I am deeply excited for this one, the 2nd Annual Japanese Game Studies Conference. The line-up sounds fascinating and this will be my first Japanese dedicated game con! I will be using this as an opportunity to exercise some of the material from my monograph in progress and giving a talk entitled: Soft(ware) Power: Animal Crossing as a Persuasive & Affective Kawaii Game.
Kawaii, or cute, aesthetics are frequently described in terms of their capacity to elicit emotional responses (Kinsella 1995, Ngai 2005, Cheok & Fernando 2011). The affective potential of cuteness straddles disciplines from sociology and anthropology (Sherman & Haidt 2011, Lorenz 1971, Yano 2013); the humanities (Ngai 2005, Harman 2005); and cultural studies and the arts (Allison 2005, Harris 2004, Richards 2001). Recently this discussion has been picked up by HCI scholars (Cheok & Fernando 2011) as an affective computing strategy to apply to design. Kawaii has also historically been framed as a form of play (Allison 2006, Ngai 2005, Yano 2013). As part of a larger, on-going project I contemplate both these themes through the analysis of videogames. In this paper I will use the case study of Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Nintendo 2012) to discuss the emotive power of cuteness and interrogate the ‘playfulness’ of the aesthetic.
Through the example of this cute life simulation game I will focus on kawaii’s ability to convey and evoke pity. This is an emotional layer of cute which is under discussed if not entirely ignored in the literature. The relationship between cute and pitiful is both etymological and conceptual, as Sharon Kinsella (1995) says: “Kawaii is a derivation of a term whose principle meaning was ‘shy’ or ‘embarrassed’ and secondary meanings were ‘pathetic’, ‘vulnerable’…” (Kinsella 1995, 221-222). Kawaii characters are often pitiful in some measure, they achieve this through the expression of weakness, a lack or ability or experience or vulnerability. Quintessential cutie Tarepanda (lazy panda) embodies the pitiful cute. He is cute precisely because he wears a sad, droopy expression, he is often depicted in a struggle either slumped over some food or stuck in an awkward position. He has a bloated body with dumpy limbs which he does not use and instead only moves by rolling slowly around. The pitiful aspect of cuteness is crucial to the conjuring of emotions and particularly effective at instilling a desire to care for the cute pitiful thing.
Animal Crossing is particularly effective at producing this dynamic. Referring to my personal and group play experience over a six month period I will reflect on the ways in which the pitiful kawaii characters which inhabit the game are persuasive, encouraging the player to care for them emotionally and ludicly as the afforded interactions are generally representational caregiving exercises and maintenance type activities. The emotionally ladened persuasive power of cuteness resonates with the idea of ‘soft power,’ a term which is evoked frequently in reference to Japanese popular culture and a strategy of design which Christine R. Yano (2013) associates with kawaii as a persuasive and even political tool. Extensionally, I will argue that Animal Crossing fosters play with cuteness that is better understood as affective labour or what Julian Kücklich (2005) terms ‘playbour,’ a result which forces into focus kawaii’s easy synonymy with play.