Have you ever lined up before a store opens to get a game on release day? Or, maybe you went to a videogame convention and visited the booth for a developer you like or a game that’s coming out soon. It’s exciting to be surrounded by others who share your interests, and on top of that, your favorite franchise is there in physical form! Whether it’s professional cosplayers manning a convention booth or just cool displays at GameStop, it’s such a bonus to see the games you’re so invested in suddenly jump from the screen into the real world.
Now imagine if you could experience that kind of thing on pretty much any given Tuesday at your local mall—or at worst, the big mall across town. You don’t have to buy a weekend pass, reserve a hotel room, or drive eight hours to another state. You can just head over whenever you want and enjoy the atmosphere (and the limited-edition goods).
From what I’ve seen in my time in Japan, pop-up shops, themed cafes, and character events are a regular part of daily life across the country. If you live in or near a decent-sized city, a short train ride will likely take you to a pop-up shop where you can buy related merchandise and meet other fans. In a month or two it’ll close down and be replaced with another temporary store for another game or show or movie. And if you live in Tokyo? There are permanent stores and restaurants dedicated to popular franchises and developers.
It’s true that a major issues holding this kind of thing back in America is just the size of the country. Even in major cities, the population density isn’t high enough to make it worthwhile. It’s one thing to take a twenty-minute train ride to get to the other side of town, and it’s another thing to have to drive for an hour. The stigma against gaming has faded in recent years, but the average fan still isn’t motivated enough to invest additional time and energy (and money) into the games they play. There are fewer fans within a reasonable distance, and the fans that are nearby likely aren’t as interested.
However, I feel like there are some other differences in how Americans and Japanese consume media. In America, if someone really likes a game, they might buy…the game. If it’s a console game, they probably bought the game, played it, enjoyed it, and maybe told people if it was good (and definitely told people if it was bad). If it’s a PC game, they might not have ever actually paid for the game itself. If somebody really, really likes a game, they might buy a t-shirt or even a figure. Meanwhile, during my trip, I’ve been to game stores where the person in front of me bought over $300 worth of game-related goods—buttons, keychains, plush toys, figures…towels? Curry? Rice crackers?! Japanese game stores offer a lot of variety in related goods.
And if you take to YouTube, you can find all sorts of videos about “weird, wacky” character goods from Japan. Curry?! How FOREIGN, almost as if Japan is a different country! Would we think it was less strange if it was a common Western food? I’d be curious to see how American gamers would respond to, say, boxes of macaroni and cheese with Overwatch-shaped pieces, or Pringles with World of Warcraft characters on them. The fact that it hasn’t been done (much less, happens regularly) shows that we’re on different levels in terms of how Western gamers interact with their media.
Still, things have been coming around a bit in the west. Sites like ThinkGeek and Fangamer exist, and if nothing else sells, you can definitely see people on the streets wearing the t-shirts. There’s at least one more Ace Fangirl than there used to be, and you’d have a small army if you put the figure collections of all the GameCola staff members together—very small, with most figures in 1/16 scale. Maybe it’s the issue of population density again, but we’re just still not quite to the point of Bethesda having a permanent Fallout restaurant in New York City where you can eat mutant meat or get a real Nuka Cola.
So, what is it that really holds America back from enjoying their games beyond the screen? Is it a population density issue, a lack of cultural acceptance, or just that American companies are too boring? Will we ever get to enjoy a Grand Theft Auto-themed pizza at an official restaurant? Would the average American gaming fan even be interested in these kinds of things, or would such extravagances be wasted on the uncultured masses?
The world may never know the answer to these grand mysteries, but I can say that I certainly enjoyed my trip to Japan. Or, maybe I just enjoyed eating pretty much everything offered on the Ace Attorney menu at the Capcom Bar—both looking at and eating! And it was only twenty minutes door-to-door from where I was staying. I live in Orlando and I can’t even get to Disney in twice that time.
I know I wish things like this were so easily accessible back at home, and I can’t be the only one. Will my wish come true one day? Until that happens, I’ll just have to look at these pictures and remember.