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July 18, 2006 |

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The big hit game of the season for location based entertainment is Oshare Majo Love and Ruby (Fashion Magic Girls Love and Ruby), a game based on collecting fashion items and dance performance. Girls show up at gaming centers armed with binders fulll of cards depicting different fashion items. After inserting their 100 yen coin, the girls get a new card from the machine to add to their collection. They then swipe cards into the machines to dress up the characters, and pick a place to dance and show of their fashions, banging a tambourine in time to the dance beat to try to get a better score than their rivals. Seeing little girls lined up in front of arcade machines is an intriguing new chapter in the ongoing gender politics of gaming.

On the next aisle over, the Mushiking machines spit out cards with different beetles to match up in battle, and kids insert little chips into the Rockman machines to mobilize virtual fighters. All of the most popular machines on the floor involve interfacing between kids’ personal collections of portable objects (mostly cards) and the location based systems where they can both play with other kids and get more cards and chips for their collections.

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Of course there is also a Tamogotchi machine where you get cards AND can beam information to and from your little portable pet. All of this is endlessly interesting as examples of how portable objects are interfacing with urban infrastructures. I came to Japan with a plan to study purikura as a case study of how mobile phones are interfacing with location based entertainment. But I discovered that much much more is happening in this space. The interface between arcade machines and little objects that you can carry home with you seems to be the formula of the day in state of the art Japanese location based entertainment. Whether those objects are little sticker pictures, prizes from UFO catchers (which take up the most floor space at the game center we frequent) or the card/chip game machines, Japanese arcade game designers seem to be banking on the fact that people want to both bring a piece of themselves and leave with new little objects as mementos of their time on the floor.

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What I find interesting about these new developments is the way in which designers are getting smarter about how to bring location based technologies back into the picture in an era of mobile and portable technologies. I’ve been watching how young people have been personalizing their relationship to environments by carrying their identities and social networks around with them, in the form of game devices, cards, purikura albums, and mobile phones. Now these personalized information systems can interface with location based entertainment experiences in ways that are more synergistic. It is not about just appropriating a corner of a game parlour to set up a card duel, but the location itself supports the competition and collection of personalized media systems. Even more conventional arcade games like Mario Cart or the Gundam games allow players to create IC cards to track their progress through the game. Maybe arcade game designers have realized that the only way they can compete with the personalized gaming experiences of MMORPGs and home consoles is by providing fetish objects and embodied social gaming experience that really takes advantage of the physical properties of place.