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Opinion

Watching: GameCenter CX

I’ve been sad, lately. A desire to get better at ‘enjoying things just to enjoy things’ has lead me back to Shinya Arino, and GameCenter CX.

I’ve been sad, lately. Not the “crushing despair” kind of sad, but it’s consistent enough that I’ve been looking for the things that I’d usually find comfort in to help.

However, right now I don’t have access to them.

Volleyball, and going to Toronto (for therapy, or just to see people I care about or places I like), are inaccessible due to COVID-19 lockdown. I’ve also been taking a lot more responsibility for my diet and exercise, so the usual behavior of binge/comfort eating is out the window, too; this is probably for the best.

When I look at what’s left, I mostly am falling back into things like binge-watching certain YouTube channels, or watching esports on Twitch. I’m not feeling the most invested in these things, and that’s carrying over to a lot of other offline media (manga, anime, TV, film, etc). It feels like I’m not looking to actually feel better; I’m just looking to numb myself by having something on in the background, so I’m not focusing on the sad.

This sucks for a number of personal reasons, but it also makes my brain feel a bit broken. I want to be able to cross things off of backlogs or be entertained by things I’ve been meaning to get to, but for some reason there’s that weight of needing to “engage with it properly.” Right now I don’t feel like I can.

When I get in a funk like this, my mind goes to where it’s comfortable, and for a lot of my adult life, I’ve thought a lot about creating. For me, it’s something I feel I have a handle on at least that; I know it’s fulfilling.

Part of why I’m writing this right now is that creating fulfills me, or at least gets me focused on something I believe I know how to do; over the last few years I’ve shied away from doing these overly-personal posts, mostly due to the worry that it exposes too much vulnerability, or typecasts me into “sad content.”

But I figured here I could do a bit of both. I could write about these feelings, but also something that inspires me, and makes me want to be better.

And that something is GameCenter CX.

GameCenter CX is notable as a franchise because it was ahead of its time, especially when you look at how people view gaming content today. Shinya Arino, a comedian and TV personality, developed a variety show around retro video games and sharing passion for them. Early seasons had a number of segments, including trips, interviews, and retrospectives.

Part of Arino’s role on the show is portraying the chief of a fictional company called GameCenter CX. One of the segments, “Arino’s Challenge,” would have him attempt to beat a game within the constraints of filming the episode. This was heavily edited for time and to highlight drama, but sometimes Arino would be playing upwards of 12-13 hours to try to get to the end. On occasion, whether he succeeded or failed would earn him a promotion or demotion from his non-existent higher-ups.

As a concept, this is very close to the current-day format of Let’s Play videos and gaming livestreaming. As a segment, Arino’s Challenge was a favorite, and then became the main meat of episodes — currently, there are still smaller segments, but they are mostly there to serve as a nice break between gameplay sections.

Arino isn’t an expert gamer, and part of the entertainment was seeing his journey towards success or failure. This is a very common aspect of streaming and Let’s Plays; you’re emotionally engaged with the performer, and their victory feels shared.

The difference is that, to me, GameCenter CX feels… special, somehow. It feels like a true passion project that manages to avoid cynicism and focus on celebrating gaming as a whole. While Arino isn’t amazing at games, he never truly writes them off as “bad” or gets downright angry; I can imagine part of their screening process involves finding games that are good for the show, but even challenges that he fails seem like an entertaining time.

It’s also nice when Arino finds games he’s good at (puzzles, trivia, and games that mainly don’t depend on precision mechanics). Seeing him gain confidence and expertise just makes me smile, because it feels like he’s actually enjoying it, and the game itself isn’t a chore. Seeing him beat a particularly difficult game (whether difficult for him, or in general) means that you share that elation to say “he did it!” It doesn’t exactly matter that it might be a train conductor simulator.

On paper, this shouldn’t be anything special on today’s Internet, but somehow it scratches the same itch as say, The Great British Bake-Off. After seeing Western reality TV, GBB seems outright wholesome in the sense that there isn’t backstabbing, conniving contestants or browbeating, drama-seeking hosts. While there’s a bunch of people competing to win a prize, their work is their own, and you end up feeling refreshed that conflict isn’t the main driving force of the episodes.

GameCenter CX isn’t saccharine or overly sentimental to the point of being eye-rolling — Great British Bake-off can be like this, and sometimes it affects the sincerity of the product. While Arino’s humour and quasi-abuse of his production assistants can be a bit dry at times, he comes off as a well-adjusted adult — he’s trying his best to surmount a challenge while having fun while doing it.

It’s important to mention that this humor never comes at the expense of the game, and there’s never a moment of “this is terrible, video games are stupid.” The games (or well, in the episodes I’ve watched) are treated with respect, but not reverence; Arino doesn’t have a “Gaming YouTuber Persona” that can come off as fake or grating, and there’s still room for critiquing comments.

That’s part of why I like it: the point of the challenge isn’t to critique the game, or to make a recommendation. It’s more to see Arino’s reaction to it, or how it might interact with his personality. It feels like it isn’t acting on the existing tropes of the gaming media I see in the West, and that’s refreshing.

Besides Arino’s Challenge, the show has a number of different segments depending on the season. I’m a big fan when they travel Japan to visit local arcades, game shops, candy stores and other locations that celebrate that kind of play.

While these kinds of “nerd shops” definitely exist in the West, these segments feel like tourism to me; you’re seeing how children of all ages spent their childhood, and sometimes Arino runs into things that makes him reminisce, too. Whether it’s a dated sticker pack in a shop for an idol group he knew in his youth, or playing a Metal Slug machine for the tenth time — because it’s just that popular of a machine to have — you’re getting an idea of how people entertain themselves, and enjoy gaming.

Again, while these segments are meant to be a bit sentimental, it’s not to the point of trying too hard to be tearjerking. I’m very rarely rolling my eyes at what the show is trying to make me feel. It seems genuine, and that counts for an immense amount.

The reason why I bring this series up is because it’s become a bit of a role model for me in terms of what I want to make and how I want to develop an audience.

While there’s definitely a renaissance in “wholesome” content in 2020, that stuff can come off as forced, fake, or otherwise lacking creativity. I’ll always admire someone who creates on their own terms, is unapologetic for the things that make themselves unique, and isn’t afraid to stand up for their vision.

GCCX does that, and it does that without falling into the trap of being too divisive or contrarian; it isn’t overly-sweet for the hell of it, and it isn’t mean because it can be, either. It’s a nice sweet spot, where you can feel the care that’s put into it: you can tell that their writer’s room has at least conceptualized “rules” about what their focus is and how to keep it consistent.

This kind of meta analysis of the content I watch puts me at a weird impasse, because again, I feel like I should just be able to watch this stuff and enjoy it for what it is. Having watching this show I like turn into “work” is something I have a hard time turning off, and perhaps that’s why I feel like I don’t have an outlet right now that doesn’t involve turning my brain off completely.

I want to “just enjoy it”, just like I want to “just enjoy” playing Dota. But I don’t. And I’m not sure if that’s permanent. I don’t know if there’s just too much access to things that are just too convenient, so things that are slightly inconvenient just fall into the bucket of “ehhh I’ll get around to them,” or even worse, “ugh let’s just get through this.”

I wish I had something smart or hopeful to end this blog post off with, but all I can really say is that I never truly regret turning GameCenter CX on my TV, turning off my cell phone, and just letting myself sink in. Arino’s spirit — backhanded compliments and all — is infectious, and there’s a genuine joy there that I don’t think the show could survive without.

I want to have that joy for myself, one day. Even just for a little bit.

It’s hard to watch GameCenter CX legally in the West (Kotaku put out some episodes before losing the license, and Discotek Media has an out-of-print compilation DVD), but there are a couple fan-subtitle groups out there that have torrents if you’re feeling saucy.

There’s also an unofficial fan-penned episode guide on Amazon, or one by one of the fansubbing groups; if you’re interested in reading more, there’s some resources if you hunt for them.


Amazon links on this post may be affiliate links to help support Matt.

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By Matt Demers

Matt Demers writes about media, esports, life, and mental health. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram. You can watch him stream on Twitch. You can listen to his podcast at Good Morning, Good Night.