying.

When I reflect upon these experiences of virtual valor in military shooters, there’s also a salient sense of belonging when the characters are convincing and well written. The parasocial bonds encouraged by memorable characterizations and engaging gameplay complement and reinforce the strong narrative impacts of RC and MW2. The unexpected disruptions of power fantasies, traditionally embedded into FPS games, are enhanced by feelings which mark the loss of characters like Sev and Ghost as  meaningful. While these stories may seemingly offer little of value in providing deep insights on the moral and ethical implications of warfare, I think they’re rather successful at illustrating the painful costs and sacrifices of service (even at the expense of absurd plot twists).

The analysis offered here clearly glosses over some of the problematic themes embedded into these narratives. Surely one could argue military shooters – even in the Sci-Fi realm of Star Wars – glorify war, support the military industrial complex, and sanitize violence. But that’s another discussion entirely. My analysis here assumes that games are played for entertainment and are usually interpreted as such by rational humans, and that along the way, it might be possible to consider parasocial friendships in games as something that enhance storytelling, even within usually formulaic genres.

Originally posted to Destructoid community blog [minor edits were made to this version], where some good convos were had in the comments.

Re-post:‘Through the Gates,’ ep. 31: Jess Tompkins on women in gaming

Indiana University’s Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President featured me on a segment of their weekly podcast, ‘Through the Gates.’ You can give it a listen on SoundCloud. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Tompkins describes her life-long enjoyment of video games and the gender politics that manifest in the game design industry and gamer culture. She explains that, in her early years, the sexualization of women in games “seemed normal,” saying, “I was being exposed to sexualized women in advertising, in films, long before I saw sexualized women in games.”

-From ‘Through the Gates’ official blog.

Can Japanese Games Tell Us About the ‘Real’ Japan?

 

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I’ve never been hardcore into Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs), a sub-genre with a large Western following, and I was never obsessed with Final Fantasy – arguably one of Japan’s most successful franchises to receive mainstream acclaim among Western critics and gamers. Rather, my own interest in Japanese games centers on the hack-n-slash, survival horror, and fighting genres. Among my Japanese gaming obsessions were/are Tekken, SoulCalibur, Resident Evil, and Dynasty/Samurai Warriors.

Some might speculate that Resident Evil is a popular and successful franchise outside Japan because its narrative is largely based around Caucasian, North American heroes. Even the diverse casts in Tekken and SoulCalibur are not easily recognized as Japanese in origin which makes these games relatively easy to market in Western regions. Even though these games were created by predominately Japanese development teams there’s not much that’s actually about Japanese culture within these games. Yet other games have inspired my fascination with Japanese history and culture, such as Koei-Tecmo’s Samurai Warriors, which may be true for other gamers who have played similarly contextualized games like Shogun: Total War.

Samurai Warriors features a cast of – you’ll never have guessed it – samurai, daimyo, and ninja warriors set during the Sengoku Jidai period of feudal Japan (c. 1467 – c. 1603). It was an easy series for me to get into seeing as I was already a massive fan of Koei’s other hack-n-slash series Dynasty Warriors (both games are developed by the same studio, Omega-Force, the difference being DW is set during a turbulent period of ancient China). Samurai Warriors, although featuring over-the-top gameplay and impossible one-warrior-against-a-hundred scenarios, more or less stuck to the essential elements of the historical timeline that it represented. Now, that’s not to say that the key players aren’t fantastically embellished nor that plenty of creative liberties aren’t taken. Perhaps most notably, the historical figures adhere to aesthetics found in Japanese anime more so than from the actual historical paintings that document their prestige.

Handsome and anachronistically fashionable bishounen archetypes stand in for fierce, heavily-armored samurai and Oda Nobunaga’s “demon king” moniker is taken more literately in these games. Still, if video games can serve as a gateway for learning about other historical eras, SW did it for me. I purchased books on ninja and samurai and read the fictionalized biography of underdog-to-unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Taiko. In my 11th grade Spanish class, we had to do a report of a famous/notable person and I chose to discuss Oda Nobunaga, the ruthless warlord who nearly unified Japan before he was betrayed by his vassal, Akechi Mitsuhide. These figures are well known in Japan – but to most Americans? Our mandatory history classes in public schools focus almost exclusively on US and European history. The exposure to new forms of history through games and memorable characters was a breath of fresh air, especially since most of the American-made games that I played at the time tended to re-tell the World Wars, ad nausea [Well… at least, Call of Duty used to do that].

When I visited Japan for two weeks in June, I took it upon myself to witness would I could of that history first hand. After all, even though it was gameplay and the overly dramatic characterizations that initially attracted me to the history in Samurai Warriors, it was the actual events and historical figures that left a lasting impression. At Okunoin cemetery at Koyasan, for instance, I was able to pay my respects at mausoleums and tombstones to many of the fallen warriors and rulers I was initially exposed to in the game series. There was a sense of wonder and nostalgia as I walked through that cemetery, realizing I may not have made the long pilgrimage via train and tram to arrive at that place had I not played a video game.

The same sense of awe saturated my thoughts my first night in Japan, when I skipped Tokyo via bullet train and stayed in Odawara. Most people use Odawara as a stepping-stone to a Mt. Fuji excursion but I stayed for Odawara Castle, a historic site of Hideyoshi’s conquest in Japan – and, you guessed it, featured in the video game. Beautiful Himeji Castle was also part of my trip for similar reasons and while in Kyoto, I tracked down a small, relatively unimpressive temple complex for the sole reason that it was the modern-day location of Honno-ji Temple, the site of Oda Nobunaga’s betrayal and death.

Perhaps at best video games are a gateway to other eras, other cultures, but I think they’re a particularly potent gateway. Having played my first Samurai Warriors game over ten years ago (the first one released in 2004 when I was 14!), the history has made a lasting impression that influenced my Japan travel itinerary at the age of 26. And while Japanese games might reveal only a mediated representation and understanding of a ‘real’ Japan, visiting and reflecting at these historical sites certainly brought me closer to understanding the authentic thing.

Click on the Images for the Full Photo Albums

Honno-ji Temple
Honno-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle

Turning Japanese: The “Character Empire” that Infiltrated Video Games

pokemon

I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for games – not only were video games an important pastime and hobby of mine as a young teen, but the most memorable games inspired my creativity. Some of my first stabs at non-fiction writing were essentially bad video game fanfiction (thankfully, not quite this bad). I taught myself to sew so I could cosplay as some of my favorite video game characters. I’ve even had friendships with people half-way across the globe that I wouldn’t otherwise had met if it wasn’t for a mutual love of certain video game franchises and characters.

Now, many of these things, such as cosplay, bad fanfic, and online friendships, were similarly inspired by a love of Star Wars and Harry Potter during those formative teenage years. But only video games have the privilege of drawing me towards Japanese culture and history more broadly. Anyone who’s played console and PC games for a number of years has likely played a video game created predominately by a Japanese team. Japan is a dominate force in the AAA commercial video game industry; for instance, popular Japanese games, such as titles in the Pokémon and the Legend of Zelda series, typically sell as well in the West as they do in the domestic market.

In any case, the large appeal and success of Japan’s games abroad, I think, rests not solely on the gameplay but the characters available in gameplay. In Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination anthropologist Anne Allison wrote that Japan is a “character empire” with icons such as Hello Kitty and Pikachu being recognized as ambassadors of their respective brands abroad. The importance of character branding in games is unsurprising given its wider prevalence in Japanese media culture, including anime and manga. Indeed, many early video game studios in Japan sought talented artists and writers from the extant anime and manga trades.

marioWith creatives from Japan’s comic book and animation industries bringing character design and complex storylines into digital games, Japanese video games may have been some of the first in the industry to emphasize plot, writing, and characterization. Japan’s video games include some of the most memorable characters that represent the industry at large, going as far back as the likes of Nintendo’s Mario who originated in 1981. Since the introduction of Nintendo’s cute and unforgettable icons, Japan’s video games have arguably set a high bar for character design and pushed the market in new directions. As recently with the release of Nintendo’s and Niantic’s Pokémon GO, the success of first-party console developers in the mobile games market has been attributed to the gaming public’s affinity for recognizable characters from popular franchises.

cap-cafe-2

The popularity of branded characters in Japanese games is evident in the likes of Gundam, Final Fantasy, and Capcom theme cafes located in Tokyo. My love of Japanese franchise Resident Evil (Biohazard in Japan) was documented quite recently in my review of the Capcom Café, which I visited in cosplay of Jill Valentine on two separate occasions to sample the literal ‘Jill Sandwich’ and merchandise offerings. The café circulates different Capcom games as themes reflected in new food items and merchandise that center on particular franchise’s characters. There’s no denying the popularity of Resident Evil’s playable characters, such as Jill, Chris, and Leon, who also star in spin-off CGI films, comic books, and even made appearances in the Paul W. Anderson film franchise. These characters and others adorn merchandise ranging from keychains to coffee mugs and t-shirts to hand towels. In a very Japanese fashion, the Capcom Café embraces the success of its game characters.

The appeal of branded characters in Japan extends the likes of Akihabara and the shopping malls. When I took a trip to the more remote World Heritage Site, Koyasan, I couldn’t escape character sightings. I spotted a Sengoku Basara cardboard cutout at Koyasan’s train station, apparently promoting some kind of themed train ticket, specifically targeting fans of the series.

basarajpg

Japanese games have historically been successful with branding their games with popular, likeable characters. Consider Mario, who has practically been a household name since the 1980s and the array of merchandise available from that franchise alone. What Japan has arguably offered to the world of game design is an emphasis on memorable and unique characters, the likes of which Western games have imitated, perhaps most recently in Blizzard’s cast of inspirational Overwatch characters. The concept artwork for the game seems inspired by the Japanese anime aesthetic.

Indeed, Katherine Cross at Gamastura writes that the explosive fandom surrounding the cast of Overwatch and Pokémon GO  is attributed to the simplicity of the character design.  She writes, “there’s a lesson to be found in Overwatch and Pokémon Go: it takes shockingly little effort to create characters that people can get very deeply invested in.” I agree with the overall sentiment that characters grounded in simple narratives, when imaginatively designed and implemented, can be just as successful as more complex characterizations found in narrative-heavy roleplaying games. But I think there’s a caveat. The popular team leaders created for Pokémon GO already belong to an insanely popular Japanese media franchise with an established and strong fan base. And it seems Blizzard’s stylized Overwatch may have sought reception from a similar demographic of gamers that easily recognize Japanese influence in games.

yoshi-zhang

Yoshimitsu (Soul Calibur III) and Zhange He (Dynasty Warriors 7) are two of my favorite game characters originating from Japanese franchises.

Undeniably, some of my favorite video game characters are Japanese in origin. They’re unique, memorable, and… just plain playful. I’ll never forget pummeling a swarm of Chinese peons with flamboyant Zhang He in Dynasty Warriors; trolling my opponents with Soul Cailbur’s (sometimes pink) cyborg-ninja Yoshimitsu; and fighting back the zombie hordes with the somehow campy yet (mostly) grounded cast of Resident Evil.

Are some of your favorite video game characters Japanese in creative origin? Do you think that Japanese character design sets a standard in the industry? I’d like to hear about your favorites!

Originally posted to Destructoid Community Blog.

Video Game Character Design Study Seeks Participants

vg-study

I’m looking to speak with game designers, developers, concept artists, etc. about character design for video games. Please don’t hesitate to contact me regarding any questions. All interviewees will remain anonymous.

Feel free to share the text via email and social media:

If you have worked on a video game development team you are invited to participate in a short interview that will investigate the process and decision-making behind character conceptualization and video game design. As you may be aware, video game content has been scrutinized by both the public and academics alike with little consideration of the industry’s perspective. This study seeks to understand the design process from the practical and economic considerations of the industry in order to balance out the academic research that has overlooked these factors.

The interviews will be conducted by Jessica Tompkins (Ph.D. student) and Dr. Nicole Martins of the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington. Jessica and Nicole have previously conducted research on video games and Jess herself is an avid gamer. Participation involves a single interview via Skype or phone. All participants will be entered to win one $50 Amazon gift card, the odds of winning dependent on the total number of participants (about 1 in 20 or 1 in 25).

If you are at least 18 years old, have worked on character creation for games, and would like more information about participating, please contact: Jessica Tompkins at jetompki@indiana.edu or Nicole Martins at nicomart@indiana.edu.

Interviews will last approximately 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes. Participants will remain anonymous in any papers or presentations that may emerge from this study.

I’ll have the Jill Sandwich, Please: An Experience & Review of the Capcom Café

cap-cafe-5

I recently returned from an amazing fifteen-day adventure in Japan. I visited video game bars and ramen stalls in the scrawling cityscapes; feudal castles, holy shrines and peaceful temples amidst the urban landscapes; and historic cemeteries and memorials to fallen warlords among the cool and serene mountainsides.

As a longtime gamer and fan of Japanese media, especially of Capcom’s Resident Evil (RE), my trip to Tokyo was exciting with the prospect of visiting the electronics district, Akihabara, alone. When I heard about the creation of the Capcom Café about 6 months ago I was interested but not quite sold on a visit. You see, the café circulates different themes that center on Capcom games and when it was first launched the theme was Monster Hunter – a game I’ve not played and actually know very little about. However, when the RE theme was set from March to the end of June of this year, I scheduled it for my itinerary without a second thought. I mean, how many other times would I be in Japan and have the chance to dine on themed food and drinks from a favorite video game series?

But why not visit the more famous and popular Capcom Bar in Shinjuku? Well, for one, there’s the issue of needing a reservation in advance to attend the Capcom Bar which was problematic for my rather hectic schedule. Additionally, the Capcom Bar focuses on all Capcom games broadly, and the appeal to the café’s RE theme during the 20thanniversary of the franchise was just too good to pass up. It may help to back up my fanaticism with some data: I am probably one of the few people who purchased the Collector’s Edition of RE5 – so yeah, I’m that kind of shameless RE fan who loves the series to pieces, even when it’s been less than stellar in recent years (with the exception of RE: Revelations 2, in my humble opinion).

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Anyway, my first visit to the café occurred on June 8th around 5 PM which was my second day in Japan and Tokyo. Additionally, I returned for a second visit on June 19th, a couple days before I left the country, because a new item was added to the menu just after my initial visit – more on this later.

First, the café itself is relatively easy to find – if not a convenient location within Tokyo – as long as you do your transportation research.  The café is located at Aeon Mall, just off of the Koshigaya Laketown stop on the metro’s Musashino line, which is nearly an hour from Tokyo’s central station. From my accommodation in Ekoda it took me about an hour to arrive at the Aeon Mall with transfers at two subway stations. It’s not the quickest commute, especially around evening rush hour, so keep that in mind if you plan a visit yourself. Once at the mall, I stopped immediately at an information desk and asked for the Capcom Café and was quickly pointed to the third floor.

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My first impression was that of merchandise… overpriced merch, everywhere. For reference, these acrylic keychains are priced at 1,000 yen – that’s close to $10.00 USD, with tax. Impressively, Ada was completely sold out (looks like we know the #1 Resi waifu in Japan!). Needless to say, I passed up on the adorable keychains, and instead purchased a slightly more practical mug, since I love coffee and tea. Even that was about $13.00 USD and it only comes in black and white coloring. Still, the character images are cute and I like that it references the 20thAnniversary of RE, so I think it makes for a good souvenir. There were many more items on display, including zombie cookies, character-shaped candy, pens, notebooks, tote bags, badges, t-shirts and hoodies… even small backpacks and T-Virus perfume! But I didn’t buy those at a high price, strangah. Also available was plenty of merch from other franchises such as Mega Man, Monster Hunter, and Sengoku Basara.

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Aside from being bombarded with game merchandise, the atmosphere was eccentric and fun. A game console was available with RE: 0 remastered edition, a TV showcased cut scenes and game trailers in the dinning area, and a large mural depicted chibi RE characters in the Spencer Mansion. Aside from the spectacle, however, the shop and café was rather quiet and devoid of customers. This came with costs and benefits – I had looked forward to mingling with other Capcom/RE fans but at the same time I probably received the best service the café had to offer. I made small talk with my waiter about RE and other games and my food arrived promptly.

I’ll admit I ordered the cheapest item on the menu but mostly for practical reasons since I already had dinner plans later in the evening. The Raccoon City Set features four RE-themed sweets with a drink for about $9.00 USD which is actually a good deal among the café options since the fancy drinks alone cost about $6-7.00 USD. For the drink I ordered the “Jill Valentine” which tasted fruity and included a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The dish delightfully featured RE characters as their cutest food forms imaginable. It included more ice cream, dollops of chocolate and vanilla cream served with a Jill cookie and marshmallow-like poof with an adorable rendering of Nemesis. Particularly (4 itchy) tasty was a stawbarry cream cake – see what I did there? – with a mini-flag reading “Welcome to Raccoon City.” Overall, the Jill drink was probably the tastiest of the items but everything was sweet and enjoyable. For ordering a fancy drink, you receive a coaster with an adorable chibi character (I got Leon) but you will not receive the coaster if you only ask for water. The paper placemat is also yours to keep but it’s not particularly thick or durable. I was able to preserve mine by rolling it up and I plan to eventually frame it because it’s so gosh darn cute.

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When my food arrived I wanted to have a very memorable and unique photo-op. For Halloween last year I put together a Jill Valentine cosplay – I had decided to pack the essential components along and wear them at the café – and that’s exactly what I did. The employees were very responsive to me when I explained in broken Japanese that I brought along “kosupure” and a girl employee was excited to take my picture for me. Needless to say, this portion of the experience was half my reason for going!

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I left the café with my pockets a little lighter, my curiosity satiated, and several very memorable pictures. I was content with my visit but towards the end of my itinerary – the day before I returned to Tokyo prior to flying back home – I discovered a revelation on the Capcom Café’s Twitter account… A day after my initial visit an official “Jill Sandwich” was added to the menu! [Watch the linked video if you’re unaware of the self-referential game humor]. It was not even listed in the café offerings the day prior. I was definitely a little heartbroken, but with a day and half left in Tokyo, I decided to make the pilgrimage one last time on a Sunday evening around 7:30 PM.

Once more, I was the sole diner, which was slightly disappointing. A few people lingered around the merchandise while others played RE: 0 and a couple looked at the menu on display, but when I sat down at a table I was the only one in the dining area. However, the staff were very friendly and made a sincere effort to talk with me as I didn’t have any companions. I was actually informed that the Jill Sandwich was very popular and, in fact, the waiter claimed he had 20 people order it in a single day. This may have indeed been an exaggeration, or perhaps the café is far more popular around lunch time. From my experiences the café seems to be relatively dead in the evenings – which makes sense as most of the food is suitable for smaller meals and snacking.cap-cafe-8

For those who are curious the Jill Sandwich costs a little over $6.00 USD and is a typical egg salad sandwich that is topped with a slice of ham and tomato. It includes a very small side of potato wedges (serving sizes in Japan, from what I saw, are much smaller on average than we have in ‘Merica). In short, it’s a relatively plain, but yummy, sandwich. The wooden tray that it was served on was decorated with a cocoa powdered effigy of Jill which I nearly smudged the second it was handed to me. The chef was even kind enough to doodle an image of anime Jill on the receipt, which I thanked her for and kept as a keepsake. And of course, I just had to pose with the Jill Sandwich because it’s so meta.

Overall, I enjoyed my two trips to the Capcom Café – but I’ve very likely had my fill if I ever return to Tokyo again (which I plan to do, one day). I can suggest this excursion to diehard Capcom fans, especially so to fans of the games that are presented as the current café theme. FYI – the theme just changed to Sengoku Basara. But for everyone else, because the location is not particularly quick to get to if you’re staying somewhere in central Tokyo, you’d probably be better off checking out the Capcom Bar in Shinjuku if you’d like to have a similar experience – especially if you want to play games while you eat/drink, as this is not an option at the Capcom Café. Moreover, the bar might be a more social place to interact with other diners/players while you wait for your food in the presence of said video games.

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Although I can only recommend this café to the big Capcom fans out there, I will say that I enjoyed my visits very much and commend the staff for taking the time to talk with me and take photos – I am certainly glad to have these memories!

Originally posted to personal Destructoid Community Blog.