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Gaming 'god' Hideo Kojima has a vision for us Homo sapiens

'Metal Gear' creator says the pursuit of play moves society forward

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Hideo Kojima is introduced by Sony during their PlayStation 4 E3 2016 event in Los Angeles on June 13, 2016.   © Reuters

TOKYO When Hideo Kojima stepped on stage at The Game Awards 2016 to collect the Industry Icon Award, he was greeted with a standing ovation. It was a moment fans at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, and many of the 3.8 million viewers watching live around the world, had been waiting for.

Hideo Kojima envisions a world in which there is "gaming in every aspect of life."

The legendary video game designer, formerly with Konami Digital Entertainment, had been unable to attend and accept the award the previous year.

The man behind the blockbuster "Metal Gear" series, along with cult hits like "Snatcher" and "Policenauts," left Konami in December 2015 to establish his own company, Kojima Productions, or Koji-Pro for short. After 30 years in the industry, he started fresh, in a cramped Tokyo office with just four "comrades."

There were no meeting spaces. Job interviews were held at a nearby cafe. If there was a need to copy documents, someone ran to a convenience store. This was a huge step down from Konami's facilities. But Kojima, who some fans call "god," was happy.

"I wanted an environment where I could concentrate on 'making things,'" he said of the transition. "When you are in a large company, you have to sell new products every once in a while within the framework of the company's budget, and a lot of time is taken up with coordination between different departments."

One year on, Koji-Pro has moved into a new office in the bustling business district of Minato. "All the contractors were busy building the new stadium for the Tokyo Olympics, so the work on our office was delayed," Kojima joked.

The new, open-plan digs can accommodate a team of 100 (handy, given the number of people joining Koji-Pro these days). A slightly elevated bar counter at the front looks out over the desks; Kojima calls this spot, his favorite, the "command center."

STRANDS, NOT STICKS Kojima Productions' first game will be "Death Stranding," an open-world action game featuring Hollywood actors Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen, as well as an appearance by director Guillermo del Toro.

The bar counter in Koji-Pro's new office: Kojima calls it the "command center."

The game remains shrouded in mystery, but Kojima said it will make players feel "the connective power of the 'strand,'" in contrast to previous games that were all about "sticks."

Drawing on Japanese writer Kobo Abe's short story "Nawa" (Strand, or Rope), Kojima explained that a strand is a tool for attracting things that are good for you, while a stick is for beating back enemies.

"It is true that the internet has evolved, and people are more connected through social media," Kojima said. "But they are still using sticks."

On the surface, at least, Kojima prioritizes the "connectivity of strands" in how he runs his operation. His aim is not to expand Koji-Pro or take it public -- in other words, wielding a stick in typical corporate fashion. "We are not a company. We are a studio. I won't hire more people for the sake of developing multiple games at the same time. We will dedicate our efforts to a single title at a time."

But Kojima also has much bigger ideas. He believes that gaming will change drastically. Rather than having players sit in front of a TV, clutching a controller, "fiction and reality will merge, and there will be gaming in every aspect of life."

"Boktai," an action game series Kojima produced for Nintendo's portable Gameboy Advance in the early 2000s, offers a peek into his thinking. A solar sensor was embedded into the game cartridge, and the amount of sunlight the cartridge received affected the virtual world of the game. This was Kojima's answer to the fact that children were sitting inside and playing rather than venturing outside.

Just as Sony's Walkman ushered in the era of music on the go, the games and technologies Kojima envisions could lead to entirely new lifestyles, and liven up the mundane.

"If you look at the way you buy a [train] ticket from a vending machine, it hasn't changed at all," he said. "But we can make it much more entertaining. Games, music, films, attractions, education -- all of these will 'dissolve' through the use of digital in the future."

He added: "We are not an organization just for games. ... We are the Starship Enterprise that leads us to a new world, a new dimension through technology."

Koji-Pro, he said, will look to "collaborate with industries and companies outside of gaming."

HOMO LUDENS Influences from other industries are nothing new for Kojima. Film techniques and references are frequently found in his games. To name a few, the protagonist of the "Metal Gear" series is modeled on the character Snake Plissken from the movie "Escape from New York." A character in some of the series installments is called "Strangelove," a direct reference to the classic "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." One of Kojima's earliest works, "Snatcher," draws heavily on the sci-fi film "Blade Runner."

The 53-year-old accumulated his vast knowledge of movies in his youth, when he wanted to be a film director. The high cost of a camera and other equipment prompted him to give up that dream. He also decided against a career in writing, given the scarce opportunities for publishing novels in those days.

But the world has changed. It is possible to shoot an entire film on a smartphone. Editing software is available for free, and the channels for release are abundant. The same goes for novels: Blogs, Twitter and self-publishing on Amazon are all possible platforms.

Ludens, Kojima Productions' mascot

"The tools for making things all by yourself are readily available," Kojima said. "You don't have to be at a large company to make fabulous creations. It is nonsense to not do creative [things] right now."

He has little patience for those who lack initiative. "Those who say, 'I want to make games, so please teach me after I start working for your company,' won't be able to survive in this day and age. We wouldn't hire that sort of person at Kojima Productions. If they wanted to make a game, they would have already made it."

"Ludens," the mascot of Koji-Pro, embodies Kojima's worldview. The name is taken from the book "Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture," by the Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, who claimed that the act of playing (ludus) is what makes human beings human -- and that it predates culture.

"There will be people who see something they have not seen before [in a game], and are compelled to create something of their own," Kojima said. Those who play become the creators, who then devise new forms of ludus.

In Kojima's eyes, that is how society moves forward.

A message on Kojima Productions' website, titled "From Sapiens to Ludens," reads:

We are Homo Ludens (Those who play).

From the moment we enter this world,

We instinctively invent ways to have "fun,"

and share our inventions with those around us.

We are not asked to do this,

nor do we need reasons to create. It is simply who we are.

...

"Playing" is not simply a pastime,

it is the primordial basis of imagination and creation.

Truth be told, Homo Ludens (Those who Play) are

simultaneously Homo Faber (Those who Create).

...

Through the invention of play, our new evolution awaits.

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