Ching Chong Beautiful Exposes Racism in Video Game Design

by Latoya Peterson

On Christmas, reader Mel sent us a little present. He wrote in about a flash based indie video game covered by the Escapist. The title? Ching Chong Beautiful.

I click over the link, expecting to see a take down. After all, the Escapist does publish a lot of progressive gaming commentary, and our blog bud Pat over at Token Minorities has been known to bless them with a piece or two. So imagine my shock when I checked the endorsement:

That’s kind of the principle behind Newgrounds’ latest well-promoted title, the kind-of-offensive-but-actually-really-funny Ching Chong Beautiful, developed by The Swain. Your brother is kidnapped by Mr. Beautiful, whose obstacle course is A.) known to be deadly and unbeatable and B.) the most popular TV show in Japan. In order to save your brother, you must get a thoroughbred horse, and the only way to do that is – you guessed it – enter Ching Chong Beautiful.

I clicked over and prepared to play.

The game starts throwing stereotypes in the blender from the intro page:

A Game of Great Endurance Challenge!

http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/520768

The game features the new High Scores system and Newgrounds medals! So go grab some green tea, get drunk on sake, and maybe poach some whales if there’s time…the Bang Wong Fishhead Corporation challenges you to defeat Mr.Beautiful’s ancient obstacle course: Ching Chong Beautiful!

And it goes from there.

Now, before some gamers wander over here from other sites complaining about our general lack of humor and understanding, let me make something crystal clear: I get all the fucking jokes. I know what MXC is, I used to watch it on Spike. I know what Takeshi’s Castle is, I’ve watched it online. I know what this is:

The green can next to the television labeled “Sweat” is a play on the sports drink Pocari Sweat, which normally comes in a blue and white can or bottle. (And yes, I’ve tried that too.)

I’m aware that CCB is, in part, mocking the nature of these kinds of game shows that specialize in sadistic environments and public humiliation. But it’s still racist.

Much of the “humor” is visual. The game is set in Japan and includes lots of stereotypical images like these:



And for extra “oh, we’re so cool and un-PC” points, they named their levels things like “Crater Stadium” and “Spicy Tuna Bowl.”


The caption under Crater Stadium says: “A radioactive crater formed from big nuclear bomb! I couldn’t think of a more fitting location for my second course. You will die!”

The only thing missing was the orientalist riff.

So I play through the game. Sadly, the game play was actually fun. The initial concept (being trapped in a Japanese game show) was interesting and the game itself was just the right combination of frustrating and addictive. However, that was brought to a quick stop after a wall jump ended badly, and my little character Ching nearly cracked his head open on a block. Normally, when this happens, he yells out things like “this is bullshit!” or “aww, man!” (The announcer occasionally yells out “Too bad Chinatown!” after you fall.) But after that particular time, Ching screams: “You’re out of your zipperheads!”

What the fuck?

Predictably, the comments to the game are a cesspool – but I was interested to take a peek at the conversation over on the Escapist. And lo and behold, a couple lone voices of reason tried to call attention to how fucked up this all is:

SaintWaldo writes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ching_chong

Are you really this insensitive?

Just to clarify, this is equivalent to naming your Southern themed Flash game “N***er Lovely”.

Making me even more angry, this story was the FIRST thing I read on Christmas morning. Thanks, Escapist, for filling my holiday with racism.

The response? “Cool down, man.”

SaintWaldo keeps fighting:

HK_01:

Cool down, man.

No. I won’t “cool down”, mainly because I’M not the uncool one.

It’s a racial slur, it offends me, and I’m going to say so. Calmly. I’m also offended that you seem to read any disagreement as “not cool”. I’m rational and presenting coherent arguments that this is a racist title and should not be on the front page of an international magazine on a major holiday. What isn’t cool is being told to not voice your objections to racism. So, concern taken for what it is, but, please, don’t tell me how I should be expressing my genuine disagreement with promoting this title. I don’t tell you anything of the sort.

Other readers chime in as well:

spiral helix:

Thank you Waldo. Big props to you for standing up and pointing out how racist the title of this game is. It is offensive and your reaction is definitely justified. I’m pretty disappointed that Escapist would be so desperate for material over holiday period that they would even stoop to promoting a game with such a title. I usually come to escapist just to watch zero punctuation but the completely inappropriate title of the article made click on it. Thank you escapist for reminding me why i never read the articles here.

BonsaiK:

As someone who is part-Chinese I do find this game as not a very prudent choice for The Escapist to highlight. I’d definitely stop short of saying “I’m offended” (racial epithets make up easily over half of my CD collection after all) but I wonder if it’s the best choice especially given how many young people visit this site. “Ching-Chong” is a reference to Chinese people, but the game is parodying a type of TV show that is Japanese and actually has nothing to do with China. I guess to the American who made this game, that’s not an important distinction for him, because in his eyes Asians are obviously all the same. I interpret this as being very racist, even if he didn’t have any actual racist intent in making the game. It’s a shame that he had to taint his game with a stupid and unfunny name like this because I actually don’t mind the gameplay concept and some of the other humour in the game is reasonably clever.

I realise that The Escapist and a lot of gamers in general are obsessed with Japanese culture (although I can’t work out why, it seems very random to me) so I guess something that both references Japenese culture and is a computer game was irresistible to them as it helps them to magnify this (artificial) link. The fact that the article writer was willing to gloss over a little bit of inconvenient racism, because the article subject matter was just that tempting, makes the Escapist look amateurish. I think that The Escapist can find better things to write articles about than what some racist kid did on Newgrounds.

At this point, the author of the post steps in – and completely sidesteps the racism, merely noting that the game is popular and that is why it was recommended. Fail.

And the usual excuses are trotted out. Other gamers say things like “it’s not that offensive” or ching chong isn’t a slur, it’s a “percieved [sic] view of the sound of the language,” and “As for the racism, I think we should give a pass to any words that have not been used seriously in over fourty years.”

One person helpfully adds: “Having said all that, it’s entirely your right to be offended if you’re oriental, however if not, I think it might be an overreaction.”

Sigh.

So aside from the usual amount of racism, CCB strikes me as a wonderful example of reinforcing stereotypes when you are trying to mock them. This actually happens fairly often in media. The last time I tackled it in the gaming sphere was when I talked about Chris Mottes, CEO of Deadline Games, and his defense of racism in his title Chili Con Carnage:

Employing Mexican-American voice actors? Great job! Promoting underground Mexican bands? Even better. I was so impressed by Mottes’ initiative, I was completely blindsided by his next statement.

However, in reviews, forums, and blogs following the releases of both games, some people slammed Deadline for being bigoted towards Mexicans. While we did employ stereotypes we considered lighthearted and humorous, our intent was most certainly not to cast Mexican individuals in a derogatory light…But despite our best efforts, critics still slammed us for being racists.

Why, Chris, why? Why would you throw away all your hard work for a couple cheap, race based humor shots?

The reality is that no stereotype can be considered light-hearted and humorous. A stereotype is defined as “an often oversimplified or biased mental picture held to characterize the typical individual of a group.” Stereotypes are negative. Even “positive” stereotypes are ultimately detrimental to the groups that struggle to find a sense of self within the narrow parameters of society’s vision.

I’ll touch on this more in next month’s Cerise, but I have to say I was blown away. The tone of Mottes’ piece is unmistakably clear – this is how game designers think. This is how they justify their characters. It is as if the thought never crossed their minds that maybe, just maybe, the industry is sending a very powerful message out to minorities by saying that we do not exist outside of our stereotypical roles. If there were five or ten games with a multi-faceted, modern latino protagonist, maybe slipping in a few “light-hearted” stereotypes in one third person shooter would not be such a huge deal. It is still ill-advised, but you would have enough positive images on the market to balance out the negative images broadcast into the homes of every person who purchased this one game.

However, there is no balance. Stereotype after stereotype abound in the virtually crafted console world, with very few characters of color to provide an alternate perspective. Mottes argues that “most games with racist characters do not reflect the mindset of their developers.” I would argue that they do. It reflects the developer’s mindset in dealing with the world and in dealing with minorities. If the developer was not holding on to this mindset that minorities can be categorized with one or two main characteristics, we would have multi-faceted characters of color to play.

You lose the element of humor when you begin to reinforce the same dynamics you claim to poke fun at. A game lampooning television shows like Takeshi’s Castle? Fair enough. A game that relies on heavily stereotyped images, throws in random associations to bits and pieces of Japanese culture, and openly uses racial slurs? Not funny, not innovative, just racist.

What’s worse is that the game (and subsequent reaction) reinforces stereotypes on two levels. The first, what we described above, is the continuing animus toward Asians and Asian Americans, which result in people dismissing the voices and experiences of those impacted by this type of racism. The second is the reinforcement of the wacky Japan narrative, without which MXC would not have been possible. Interestingly, this othering, which masquerades as “understanding” other cultures, actually allows many people to lay their prejudices, xenophobia, and racism out on the table. As Lisa Katayama writes at Boing Boing:

The simple fact that I’m Japanese quickly became one of my greatest advantages as an aspiring writer. I started paying attention to my motherland as a repository of story ideas. I looked at things differently when I went back home, honed my story-finding skills, and launched my own blog, TokyoMango. I got major Japan-related assignments from magazines, consulting gigs from print and radio outlets, and a book deal. It was really strange for me, because all I thought I was doing was telling people about the place I came from. One thing was clear: Weird Japan sells. It’s an almost guaranteed success for book publishers and major traffic bait for blogs.

But writing about my own country’s quirks has its downside. I strive to tell each story objectively without condescension or sensationalism, but every time I write an article about, say, the engineer who has a body pillow girlfriend or the grad student who married a Nintendo DS character, I get hundreds of racially-charged comments from readers, long ranting responses from defenders of Japanese culture, and dozens of emails from people at big media outlets who want to find out more about these “strange” phenomena.

Why do so many love to gawk at this mysterious, foreign “other” that is Japanese culture? There are plenty of strange things going on in the US too, but when it happens in Japan, it’s suddenly incomprehensible, despicable, awesome, and crazy. This fascination doesn’t just end with angry commenters, either. Over the last couple of decades, it has spawned a huge industry of magazines, blogs, and products themed around Japanese culture marketed to Westerners by Westerners who are also obsessed with Japanese culture.

Lisa Katayama writes wonderful, interesting things – but she also began to feel the sting of racism continued to share small things from Japan. What started out as fun became bastardized into something ugly and awful. And games like CCB help to perpetuate the worst of both worlds: anti-Asian racism and wacky Japan stereotypes.