Exclusive Interview: Power-Up Author Chris Kohler
It may seem strange to people who grew up playing Call Of Duty sequels and Halo games, but there was a time when Japan dominated video games. But while they may have lost that prominent position, their influence is still felt, even in Call Of Duty sequels and Halo games. Originally published in 2004, but newly republished with a new chapter, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave The World An Extra Life (paperback, digital) by Wired’s Games Editor Chris Kohler — who, full disclosure, is a fellow game writer with whom I’ve shared many a conversation and meal — explores how Japan became such a cultural force in gaming at a time when America and Europe dominated movies, music, and other forms of entertainment. In the following interview, we discussed how the original came together, what prompted this reprint, and what he added to this new edition.
I always like to start with the basics. So, what is Power-Up about?
Power-Up was an attempt to answer the question: In an era where, by and large, it was only American popular culture that tended to go global, why was it that Japan’s video games became the most popular and influential all over the world? I wanted to apply what I’d learned about Japan’s centuries of “visual culture,” from woodblock prints to manga to anime to games, to make the argument that Japan was uniquely positioned at that point to embrace an emerging creative medium, for a variety of reasons that I wanted to dive into. Having established that, I wanted to talk about other unique qualities of Japanese games, explore it from all the angles I was seeing it while I was living there. It is a bit of a pastiche. But it all leads somewhere, or at least that was the idea.
My understanding is that you wrote the original version based on some research you did while you were at Tufts University. Why did you decide to turn that into a book, and what made you think people would want to read it, especially back in 2004?
Well, of course I’d spent a lot of time reading such books as [David Sheff’s] Game Over and [Steven Kent’s] The Ultimate History Of Video Games and thinking, “I can do that,” which is what all 22-year-olds think about everything.
At the time, I was also introduced to the idea of doing a Fulbright fellowship, which would let me go do a year of independent research in Japan post-graduation, all funded by the U.S. government. So my mind immediately went to, I should pitch them the idea of me writing a book, because I was a working journalist even at the time. As it turned out, the Fulbright people were pretty excited about that too, because the project had the potential to have a relatively wide and popular reach.
The original version of Power-Up came out in 2004, but went out of print. What does this new version add, and why did you feel those additions were necessary?
I wouldn’t say it was necessary, but I do think it makes the book more enticing if I tell you there’s new content in it.
At the end of the original Power-Up, I left the reader with some speculation about how Japan might influence the game industry and the world in the years to come. One of those was noting that Nintendo’s then-new president, Satoru Iwata, was looking to reach out to more gamers outside the young male demographic with new, more accessible, styles of gameplay. We hadn’t really seen the fruits of this yet in 2004 but, of course, you know what happened after that. So that’s what I wanted to structure the new chapter about, the story of the Nintendo DS and the Wii, and importantly how their success dovetailed with the observations about Japanese games that the reader would have just experienced in the original Power-Up.
Of course, very shortly before I began to write the final draft of that chapter, Iwata-san suddenly passed away. So now it’s also a tribute to his life and work.
Beyond that extra chapter, which is big, there’s a new essay that follows the original book’s chapter about Akihabara, the gaming district of Tokyo. There’s a new, very kind foreword from Shuhei Yoshida, the president of Sony’s worldwide game development studios. I also want to call out the clever, beautiful new cover by Karen Chu, which is much closer to the treatment I was originally hoping for on the first edition.
Along with those things you mention, did you change anything else in the original text? Like did you add anything in the existing chapters or cut something that is no longer true?
There were a few errors in the original book — not things that are “no longer” true, but things that were wrong at the time — that we tweaked. Just a couple of unfortunate errors. I think we got them all. Or, you know, I hope we did. We probably didn’t. But to go back and start rewriting the book because something was true then but not true anymore, that’s a bad can of worms, and then you get the George Lucas special edition of Power-Up and it isn’t Power-Up anymore. So do go in expecting a reprint of a 2004 book, with some clearly marked extra 2016 content.
You mentioned that you’ve added a new section on Akihabara. The game scene in Akihabara has changed a lot in the last year, it’s harder to find rare games there now. Does the new chapter deal with this at all, or was it written before that started? Because I’m worried you’ll have to write a third version of the book called Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave The World An Extra Life Until All The Games Went Away?
That certainly is mentioned in the new essay, yes. It’s more about how Akihabara itself has transformed, shockingly so, since 2004. The Akihabara I describe in the original book only exists as a memory now. Again, I don’t think that’s a problem — this is a reprint of an old book — but I thought the transformation was so profound that it would merit an interesting new section.
So how did this new version of Power-Up come about?
Dover Publications specializes in reprinting out-of-print classics. Recently they’ve been doing high-quality reprints of impossible-to-find graphic novels, for example. An acquisitions editor reached out to me directly, and of course I’ve always been thinking of how Power-Up could come back. Dover knows exactly how to do this, so it made a lot of sense and we agreed on things pretty quickly.
What made you think it would be a good idea to reissue this book, as opposed to writing a new one?
Well, those two things are not in opposition to each other. As a writer, I’m sure you understand that desire to take everything you’ve ever written that’s more than five minutes old and bury it forever. But Power-Up is now cited in many other books, it’s referenced all over the Internet, and you can’t buy it without spending too much money on a beat-up used copy. And it wasn’t available in ebook format at all. So I did want to be able to tell people that, yes, they could read it in a format that worked for them and without spending stupid money.
Was it your idea to add those new parts, or was that something your publisher wanted you to do?
It wasn’t anybody’s idea in particular, it was just so obvious that it came up fairly early in the discussion. We agreed very early on that I’d provide some form of new material, but it was up to me what the topic would be, the word count, all that. I don’t know what Dover expected, but I probably over delivered in terms of scope and word count. Again: big chapter.
Unlike in 2004, you’re now the Games Editor for Wired magazine. What was their reaction to you do this? Because I’ve been in similar situations and some people get why it can help, and others just don’t get it.
Many Wired writers and editors have books in the works at any given time, so of course everyone understands why it’s a great thing for all involved.
So has working on this new version of Power-Up made you want to write a new book? Maybe Power-Up II: Electric Boogaloo or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Western Games?
I actually wrote the book Retro Gaming Hacks for O’Reilly in 2005, very early on in my career, and so I got to get that “I want to publish a book!” urge out of my system in my early twenties. Lately I’ve been thinking, “gee, maybe I should try it again?” This was a nice dip-a-toe-in-the-water option. Writing a chapter, going through the whole publishing process, finding out how it feels.
I should also note that I actually have a second book coming out this year that I co-authored with the other hosts of a trivia podcast that I’m on called Good Job, Brain! It’s not game-related at all, it’s a book about general knowledge trivia, how to win your local pub quiz, etc. I wrote some pen-and-paper puzzles for it, actually, including a cryptic crossword. So that’s a totally new experience.
Lastly, if someone reads your book, and they want to know more about video games, what other books would you recommend they check out and why?
Lots of great books out there. I would recommend reading Sheff’s Game Over and then immediately segueing into Blake Harris’ Console Wars. It’s almost like one picks up right where the other stops, they’re very similar novel-like, narrative histories of the 8-, 16-, and 32-bit eras with behind-the-scenes drama and intrigue. Books that drill down into individual stories, such as [David Kushner’s] Masters Of Doom and Dan Ackerman’s The Tetris Effect, are also great.