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Asians and Videogames - an older essay [Jul. 1st, 2008|02:04 pm]
Gamers of Color

gamers_of_color

[caphe]
Hello folks,
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 Hollywood films, and as they strive to become more and more sophisticated and reach broader audiences, thorny issues of representation will invariably come up and no issue is more dreaded than race.

 

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 America or European-themed fantasy settings.  But this reasoning is flawed, because it assumes that American = white, and it ignores the question, why are Asians so fascinated in creating imaginary fantasy settings where everybody looks Caucasian?  And even if we followed that faulty logic, would we then assume that games set in Asia should feature Asian characters exclusively?  Recent games like Project: Snowblind and Killer 7, which take place in Asia or Asian-themed worlds, do not feature any Asians as playable characters.  Even Japanese historical figures get the Caucasian make-over treatment: in Brave Fencer Musashi and Musashi Samurai Legend, legendary Japanese historical hero Miyamoto Musashi gets modernized into a brown haired, blue-eyed teenager who looks like he could have stepped out of an American boy band.

 

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 China or Japan, and that Asian men don’t exist in present day America.

 

There are a few exceptions, like the Grand Theft Auto clone True Crime: Streets of LA which features a hapa cop named Nick Kang (voiced by Russell Wong).  However, Nick Kang wasn’t a popular character, in fact he made quite a few “worst video game characters of the year” lists in video game magazines and websites.  I don’t think, necessarily, that he was hated because he was Asian American, because quite frankly I thought he was annoying too: I mean, shouting out “Kung Pao!” when he hit someone?  For Chrissakes.  But it just goes to show that we Asians have so few characters to choose from, as opposed to whites who have a wide range of games and characters that represent them and that they can identify with.  You don’t like Nick Kang, Asian American man?  Too bad, ‘cuz he may be the only Asian American male lead you see in a video game for a long, long time.

 

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; Midnight Club 3 even went as far as to collaborate with DUB Magazine for its third installment. Yet these games, developed in Canada and the U.S., tend to feature white, Chicano, and Black men and some Asian female models, with no Asian American men to be found.  I think maybe one guy I raced against in the first Need for Speed: Underground was named Takashi or something, but just one minor Asian American male character in an import tuner racing game?  And while Midnight Club 2 did feature some Asian characters, most of them were actually Asians in Asia, specifically Japanese, not the pan-Asian American community of racers here in the U.S.  This is hardly surprising, given that the racial stereotypes are that Asians are forever foreigners, we’re perceived as always being from somewhere else mysterious and exotic.  But that fact that Asian characters are lacking at worst and foreigners at best in the “authentic” import racing game genre, even though we Asian Americans were the ones who started the import street racing culture here in America in the first place, is especially disappointing.  That would be like making an “authentic” video game about hip hop culture and leaving out any African American characters.

           

            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 Auto III, there are informational blurbs about the various street gangs and organized crime families that you can find in Liberty City.  Out of all of them, the Japanese yakuza are singled out as having a ‘patriarchal hierarchy’.  Um, okay, as opposed to the other street gangs and mafia who presumably operate with a matriarchal feminist autonomous commune type of structure?

 

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 Chinatown street gang named Shun Ying Lee – as if she needed a white knight to fight her battles for her.  You’d think, being the Chinatown brawling boss, she’d have some Chinese dudes capable of defending their turf – or better yet, since she’s the boss, it’d be cool if she didn’t even need to call some random white brawler since she was the one kicking all the ass.

 

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: ‘Nam 67.  Of the three characters I was allowed to pick as my avatar (none of them Asian), I chose the Black man.  He and his platoon were stationed in a dusty camp ringed by barbed wire and sand bags, and as a player you could bring your money to the nearby prostitutes who solicited you with cheesy “me love you long time” accents, and you were treated to an in-game cut-scene (gamer-speak for a non-interactive cinema within the videogame) where your chosen prostitute led you into a hut and closed the door – then the window shutters started to shake from your assumed boom-booming.  In a level where my unit was moving towards a village through a foggy rice paddy, we are ambushed by VC wearing the black-pajama-and-rice-picker-hat ensemble which has come to symbolize Viet Cong.  One woman shouts at me in Vietnamese and opens fire on me with her AK.  I turn and pull the trigger on my controller, and the rifle roughly but realistically bucks and climbs as I fire a burst of bullets her way and her head explodes in a bright red gush.  Later we get to a village, where I execute a bunch of Vietnamese and shoot one escaping VC in the back.  Later in the game, after some of my crazy platoon mates execute some Vietnamese civilians for fun, our Southern Vietnamese guide tortures a Vietnamese woman who is revealed to be a spy for the Viet Cong, and as if to suggest that Asian men are even more brutal than any other race of man, he tortures her breasts with his knife before cutting her throat.

 

            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 Viet Nam, but then again those wars are farther away in our collective memory and in our history, and also those games don’t involve soliciting hookers and torturing civilians.  And WWII games are not the only games that feature white people, whereas the only games that feature Vietnamese people are ones which reinforce the same old roles that the West has for Vietnamese people in popular entertainment: hooker or guy-who-gets-shot.

 

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 Viet Nam.  There is even lip service paid to those issues in Shell Shock, during a cut scene where a white soldier is getting lectured on race issues by one of his fellow Black soldiers.  But what about the racially loaded issues of using slurs like “gook” in a video game?  What about the experiences of the Vietnamese soldiers in the war, no matter what side they’re on?  Why are Vietnamese people always merely background, even in games that feature our culture, our country, our conflicts? 

 

            The lack of press surrounding Asian representation is not solely delegated to games about the Viet Nam war.  Garnett Lee writes that the “over-played Hispanic culture references” could be seen as “offensive” in his 1UP review of Total Overdose,     yet I couldn’t find a single review that mentioned the offensive, tired Orientalist clichés found in Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb.  There was also a slight hubbub in the press when members of the Haitian community got upset about violence towards Haitian characters in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.  However, there was no discussion about the racial politics of a Chinese Triad boss hiring a Black man to kill off a bunch of Vietnamese gangsters in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  Most of the preview pictures for LucasArt’s Mercenaries featured a hapa character Jennifer Mui pointing her rifle at the head of various subdued Korean men, and the subtitle for the game is Playground of Destruction. I sincerely doubt that many Koreans or Korean Americans would favorably see any of the conflict or tension in Korea, real or imagined, as being a “playground”.  Would the video game industry make a game called Columbine: Playground of Death?          

           

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 NBA Street series, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I and II offer vast character customization options that offer a wide range of genders, appearances, and skin colors.  The critically acclaimed and commercial blockbusters Halo and Halo 2 feature a lead protagonist, John, who is never seen without his helmet: he could be of any race under there (though I’m guessing the future Hollywood Halo film will cast a white dude and ruin the racial ambiguity).  Enter the Matrix, despite being related to the crappy Matrix movie sequels and being a painfully mediocre game, sold a lot of copies and may be the first big budget game in which the two sole playable main characters are a Black woman and an Asian man: Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) or her right hand man, Ghost (Anthony Wong).  I was surprised when I was playing Indigo Prophecy and an elderly Japanese character who was speaking in stereotypical broken English started speaking in a husky Brooklyn accent, saying that he only put on the accent for show and that he had never been farther than Long Island.  The critically acclaimed Prince of Persia series features a compelling Persian protagonist and a female Indian warrior.  Jeremy Zoss, Associate Editor of the popular Game Informer magazine reports that the sequel to The Suffering, entitled The Ties That Bind, is “the only game I’ve ever seen that features an Islamic character that isn’t a terrorist or villain.”  And though Jade Empire’s neo-Orientalist fusion of Asian cultures is often annoying and predictable, and they don’t feature enough Asian American voice actors, I have to give the game props for offering a wide choice of Asian men and women characters to chose from, and providing opportunities for a romantic story between Asian characters, which is seldom seen in any form of Western popular entertainment. 

           

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

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: yeloson
2008-07-01 10:28 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this is like my 100% disappointment with Crackdown. I was looking forward to co-op superhero-ish action in a sandbox game... first thing I get? Vatos and hypersexualized latinas. Is it possible to be worse than GTA? I think Crackdown mades a solid case. :/
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: kialio
2008-07-02 04:27 am (UTC)
Ooo, may I have permission to repost this at the network?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: kialio
2008-07-02 04:27 am (UTC)
Ack, didn't mean to respond to you, but to caphe.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: caphe
2008-07-02 08:11 pm (UTC)
That would be great! I tried going to the network but, technopeasant that I am, couldn't figure out how to navigate it. I was going to try and post it there but couldn't figure it out. If you post it, can you send or post me a link?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: caphe
2008-07-02 08:10 pm (UTC)

also...

Did you get to the end? The head criminal mastermind is, of course, a Chinese man in this neo-pagoda skyscraper thingie... basically, he's the leader of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced gang. Wow.

Unfortunately there are a LOT worse games than GTA. Not letting it off the hook - just sayin'. Did you hear about that game where the end boss is a kung-fu fighting Bin Laden? Whoa.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: yeloson
2008-07-03 03:56 am (UTC)

Re: also...

Ugh. I played the demo and decided I wasn't going to give them any of my money... But evil pagoda chinese man? Guh. Kung fu Bin Laden?

I swear, crack flows strong in the vg world.
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