Reading and Playing Right to Left: Preserving Japanese Comics and Iranian Video Games

Submitted by Selim S. Kuru on

 On June 7th 2020, NELC PISP-Roshan Fellow Mindy Cohoon (University of Washington, PhD Candidate of Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Washington)  and Victoria Rahbar (Graduate student at Stanford University’s Center for East Asian Studies), presented at the Right to Left (RTL) Workshop held by the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria (UVic), B.C., Canada.

Victoria Rahbar

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the format of the workshop was changed from in-person to virtual. The RTL Workshop challenges presenters to position right-to-left languages in cultural contexts that speak to scholarly debates on multidirectionality and assumptions on contemporary digital humanities work. The RTL Workshop’s expressed goal is, “to encourage digital research in right-to-left language cultures and to provide a context for thinking beyond the left-to-right-centric assumptions of contemporary computing.” (1) Our work on Iranian and Japanese cultural objects, specifically video games and comic books (manga), fits within this paradigm due to their digital and print existence as right-to-left texts.

Throughout our back-to-back talks, we showed how scholars face dilemmas when preserving the directionality of right-to-left oriented Japanese-language and English-language manga, and how current metadata collection cannot convey all the cultural elements of an Iranian video game. We framed our work on the premise that sacrificing accuracy when examining cultural artifacts is detrimental not only for institutions but also for scholars who seek out these materials as part of their scholarly work.

In part one of our presentation series, Mindy addresses how different metadata schemas do not afford the cataloger a controlled vocabulary to properly describe the historical precedents and discursive power of a game. In addition, she shows that by applying certain collection practices without a thorough controlled vocabulary, it ends up privileging western colonial frameworks. She argues that by investigating the semiotics and discourses inherent in a game, the socio-cultural facets will convey a dialectical exchange with other games and affective dimensions. In part two, Victoria explicates the complexities of Japanese manga preservation alongside the preservation of Japanese-language text in general within cultural institutions.

Specifically, she shows that cultural institutions such as North American libraries when digitally preserving Japanese-language right-to-left oriented texts, such as picture scrolls, overlook directionality when they present the material in image carousels which force the user to click left-to-right when reading right-to-left. Conversely every publisher of digital Western comic books and digital manga in North America curates a more culturally accurate user experience by having users always click right-to-left when reading right-to-left oriented manga, and left-to-right when reading left-to-right oriented Western comic books. Together we argue that information professionals who preserve Iranian and Japanese cultural objects can do better, and digital humanists who work with right-to-left oriented texts will find inspiration in popular cultural products like video games and manga.  

The necessity of presenting virtually rather than in-person provided us with interesting challenges and opportunities as it relates to scholarly communications and digital humanities work. Face-to-face question and answer sessions became virtual via Twitter with both presenters and attendees utilizing the #RTL and #DHSI20 hashtags to communicate to each other. Right-to-left languages' position in the developing world became tangible as presenters had to work within technical constraints such as unreliable internet and poor-quality cameras and microphones. And yet while the videos we uploaded were often hard to see and hear due to their low quality, we were able to reach both scholars and fans in a way not possible in a traditional conference setting. Our audience included professors, graduate students, and, most importantly, fans. Feedback was thus given not only by fellow researchers, but those who simply enjoy to play and read Iranian video games and Japanese manga. As we study popular culture products beloved by fans, hearing those voices are of utmost value to us in terms of motivation, why are we doing this, and scholarship, how can we do this. 

The Right to Left Workshop at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2020 provided us an essential platform to engage with the scholarly community and broader publics. We believe that the virtual platform gave our project a more lasting impact. We would like to thank everyone who worked to ensure the RTL workshop at DHSI 2020 became a virtual success. We also want to take a moment to thank the organizers David Wrisley and Kasra Ghorbaninejad in particular for their efforts in ensuring that both scholars and fans could attend. We truly appreciate the opportunity to present our work. Mindy’s research is supported by a fellowship from the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, which afforded her the opportunity to present at the RTL workshop. She also thanks NELC and NMES programs for their continual support. Victoria’s research on manga is supported with a 2019-2020 FLAS Fellowship and a summer grant from the Stanford University’s Center for East Asian Studies; she thanks them for supporting her work therein.