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Pokémon and international politics?

Go to enough conferences and, if you’re lucky, eventually you’ll meet most of the people you’ve admired from afar. I’ve wanted to meet Mimi Ito for years – I’ve admired her research on mobile phone culture in Japan and have been keeping an eye on her research on youth culture, some of which intersects with fellow fellow danah boyd‘s youth and tech work. Mimi and I were on a panel together at a meeting earlier this week – that event was, unfortunately, off-blog, but Mimi was good enough to let me post some notes about her talk and the conversation she and I had afterwards.

Mimi’s talk focused on the “Post-Pokémon” era of Japanese – and global – youth media. She identifies Pokémon as a media form that has defined the current framework, laying the groundwork for peer-to-peer communication and creation of media. While the current generation has outgrown Pokémon, the game franchise shaped how global youth think about culture and gaming. It linked analog and digital media, she proposes, by creating an electronic game that later manifested as a collectible card game, manga, anime, toys and other media. It put portability at the center of the media mix, and helped establish Japanese media content as a transnational source of cultural capital.

Mimi argues that we can think of Pokémon as “training wheels for participation in network geek culture.” The obsessive detail of Pokémon – according to Wikipedia, 493 fictional species of creatures have made their appearance in the franchise so far – introduces fans to the joys of complexity and specialized knowledge that characterizes otaku culture. When groups of kids gather around a Pokemon game, Mimi observes, they end up sharing extremely complex knowledge about the universe, and engage in self-expression through their play of the game, which invites players to choose strategies that reflect their personal style.

She sees a generation of kids engaging in a set of cultural practices – cutting, pasting, linking and forwarding in spaces like MySpace – that she believes are learned, in part, from media like Pokémon. She suggests that we can see a change in identity, network scale and exchange systems that reflect post-Pokémon culture. Individual identity is no longer consumer or producer – there’s a middle ground that includes connoisseur and amateur. Networks are no longer mass media or purely personal communication – there are community networks that allow communication about niche interests to a large population. And exchange systems now go beyond commodity and gift cultures to include a variety of local, niche and grey markets. (She offers the intriguing insight that we might consider political communication in terms of these new middleground possibilities.)

It’s a little harder to see some of the effects Mimi studies from looking solely at Pokémon – she points us to Naruto, an enormously popular manga book that became an anime series, capturing attention within and outside Japan in the past few years. Naruto’s popularity in the US is due almost exclusively to the “fansub” community, individuals who’ve added English (and other) language subtitles to the Japanese episodes and released via the internet to other fans.

The work done by the fan community is of impressively high quality and speed – fan substitles are usually distributed to new episodes within 24 hours of their release, and networks recuit members based not just on their skills but their location, so that production cycles can take advantage of time differences to produce works rapidly. Fans acquire impressive skills to participate, learning to edit video and sometimes learning Japanese so they can be key participants. Communities like narutofan.com boast over two million members. Media companies aren’t unaware of this obsessive fandom – their release cycles and their localization of content into different languages often reflects producers watching fan behavior.

Making the case that fan behavior is also creative behavior, Mimi shows us a series of anime music videos produced by the fan community, including the brilliant “The Narutrix Reninja’d”, which recuts the trailer of “The Matrix Reloaded” using footage from Naruto anime. (It’s brilliant. Watch the Matrix trailer first, then the AMV to understand the sheer beauty.) The Matrix itself is something of a remix, an American film that borrows heavily from the cliches of Japanese and Chinese action films – remixed with anime, it’s a veritable stew of common cultural reference points shared by US, Japanese and other media fans. We’re beginning to see a “transnational pool of cultural identity, released from national identities – deoderized,” so that the references are no longer obviously Japanese, US or from any other specific culture.

This post-Pokémon generation is “crafting niche culture from global media flow.” In the process, Mimi sees three trends taking place:

– a ping-pong back and forth between US and Japanese culture, informing the mass communication aesthetic

– a mainstreaming of the otaku aesthetic, a fondness for arcane, complex, richly detailed worlds (think of the popularity of the absurdly detailed universe of Harry Potter, for instance)

– remix as a method of localizing and “talking back” to mainstream media.

All well and good, but what does Mimi’s work have to do with my own? (That’s a question at least two thirds of the audience found themselves asking when my presentation – about hacking technology to localize it for developing world environments – followed directly on the heels of her talk.) Well, we’re both very interested in international groups brought together by the web… or to use Mimi’s terminology, “intentional midscale networks that span distance”. The communities she’s interested in are united both by their love of a particular media universe and by “shared joint projects”.

These shared projects apparently can form powerful bonds between people who’ve never met face to face. Participants in multiplayer games like World of Warcraft develop powerful obligations to the people they adventure with, making massive time commitments to their guild members. (Just try getting your buddy to watch a football game with you on his raid night.) Mimi tells stories of fansubbers raising money to travel to Japan for the first time and interacting with a ready-made community of people engaged in the same fandom.

So here’s a question – does participation in these international joint projects turn into a more generalized form of xenophilia? Do American fans of anime develop a generalized fascination with Japan, which somehow expands from watching Naruto to watching global politics?

This is an interesting question for those of us who are interested in recruiting more people into the ranks of global citizens. Bicultural people like Mimi seem to have a natural advantage – growing up in more than one nation immunizes many people to the bad habit of assuming one’s culture is the dominant culture. Falling in love across cultural lines works well, too – marry someone from another culture and you have a strong chance of developing a fascination with that person’s culture as well. And plane tickets are surprisingly effective in producing xenophiles, as we discovered with Geekcorps (and previous generations had discovered with the Peace Corps and other cross-cultural programs.) But it’s expensive to put millions of people on airplanes to work and live in other countries, and probably unethical to force everyone to marry someone who grew up speaking a different language.

One of the utopian hopes for the Internet is that it would help bring users into contact with people from other nations simply because we’re all connected to one another. But parochialism is a powerful force, and it’s pretty easy to spend years online without encountering content outside your own language and culture (especially if you’re an English speaker.) Shared joint projects that cross cultural lines are an exception rather than a rule, but they’re an intriguing hint that shared practice can create bonds that are difficult to create otherwise.

Global Voices has been a fascinating lesson in the power of shared practice and joint projects. When we convened the first Global Voices meeting in December 2004, I was amazed at how rapidly bloggers formed friendships across cultural lines. Subsequent Global Voices gatherings have tended to turn into a series of group dinners, drinking sessions and shared sightseeing trips that go a long way to producing lasting ties between people from different nations, as well as the group trust that allows us to maintain a huge global project with almost no person to person contact on a daily basis.

It’s unfair to draw general conclusions from Global Voices, though – almost everyone participating in the project is a committed globalist, interested in other countries, global politics and news. What would be exciting to me is if practices like fansubbing help create this same sort of intercultural capital… which helps explain why I’m following the work of scholars like Mimi Ito very closely.

2 thoughts on “Pokémon and international politics?”

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