Press Start opens academic dialogue on video games

Playing Mario Kart to avoid studying is a well-known student activity, but video games aren't yet recognized by the academic community. Press Start conference aimed to change that.

Press Start, a conference on Japanese gaming being held this weekend by the UBC Centre for Japanese Research (CJR) intended to remedy the absence of video games in academic discourse through meaningful discussion by both academics and members of the industry alike.

With representatives from major video game companies such as Sega, Capcom and Bandai Namco attending, plenty of topics were presented. Topics include gender issues within Japanese video games, as well common traits they share with other Japanese pop-culture mediums.

Professor Sharalyn Orbaugh with the department of asian studies and the institute for gender, race, sexuality and social justice, is expected to join the discussion panels at the conference. Though not a gamer herself, Orbaugh admits that she has been heavily interested in the gaming industry since its rise, particularly with its interactive aspects.

“I feel very strongly that when people are reading [or watching a movie] narrative that it actually changes them, it changes the way they think, the way they understand the world,” said Orbaugh.

“The interesting part about gaming is that people are actually doing it themselves and so it’s much easier to imagine a connection between what they’re doing in a game and what happens in their brain [and perhaps] change the way in how they see the world.”

This kind of interest from both gamers and non-gamers alike was one of the main reasons the project came to fruition, particularly at UBC.

“The idea for the conference was [to] bring together parts of UBC that were normally not in conversation with each other, that was the basic motivation,” said Christina Laffin, co-director of the CJR and the project director for Press Start. “I thought if we have a topic that brings all these separate parts of the university together [then] it will be a much more interesting and compelling conference … it didn’t have to be gaming for that to happen but it seemed both timely and appropriate.”

According to Laffin, with plenty of companies from Japan branching out along West Coast such as Capcom, and Sega, gaming itself has been a significant inspiration for many students, regardless of major.

“Many of them would like to work in the industry as writers, editors, in helping development of content,” said Laffin. “They’re not necessarily programmers … but they want to work in related fields.”

More importantly, both organizers and panelists hope that the conference would help bring gaming to academia as currently the medium is still underestimated in that sense.

“They think it’s a waste of time … and I don’t think they understand how complex and rich a lot of them are,” said Orbaugh, being reminded of the same issue that plagued anime and manga in terms of scholarly work. “It took us years to get anime taken seriously as a subject of study…. Still now it’s harder for people to get it seriously.”

PhD candidate and project coordinator Ben Whaley, an avid gamer himself, shares the same sentiment. “In Japan Studies, many scholars focus on the importance or expressive power of manga and anime but few pay the same sort of attention to video games. This has always struck me as odd given Japan’s huge contribution to the medium,” Whaley said. “We need to bring games into the classroom and into academic conferences so we can discuss all the myriad ways this wonderful medium can teach.”

In any event, Laffin and Whaley hope that with this conference, more companies and universities can join discussions in the future. “I think we also need 'think tanks' or 'do tanks' like the Asian Pacific Foundation to be also involved,” said Laffin. “As a topic, it concerns not just industry, not just scholars or academics but also government because that’s a really crucial length for the companies here.”

“We [hope] to strengthen ties between the university and the many game companies that make their home in our province,” said Whaley. “B.C. is a major hub for video game creation on the west coast and it’s high time we looked to forging bonds with these industries.”