MAID RPG, Tokyo Brain Pop, and why GTE couldn’t just fix their network

First, a public apology. A few years ago, Andy Kitkowski, publisher of Tenra Bansho Zero and co-publisher of MAID RPG, sent us a review copy of MAID and was very flattering in a note he attached to it. We’ve felt for a while that we let him down by not getting a review up. Not to put Allan on the spot, but Allan looked MAID over and couldn’t figure out how to approach it. [My players were just plain confused by it, honestly, and wouldn’t try it. – A] I have a feeling that a lot of you reading this are right there with him. We asked all our other reviewers if they wanted to take it on, and they all recoiled.

Now, I know the deal with MAID, because I happen to know this particular deal with anime culture and Japanese pop culture in general. Said deal is that a lot of stuff from Japan looks to us like it’s being presented sincerely, and is thus creepy and crazy, when it’s understood in Japan as being satirical. The original MAID game falls into that category, as does most of the maid-themed anime that inspired it. You can certainly still argue that attempted satire of sexist tropes just spreads sexism, particularly when the culture as a whole – ours in this case – doesn’t get the joke. I myself feel more or less this way, in fact, but the comparatively low-titillation presentation style of MAID does a lot to redeem it for me.

The failure of cultural translation was utterly predictable with MAID – enough so that its publication, the first of an original Japanese RPG into English to make it to print, was neither a great business move nor a good strategy for opening American minds to Japanese RPGs. That said, if you’re one of the many American nerds who understand anime tropes deeply, a game with MAID‘s themes can be hilarious, and MAID delivers. The execution is dead on. The players play the many stereotypical French-style maids of an aloof male master – you could run it as My Life With Master, only funny (comedy and horror are close cousins). The game runs beautifully and is a pretty amazing source of random tables (tragedy tables! Mental complexes! The mind-shreddingly massive Costume Table 2!).

But there’s no saving MAID in the Western market. You could possibly reskin the system and sell the conversion, but that’s not the same. And you could run and sell it at anime cons, but not outside anime culture. (I am not suggesting that any of this is news to Andy.)

A while ago, an RPG we’ve honored in the past did a sort of splashy relaunch; I mean, it debuted in an Asian-culture-themed round of Allen Varney’s indefatigable Bundle of Holding, right around Christmas, which is not bad. It’s called Tokyo Brain Pop, and it’s about Japanese schoolgirls amongst whom one or more has horrifying psychic powers. Its mechanics focus on social dynamics amongst teens and fighting evil demons in equal measure. It’s pretty great.

And if it sounds familiar, it should: it’s Panty Explosion, which OgreCave has honored in our Christmas gift guides in the past. It was renamed in response to long-building public resistance to the name, including its publisher getting blocked at one point from tabling at GeekGirlCon. Now, to my ear, the title Panty Explosion was always pretty transparently an ironic shot across the bow of anime tropes as they play in the US. But there was no saving it in the Western market either. Too many people, for reasons either respectable or reflexive, are just gonna do this.

Let’s talk about “branding,” and what it really means.

A programmer named Steve Yegge told a story once (now missing from the web) at a tech conference, about the old telecom giant GTE, which had trouble shifting to the new cellular paradigm in the ’90s. Their name became synonymous with “bad network,” to the point where they completely oriented their company around fixing the problem – and in fact had actually built the best network. But it was too late: “GTE” meant “crappy network.” So they did the only thing they could do: they set fire to decades of investment in “GTE” as a brand, and changed their name to a new, made-up word. That word was Verizon.

Brands are fixed points; it takes an act of God to get them to move. Barring some unpredictable mass tide-turn, GTE was never going to stop meaning “bad network,” whether or not it was still true; “anime maid” is never going to stop meaning “greasy otaku stuff” in America, whether or not it was ever true. This is all dependent on context and community, and – not really talking about MAID or Panty Explosion at this point (or hereafter; sorry) – a lot of our first experiences with it in the gaming community have been negative; I got branded “laugh at this person” in the community context of my elementary school, and knowing it wasn’t true but being unable to move that brand made my life miserable in ways I still deal with today. A lot of us have similar experiences, and thus are willing to die on this hill, demanding that the world move the immovable.

For example: for most Americans, the term “roleplaying games” means the experience of being beaten about the head with rules for hours on end in a way they find deeply distasteful, and/or the cult-like experience of submitting to a tyrannical Dungeon Master, and/or an actual cult thanks to the Satanic Panic of the ’80s. According to the law of branding, it will always mean these things for people. Nothing will be helped by “better marketing,” still a frequent demand of gamers of a certain age. Real “better marketing” would start with rethinking the product where necessary, and then changing the brand to reflect those differences. One example of this kind of “better marketing” resulted in story games… which then developed a branding problem of their own within the Internet RPG community. (A local group here in Portland that put the phrase “story games” in its promotional materials actually got a lengthy email from another local gaming organizer asking them to stop, because the term “pushed away” self-identified roleplayers… never mind the huge volume of people in the mainstream who feel pushed away by the term “roleplaying.”)

Every culture in the world, for millennia, has believed that names are powerful. You’d think that in the fantasy-and-myth-steeped culture of gaming, we’d get that; but in gaming, we also identify with heroes, people who can face down huge powers and make them knuckle under. The insensibility and intractability of this sort of branding seems almost Lovecraftian to us. In real life, though, we are just humans. The great strength of humans is that we adapt. The culture of gaming has perhaps spent some time neglecting that strategy.