Possibilities of Non-Commercial Games: The Case of Amateur Role Playing Game Designers in Japan

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Author: Ito, Kenji
Recently, scholars of science & technology studies have been paying closer attention to the role of users in technology. In the market economy, users/consumers have been playing usually silent but often decisive roles in shaping many areas of technology. Sometimes users come up with creative uses of a technological product that its manufacturer never imagined (the most consequential unintended use would be the use of airplanes by Al Quaeda as mentioned by Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch). Attention to users is expected to shed more light on neglected though highly relevant groups in society, such as women at home, and to counterbalance hagiographic narratives that make heroes out of prominent engineers. In this post industrial age, the boundary between users and manufacturers need not remain the same. Advancement of information and communication technology might allow a greater participation of users. In particular, in the area of digital games, everyone used to be an amateur in the time of William Higinbotham or Steve Russell. Even today, when game industry has grown colossal, creative amateurs can find their roles. In content production, while technology continues to advance, and yesterday's technology becomes cheaper and cheaper, the one who has the most advanced and expensive technology does not always produce the best product. Amateur game designers in the English speaking world have already attracted attention of some scholars. Especially, activities of "modders" have already been studied relatively well. Whereas digital game cultures in Japan have been generally underrepresented in game studies of the English speaking academia, non-commercial games are even less recognized than commercial ones, because amateurs generally do not bother to translate their work into English. This paper focuses on Japanese amateur game designers who produce role playing games by using a tool called "RPG Tkool 2000." I examine how amateur game creators build a network to create games, how they circulate their games, how players interact with those games and their designers, and how those games differ from commercial games. In particular, in my analysis of amateur role playing games, I focus on narratives and "cosmologies" of the game that regulate game play and storyline. In doing so, I will try to apply an interdisciplinary approach, combining my expertise in science & technology studies with game studies approaches. "RPG Tkool 2000," commercial software by Enterbrain Inc., is the most popular tool to create RPGs and other games in Japan. It is extremely versatile, stable, and easy to use, but this software can only produce low-resolution 2D games. In spite of the relatively primitive interface (or partly because of that), it has a large group of users, and production of freeware and shareware games with this software has been very active. Since gamers can play gamers produced by RPG Tkool 2000 without buying the software itself, game designers can distribute their games as freeware, which ensures wider circulation than, for example, the modules of "Neverwinter Nights." Amateur game designers who use RPG Tkool 2000 and other game construction software form a collaborative network so that they could combine different skills of different individuals, since rarely one person manages to produce a story, code, graphic, and music. Most amateur designers have a website to distribute their games, thorough which players participate in the production of a game, whether as a tester, a contributor of graphic designs, or a voice actor. If game designing is easy enough to be fun, the process of producing a game itself resembles a multi-player online RPG. The extent to which users push the limit of RPG Tkool 2000 is amazing. Not only do they make all genres of RPGs (like medieval European fantasies, science fictions, Japanese premodern stories, contemporary stories, etc.), they devise games in other genres than RPG, including adventure, action, shooting, simulation, strategy, and puzzle games. Most importantly, those amateur games are not always crude imitations of commercial games. Being non-commercial allows freeware games to have more personal and artistic expressions of game designers. Although one might consider commercial and freeware video/computer games as the same digital medium, the messages that they convey often differ considerably. Since amateur designers do not need to conform to the taste of the mass, they can afford to choose topics of their personal concern and design their games according to their own aesthetics. For example, some amateur games deal with social problems of contemporary Japan. There are female amateur game designers who produced games that address the issue of sexism. Many games deal with discrimination and bullying among children reflecting Japan's school life. One designer uses his games to satirize anti-smoking campaign. As often the case with Japan's popular culture, the issues about war and peace, environment, danger of science and technology are favored themes of amateur games. Unlike comics or amine, however, non-commercial games do not have to please their audience. "Seraphic Blue" by Tempura (pseudo.), one of the masterpieces made by RPG Tkool 2000, has a disturbingly pessimistic storyline and cosmology, which repeatedly asks its player whether life is worth all the trouble it causes, or whether we might be better off had we never been born at all. To average players, it is more depressing than fun to play this game. To some, however, this game conveys a very powerful message. In addition, unlike videogames for game consoles, these amateur games are open-ended and self-reflective in some ways. Those who have a copy of "RPG Tkool 2000," it is easy to modify games created by it. Designers can easily produce updated versions of their games according to user feedback. Some games take game designing by "RPG Tkool" as their theme. While many games are parodies of commercial games, a few games satirize clichés of RPG Tkool games. Thus, non-commercial amateur role playing games seem to present some possibilities. Because amateur designers do not intend to make money, they can do what professional designers cannot. Amateur game designers can experiment with their non-commercial games, and make their games vehicles of artistic expressions and social or philosophical issues.
Contact: Kenji Ito, Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, The Uni, kenjiito@rcast.u-tokyo.ac.jp
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