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Visual Novel Researcher From Leipzig University Publishes Thesis on Character Intimacy in Games

Academic research on visual novels? It could be more common than you’d think.

On August 15th, 2023, Visual Novel Database (VNDB) owner and head admin, Yorhel, bumped an older thread which had been made by VNDB moderator Ezezin. Ezezin had made the thread originally to promote an academic paper by his social studies classmate that just so happened to use VNDB as a source. A couple responses down the line, someone posited the idea of creating a full-blown PhD dissertation about visual novels. Yorhel then divulged the information that he had recently spoken to someone who had done exactly that.

The PhD dissertation in question has now been published and has been available to the public since June 16th, 2023. In the bumped thread, Yorhel introduced its full name—Imagining, Guiding, Playing Intimacy – A Theory of Character Intimacy Games—and added a direct link to the PDF. The whole study is 430 pages long, of which 319 are in the main body. The thesis was conducted, produced, and successfully defended by Luca Paolo Bruno, and verified through Martin Roth (Ritsumeikan University), Steffi Richter (formerly Leipzig University) and Yoshida Hiroshi (Tokyo University).

Surprisingly, the writer of the dissertation hopped into the aforementioned VNDB discussion as well, under the username garrick. His responses can be found in this thread.

So, What’s The Dissertation About?

First things first—let’s check out the abstract.

Within the landscape of Japanese media production, and video game production in particular, there is a niche comprising video games centered around establishing, developing, and fulfilling imagined intimate relationships with anime-manga characters. Such niche, although very significant in production volume and lifespan, is left unexplored or underexplored. When it is not, it is subsumed within the scope of wider anime-manga media. This obscures the nature of such video games, alternatively identified with descriptors including but not limited to ‘visual novel’, ‘dating simulator’ and ‘adult computer game’. 

As games centered around developing intimacy with characters, they present specific ensembles of narrative content, aesthetics and software mechanics. These ensembles are aimed at eliciting in users what are, by all intents and purposes, parasocial phenomena towards the game’s characters. In other words, these software products encourage players to develop affective and bodily responses towards characters. They are set in a way that is coherent with shared, circulating scripts for sexual and intimate interaction to guide player imaginative action. This study defines games such as the above as ‘character intimacy games’, video game software where traversal is contingent on players knowingly establishing, developing, and fulfilling intimate bonds with fictional characters. To do so, however, player must recognize themselves as playing that type of game, and to be looking to develop that kind of response towards the game’s characters. Character Intimacy Games are contingent upon player developing affective and bodily responses, and thus presume that players are, at the very least, non-hostile towards their development. This study approaches Japanese character intimacy games as its corpus, and operates at the intersection of studies of communication, AMO studies and games studies. 

The study articulates a research approach based on the double need of approaching single works of significance amidst a general scarcity of scholarly background on the subject. It juxtaposes data-driven approaches derived from fan-curated databases – The Visual Novel Database and Erogescape -Erogē Hyōron Kūkan – with a purpose-created ludo-hermeneutic process. By deploying an observation of character intimacy games through fan-curated data and building ludo-hermeneutics on the resulting ontology, this study argues that character intimacy games are video games where traversal is contingent on players knowingly establishing, developing, and fulfilling intimate bonds with fictional characters and recognizing themselves as doing so. To produce such conditions, the assemblage of software mechanics and narrative content in such games facilitates intimacy between player and characters. This is, ultimately, conductive to the emergence of parasocial phenomena. Parasocial phenomena, in turn, are deployed as an integral assumption regarding player activity within the game’s wider assemblage of narrative content and software mechanics

Abstract quoted from: Universität Leipzig

To summarize briefly, the goal of Imagining, Guiding, Playing Intimacy as stated here is to investigate character intimacy games (i.e. visual novels where a player is encouraged to build both an emotional and—albeit one-sided—physical connection with the game’s characters through a combination of story and game mechanics) and the accompanying parasocial phenomena they elicit, as well as to begin to fill the research gap that exists surrounding the visual novel/ADV/dating simulator genre.

The beginning of the dissertation functions to break down different definitions and explain the concepts surrounding character intimacy games, which while intriguing, isn’t a strictly necessary read in order to engage with the content that follows for those knowledgeable of the VN genre. The next section, however, titled “Part 1: Goals, Scope, and Gaps” is where things get really interesting. This is where author Luca Paolo Bruno dives into the challenges he faced in conducting his dissertation, caused by the research gaps in the field as well as the fact that the current level of discourse in anime-manga-otaku (AMO) studies is not fully equipped to discuss character intimacy games as a whole. He explains that this is primarily due to the fact that the theories used to investigate content within AMO studies rarely focus on the reality that character intimacy games are games, and instead look at them through the lense of literary or anthropological analytical theories, literally “privileging written prose over software.” From there, he dives into his research practices for the dissertation, explaining both their limitations and his overall purpose for using them.

With this introductory section over, the study is then seperated into five additional parts. I’ve attached Bruno’s breakdown below. It should be noted he expands on “Part 4: Theory” in particular, and describes the content of all three of its sections.

Genealogy draws upon existing research to identify the various strands of video game development that have led to the emergence of what this study calls ‘character intimacy games’. It first presents a perspective on interactive software characterized by static content reception, featuring what would later
become the screen configuration associated with visual novel software and character intimacy games in general. It then produces a perspective on intimacy-centered video games which featured pornographic rewards juxtaposed with numerical management frameworks. By working in tandem, these two chapters provide a two-sided perspective to the evolution heterosexual, men-oriented character intimacy games in Japan. Concluding and contrasting the two perspectives is a third
chapter on women-oriented video games, whose general absence of pornography precipitates the need for examining intimacy in wider fashion: if rewards can be more than pornography, and straddle into emotional engagement, then intimacy needs to be considered in the widest possible fashion, beyond pornography or sex-based entertainment.

Method articulates the two-pronged approach of this study. It starts with a statement of the underlying problem of character intimacy games, namely what needs to be considered for successful interpretation. It builds upon proposal for game hermeneutics into a process that accounts for how games may elicit users to ‘play at intimacy’: produce the ensemble of actions that allow the development of imagined intimacy with one or more of the game’s characters. Juxtaposed to the above single-work-focused approach is an outline of the sources and the tools
employed to engage with character intimacy games at the levels required for this study to produce effective results. If, on the one hand, this study needs the development of appropriate ludohermeneutics to engage with single works, on the other hand, it is also necessary to map thesurrounding environment needed to ground individual works. Method discusses the tools and the sources employed by this study, and provides a first demonstration of their usage.

Theory delineates existing avenues of research which provide the steppingstones into delineating a theory of character intimacy games across AMO studies, studies in media reception and game studies. 

Theory’s first segment, which concerns AMO studies, discusses the need to decouple research on CIG software from ‘Japan’ intended as a geo-socio-technical context and, at the same time, the opposite necessity of accounting for Japan as the context in which CIG software has emerged and stabilized in such great numbers. It discusses the need to separate research on character intimacy games from automatic connections to Japan and Japanese subculture. It traces similarities with other avenues of research into Japanese pop culture–anime-manga especially–and how it is necessary to avoid existing tendencies towards conflation and immediate correlation cum-generalization with Japanese social issues. It also argues for still taking the wider conditions, practices and aesthetic sensibilities in character intimacy games, and how they should be operationalized in the analysis of CIG software.

Theory’s second segment, which concerns studies in media reception, produces a reformulation of moe, collocating it under the umbrella of parasocial phenomena. This shift is an attempt to bring the study of the above phenomenon into a framework which is free from the subcultural instability that makes approaching engagement with attractive anime-manga characters problematic. It deals with matters of mediation, and of how users may find themselves immersed and transported into a context where they interact with characters in ways that may allow the deeply intimate relations between users and characters reported within existing literature. Finally, it discusses matters of media literacies, and how user imagination can be conveyed along the common ways, archetypes, tropes that populate character intimacy games in Japan. It does so by engaging with scripts theory, developing so-called sexual scripts into intimate scripts, known avenues and templates that regulate intimate interactions, beyond the confines of the story, and into user/character imagined interactions.

Theory’s third and final segment, Game studies, produces a discussion of game mechanics in order to reconcile the seemingly open-ended, fuzzy nature of player imagination with the ensemble of mechanical systems that may be found in character intimacy games. In particular, it seeks to reconcile the manifold systems and game genres found within CIG software, ranging from visual novel to JRPGs, and how every one of these software typologies may still fall under the purview of character intimacy games. It discusses the systems which allow players to develop bonds with characters within the games, and the possibility spaces that emerge out of them. Finally, it argues for the envisioning of two parallel possibility spaces within character intimacy game software: one emerging out of the software proper, one emerging out of the player’s imagination, moderated by their media literacies.

Conditions discusses the environment in which character intimacy games are received, produced, and circulated, and validates each discussion with data-driven approaches. It first deploys a discussion on the interfaces employed within CIG software to depict character encounter, and how they elicit players into continuous projection of incomplete information – prose, visuals, aural performances – to form a coherent, imagined picture. In doing so, they elicit a deep, personal connection between players and characters, facilitating direct relationships between players and characters. Subsequently, it discusses the media environment in which CIG have emerged and operated, highlighting three flashpoints which have positioned character intimacy games as harmful media within the Japanese media discourse. Finally, it discusses the environmental conditions of character intimacy games through an examination of the personal computer as the platform on which CIG software has emerged and continues to circulate. It engages with the socio-technical conditions around personal computing machines, contrasting them with those around home consoles.

Case Studies discusses how players encounter characters in the context of software-based interactions. It presents how players and player characters interact with the game’s intime scripts. It approaches how intimate scripts intersect with the intimacy progression. Finally, it deploys an examination of how the intimacy progression might be operationalized, defining ‘character encounters’, movements with a before and a after, within the game’s overall structure. Subsequently, it presents this study’s five case studies, each juxtaposing a single work with wider, data-driven and data-derived perspectives. Each of the five case studies represents a work of interest from a traditional perspective, which is then juxtaposed with the work’s position in the wider media landscape.

-Quoted from Imagining, Guiding, Playing Intimacy, Page 53-56

The section which would probably intrigue the casual reader most would be “Part 6: Case Studies – Player/Character Intimacy in Japanese CIG Software,” where Bruno takes a deep dive into four different games, as well as one series. The games featured are as follows: Crescendo – Eien da to Omotte Ita Ano Koro, Evenicle, Angelique, Ohime-sama Datte XXX Shitai! -Horny Magical Princess, and the Princess Maker series.

So, Are Dissertations Like This Rare?

From what I can find through a few hours research, dissertations like Bruno’s are incredibly rare, at least in English. A search for the phrase “visual novel” in Academic Search Complete yields a meager 30 results, only 4 of which are actually relevant to the field. Searching “anime” “manga” and “otaku” yield slightly larger research pools, at ~2000 results a piece. It should be noted this is still a remarkably small amount of articles to find for such a general search.

Searching “visual novel” in Google Scholar led to a slightly wider array of results, but the research papers I found were only rarely under the otaku studies umbrella. Instead, the majority of the results are analyses on the game design of visual novels, with the rare literary analysis on a specific VN title sprinkled in.

That said, although the visual novel portion of the otaku studies field is still quite minimal, I think it’s safe to say its growing. As more academics dive into AMO studies, researchers who are exclusively interested in studying visual novels are sure to appear, which will only make the space more welcoming for those who come after them.

One such notable researcher would be Patrick William Galbraith, an associate professor at Tokyo’s Senshuu University. Galbraith has both published and translated a wealth of content on academically unsafe topics such as erotic manga, otaku culture, the nature of moe and many other topics. During some of his academic endeavours, visual novels also find mention. If you’re interested, some of Galbraith’s books, which are both small in size and scope but incredibly important to AMO studies as a whole, can be purchased through the link here.

Feeling intrigued but don’t want to read the whole dissertation? Let us know in the comments which sections you’re most interested in having us break down and discuss, and we just might cover them!

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Occasional writer, LN editor, Game LQA, and professional J-E Translator. I love cats, BL, and anything sci-fi/fantasy.

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