I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember. From my dad giving me four quarters — and no more than that — to spend at a video game arcade, to sleepovers at friends to play Atari 2600, to playing text-based adventure games on the Apple IIe, to helping my friend defeat shadow Link, to Doom to Half Life 2 to Knights of the Old Republic to Plants vs. Zombies to the Last of Us… OK, you get the idea. And for most of my early years, I had no problem that, in roughly 99% of the games I played, the protagonist was either a white male or a white elf or a white looking quasi-human.
It didn’t matter to me because it was drilled into my head that being white was the norm. Which is a bit weird because the neighborhood I grew up in was predominantly working class and poor people of color and American Indian. It wasn’t like I was trying to be like everyone around me (that came later), it was like being white was an escape. Escape from where I was, escape from people of all colors blaming families like mine for the Vietnam war, escape from a rainbow of bullies chasing me and calling me chink. And video games are in many ways the ultimate escape. Even more than films or books, you can get lost in lovingly rendered worlds and realities. You can effect a positive outcome and become a great hero or villain if you work hard and you don’t quit. But you better be OK with playing a white man, because you often won’t have a choice.
It’s 2014 and the issues of representation are still pretty dire unless you’re straight, white, and male. Sure, Black male characters are in sports games, but they’re also in games as criminals or soldiers. Latinos in games are gangbangers and sometimes undercover cops. Asian men are martial artists in non-narrative games and are almost never the sole choice. Arabs are terrorists and/or enemy soldiers. Native American people are in Westerns. Pacific Islanders are NPCs at most. Women of color are almost always either the love interest or the villain, if they are represented at all. And although there has been a little bit of progress with queer characters in recent years, they’re still scarce, and they tend to be white.
Racial representation is still a thorny issue. And while there have been a few articles I’ve read that deal with race issues in gaming, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: the writers often suggest that whites and Asians make up much of the workforce in the gaming industry, but then they skip directly to a conversation about the lack of Black, Latino, and Native American characters in games. While that is an important discussion to have, what seems to be implied is that Asians don’t have any issues about racism in gaming due to having relatively large numbers of bodies in gaming communities and the workforce.
But a question no one seems to be asking: if there are so many Asians who work in the game industry and play games, why are there so few Asian characters?
Before you think I’m saying Asians have it worse, we don’t. There are very few narrative games with a Native American playable characters: Gun, Red Dead Revolver, the Turok series, Prey, Assassin’s Creed III, and the upcoming Infamous: Second Son. It bears mentioning that three of those take place in Western-type settings. Aside from sports games, there are very few African American playable characters: Grand Theft Auto 3, Grand Theft Auto 5, the 50 Cent games, the Riddick games, Left 4 Dead, Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead are a few, and there are a few war games featuring Black soldiers such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Latinos don’t fair much better, with leading men in games like Shadows of the Damned (voiced by a white guy), Rainbow Six, Just Cause, Call of Juarez, and Dead Rising 3. There are a couple of games where the deuteragonist is a man of color, like Gears of War and Bulletstorm (Asian!).
(It’s worth noting at this point that, while scarce, there are quite a few playable and non-playable non-Asian men of color featured in military games, fighting for the “American” side — even if it’s against aliens in some sort of Unified Nations-type future world. But what language is everyone using? In gaming, it seems (non-Asian and non-Arab) men of color from America can be represented as soldiers defending against a “foreign” threat — and Asians and Arabs, within the paradigm of Orientalism, are easily positioned as the foreign enemy “other.” Asians are perceived as being too foreign to be American — an example of this dynamic can be found in issue #245 of Game Informer in their article about localizing Japanese games for American audiences: in one game, a producer admits that the staff was concerned that Persona was “too Japanese” and would end up “alienating Western consumers,” and part of their solution was to change the Japanese character Masao to Mark and change his race to African American.)
For women of color, it’s even more dire. There’s Chell from the excellent Portal series, and you could play as Niobe in the universally panned Enter the Matrix game (and as a bonus, you could also play as an Asian male, Ghost). There’s Sheva Alomar in Resident Evil 5. There are two women of color playable in the Dead Island series and one woman of color in Left 4 Dead 2. Nilin in the recently released Remember Me is one of the few leading characters who is a woman of color.
But while I’m not saying Asians have it worse, we certainly don’t have it better, especially when it comes to representation.
In the last five years of gaming, of all the narrative, character-driven games where the main character’s race is predetermined 1 , I can only think of two that featured Asian men: Sleeping Dogs and Vince’s chapter in The Walking Dead: 400 Days. To be fair, the Yakuza games also feature Asian male protagonists, but they’re not big over here in the U.S. and often aren’t localized, or take a damn long time to get localized. There’s also the strategy game series Shogun and Dynasty Warriors, but I don’t know if you’d count historical games as narrative character driven games. And even if we go back farther than five years, I can only think of few other examples with Asians as the main characters — the Onimusha series from the prior console generation, Jade Empire, Prince of Persia, and the first Lost Planet playable character was modeled after a Korean actor.
Regarding Asian women, there’s Faith from the cult classic Mirror’s Edge (although all of the men in Faith’s life were changed from Asian to white, presumably to make her more relatable to a mass market, and I guess having more than one Asian in a story at a time is too threatening). Though Clementine from Telltales’ The Walking Dead is not explicitly identified as Asian American, she is based on art director Derek Sakai’s daughter, and you can play as her in Season 2 of the game. You can play Ada Wong in the additional content for Resident Evil 4, and there’s a playable Asian woman in Dead Island. Worth noting that the last two examples are for additional content outside of the main game and also a playable character from an ensemble. Oh, and Ada Wong is pretty much a classic dragon lady stereotype.
So, if you think about all the games that have come out during that time frame, that’s not a lot of Asian playable main characters.
But what about Japanese games? If you look at the enduring, iconic characters from the Japanese game industry — Mario, Link, Solid Snake, Samus, Chris Redfield, Leon Kennedy — are either white and/or have European features and names. Some would argue that characters in the Final Fantasy series look white to us but look Japanese to Asian people. I don’t want to impose Western views of race on the world — but at the same time, I don’t think we can ignore the significance of characters with blonde hair and blue eyes inhabiting worlds with a heavily European-based fantasy aesthetic, coming from the imagination of a people who are predominantly dark haired and dark eyed.
My point is not that Asians have it worse. Rather, I’m debunking this unstated assumption that, just because Asians are perceived to have more representation in the workforce and as consumers of games, that doesn’t mean we’re fairly represented as characters in the actual games.
While of course I’d love the opportunity to play more Asians, it’s not all self-serving — because I believe it benefits us all to ask this question. I sometimes hear the refrain “we just need to get more people of color in the industry!” I’m all for that, but numbers alone won’t necessarily solve the problem. Again, if it was a numbers game, I think we’d at least see a tiny bit more Asian characters than we do. We can’t assume that game companies hiring more people of color is the answer, because we can’t assume that all people of color are interested in breaking down the dominant paradigms. In fact they may be even more hesitant to question the status quo to save their jobs.
Some would argue that it’s not about race, it’s about money. While the game industry is of course about making money, we can’t erase race from the equation. Maybe a fairer question is, who is the intended audience of these games, and what are their desires? If we assume that straight white males are the intended audience, then it makes sense that the only Asians you can play are martial artists, the only African Americans are in sports, that Latinos are criminals or only in games located in Latino communities, that Native Americans are only in Westerns, the only women of color are pretty much girlfriends or to be feared, and that queer people are on the periphery. But then it’s contradictory to state that race and representation doesn’t matter, because if it didn’t, why are game creators still, by and large, holding to such limited representations of people of color, women, and LGBTT people? If no one cares about the race of the lead character, why not have more playable Asian male characters, or Native American women?
And what does all of this say about the mainstream imagination? Why can’t we imagine stories where, for example, a Hmong American soldier finds themselves conflicted by being stationed overseas to fight against other brown people? Her or his history with war would add a complicated, and disturbing, back story for such a game. Or how about a game where a Latina superhero is lauded for her heroic actions but then suddenly persecuted because of her citizenship status? It’s high time that well written characters of color be seen as huge and provocative opportunities rather than a burden.
I’m a father now, and our daughter’s television choices are better than mine were back in the day. Aside from the ponies and puppets, there are Black characters, Latino/as, and Asians (still not many Arabs or Native Americans though). Yet at 39, I feel like the game industry is even farther behind than simple children’s shows2.
And before I am accused of being some sort of narrow nationalist or egotist for wanting to play characters just from my own race, I absolutely think we should have the ability to play characters of a different gender, race, sexual orientation, and ability than our own. That’s not the point. The point is, some of us don’t even have a choice.
- This of course excludes games where you can select the race, gender, and appearance of your character, and excludes fighting games with little or no narrative such as the Street Fighter series. Ryu is my boy though. ↩
- If you consider Game Informer’s 50 Best Games of 2013, only two games out of fifty feature nonwhites as the main protagonist: Juan Aguacate from Guacamelee! and Dead Rising 3’s Nick Ramos. If you also count Reader’s Choice awards, there’s Vince (Asian American man), Russell (African American man), and Tavia (African American woman), all three of whom are amongst the seven playable characters in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: 400 Days — but it’s worth noting that you’re only playing as each of these characters very briefly. If you look at smaller games, there’s an Asian American male in the download-only How to Survive game, and the low budget sleeper hit State of Decay begins with an African American man, but the game soon becomes an ensemble where you swap between many different community members. Though to it’s credit, Undead Labs tries to put queer, women of color, and intersections of those identities randomly into the survivor pool. One of the three playable characters in Grand Theft Auto 5 is African American. Please note that of all of those examples, only DR3 and Guacamelee! are the ones that don’t have multiple playable characters. If you look at last year, there was Sleeping Dogs, which featured an Asian American protagonist, and Waking Mars, which featured not only an Asian American male lead who wasn’t a martial artist, but an African American woman who is his main “operator.” Also, I am not saying that all of the above-mentioned characters are positive or well-written — just noting that they exist. Last thing: in case it’s not obvious, I am not claiming that Game Informer magazine is racist. I’m merely using their top 50 list as a handy cross-section of mainstream, successful games. ↩