It is possible I am getting too old for this, but lets just pretend I went in with the wrong expectations. Introduced to me by new friend Matt, Famitsu Vol.1 was a chiptunes event held in my adopted hometown of Osaka. It was an interesting night but one filled with uncomfortable social encounters.
Walking in to the event I was caught off guard. Held at Club Drop in Namba, I was surprised to be greeted by a small well lit bar rather than the darkened hall I expected. Casting an eye down the bar first thing I noticed (with some dismay) was the plastic glasses that I would be drinking from for the rest of the night, the second thing I noticed was the clientele. Most of the patrons sat along the small bar clutching DSs self-consciously close to their face, warding off any would be personal interactions by remain locked to their personal electronic world.
It struck me as odd for an event that thrust like-minded individuals together to see so many of them completely oblivious to each other’s existence. As a life long gamer I understand the stigma associate with the hobby, the idea that all of us are socially inept loners who struggle with normal interactions, but I had never witnessed this phenomenon so acutely demonstrated. Arguably of course these portable gamers were being social, playing over Wi-Fi as they were this was not a solitary activity, but the general lack of communication left the experience seeming joyless to me as an onlooker (though I may just have been jealous I didn’t bring my DS).
Even if the portable players at the bar had wanted to talk it soon became apparent that they would struggle to over the blare of noise coming from the adjacent room. Glancing through the doors I was greeted by something more akin to my initial expectations for the event, a large darkened room where speech was made near impossible by the 8-bit electronica pumping out of speakers at volumes it was never intended to be played at.
Moving around this new room it became increasingly apparent that the event was intended as a meeting place for gamers rather than as a music venue, or at the very least it had been misappropriated as such. Around thirty people occupied the deafening room, most of who had their attention directed squarely at the five small televisions that sat in a circle in the centre of the room. Every generation of console was represented in this huddle with games littered across each of the squat tables the televisions rested on. Players massed around each system, orderly waiting their turn.
This was more social. While it may not have been quite the experience I had anticipated, it began to feel more familiar, like a really noisy arcade. People were yelling over the music and, while the wide gap left for people to dance in remained empty, within the huddle of gamers there was mingling and socializing.
Plonking myself down in front of Street Fighter 4 I picked up a pad. My rival sat confidently with his own Hori arcade stick. Having seen off numerous other opponents he had every reason for the self-assured grin that rested on his face as the drunken foreigner sat down next to him. His confidence was not misplaced, but I at least retained some small amount of dignity holding him to a three round to two victory. As I stood to leave my opponent offered me a warm smile and handshake that made me feel instantly more connect with the event. Fellow visitors insular nature that had seemed insurmountable and cold on arrival began to thaw, as this gaming camaraderie began to emerge.
Joining a group of three playing Mario Kart 64 I anticipated more of a challenge. With the small group evidently already friends I feared being ostracised, but they welcomed me openly, even pausing the game to remind me of the controls in broken English. We played a few games together, and as I slowly improved some member of our foursome dropped out to be replaced by other lingerers from around the room until I sat as the lone survivor of the earlier four. Realising how long I had been sat cross-legged in front of the old television, I stood and allowed another player to eagerly take my place.
It was a strange community, but one that was considerable more hospitable than impressions suggested, at least once the uncomfortable first hurdle had been crossed. Approaching people directly almost without exception lead to a self-conscious silence, but with the mediator of a controller and a TV something changed and relationships were easily established.
Beneath all of my dialogues (successful or not) there lay the pounding chiptune undercurrent. Now I like chiptunes but my exposure is limited, possibly due to 8-bit consoles low penetration in the UK. The result is an appreciation of the chiptune genre that comes from a love of gaming history rather than nostalgia. Problematically the historian in me seemed to struggle in a club setting where there was no escaping the (to be brutally honest) often-grating music.
Trying to listen to the distorted sounds coming from the speakers I began to wonder if my lack of interest was simply because I was lacking a point of reference. Frequently when listening to music I need an entry point, something I recognise to access and fully enjoy what I am hearing. Everything on offer at Club Drop, bar a few brief refrains, was alien to me. Tracks blended one into another seemingly without end, producing a sound similar to a harpsichord with angry bees inside. I tried to dance, alone, in the empty space to this cacophony of bleeps and white noise but found myself unable to match any of the oscillating beats.
Eventually I surrendered in my attempts to dance, moving back to the bar to look at the smattering of coz-players who had joined the party. Each looked a varying degree of embraced by their situation as few who had made effort. My previous encounters with coz-players had seen them congregated in large groups; here, isolated from the safety of numbers, they looked uncomfortable. Approaching a few of these costumed individuals I tried to tell them how good they looked. Each person I spoke to shrank from me with alarming speed, a speed I suspect was as much connected to their own discomfort as it was my size and whiteness. Settling for the quick ‘arigato’ each offered I retreated to the bar to save all involved further discomfort.
Back to the bar I assessed my situation. Slowly the club was filling. A few members of the ensemble stood on the dance floor trying (and failing) to pick out some form of beat from the DJs who were separated from their mostly indifferent audience by a white sheet with pixel art projected upon it. My options were simple, to stay and play games all night, paying too much for alcohol in plastic cups, or return home and play the same games with cheap alcohol from a glass. Despite the social nature some had shown I decided a dignified retreat was preferable to further stilted conversations and trying to teach people how to play Left 4 Dead.
I don’t know what I had expected going in to Club Drop, but what I found was a microcosm of an quiet community who, while shy, were welcoming to new comers. While the music may have not delivered what I had hoped, it provided an excuse to bring these individuals with a shared interest together. With any luck the next event in October will grow in size and the focus will shift towards a social meeting place for fans of gaming, with the music relegated to a more ambient level to set the mood, at least until every one is drunk.