Sunday, April 30, 2017

Never be bored again

Though it may seem like the very concept of life in Japan ought to be an endless source of entertainment and fascination in and of itself, expats do occasionally become bored. Want to know what we do when we get bored?

We directly translate the kanji that make up the names of places around the Tokyo metropolitan area into English, then assign them a North American state or province where they'd seem "at home." For example:

Akabane → 赤羽 (red+feather) → Red Feather, Wyoming

Akabane is a major station in Kita Ward, Tokyo. Its name is made of two kanji characters: 赤 (aka, meaning "red") and 羽 (hane, meaning "feather"). The -hane makes a euphonic change to -bane, making the full name easier to pronounce. And "Red Feather" sounds like the name of a town one might find in Wyoming.

Now that you've got the basic principle, let's do some more!

Ueno → 上野 (up field) → Upfield, New York

Nippori → 日暮里 (day living village) → Livingston, Vermont

Uguisudani → 鶯谷 (nightingale valley) → Warbler Valley, Virginia

Shinbashi → 新橋 (new bridge) → Newbridge, Connecticut

Saginuma → 鷺沼 (heron marsh) → Heron Marsh, Alberta, Canada

Jiyugaoka → 自由が丘 (freedom hill) → Liberty Hill, Texas

Roppongi → 六本木 (six pine trees) → Six Pines, Minnesota

Ochanomizu → 御茶ノ水 (tea water) → Teawater, Massachusetts

Occasionally, English isn't the best target language for this game. "Yokohama," for example, means "beach to the side," but good luck finding a town with a name like that in the US. The Spanish equivalent, however, seems much more believable:

Yokohama → 横浜 (side beach) → Playa al Lado, California

Akihabara → 秋葉原 (autumn leaf meadow) → Prado Otoñal, New Mexico

Or maybe French is more your bag(-uette).

Aoyama → 青山 (blue/green mountain) → Montbleu, Montana

Ikebukuro → 池袋 (pond bag) → Sac du Lac, Wisconsin

See? It's fun.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Let's end GameStop

According to my records, I’ve visited the US about six times since I moved to Japan in 2003. No matter how many times I go back, I’m consistently stunned by the same thing every time: GameStop. Or rather, the fact that GameStop still exists.

GameStop really, really should have gone bankrupt by now. Capitalist Darwinism should have wiped its smug mug off the face of the Earth. I cannot begin to estimate the number of times I’ve seen a GameStop, thought to myself, “Hey, I wanna go in there,” and about five minutes later thought, “Why did I go in there?” I cannot recall a single visit to a GameStop store in my lifetime that did not result in disappointment, frustration or rage.

Why talk about this now? Q1 2017 has been a parade of negative publicity, from questionable policies to slipping share prices. This is in addition to what has been a years-long train of horror stories told by current and former employees and customers of the company that shed light on what is an increasingly dysfunctional organization. Bad press about GameStop is nothing new, and it never seems to go away.

From my perspective, the whole thing is amplified by a number of factors which, together, serve as ample evidence for the thesis statement, “GameStop is the worst ever and must be destroyed.”

1. In America, “pre-owned” means “in terrible condition.”

This isn't GameStop's fault, but it sure doesn't help their cause.

GameStop deals in pre-owned product, and in the US, this means they sell trash. Sorry for the awful generalization, but consumers in the US just do not take good care of their digital media. It’s like they’ve all got McDonald’s beef patties where their hands should be. I worked at Hollywood Video for a few years while I was a student and witnessed PlayStation 2 games being rented in brand-new condition, then being returned five days later looking like someone had used them to play Frisbee with the family dog. In what I estimate to be 30 percent of cases, a new DVD or disc-based game would be visibly damaged after one rental. It was as if our entire customer base consisted of three-year-old children who wore Freddy Krueger claws at all times. True story: A customer returned a copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 that had snapped clean in two, telling us that his child “threw it at the wall.”
To put my observation in context, in Japan, rental discs stay comparatively pristine for a long time (although I'm speaking only about Japanese rental DVDs, blue ray discs and music CDs; game rentals aren't a thing here.

For a GameStop customer, this prevailing culture of not giving a shit means that buying any pre-owned product from them is like Russian roulette – but with worse odds. And since I don’t get to try my purchases out until I get them back to Japan, returning them to the store isn’t an option. I guess I could ask the sales clerk to show me the disc before selling it to me, but that brings me to point number 2…

2. GameStop’s sales staff excel neither at customer service nor in their knowledge of games.

GameStop employees don't answer customer questions in the interest of guiding the customer to a purchase that will make the customer happy. Most of the time, they only answer questions in such a way as to show off their own esoteric knowledge and oh-so-valuable opinions about video games.

Customer: [Indicates a copy of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare for the Xbox One] Is this a good shooting game?Clerk: Well, it's fine, but if you really want a good shooting game, you should check out Timesplitters on the PlayStation 2.Customer: I haven't owned a PS2 in years.Clerk: Yeah, well, that's your loss.

Exactly who has benefited from this exchange? Nobody. The clerk has made public his superior knowledge of now-hard-to-find games that came out at the turn of the millennium, so good for him, I guess. He also, however, displayed zero knowledge on the game about which he was asked.

I was in a GameStop with my friend a few years ago and we came across the game Brütal Legend.

Friend: Have you played this? It's not bad.Me: it the same genre as Darksiders? I wasn't so into that.Friend: Only a little, but it's more like...Clerk: [Standing at least five meters away] Darksiders is awesome and so is that game right there! You should absolutely buy it!

Serioiusly, what the hell? Nobody asked the clerk for his opinion, but he just couldn't contain himself. Either this "sales technique" has worked for him before, or he's got an irresistible compulsion to join every game-related conversation within earshot. And it's not like my friend and I were talking loudly. The GameStop guy would have had to eavesdrop on us pretty hard to hear what we were saying. Or maybe it would be easy for him to hear, because most GameStop stores don't have many obstructions on the store floor, which leads me to my third point:

3. GameStop stores waste unbelievable amounts of space

There's a big GameStop near my mother's house that has what I estimate to be about 1000 square feet of retail space. Guess what's in that store? Less than two and a half walls' worth of shelves. And that's all. In the middle, where a normal store manager would arrange point-of-purchase displays and island gondolas, this store had enough empty space for a pro wrestling ring. After looking at one wall's shelves, I felt like I needed to run to the opposite wall, climb up the shelves and do a flying elbow drop.

I visited this GameStop in 2013, saw how empty it was, and made a mental note that I shouldn't expect it to still be there come my next visit to the US. But upon visiting in 2015, the empty GameStop was still in business. And still empty.

GameStop is rarely the most affordable source of used games, but that point is underscored in this case; I can't help but feel like every product sold there has to have its price inflated slightly to compensate for the fact that the store's management don't know how to use space efficiently.

4. GameStop renders products impossible to resell

This is the absolute worst, and the reason I've resolved never to shop at GameStop ever again.

I tend to sell games that I've finished to used game shops. This keeps my collection from getting out of control and allows me to spend more money on other important things, like food for my daughter. (Quirky, I know. Feeding my child is sort of a hobby of mine.)

But good luck re-selling anything you purchased from a GameStop, because they apply price stickers indiscriminately. They'll put a price tag directly onto a game's case, defying you to peel it off. But don't peel it off, unless you like your game cases adorned with patches of sticky residue which rob them of their resale value, not to mention make them disgusting to handle and doom them to be perpetually caked with dust and garbage. On one infuriating occasion, I purchased a used copy of Marvel Ultimate Alliance that had a price tag applied not to the plastic case, but to the paper artwork inside the case. Obviously it would be impossible to peel the sticker off without ripping the artwork, which is why I still have the game despite no longer owning a PSP.

And when there's no case, they stick the price tag directly onto the game's instruction manual, or even directly onto the game media. In another PSP example, I bought a used copy of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories from the GameStop in Appleton, WI's Fox River Mall. Because there was no case, they had put the price tag directly onto the UMD, and then put that into a plastic baggie (which raises the question, why didn't they stick the price tag onto the baggie instead of onto the UMD?). With the price sticker on it, the UMD didn't fit properly into my PSP, so I peeled it off. Presto, one sticky, lint-magnet copy of GTA:LCS.

Maybe the store is called GameStop because it's the final stop for physical software resale, before the games are finally too messed up to change hands any more.

Again, I must contrast this with my experience in Japan, where second-hand games look like new, and can continue to look like new for as long as their owners take care of them. In this regard, visiting the US is like taking a time machine back to the barbarism of medieval times...a forgotten age when men beheaded each other for the slightest scorn, women were bought and sold like so much cattle and Gamecube discs didn't work because they were plastered with dirty glue and dead insects.

Put all this in the context of any other kind of retailer. You wouldn't buy from a furniture store whose cashiers second-guess your home decor choices because their manager told them to "push the leather sofas." You wouldn't buy from a record store whose discs are scratched and unplayable. You wouldn't buy from a bakery whose bagels are covered with stickers.

We all need to quit shopping at GameStop.