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  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 7: “A Well-Adjusted World”

    Posted on September 15th, 2009 keving 2 comments

    akihabara7-1

    “You were never part of it in the first place. Besides, could you really say the game industry had it right, ever? Every hardware maker having their own network? No synchronization between development and sales? Huge gluts of titles; top-brand games all coming out at the same time and eating into each other’s profits? There’s a lot to gain from stabilizing distribution, even if means a little more regulation than what they had before. The industry’s never enjoyed anything like it. A lot of them are looking forward to it.”

    Here is chapter seven (“A Well-Adjusted World”) of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa between 2002 and 2004. You’ll want to start at chapter one if you’re new to the tale.

    The move to regulate and control games and otaku culture, a mission led by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, is rapidly approaching its final stages. Secretly, behind the spotlights, the government has acted to take over game distribution, the central core that makes entertainment an economically viable industry. Ryohei Takamizawa, the hero, has made contact with Saeko Kanoura, an informant (?) within the ministry, to get to the bottom of this operation.

    Happy readin’.

    Akihabara Station, located halfway between Tokyo and Ueno on the Yamanote Line as it crosses the Sobu Main Line. The nearby Suda-cho, with Manseibashi Station (current home of the Transportation Museum) at its center, was once a prosperous neighborhood in Tokyo, but World War II razed the city to the ground all the way up to Ueno. Afterward, the area from Ueno to Kanda became the center of the city’s postwar black market, a position it enjoyed until the GHQ banned open-air markets in the area in 1949 and moved the merchants to a stretch of land by the guardrail around Akihabara Station. This led to the creation of the Kanda Seika Market and the first bout of redevelopment the Akihabara area experienced since the war.

    Electronic stores had been a common sight in Akihabara since the Suda-cho days, but due to Korean War demand for precision electric parts and a boom in radio sales after the airwaves were privatized in 1951, the neighborhood soon became just as known for its “electric town” as for Kanda Seika’s produce. As popular demand shifted from radios to TVs and computers, Akihabara established itself right at the center of each boom, building itself up to become one of the world’s most well-known electronic marketplaces.

    That’s the basic history of Akihabara they’ll tell you about in the guidebooks. But starting in the 21st century, game shops swarmed over the electronics outlets, accompanied by doujin stores, otaku goods resellers, and even maid cafes. From across the country and around the world, people came to visit this “otaku holy land.” It’s a byway of history that few people know about nowadays.

    Getting off the Yamanote Line and crossing the turnstile, I began to wonder when they start playing that Sato Musen theme song in the morning. It greeted me upon exiting the station, the way it always does. I had no doubt that it had wriggled its way into the minds of thousands, becoming the de-facto Akihabara anthem.

    “There you are.” A woman in glasses and a business suit greeted me. Her long, attractive hair was the first thing I noticed. It was safe to call her more than a little beautiful. “You look so out of place here, now that it’s back to being a straight ‘electric town.’ I could tell right off.”
    “You from the ministry?”
    “Yes. Saeko Kanoura, your friend and your enemy. Who’s that with you…?” She turned her eyes to the little girl standing next to me. She insisted on coming along, and every attempt I made to lose her or drive her off had proven fruitless.

    “Oh, is she…?”
    “My name’s Sana. I’m his sister. We work together!”
    “That’s your name?” I whispered to her.
    “Maybe.”

    “That’s a nice cover; having a kid with you,” Saeko said. “We’d better get moving.” She walked on, apparently satisfied. Maybe she didn’t see the point in prying any further.

    “The guy who runs Sofmap 666 sent me to you…” I began.
    “I heard. They want to know how far our plan’s proceeded, don’t they?”
    “I guess. Something about starting to regulate the distribution of all forms of entertainment? Not just games?”

    It was not the most well-advised conversational choice. You never knew who might be listening nearby. That’s why I was surprised to see Saeko answer me, apparently unfazed. “Starting…or finished, I suppose,” she said. “It’s not like we needed any new legislation to enforce it. We’ve made contact with all of the relevant corporations. Now all that’s left to do is wait for them to establish a distribution network that fits our needs.”
    “So it’s too late for us to say anything?”
    “You were never part of it in the first place. Besides, could you really say the game industry had it right, ever? Every hardware maker having their own network? No synchronization between development and sales? Huge gluts of titles; top-brand games all coming out at the same time and eating into each other’s profits? There’s a lot to gain from stabilizing distribution, even if means a little more regulation than what they had before. The industry’s never enjoyed anything like it. A lot of them are looking forward to it.”

    “So the entire culture’s going to be wrapped around your finger?”
    “Oh, we’re not doing anything that arrogant. If anything, we should be thanked for lending all of them a hand; for not throwing them to the gutter.”
    “Thanked?”
    “Of course. Look, the sun was setting on the game business even by the turn of the millennium. Everybody knew it. From 1999 to 2002, the size of the entire toy marketplace remained stuck at around 700 billion yen per year — and yet, after reaching a peak of 186 billion yen in 2000, the game industry shrank down to 150 billion in 2001 and 100 billion in 2002. The toy market’s stayed flat, but games have been in freefall. That’s the truth, and you can’t explain it away with the recession alone.”

    “Well, yeah — that’s how it was. But how does that connect to clamping down on our culture at this point?”
    “Maybe you won’t believe this, but we love games. We love their culture.”
    “Then why are you taking away their freedom?”
    “If this was just someone’s side hobby, you could go on about freedom all you want. But if a 100-billion-yen-per-year business wants to delude itself about freedom, then it needs to build a sense of responsibility for itself. It needs to take care of its own business.”
    “Its own business?”
    “For example, there was a scientist who went on about “Game Brain” and how playing games could affect kids’ nervous systems. The game media didn’t even try to directly address the issue. They just kept going on like they always do, how it’s all the fault of parents for treating video games like a day-care center for their kids. Even if the game-brain theory didn’t have any merit, it still needed to be directly addressed by the industry, with its own studies. They never made a single effort to improve their image in society. Even with the Child Pornography Act — hardly anyone in the industry lifted a finger against it. Video games get brought up as a menace to society time and time again, and the industry responds by dodging the subject, by putting their hands to their ears and waiting for it to go away.”

    “You’re the ones who brought the issue to them.”
    “Yes. Yes, we did work against them — to lower their position and bring them under our control. But to put it bluntly, they’re getting what they deserved. I don’t have sympathy for any of them. Isn’t is funny, how unhealthy the marketplace is? The industry is shrinking, and yet gamers are expected to pay more and more. There was a time when games were so packed with hidden features and gimmicks that there was no way you could beat them by themselves.”
    “But figuring them out is part of the fun, isn’t it?”
    “There are limits to the amount of frustration a human being can deal with in the name of fun, you know. That’s what strategy guides are for, but somewhere along the line they became these huge, thick, full-color books, and the prices for them went up, up, up. A game would cost around 5000 yen and the book set required to beat them cost another 3000. It was ridiculous.”

    I continued listening to her, unable to decide if she was telling the truth or not. I had no idea what the game industry was like in the age she was talking about.

    akihabara7-2“Why did strategy guides get so bloated? It all came down to rightsholders. Game publishers make profits off royalties, and the more expensive the strategy guides, the more royalties they make. The same deal with the guide publishers; the same deal with the editors and production houses that make the books. Isn’t it interesting how most people involved with strategy guides were also involved with game magazines? The longer they spend in the business, the fewer positions become available for them to advance into. So they went freelance instead, but most of them just wound up contributing to their old media contacts in the end. And when you’re working in that field, there’s no sweeter business than editing a strategy guide. To get that kind of job, you needed the right kind of contacts. It’s just like how city hall gives a sweet public-works contract to a construction firm in exchange for setting up government bureaucrats with high-paying jobs in the company. The whole thing got more bloated with every year, and it’s always the gamers who footed the bill. You see examples like this everywhere in the chain, between publishers and freelancers and between distributors and sellers. It’s not a bad thing. There are parallels you can see with every industry. But the game industry’s still young; it’s been expanding without any serious thought put into the expansion. And as a result, it’s gotten bloated. That’s the problem. The marketplace had shrunk, but the expenses behind games have grown and grown.”
    “Well, didn’t they try to do anything about that?”
    “I’m sure they must have. But it’s hard to change the system if your job’s not in immediate danger. It was the same deal with the construction industry. Someone from the outside needed to place pressure on them.”
    “And that’s what you’re doing?”
    “Yes. As devoted fans of the game industry.”

    I was not enjoying this. It was difficult to put into words, but I felt like I was being conned into something I couldn’t agree with. But she was probably correct — at least, from the perspective of her world.

    There had to be some other perspective. There had to all kinds of rebuttals to her one-sided accusations. But I didn’t have the knowledge, or the deep-seated love of games, to bring any up.

    “Either way,” she continued, “our efforts to regulate and revitalize the game industry have come to a close. We aren’t stupid enough to let people like you stick your hands into this. I’m sorry to tell you, but the days when you were just a bunch of nerds screwing around with each other are over. This neighborhood used to be a symbol of that era, but you can’t linger over the past for the rest of your lives.”

    Did she come here to lay down a death sentence upon all of us? Her eyes looked a little too sad for that as she looked over the neon lights of the electric town. “I need to get going,” she said. “I need to say goodbye to the phantoms of Akihabara and their endless pangs of nostalgia.”

    To be continued

     

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