I wrote this at a friend's request back in 2004 for an Asian American website. I was asked to write it because, at the time, there was a rash of war games set in Vietnam, and being a refugee from Vietnam (and coming from a military family) combined with my interest in video games and social justice issues... well, dots were connected.
This is pretty old, but I thought i'd share it here.
In 2004 I was playing The Suffering when I stopped in shock. It wasn’t because I was swayed by the racially ambiguous protagonist’s brutal displays of graphic violence. It wasn’t because the game contained interesting content regarding African Americans and Chicanos in prison or the genocide of Indigenous peoples, because other games had at least paid lip service to these racial issues before. I was shocked because a character in the video game, the ghost of a white bigot prison guard, blathered on about how it was justifiable to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.
It was, and still is, the only reference to an Asian American racial experience that I’ve encountered in the many years that I’ve played video games. Okay, so I don’t play video games for a history lesson or to become enlightened about systematic oppression. Playing video games is one of my favorite hobbies, I have all three home console systems and for a grown-ass man, I blow way too much time and money buying and renting and playing all types of video games. Mostly I play video games so I can blow the hell out of things without anyone in the real world getting hurt by it. But it was refreshing to see a game attempt to tackle an often overlooked and controversial period of American history, and it was refreshing to me as an Asian American to finally see an important issue from our community acknowledged in a video game.
But such attention to or even acknowledgement of Asian American concerns, even as other social issues are being explored in the increasingly sophisticated world of videogames are, unfortunately, few and far between. Videogames have become a multimillion dollar industry, out-grossing
Race Issues Gone Global
Currently the three big home video game consoles are the Playstation 2 (Sony, Japan), the Xbox (Microsoft, the U.S.), and the Gamecube (Nintendo, Japan) with videogames being developed for each different console in countries all over the world, from the US to Croatia to Japan. The video game industry is multi-national, which means that project leads, game and character designers, and programmers can be of any ethnicity, nationality, and gender. I’m pointing this out because, in the few articles of read about race in video games, race representation issues are usually deflected by a statement such as, “no, that character isn’t a racial stereotype, it was designed by a [insert token person-of-color] guy and it was based on someone he actually knew.”
Quick lesson: race issues aren’t just about stereotypes, but the institution of and reinforcement of beliefs regarding people of color. So if you have a company, say, a video game developer, that is made up mostly of whites, in a field that caters to an audience that they perceive as overwhelmingly white male (like the video game market), it doesn’t really matter if you have a couple of token people of color doing some of your design and programming, the world that they operate in is already Eurocentric. Racism against an Asian person isn’t justified if you can find an Asian person to do it for you, Eurocentrism and racism is systematic and it can be reinforced by people of color who are ignorant or benefit from working within that system.
For example, you would think given that some of the world’s greatest and most inventive video game developers and designers are Japanese that there would be a better proliferation of Asian characters. Yet the most popular and critically acclaimed Japanese franchises and characters (Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Dragon Quest, Castlevania, etc.) all feature primarily European/white characters or characters with very Caucasian features. So is it okay that there are no Asian characters if it’s Asian people who are the ones leaving us out? One could argue that the above mentioned franchises, though created and designed by the Japanese, feature white characters because their stories are based in
What this suggests is that video games, no matter where they are produced and by whom, are created with a Eurocentric bias. No matter what game genre you play, from sports games to kung fu games to fantasy role playing games to futuristic sci-fi first person shooters, chances are the main playable character that you control (and can relate to and identify with racially) during the game is a white man, or if the game allows you to choose from different characters, a white male character is almost always available. For those of us who are people of color and indigenous, it’s rare that we are presented with a main character that we can identify with racially.
Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting
Though video games have come a long way in terms of graphics, control, accessibility, and sophistication, racial representation remains predictable. The Black, Pacific Islander, and Chicano characters are usually in sports games or “urban” themed games, the Indigenous characters are usually only in the Western-themed games, and the Asian characters are usually only found in the kung fu games - while of course white characters can be found in abundance in every genre, both as primary and supporting characters. Asian men in particular are difficult to find in roles outside of martial arts games or historical period games such as the Dynasty Warriors series, Tenchu, or Genji. This seems to suggest that Asian men only exist in the mainstream imagination if we’re in the feudal days of
There are a few exceptions, like the Grand Theft
It is especially perplexing that Asian male characters are missing in games like the Midnight Club series and the Need for Speed: Underground series, which capitalize on the recent mainstream fascination with street racing and import tuning, a vibrant urban subculture that was started by and remains heavily populated with Asian American men. Both these games and countless knockoffs like Juiced and Street Racing Syndicate go at great lengths to boast about the authenticity of their product; Club 3 even went as far as to collaborate with DUB Magazine for its third installment. Yet these games, developed in
Asian American men do make appearances as yakuza or triad thugs in some urban themed games with contemporary settings, but these characters are usually background at best and stereotypically villainous at worst. It’s okay for Asian men to be the bad guys sometimes, but why are we constantly one-dimensional embodiments of evil? For example, in the instructional manual for Grand Theft
The representation of modern Asian women is a bit more prolific and diverse in video games than Asian men, but that doesn’t mean that Asian women have it any better: they are usually supplementary to white men (i.e. Syphon Filter, Metal Gear Solid, etc.) or romantic interests to white men (i.e. Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb, Extermination, Resident Evil 2 and 4, etc). Asian women in video games usually fall in line with typical Western notions of Asian women: mysterious, exotic, sensual – and partnered with any race of man except for Asian men. You could point to an exception like the kick ass Lesbian hapa mercenary Hana Tsu-Vachel from the Fear Effect series, but her relationship with her white partner Rain is played for all its sexuality and exoticism, which is not exactly threatening to straight white male sexuality. Ada Wong from Resident Evil 2 and 4, as kick-ass as she may be, is a textbook example of a dragon lady stereotype. Even Kimora Lee Simmons, appearing as a digital version of herself in the urban fighting game Def Jam: Fight for New York, is mostly regulated to being a “prize” to be won and, later in the game, a damsel-in-distress in need of a rescue. And you would think that a modern day New Yorker like Kimora would wear modern clothes just like anyone else, but in the game she’s decked out in the Western man’s wet dream embodiment of an Asian woman’s outfit – a kimono. You’d think since Kimora is married to Russell Simmons, she could at least hook herself up with some Phat Farm gear.
It follows that many Asian women in video games symbolize the Western idea of the East as inherently feminine: when there needs to be a token character to represent Asia, it is usually a woman – for example, in the Japanese game Killer 7, the primary character is a morphing assassin named Harman Smith who can transform into 7 different people of different races and abilities, all of them men – except for his Asian persona, wherein he morphs into a woman named Kaede. In Indiana Jones and the Emperors Tomb, wherein the first person in centuries to discover and invade an ancient Chinese Emperor’s tomb is not Chinese but a white man, Doctor Jones first offends then goes on a date with Mei Ying, the young assistant to the treacherous Martial Kai – as if Indy was a modern day Flash Gordon and the Chinese characters were Ming the Merciless and Princess Aura. And in Urban Reign, you play white guy Brad Hawk, hired and brought to town by the female leader of a
War: What Is It Good For?
Let me tell you, I love first person shooters. I’m broke as hell so I don’t have internet access at home, which means no online multi-player for me, but if we hook up my old Nintendo 64 and play Goldeneye or Perfect Dark on a four player split screen, watch out. I won’t even talk smack, I will just sit there and quietly thrill as the other players panic in horror of my skills. Metroid Prime, Halo and Halo 2, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Half-Life (for the PS2) and Doom 3 are among my favorite games of this console generation.
But shooting aliens and cyborgs and demons from hell, or even your friends in a fake British superspy setting, is one thing. Shooting at people who look like you, who curse at you in your mother tongue, in a game that is supposed to re-enact an actual war that happened in your lifetime that tore apart your country and your people and your family, is quite another - and I found that out the hard way when I started renting Viet Nam war-themed video games for the purpose of writing this essay. Honestly, as a Vietnamese refugee child of a 10-year Southern Vietnamese soldier, it was not a video game genre that I really wanted to explore. But at the time I was asked to write this months ago, there were no less than a dozen Viet Nam themed games on the shelves or in production, and as grotesque and perverse as the idea was to me, I started to play them.
The first game I rented and completed was Shell Shock: ‘
You can see where, desensitized American as I might be, the Vietnamese in me is horrified and feeling sick at this point. Yes, horrible acts were done during the war, but there is something disturbing about portraying such graphic and realistic horrors in an interactive medium like a video game. And though this game and the glut of others like it were informed by Hollywood’s interpretation of the war in films such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Hamburger Hill, there is a visceral and psychological difference in sitting through a two or three hour movie, and playing through a 9 to 20 hour video game where you yourself are pulling the trigger and getting shot at. And if you’re Vietnamese, then there’s a whole other bag of issues on top of all that.
What’s surprising to me is that there is little discussion regarding the portrayal of wanton and malicious violence towards Asians in these games, and no discussion that the portrayal of the Asian man as ultimately cruel, woman-hating, and almost inhumanly evil is never discussed. I’m not trying to suggest that these games make it more likely that a person regardless of their race will act violently towards an Asian person. What makes me curious is that video game companies were able to take a racially loaded and traumatic event in our recent, collective history into interactive entertainment with very little discussion or debate about it. Would video game companies have been able to make ‘realistic’, disturbing video games about a traumatic historical event so soon after those events took place if all the people involved in it were white? You may argue that there were even more games made about white people killing each other in the World War II game genre than there are games about
It’s also disconcerting that, in a country where violent acts of racial hatred are inflicted on Asians every day, there doesn’t seem to be any sensitivity towards or even meaningful discussions about these issues especially as it pertains to race. Again, I‘m not saying that I would jump on the bandwagon either way regarding whether video games actually encourage us to be violent or racist, what I’m saying is, why aren’t we even asking the questions, and why isn’t it even an issue? For example, there is an entire game, Men of Valor: The Viet Nam War, that features an African American character and deals with the complex racial issues of being a Black man in
The lack of press surrounding Asian representation is not solely delegated to games about the
On The Bright Side
I’m not calling for an end to video games, nor am I saying that the outlook is completely bleak. Already, excellent games like The Sims series, the NBA 2K and
As the game industry continues to grow and expand, then its representation of Asians and Asian Americans must grow more sophisticated and varied if it wants to keep up with its audience. We’re not all straight white guys shelling out $50 a game, content with Caucasian heroes, Asian men as cannon fodder, and Asian women as dragon ladies or damsels in distress. The game audience has become older, we’re of every race and gender and sexual orientation, we live (and play) all over the world, the game industry can’t afford to neglect us forever. And we, as Asian and Asian American consumers and gamers, could stand to be more critical of racial stereotypes and be more demanding for a variety of characters that are more like us.
© Thien-bao Thuc Phi