by Guest Contributor Bao Phi, originally published at Your Voices
This is not a review. This is a blog entry where I explore issues of race and representation in pop culture, in this case, video games.
I’ve been hooked on videogames since the days of the Atari 2600, though my family was too poor to have one. When I was young, I am ashamed to say that any kid who had an Atari had a good chance of being my best friend, as long as I got to come over to play Atari during slumber parties or birthdays. In grade school at Anderson, some of the ‘problem’ kids, if they were good, got to choose a friend to take 5 minutes and play Atari as a reward – I was always thrilled when I got that chance.
Through the years, if a system was able to play a video game, I’d play it. I’d torture myself with text-based games on the Apple IIe, playing them over and over again even if I kept dying or failing in the same place. I was obsessed with the Smurfs game on the Colecovision, got yelled at by my moms for playing too much Kid Icarus on the NES, and one of my proudest gaming moments was when a friend of mine brought over Zelda II: the Adventure of Link, telling me he just could not beat shadow link – and how he jumped into the air when I did it for him. I lost my temper way too easily when I lost at Mortal Combat or Street Fighter 2 in the arcades. When Civilization came out, I mercilessly hung out at my friend’s apartment and played on his computer all night, like some shameless video game scrub. When my dad needed quarters to take the bus to work, we’d go and use the change machines in Thompson’s Arcade, and my dad would give me exactly two quarters to play (it was also there where a white man once asked me my ethnicity, and when I told him I was Viet, he gave me a brochure translated into Vietnamese trying to convince me to convert to Christianity, and the irony is, I probably would have read more of that brochure if it was in English). In college I saw a guy in my computer lab playing some 3-D game where he went around blasting demons, and he taught me how to type in the sentence on the computer that would allow me to play Doom. After a strenuous test or big paper was due in college, I’d drive to Mall of America and blow $10 of quarters on this arcade game where you got to hold this big garish plastic machine gun and shoot things. During my mid-20’s I was a terror to my roommates and their friends in Goldeneye.
You get the picture. I’m still gaming today, just got my second red ring of death for my Xbox 360, and my partner has asked me to please stow my Master Chief helmet in a place where our guests can’t see it. Not only do I game, but I’ve also written about racial representation, especially regarding Asians and Asian Americans, in video games, and also read a lot of online reviews and discussions regarding this hobby that I have grown up with.
Anyone who’s played games has heard of the Final Fantasy series of games. I was a big fan of Final Fantasy on the SNES, particularly FF III, I think. It gets a little confusing since Final Fantasy is a Japanese series, not all of which makes it overseas to American audiences, and thus get numbered differently. So basically, Final Fantasy III in the U.S. might be Final Fantasy VI in Japan.
Recently, Final Fantasy XIII has come out, and following the previews, reviews, screenshots, and looking at the concept art, it reminds me of a question that is provocative but seems to be ignored – why do Japanese game companies create so many games where the protagonists all look European or white? Sure, Final Fantasy XIII has one Black character, but then it makes it all the more compelling to ask, why aren’t there any Asian characters?
Final Fantasy fanboys, let me reiterate: THIS IS NOT A REVIEW. I’m sure that the in-game cinematics are fluid and gorgeous, the art design is innovative, and that the new battle system grows on you. This is not a blog entry on game play. If you want a review, there are dozens out there that don’t even bother to mention race – go take your pick.
In fact, that’s why I am using this space to ask this question, which I find slightly odd since there have been so many issues, from the mundane to the obscure, written about video games. I find it fascinating that Japanese companies, again and again, create games featuring predominantly white characters – or, to put it another way, games where there are no characters that look Asian. This is particularly interesting considering the demographics of Japan, and also their reputation, earned or otherwise, for colonization and nationalism. And as an American gamer who is Asian American, it’s also an issue since most American and European game makers also make games where the majority of the characters are white.
Sure, there are exceptions: the Yakuza series and Lost Planet, for example, or fighting games which tend to be more inclusive in their stereotypes of people the world over. But those are, again, exceptions. For the few that we can think of that have characters with Asian features, let’s create a list of games and characters that are white, and for the sake of argument, let’s limit it to ones created by the Japanese game industry: Link and the Zelda series, Mario, Snake from the Metal Gear series, almost all of the characters from the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series, as well as the vast majority of characters from the multitudes of Final Fantasy games. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. These are not niche characters or games: these are well-known, well-loved franchises, commercially and critically acclaimed.
This is not an attempt to attack Japan or Japanese people, I’m simply asking a question about something very provocative that no one seems to be asking, which is surprising given that other socio-political discussions on gaming have at least popped up here and there. I’m not saying that those discussions are complete – I’m saying given that there has been at least some discussion about race, gender, and homophobia in gaming, no one has pointed out that, you know, it’s kinda weird that these games made by Japanese people, rarely have any characters that look Asian?
I’ll admit that my placement as an Asian American informs my curiosity, as there is a history of internalized self-hatred for many Asian Americans and a push for us to desire to aspire to whiteness, in appearance and in terms of culture (I used to dream I was, literally, a White Knight) – combined with the history of this country claiming the erasure of Asian and Asian American bodies is motivated by economics and not by racism (see the production of 21, and Avatar: The Last Airbender). There’s this idea that Asian culture is more important than Asian people, and that actual Asian people can be swapped out by people of other races and that it doesn’t matter.
I already hear the arguments. Again, I welcome informed and reasonable debate. But it has become obvious that some people have come to this blog not to read, think, and discuss, but to attack and try to bully me into silence from behind the safe anonymity that the internet gives them. I’ll offer anticipated arguments and my counter-arguments so that, when haters attack me, I can just refer them to the numbered bullet points. So, in no particular order:
- Game sites don’t report on things like this because they’re not political. I beg to differ. Many game sites publish stories on workers and developers getting overworked, underpaid, and exploited by corporations. That is absolutely political. And I’m glad that they do – these stories need to be heard. My point is, there are different political stories and discussions happening on game sites all the time – but people still shy away from race issues.
- It’s fantasy, it’s not real. Exactly – fantasy is only limited by our imagination. If we are free to create entire worlds and characters, why do we only create ones that look white?
- Gamers don’t want to think about politics. I hear all the time that gamers bemoan the stereotypes placed on them – that we’re all a bunch of straight male losers living in our parent’s basement, living off of junk food and deathly scared of having a conversation with a woman. I hear that gamers and game developers want to be taken seriously, and that games should be respected as a form of legitimate entertainment. Well, one thing that adults do is consider seriously these issues of race, gender, and sexuality. If gamers and game developers have indeed grown up as we keep demanding we have, then we can’t dismiss or deride any discussions on race, gender, and homophobia the way that they have been.
- You’re making something out of nothing. This is actually a part of racism: white people think that they’re the ones that get to tell us whether something is racist or not. People think they can dismiss racism, sexism, and homophobia by blaming people of color, women, and GLBTTs for being ‘overly sensitive.’ That’s like me coming over to your crib after you haven’t eaten for a week, listening to you say “damn, I’m hungry,” and insisting, “no, you’re not hungry,” then preventing you from eating. Which leads to the argument that usually follows:
- My best friend/girlfiend/wife/boyfriend/game designer is Asian and says it’s not racist, so you’re wrong. So by this logic, if I polled my white friends and got them to say it IS racist, I would win? I don’t hide behind my white friends, why should you get to hide behind your Asian ones? Don’t hide behind your friends: argue the points.
- It’s not about race, it’s about money. This ignores the fact that some of these blockbuster Japanese franchises made tons of money in Japan, with Japanese audiences, before they were exported here. And even if it were true, then can we have a discussion on how the exportation of culture, the massive wealth and power of U.S. western media makers, is gendered and racial as well as economic?
- It’s escapism – why do you want to play someone who looks like yourself? I don’t. When I get the option to create someone, like in Mass Effect 2, I make someone who looks a hell of a lot better than I do. In ME2, my character looks like what would happen if Daniel Dae Kim had a love child with Denizen Kane and was born with a lifetime gym membership. Anyway, people who ask this question really show their privilege: white people don’t worry about this because they take for granted that the vast majority of games made out there gives them AT LEAST one option to play someone the same race, gender, and sexual orientation as them. Put that into context: how many games out there, especially the ones with strong narratives and iconic characters, allow me to play an Asian male? Or a Black, Native American, Latina, or Arab woman, if I so chose?
- Race is not important in video games . If this was true, then there would be a lot more diversity in terms of stories and characters. Because if it doesn’t matter, then why not have more games where there’s an Asian protagonist? Why wouldn’t games made by predominantly Asian men, feature at least one or two Asian men as characters? Look at the gaming climate today – maybe we should ask ourselves, why do game developers only seem to think that white characters make compelling characters? Why are the vast majority of games being made ask us to relate to a white narrative and character? And even if race or gender or sexual orientation doesn’t matter to you, can it matter to someone else?
- Games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Age are based in European folklore and there were no people of color in Medieval Europe. Actually there were people of color in Medieval Europe. You know what? There were more actual people of color in Medieval Europe than there were REAL FIREBREATHING DRAGONS OR PEOPLE WHO COULD SUMMON MOTORCYCLES OUT OF THIN AIR WITH THEIR MAGIC POWERS.
- Japanese people shouldn’t be limited to making games that only have Japanese people in them. I agree completely! As artists and creators, empathy and creativity, including stepping out of your own shoes and exploring the lives of others, is important. I’m not saying that all Japanese games should be required to have Japanese characters – I’m asking why so few of them do. And also, why is it that those of us who are people of color are continually asked to relate to someone who is not from our own race? Why can’t people see that we have far fewer opportunities to see representation of people who are from our own race in pop culture and media?
- If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. The problem with this is, it’s not like a movie where you can rent it or look at a trailer. You buy a game and you’ve invested $60 and a chunk of your time and energy to play it. And you can’t rely on reviews because, well, game reviews generally don’t talk about issues like racial representation. It’s not like if you read that Mass Effect 2 stripped away a bunch of its RPG elements and so you decide not to buy the game. If you’re a person who cares about this stuff, you’re on your own. I didn’t hear about Dr. Suchong before I bought and played Bioshock. I didn’t know that Ada Wong was a Dragon Lady stereotype until after I had bought Resident Evil 2. It’s not like you can take a game you bought back to Gamestop or Best Buy because you found some representations in it to be problematic. Can you?
- Some of these games feature American stories and characters, even if they’re made by the Japanese. This ignores the existence of people of color in America, including Asian Americans. American does not equal white, though this mindset says a lot about the idea that Asians are perpetual foreigners. Where are you from? Asians get this a lot. Plus, even if we went with this idea that America is majority white and that’s why the characters are, that hasn’t stopped white Western game developers from making a multitude of games set in Asia starring a white male protagonist.
- The characters could be racially mixed and biracial. Sure – but what, in the game or story, would have us believe that, or come to that conclusion? Where does this desire come from – to see these characters, who have blond hair and blue eyes, which are markers of whiteness around the world, as mixed? Does it add to the conversation and narrative, or is it an excuse to avoid these issues?
- Japanese people do make games with people who look Asian, like (fill in blank). Of course there are some exceptions. But that’s just what they are: exceptions. Try this: list all the iconic Japanese games and characters out there that feature characters that are white. Now, create another list – with ones that are Asian. See?
- They’re not supposed to be white or Japanese, the characters are in a fantasy world where they’re just human. If this is the case, then isn’t it a little odd that we equate human with light hair, pale skin, and blue eyes?
- Is race all you care about? If so, I would have stopped playing a long time ago. I care about all the other things that gamers obsess and flame about on the boards: I think Gordon Freeman is a vanilla character but thrill at Half Life 2’s stellar level design and pacing (special shout-out to Portal). I think Bethesda’s open worlds are breath-taking and mind-blowing, and yet I’m seriously irritated by their weight-based inventory system in their games. I’m one of those crazy people who prefer Saints Row 2 to Grand Theft Auto IV, because even though SR2 is more juvenile, messier, and offensive, it’s also more fun to me. And when I read about developers who get exploited by publishers, I get sad for them and their families and feel grateful for all the nerd sweat that went into making that snowmobile escape scene so exciting (and pretty) in Modern Warfare 2. I love games, for all their frustrations and myriad flaws. These issues of representation are just an added level of consideration for me.
You may have noticed that I don’t really provide any answers to my main query. That’s because I honestly don’t have all the answers. I’m asking a question and I am curious as to what people think. I also find it perplexing that people haven’t really asked this question before, especially as issues of race and gender and sexuality in gaming have been touched upon by various media. The above rebuttals are to counter the knee-jerk reactions which I anticipate getting, as I am quite familiar with haters who don’t even bother to read my entire entries before putting up some abusive comment, or those who think snarky apathy is a cool substitute for honest debate and discussion. I am also familiar with people who will complain that any of us even bring up these issues, which is perplexing since there are literally hundreds of other sources, professional or otherwise, that cover gaming which wouldn’t touch this issue – is it really that threatening that we talk about these things?
All of this adds up to people trying to bully those of us who would bring up questions of race into silence, or worse, make us blame ourselves for the flaming that goes on whenever we try to ask a difficult question.
And again, I don’t want it to appear that I’m unfairly picking on Final Fantasy XIII, as it’s far from the only Japanese cultural product that features predominantly white characters. I also don’t want to pick on Japanese people. I’m not coming at this from some self-righteous place – anyone who read my nerd blog entry will remember that I have a lot of personal experience in imagining fictional worlds where everyone (including me) was white, and back then, if you told me there were racial aspects of my imagination and dreams, I would have gotten defensive and insisted that it was not racial and then I would have asked you to get out of my dreams.
I ask at this point in time because, for years, there have been a lot of blockbuster games from Japan featuring majority white characters, and yet very little has been spoken about it. B I’m not interested in policing how many people of color and Asians appear in a game, I’m honestly wondering where all of this comes from, and also why we can’t talk about it.
I am curious about these issues as both a consumer and a creator. If we have the tools of creation, of story telling and world building and character at our disposal, what we create ultimately says something about us.
Thanks in advance for any constructive conversation and insight.