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Otaku-ology

I have been reading about otaku – a term that translates loosely as “geek” or “nerd,” but around which a more sophisticated set of questions around subjectivity, built environments, and narrative consumption has grown (more interesting than anything I’ve seen yet under the umbrella of fan studies.)

As part of the Japan pavilion for the architecture show at the 2004 Venice Biennale, Kaichiro Morikawa included photographs of “otaku rooms” by Kohei Masukawa (images above grabbed from the website for the book.). Crowded spaces filled with books, magazines, game software, and other media and merchandise, these spaces seemed to defy any aesthetic criteria for the design of lived-in spaces, reinforcing a narrative which characterizes otaku as disinterested in the real, disengaged from aesthetic sensibilities, and obsessed with their commoditized objects of desire.

However, I have just thought that these spaces really represent databased-space, like that of the library or the museum archive, the model from which these spaces have sprung. The room becomes an interface to a collection; the otaku-interior-designer is creating a database-UI for accessing (and apprehending) the elements contained therein. There is an aesthetic at work: a contemporary one, an info-aesthetic of the interface, rather than the modernist one of movement through open spaces, of volumes, or of the room as a stage for performance. The otaku-room is one in which the occupant sits as the CPU to a system of catalogs to content, and also as a kind of archivist-curator to the constellation of artifacts in their possession.

I think this conception of the otaku room is consistent with Hiroki Azuma’s theory of the otaku as “post-modern database animal.” What this suggests also is that the modernist notions of interior space is more tied to a narrativist conception of the consumption of space than we may have previously allowed.

One thing notable about the relationship between the otaku and this kind of interface/room is that it is also compatible with recent changes in the the relationship between entity and index in systems of cataloging and visualization. Recently, I participated in a show at the Calit2 gallery (details on the Software Studies initiative blog.) One thing that many of our visualizations feature is an inversion of the normal relationship between feature and representation in large data-sets: where once a single feature would stand for an object (its name, an ID number, a thumbnail) we now can generated and access universes of information about that object for which the object itself is simply an index: our graphs of images used the images themselves to illustrate their low-level features, their relationships to other entities, etc. Otaku rooms also use the object in-themselves as indexes for them, often indicating their relationships to other media, franchises, brands, characters and other features of the object.

Sexy Videogameland: If You Run Out Of Ammo, You Can Have Mine

Sexy Videogameland: If You Run Out Of Ammo, You Can Have Mine: the perpetuation of a misguided notion.

Perhaps it is a mistake to focus on one post in order to diagnose a continuing delusion regarding videogames and the representation of women, but the timing was simply unavoidable: I had recently shown the 2nd episode of John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” and the way that he succinctly and tersely identifies the gender politics and the crisis of subjectivity at work in the tradition of the nude in oil painting makes it effortless to diagnose just what is wrong with the female avatar in game design.
There is a widespread presumption (especially among young consumers of popular culture) that the resolution to the problem of sexism in videogames and game culture and other pop culture forms is the so-called “strong female character,” the one that isn’t “passive,” that has “agency,” and, in the case of games, “kicks ass.” (Quotes taken from way too many undergraduates.) I had found it difficult to explain the inadequacy – even the wrong-headedness – of this approach, my perception that these depictions still ultimately served male vanities and played on female anxieties, and that the male game player – his needs, desires, and qualms – still was being overwhelmingly served in games that were supposedly being targeted to both men and women.
I realized that I could not think of a female avatar that had a male lover that was not, in some way, a player-surrogate. No matter how much ass a female character kicks, there is no one and nothing that obstructs the fantasy of her possession by the player – in fact, when the avatar is a female body, the “ass-kicking” aspect itself is partially that very occupation of the character by the (male) player.
This isn’t true for male characters, who have lovers, wives, girl-friends, love-objects: Dante has his Beatrice, Duke Nuke’m has scores of people, Gordon Freeman (implicitly) has Alyx Vance. Carl “CJ” Johnson has his girlfriends, Viewtiful Joe has Silvia, Solid Snake has Meryl Silverburgh, etc. But I can’t think of a corresponding list of love-interests for female-avatar/characters. Lara Croft has an ex- or two, but there is nothing between her and the player (odd how the film gets closer to giving her a love interest than any game does, as I recall.) The robust sexuality which Leigh Alexander praises in Bayonetta is predictable free and available. No real rival exists for the player’s affections for the character. (The closest thing to it in Bayonetta is conveniently sequestered to another dimension – and, arguably, may only have a role as a surrogate for the male player.) When the female character has a love interest, that love interest has to be made distant, ineffectual, phantasmic – in no way a substantial rival to the player’s need to possess the character.
This is what Berger noted about the nude: her nudity, her sexuality did not exist for herself, but for the owner/spectator of the painting. The nude flatters or teases the viewer, but their nudity and sexuality is not a reflection of their interiority, of their inner life, but only a reflection of the desires of the viewer. Because painting is a medium of stillness, the female nude is passive in painting. The fact that female objects of desire in games aren’t passive doesn’t change this formula, and in fact confirms it: their activity, ultimately, exists for the player, not in reference to the inner life of the character.
When I think of what approaches an exception in major commercial game titles, I come to an ironic position: that a character seen by many Westerners as the most excruciatingly hyper-feminized may actually be more liberatory and more substantial than the Lara Crofts and Bayonettas and other ass-kicking caricatures. Final Fantasy X’s Yuna, like many Square-Enix characters, is depicted (melodramatically, of course) as having a rich inner life. She doesn’t generally kick-ass, at least in the first Final Fantasy X title, but she is shown as being in the center of a profound moral and existential crisis (more so than the rather oblivious player-insertion character, Tidus.) Of course, she is still the love-interest of the avatar, not the player avatar herself. But in the sequel (which, against popular opinion, I actually loved – elsewhere I compare the transition between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 as a reflection of the transformation of Japan from a tragic figure of war to a comic figure of post-war consumer culture) the dynamics get more complicated. Yuna moves slightly-albeit with a certain arch distance-toward the “kick ass” cliche I bemoan as a caricature. Yet, at the same time, she is a character with a love interest (or even three)- the (conveniently phantasmal) Tidus, the “its-compicatedBaralai, and the atavistic Shuyin.
The device by which Tidus may or may not be united with Yuna is complicated – it requires a level of completion in gameplay that may be more than most players fulfill, and it requires the consent of the player to see “him” again. Yet there is little doubt in most players’ minds that the object of Yuna’s desires is not the player, and that most of her rather-restrained sexuality is essentially not available “for” the player (even if glimpses of her figure are served to the male gaze with the usual sense of obligation.)
The “femininity” of Yuna – understood more as a crisis of responsibility than as passivity – offers a contrast to the “ass-kicking” yet sexually available female avatars which dominate game representations, perhaps because it does not pretend to a Colbert-like “color blindness” about gender difference, sexual politics and desire.

On Chrome OS: private clouds.

Wired magazine’s Brian Chen echoes some pervasive skepticism on Google’s Chrome OS.

Why Google Should Cool It With Chrome OS

I think there’s been a kneejerk reaction to the announcement regarding the lack of support for hard-drives, and the cloud model. Generally, the objection is that the cloud lacks privacy, the cloud is unpredictable and unreliable, the cloud requires users to abdicate control over their own data, etc.

I see this as a failure of imagination regarding what computing is and can be, and what the cloud is and can be.

The “cloud” can include network addressable storage and other dedicated hardware to handle the storing and processing of data on site (whether it is buisness data in a data center or a media collection in a media server at home.) These devices can be made more or less available over firewalls, within LANs etc. What the Chrome OS model does is to turn the netbook into an I/O and display device, and nothing more.

In some ways, this is a fulfillment of the concept behind IPv6, and the collapse of the distinction between network I/O and device I/O. It has long been possible to access data one keeps at home or work through VPN tunneling, etc, but a framework for making this transparent and easily managed doesn’t exist yet. There is every reason to expect this framework to be a part of Chrome OS.

In other words, the only things I really need from my laptop are input devices (mouse, keyboard, camera, microphone) and output devices (display, speakers, audio jack, etc.) There is no reason for me to have my precious data sitting in the most vulnerable, most mobile devices in my own information-processing toolbox.