Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Educational Value of Gaming - Sengoku

Sengoku Jidai by T Oliver Prescott on Grooveshark
It was one week ago, January 28th, that I attended my first, official college course since 2001. I am reluctant to admit that I was unprepared. The entire experience completely overwhelmed me physically and mentally. My first day of school greeted me with well over 200 pages of assigned reading to be finished by Wednesday. My classes didn't exactly ease me into this transition of being a full time student. I was thrust into it head first. I spent every free moment of my day reading (and taking notes) on this mountain of homework that I was given. Mixed in with that was the responsibility to find suitable daycare for my children and celebrating my daughter's fourth birthday (twice). I had every intention going into last week to put up a blog, but my hopes were dashed upon the rocks.

Darth Oda, Lord of the Sith
Unifier of Sengoku Period Japan
So here I am, now. I'm no longer a stay-at-home father with free time to burn on video games and blogging. I am a college student once more. My children started full-time daycare just yesterday and I miss them terribly while we are apart. The recent life-changing, tragic events of last fall give me no shortness of anxiety at handing over my remaining children to someone else's care and responsibility, but they themselves seem to enjoy it a great deal. It has been a complete upheaval of our life at home. It will be some time before we all adjust to the new routines of work, class and daycare. The good news, however, is that after the hectic week I had last week, my homework is going a lot smoother. It's easier to tackle in small chunks spread out over the course of the week than all at once within two days. With proper management, I even find time to play a few hours of games and write up my weekly blog. TOP Gaming can continue!

The most demanding class I'm taking is also the most exciting to me. It is a look at Japanese history starting at 1800 up to present day. The bulk of all the reading assignments come from this course, but the content is extremely fascinating to me. When I was a student back in 1999-2001, I was a Japanese language and culture major, but I never got around to taking any history classes in the short time I attended. That means I have a basic level knowledge of much of this history, but I've never actually read about most of it in depth. I find that I still have a sincere interest in the Japanese people and their history. Although the class is focused on the year 1800 and beyond, I decided to do a bit of extra reading about the events leading up to the Tokugawa Shogunate which was in place in 1800. I wanted to read what the history text had to say about Sengoku jidai - the Warring States period of Japan.

During this time there is over a hundred years of civil war until the eventual unification of Japan by Tokugawa Ieyasu (building off of his predecessors' and allies' efforts) which ushered in 200 years of peace and prosperity for the country. As I was reading through all the information about Japan's most turbulent time, fraught with constant military campaigns between rival warlords, I realized that I was pretty familiar with most of the major players and events, despite never having touched a history textbook on the subject. The Sengoku jidai is arguably one of the most popular events in Japanese history and it is retold over and over in film, anime and video games. It's through these literary mediums that I learned so much about this time period.

In Sengoku Japan, Pokémon catch you.
It was odd for me to be reading about historical figures such as Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi with images of a recent Pokémon game I was addicted to flashing into my head. I'm speaking of the game known as Pokémon Conquest in North America, but Pokémon + Nobunaga's Ambition in Japan. It's a cross over that takes the Sengoku jidai and slaps it into the Pokémon world. Samurai warlords staging epic battles with Pokémon companions - could there be a better game? Probably, but it's pretty good. At any rate, it's a strange world where you are reading a history text, but associate the names to characters in a game. I thought about how odd all of this was and began to trace back my personal history with video games and the Sengoku jidai.

This is how I like to picture Myamoto Musashi in 1612.
I believe it was the great company Squaresoft who introduced me to concepts of bushido (the samurai code of honor) with their game Bushido Blade in 1997. This game is about samurai in a modern setting and has nothing to do with any historical samurai conflicts that I'm aware of, but I learned a great deal about samurai, their code of honor, and various weapons from this game. In 1998, another game about samurai was released called Brave Fencer Musashi which also had almost nothing to do with the Warring States period of Japanese history, but it did borrow some of the legends of that time period. This game introduced me to Miyamoto Musashi (and his rivalry with Sasaki Kojiro) even though the game was cast in a completely fictional world. I knew somehow that it was drawing on real historical-mythology. Although Musashi was not a warlord, he was perphaps the most famous ronin samurai (akin to "freelancer" for our purposes) of all time and author of The Book of Five Rings which is still significant to this day.

This all began to snowball in conjunction with my growing love for anime into an increasing awareness of samurai history and culture. The interest in Musashi drew me in to a deeper understanding of a comic series I had loved since I was a boy, Usagi Yojimbo. In turn, this led me to various works of Kurosawa Akira, legendary Japanese film director responsible for Seven Samurai among other great works. Kurosawa's films about samurai cultured a deep love for the video game Way of the Samurai and its sequels which are told in styles very similar to a Kurosawa film - with multiple endings and various perspectives on your enemies depending on how you play through it. Way of the Samurai led to an introduction to the Meiji period, which is the end of the samurai as a ruling class (something we'll be discussing in class in the coming week or two) and the anime Rurouni Kenshin.

Shogun: Total War was given to me as a gift from my father in 2000 when I was a student of Japanese in college originally. The gift was important because it marked the end of a long-standing grudge my father was holding against me regarding giving me computer software and hardware. It was also touching because it was an unspoken support and acknowledgement of my interest in Japan, and given to me on a medium I'm sure he knew I would enjoy - video games. I've said before that I'm a complete "noob" when it comes to the real-time simulated battles of the "Total War" series, but despite that this game was my first foray into real historical simulation in Japanese history, incidentally simulating the Sengoku jidai. I soon learned that if I pushed "Auto-Resolve" through the actual battles (which almost defeats the purpose of the meat and potatoes portion of the game) I could focus on what I was much better at - the strategic overlay of troops and logistics. Not unlike the "Civilization" series, Shogun: Total War allowed me to build up my infrastructures, train troops and march them into my rivals' domains to unify Japan under my banner.

Did I mention my favorite board game is Risk?
I'm trying to illustrate how a simple interest can explode into your major field of study in college, as well as how much you can learn from video games if you pursue you interests within them. It's amazing how much I learned even based on fictional pieces of work set in the background of Japanese history. I learn that Oda Nobunaga was ruthless in his quest for dominance over the landscape of Japan, but ultimately left his conquest to one of his primary vassals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It was practically usurped from his heir, Hideyori, by Ieyasu Tokugawa (another right-hand man of Nobunaga) who managed to solidify control and usher in an era of peace for hundreds of years. These basic concepts are familiar to me because of what I learned from playing video games and I'm surprised just how much so.


Here's a few other games that got me swept up in Japanese (samurai) history:

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