Kulturelle Codes:
Creating Cultural Correctnesss in Cyberspace

Machiko Kusahara

Reality for Cyberspace

Only a few years ago, lack of reality was a feature of virtual reality. Some people even liked it, thinking it was cool. Others hated it and thought we needed more realistic 3D real time graphics to be immersed into cyberspace. Now we can enjoy fairly realistic images thanks to the technical development. So, how is our virtual world now? Are we all immersed in technology?

History of science tells us that it is only when a technology reaches to certain level when next problems or viewpoints show up. They had been invisible behind technical obstacles. In realizing virtual reality, many had thought it was because of the insufficient technical development that the cyberspace looked odd. But now it is the time to examine what is the real key issue about creating a virtual environment, and the influence it gives back to us.

The goal of current digital technology for image creation is based on the long history of art and science in the West; effort for accurate representation of the world. But it is not the only possibility in creating a virtual world. There are other societies, other cultures where people look at and illustrate the world differently. In such cultures the whole system of vision and cognition is built according to such logic. We don't necessarily make a precise copy of our real world onto our cyberspace.

In this paper I will deal mainly with digital entertainment rather than art, because it is the field where the cultural influence is more clearly observed.

Different Space/Time - Different Life

In the year 1997, A-Life games such as Tamagotchi and Pocket Monsters made smash hits in Japan while "Princess Mononoke", an animation title by Hayao Miyazaki renewed all the box sales records of films in Japan. A cult animation film "Evangelion" which was shown slightly earlier brought what was called "Evangelion phenomenon" among young generation. The rise of A-life games is a reflection of Japanese culture in the digital era. Japanese animation (JAPANIMATION) is another interpretation of our culture through technology. The way JAPANIMATION deals with the image strongly reflects Japanese tradition in painting, as will be described later. But it also reflects our way of looking at motion as well. Furthermore, these animation films have controversial stories, which was the key issue why they are so impressive compared to other animation films. As a typical situation in films, the story tells about the conflicts between two parties, in either of the above mentioned films. But there is no good or bad, right or wrong; quite different from Hollywood animation films. Everyone has one's own reason. This is a very strong reflection of Japanese society in story telling. To tell such a complicated story and maintain the sense of reality among audience is not easy for an animation film. It is not a coincidence that these two titles were the first major Japanese animation films that used digital technology.

Visual Reality?

Japanese/Korean/Chinese culture had developed a different language in perception and representation of time/space, shape/shadow, and objective/subjective view. For example, perspective drawing did not appear in these countries before the idea was brought from Europe. It is the same with shading and the use of shadow. Instead, subjective importance defined size and intensity of objects in traditional paintings. When shading was introduced to Japan about 150 years ago, the effect looked so alien to Japanese eyes that illustrators started using shading to draw evil characters. These facts show that what people take granted is not necessarily so.

Such tradition underlies in Japanese comics, animation and games, which is the basis of digital entertainment. Flexible use of space in comics coincides with the traditional picture rolls where events in different time-space can be painted on a same scene. The flat expression of characters looks familiar to Japanese eyes rather than a realistic portrait. This will explain why 2D animation became so popular in Japan.

In short, Asians did not develop visual realism in European sense. It is the same with choreography or animation. Recent use of Bunraku (Japanese marionette) interface or choreography in the motion design (instead of using motion capture) for virtual characters were brought through such observations. On the other hand, polygon-based computer games require more realistic representation of space and figure. Game directors are trying to figure out the best mix of reality for Japanese users.

Virtual Life

Relationship between human beings and other creatures also differs from that in Europe mainly because of historically different religious background. Darwin could not be a danger in Japan. Virtual creatures such as Tamagotchi is a natural consequence of Japanese tradition. This also explains why certain kind of mechanical android/robot stories are so popular in Japanese animation. The mobile suit of GUNDAM and the organic machine EVE in "Evangelion" are typical examples. (Also, it is strongly connected to the gender issue in Japan. "Evangelion" gives an interesting example.) The idea of human body integrated into a robot vehicle does not sound extremely strange for Japanese kids.

Meanwhile, the blurred boundary between real and virtual life brings another problem. Some kids take the death of the virtual pets seriously while others "reset" virtual pets frequently. This brought a new business on the "after-life" of virtual pets.

Bandai opened "Tamagotch's graveyard" on the internet. "Angel's Tamagotch" was developed to save the sorrowful kids, but also to make more business. "Networking Tamagotch" was another solution for the "death" of virtual pets. But the most interesting idea came from Sony Computer, with its mailing software named "PostPet". "PostPet" was conceived by artist Kazuhiko Hachiya and was co-developed with Sony Computer. The concept clearly reflects what Hachiya has been doing through projects such as "Mega Diary" or "InterDiscommunication Machine". "PostPet" is a playful, anti-practical email software. You keep a pet in a virtual room on your desktop and take care of them. It will deliver your email, but would not come back soon because it starts playing with its friend, i.e. the pet of your friend. While your pet is out you can't send the next email.

When your pet dies it goes to PostPet Park, where only the member of Sony Computer Network can make a visit. Fun and business is cleverly combined, with artistic concept and pop design.

Why in Japan?

When we think of the realistic avatars in European network community such as "The Second World " , the simplicity of such characters in Japanese cyberspace gives an advantage in terms of data volume and calculation speed. Tamagotch can be run on a wrist-watch size game machine because the figure is so simple. Yet Japanese kids (and even grown-ups) find enough amount of reality in these creatures. Once it was developed in Japan and exported, we found that many American and European kids loved them as well. However, from what I have described, it would have been difficult for a western game maker to develop such game and bring it to the market, because they are still bound to the western traditional idea of the reality. What provoke us a sense of reality, a sense of immersion is different according to each culture. It is not that the pursuit of visual reality is right or wrong. ( Or am I too Japanese to say that?) By examining different cultures, we might be able to have a much richer possibilities in our cyberspace.

Machiko Kusahara ist Associate Professor of Media Study an der Kobe University, Japan