Games, Photography

Print Club + The Game Boy Camera

So far, the new year has been good for research and writing. My TA duties don’t kick in until February, and teaching one course (a course I have taught 3 times before) allowed me to focus on writing, writing, writing. At the same time, I am taking advice from a colleague to take it easy a little bit post-defence. I know the defence was in September, but teaching two courses in the same term as my defence had me always on my toes, and I really didn’t slow down until the holiday break. So, I’m using this Winter “lull” to reorient myself and partition out some time of the days to rest, apply to academic jobs, watch Star Trek: DS9, and do some research and writing (but not at the same intensity of “I need to fininish the PhD, I need to get revisions by this deadline or else I’m paying another round of tuition,” etc). And I also have relaxed time to ready things for little bean! So far, it’s been nice – a little bit frightening because I am now sessional – but nice.

On to the topic of this week’s blog post: Last week, I got really excited about a research “find” that helps strengthen some connections I am making in my Game Boy Camera (GBC, from now on) paper. I thought to share this find, which is not so much a find but a drawing of connections that could be contested with.  But here it goes.

Early on in 2018, I had been doing some RA research on photography and had come across Digital Snaps: The New Face of Photography. It’s an excellent collection on digital photography, but one essay stood out to me in relation to the GBC: Mette Sandbye’s “Play, Process and Materiality in Japanese Purikura Photography.” The essay stood out to me for two reasons: Sandbye’s connection between photography and play, and purikura photography’s uncanny resemblance to the kind of photography featured in the GBC. You can read an earlier blog post in which I write through my initial thoughts around that essay (and more), which then served as a paper I delivered at R-CADE.

But when I returned to my section on purikura photography to expand upon it and make it more of a proper section in an essay, I noticed that Sandbye’s article focuses on more recent purikura (from the 2000s and onward), and so I started looking at articles that focused on 90s purikura machines. The result is not many, but I found Richard Chalfen and Mai Murui’s “Print Club Photography in Japan: Framing Social Relationships”  to be pretty helpful at providing images of older purikura – or Print Club – machines. Elsewhere, I found a Kotaku article by Brian Ashcroft that claims Print Club  “revolutionized” arcades and “the arcades demographic.” And then there was Jeremy Parish’s Polygon article, in which he refers to the GBC as “a portable Print Club station.”

From my research, Parish’s article seems to be the only article that refers to the GBC as Print Club (but I am still going to look further into the depths of the internet and blogosphere). It’s only a brief remark, but it further confirmed the connections I was making between Print Club and the GBC and their approaches to play and photography. But I needed a stronger connection, an almost border-line “was Nintendo inspired by Print Club?” connection. Print Club was released in 1995, and the GBC was released 1998, so maybe there could be some kind of cultural zeitgeist connection. So, instead of approaching from the photography angle, I decided to look more into the video game angle of Print Club.

It is well-known that the first Print Club machine was developed by Atlus in 1995. The idea had been pitched and developed by Sasaki Miho, an employee of Atlus. But after an unsuccessful attempt at marketing towards families, Atlus teamed up with Sega to target adolescents to much greater success. The original arcade cabinets (Print Club 1 and 2) even look like a regular video game cabinet more than it did a photo booth, which I think is pretty significant when framing photography in a particular way:

What follows the success of Print Club is interesting. Starting in 1997, just over a year after the release of the first Print Club machine and coinciding with the release of the Print Club 2 cabinet, Atlus published Pocket Purikura on the Game Boy. The game became a series, which has not been released outside of Japan. But because the Game Boy did not have an internal camera, Pocket Purikura could not allow users to take photos of themselves. Instead, in the series of Pocket Purikura, you designed an avatar that you would then use to play mini games and explore areas to unlock frames, items, and backgrounds that you could then take in-game pictures of. Below is some shots from the game taken from an emulation (on the left, PP1; on the right, PP3, which seems to be more concerned with heteronorms around “life goals”):

What caught my interest is that the game included mini-games (which I never got to or play because I require a translated version, unfortunately). Because Pocket Purikura could not take pictures, the developers seemed to lean into the video game aspect of Print Club: the ability to “play” with one’s image/avatar.

The existence of Pocket Purikura on the Game Boy gave me a better sense that the Game Boy Camera didn’t just emerge out of nowhere. Further, the GBC, in my opinion, builds upon the limitations of Pocket Purikura while also tapping into the purikura cultural phenomenon. In short, there is both a technical and cultural reason the GBC emerged when it did. Unlike Pocket Purikura, the GBC afforded users to take photos of themselves and others to use as in-game avatars for the few mini games on the GBC. While there were no “unlockables,” the Game Boy Camera still provided a portable Print Club experience, while also providing mini-games like Pocket Purikura (but to be clear, not the same kind of mini games).

The Game Boy Camera is still a unique…adaptation?…of purikura photography, but I found the original arcade cabinets and the Pocket Purikura Game Boy series of games to draw a strong connection between the GBC and purikura photography. What started off as a “hey, that’s an interesting point I can make” turns out to have some techno-cultural grounding. There is much more I can say about this connection, but I am now approaching 1000 words and I should return to editing the essay (yes, I am in the editing stage, woo!).