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The Invisible People: Why Asians Need to Be Better Represented in Video Games

In 2015, almost 50 percent of Asian Americans felt they weren't satisfyingly depicted in video games. Has this situation improved since?

by Khai Trung Le
Aug 8 2016, 7:13pm

The Prey reboot revealed at the Bethesda's E3 2016 press conference leans in, just as Morgan Wu does toward the mirror, inviting viewers to speculate on the details—the vacant space station, the unsettling routine, his increasingly bloodshot eye. But I found myself focusing on another aspect: This is an Asian character and a protagonist at that. Not in an indie or B-tier game, seemingly not a paper-thin villain or "Engrish"-speaking comic relief, but the lead in a much anticipated and high-concept title. While we currently know very little about Wu, I will confess that those first glimpses were intensely evocative. You hear it a lot because, for one reason or another, some people still need to accept it: representation matters.

'Prey,' E3 2016 reveal trailer

Prey is not unique in this. It is heartening to see standout examples of positive Asian roles in recent years. It's an obvious starting point, but Mirror's Edge's Faith has been one of the most celebrated examples of lead-character diversity, despite the predictable affront at the lack of overt sexuality from the darker corners of message boards across the world. Elsewhere, Waking Mars's Dr. Qi Liang, a Chinese astrobiologist, is a quieter yet proactive lead with an autonomy that does not deny his ethnicity. Yes, he has a slight accent and, yes, he is a scientist. But neither is used to mock or accentuate his otherness.

F.A.N.G, as seen in 'Street Fighter V,' screenshot courtesy of Capcom

There is a reason Faith is an oft-go-to example. These exceptions are extremely rare and surrounded by the continuation of widely accepted tropes. Street Fighter V's F.A.N.G portrays some of the most classically derogatory Asian stereotypes—villainous, weak, conniving, effeminate—with such ferocity, it is astounding that it passed through so many eyes in Capcom without comment and continues to do so with its players. Asian and Middle Eastern characters are placed strictly as the enemy, cannon fodder in Call of Dutys and Battlefields or minor gangs in Grand Theft Autos, without the tonic of more nuanced representation elsewhere that might quell the dehumanizing effect of social stereotypes.

There is no doubt that games like Sleeping Dogs and SEGA's Yakuza series display a varied array of Asian characters, but the heroes are trained martial artists, triad members, tough guys. They do go out of their way to paint with more discerning brushstrokes on the sidelines of the main quests, but there are still plenty of disappointing stereotypes to be found in these games, likewise Koei Tecmo's Dynasty Warriors franchise. There's undeniably a degree of "Orientalism" about these productions, which can come across as a fetishization of established, and out-dated, Asian tropes.

'Yakuza 5' announcement trailer—the game is currently available (in August 2016) for "free" via PlayStation's PS Plus service

The issue of representation is perhaps more difficult to confront because Asians have always occupied a significant presence in games history, culture, and production, creating the assumption of a non-issue. China, Japan, and South Korea are strong markets for video games with their own idiosyncrasies, studios and market influence, and are certainly as responsible for propagating these tropes as Western developers and publishers. Nor do Asian men experience the same career barriers within the tech sector and generally are not currently under the extremities of harassment and hate felt by others: not under threat of deportation or assumptions of terrorist sympathies, nor under fear of trigger-happy law enforcement. Fortunately, there has been no organized social-media movement against Asians—although some of the coarser language certainly focused on ethnicity—but rather a continuous disregard.

Nevertheless, 49 percent of Asian American respondents to a 2015 Nielsen survey "strongly disagreed" with the statement of "all races have ample representation/inclusion in video game characters." This is more than twice as high as Hispanic and African American respondents, and similarly more than twice as high than women that "strongly disagreed" with the same statement toward gender.

Why is there so little discussion around this? While the dialogue surrounding diversity is becoming increasingly widespread, to exciting and brilliant results, there is a lamentable absence of discussion regarding Asians; neither celebrated during peaks of positivity and going largely unnoticed by communities passionately championing diversity in games. This absence of recognition can be seen in other spaces: most of us know African American/Puerto Rican Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man, Pakistani-American Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, and presumably African American Riri Williams as the forthcoming new Iron Man. But from what I saw, at least, there was a lot less social-media buzz when Amadeus Cho became the (totally awesome) Hulk in 2015.

This quiet isn't a sign of acceptance. It does not denote the absence of the problem but an unwillingness to show awareness and forge a conversation around it. For as long as this absence is felt, there is no drive for improvement. There are bigger problems to deal with, or it's worse for women, or Asians have it good enough, or It's up to them to speak up about it are claims I have witnessed far too often for comfort. All are statements with varying degrees of accuracy and spoken not as resolution but evasion. There is always an excuse for passivity, a reason not to care or confront.

'Mirror's Edge Catalyst,' the sequel to the original game of 2009, came out earlier in 2016

From this, the litany of micro-aggressions, of denigrating stereotypes considered acceptable to peddle will permeate unabated. In general terms, Asian woman continue to be prizes or villainesses, Asian men continue to be faceless martial artists or emasculated. Game makers, producers and, arguably most important, its audience have tremendous power to either assert these stereotypes or resist them. Mirror's Edge and its sequel, Waking Mars and, hopefully, Prey are steps to deliver a much needed change in representation.

This isn't a call to divert attention, or a protest against other minorities "that have it better," a falsehood I'm cautious to avoid. There is space within all of games culture to confront representation of the trans community, abuse of women in tech industries, and the desire to see a diversity of storytelling that reflects gaming's audience, among others. But perhaps it's time to realize that there has long been an invisible people who also need this conversation to happen for them. I sincerely hope to see this happen, soon.

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