Nobody’s Asian in the Gameverse?

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Riffing off of Maurissa Tancheroen’s song, Nobody’s Asian in the Movies, I thought it’d be interesting to offer up my perspective on Asian representation in videogames–specifically, the lack thereof.

I was going to do a close reading of the game Portal, and possibly discuss how the main character Chell strikes me as parallel to Lola in Lola Rennt and just about as badass as Ash in Avalon. However, despite their similarities–they’re women, they learn from their mistakes, they pick up clues on the way leading to a grand finale/showdown, they don’t take anyone’s crap, they’re damn good shots (Well, Lola’s more skilled at Roulette, but she does pick up that gun thing pretty quickly)–there was a striking difference. Lola was a pretty young white lady, and Ash was a Polish variant on the theme. Though Lola’s shocking red hair kind of set her apart from what the mainstream would consider the ideal beauty standard, Ash was all sweeping black hair and harsh sexy glares.

Chell is not pretty. Chell is not white. I freaking loved Chell. Chell is not a supermodel, not decked out in long elegant coats (Ash) or traipsing about Berlin in dashing green pants (Lola).  Instead, she’s sheathed in a prison-jumpsuit type outfit; she’s got her hair in a take-no-prisoners ponytail and of all things, she’s got exoskeletal  … thingies … strapped to her legs to keep her from shattering her bones when she falls through portal after portal after portal. (Speedy thing goes in…)

And that’s another thing I respect about Chell. She stands out. In the article I chose to read, A Survey of First Person Shooters and their Avatars, the author, Michael Hitchens, comments on the lack of diversity presented to players:

While racial choice overall may seem limited, it is even more restricted when female avatars are examined. Of the 20 titles which enforce a female avatar 18 make that avatar Caucasian. The only exceptions are Portal (Valve, 2007) and Mirror’s Edge (Digitial Illusions CE, 2008), whose avatars have Asian and Eurasian ethnicity respectively, Note this means no games were found which enforce a female avatar of North American Indian or African/African-American ethnicity for the entire game.

Two  games out of twenty display a positive role model to non-white players, and one of them isn’t even full on Asian, but rather “Eurasian”–implying European heritage, making it easier to map onto the mainly white audience, I suppose. Chell’s ethnicity is called “Asian” but honestly, it could be anything seeing as it’s set in a futuristic world where any amount of racial blurring could have occurred. I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it when I was playing Portal for the first time, but I will say I was pretty shocked when I accidentally put two portals in a corner and got my first look at “myself.”

I–or rather Chell–wasn’t a white dude, bulked up with muscle and scruff and a diamond hard stare. No. “I” looked like actual-me. It was stunning. I was a smallish brownish girl who wasn’t armed so much as supplied with a tool pertinent to experimental conditions. It would be really easy to read this game from a feminist perspective and discuss how women don’t need men or guns to be BAMF, but honestly, I just like the fact that Chell is different from the video game norm. It’s not even that she’s a girl. If I saw a whippet-slender male avatar walking around without the heavy body armor and shoulder-rocket-launcher, I’d be pretty darn happy.

Another thing that I like about Portal is that instead of focussing purely on kiss-kiss, bang-bang aspects like so many other games do (Even Mass Effect, a game I’ve recently discovered (yes, I’m late to the party) was all about big guns and shimmery romance b-plots. Yes, it had an amazing world and story, but it wasn’t quite unique from the other shooters, even with its heavy RPG elements).

Another article (yeah, I got hooked on research. Call me Dorothy Anne) stated the following, which suits me perfectly:

Portal is a display of wit and mechanism. It’s fun to play and fun to watch others struggle with the game’s challenges. But even though the final sequence has the female character escape from underground into the parking lot — while the end of Passage leaves the main character dead on its playing field — there’s actually no escape in Portal from the doors that loop back on themselves, offering a new physics but no new conception of what it means to live, work, or be tested.

Portal isn’t about offense. It isn’t about going in guns blazing and taping your bloody wounds up later with masking tape and kleenex. It’s about smarts. Wit and logic, a little bit of angles and momentum and physics. It’s about psychological torture, emotional manipulation.

It’s a smart game for realistic people who love surrealistic futures. Not saying I’d ever want to run through the testing facility or face GLADOS but man, what I wouldn’t give for a portal gun.

Or even a Companion cube.

  7 comments for “Nobody’s Asian in the Gameverse?

  1. Mamoru Fuun
    March 14, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    I’m a little confused by your topic are you trying to say there are no Asian characters in video games or are you saying there is a lack of Asian characters in movies about video games? Also I feel like you’re detracting from your main argument by talking so much about Chell and Lola, you can say they were strong female characters that were represented as white, but you kind of go off into a rant about how awesome they are; isn’t this a topic on Asian portrayals not Portal?

    If your argument was that there’s no Asian characters in video games how do you account for J-RPGs (Japanese role-playing games)? The game series Persona for instance deals with demons invading Japan, with the protagonists most certainly being Japanese. Of course many J-RPGs depict these strong white European styled characters as well (Cloud Strife, Marth, hell even Mario), but this is mostly because of Japan’s fascination with depicting a European styled character.

    If you mean there are no Asian portrayals in video game movies then yes maybe you have somewhat of a point; some roles would be better portrayed by an Asian actor. However I feel like this is a somewhat unrealistic demand, the movie Avalon was a mostly Japanese staff but a Polish cast. It’s not as if they could of just plucked an Asian person out of nowhere to play Ash for instance. They had to work with the actors available.

  2. William Hurley
    March 14, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    It is a little disappointing where the games that draw the most attention from the mainstream media (Call of Duty, Uncharted, Gears of War, etc.) are all first person shooters with a white, gigantic, male protagonist, and even if the self-insertion character isn’t a giantly muscular dude, more often than not he’s still white and male (the Legend of Zelda, Mario, etc). It raises the question of -why- exactly this choice is so specifically made: do developers think so poorly of their target audience of males in between the ages of 14 and 30 (give or take) that they believe the gamers will need to play as someone who in part resembles who they are, or who they want to be, and can’t roleplay in the slightest with their protagonist? Is this done for “product safety,” to ensure the highest numbers possible, despite the successes of deviants from the mold, such as Portal, the Walking Dead, or Persona 4?

    This is ignoring the genre that these characters embody, largely because I don’t see much of a reason why females or non-whites couldn’t participate in a war game, but the gender and ethnicity question is more interesting to me. While some, as I do, ask for more variety in our protagonist (I for one would love to play as a Krogan in some sort of Mass Effect DLC), it does raise another important question: if we are to assume that companies use this white/male/muscles template for a protagonist, do they have research to prove that they have reason to do so? Have games in the past with a female protagonist, such as Bayonetta, Beyond Good and Evil, or Eternal Darkness, been determined to have sold less than superbly solely due to the female protagonist? I don’t think this is a reasonable assumption to be made due to the connected, multiple reasons that a game might sell poorly, but it is a grouping of statistics that I’d be interested to see.

  3. 302writing
    March 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I think your blog got a little sidetracked as you went. You definitely didn’t need the parenthetical expressions within parenthetical expressions. I did appreciate your topic choice though and I agree that it’s refreshing to have a non-white male standard protagonist. Part of the reason why I love RPGs with character creation. The ability to create an identity is a very effective way to increase player immersion. I also agree that Valve was very clever in allowing the player to discover their avatar’s identity.

  4. cristina
    March 16, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    I agree with the above comments, your topic was initially really interesting but you definitely sidetracked. I was a little confused by your statement: “Chell is not pretty. Chell is not white.” You never explained your reasoning that supported your statement that Chell is not pretty. Why isn’t she pretty? Is it according to your personal idea of what beauty is or are you basing this on the research you conducted.

    I think if you would have provided some more examples or articles that spoke about your topic, your blog post would have been a bit more unified. I did appreciate your sense of humor that can be noted in the blog post, and I over all enjoyed reading it.

  5. Anonymous
    March 19, 2013 at 3:23 am

    23 characters in Street Fighter alone, as well as many in other fighting games such as Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters. There’s the games Sleeping Dogs, Dynasty Warriors, Total War: Shogun, Jade Empire, and Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria all picture different Asian worlds. The protagonist of Mirror’s Edge, Ishi in Bulletstorm, as well as numerous RPGs.

    Part of the issue is Asian cultures are self-hating, generally preferring to depict European white culture over their own. Street Fighter characters tend to appear Caucasian more than anything. Actual Asian culture tends to come out most in period pieces or in stereotypes, but many games do feature Asians.

    Anyway, your post got off topic. There is a problem with Asian representation in video games, but you don’t really specify where the problems lie.

  6. jaustin
    March 21, 2013 at 3:29 am

    I like this because there were a lot of comparisons throughout the blog that made sense. Let me start off by saying I agree that there is no female Asian or really any Asian representation in video games and I feel like there should be representation in some video games not all because that is a lot that should represent other races. I myself am African-American and the quote that you had in here about the 20 titles that enforced a female avatar none of the games had North American Indian or African/African-American ethnicities portrayed. On game makers defense if making a Caucasian character is easier to make because they are just white and they do not have to worry about the shade of their skin in the game the whole time then I can understand why make most of the characters Caucasian. On the other hand of that they should not be lazy if they want to make more of the game to appeal to different races and ethnicities. Being female in a game without all the big sexually things I think should be do-able that is not asking much. I like the parallelism between Lola, Ash, and Chell I think that they all make sense and have reason. when the different versions of beauty was put in there it made me realize that none of these female have a standard, like hair and the style of clothing. I made the realization that almost every male character has big muscles and black hair typical male figure. I am not trying to sound sexist or anything though.

  7. mburns25
    March 21, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    I agree with the others in relationship to the fact that your post got a little off topic, however, I still found it to be most interesting. In most cases yes, racial and gender diversity is difficult to find.

    Being a fan of RPG’s, the first games that come to mind in terms of diversity would be the Fallout series (3 & New Vegas) and Skyrim. Both are huge worlds that allow for complete freedom of choice when playing while still having a main storyline quest. Fallout allows the player to choose the gender and race of their character, as well as sexuality and appearance. This type of freedom is hard to find in most games. In Skyrim, one can choose to be anything from a Nord to a Dark Elf, thus allowing for species diversity which is difficult to find in mainstream games.

    Being a female myself, having the option to play as a female does add to the appeal of the game; however, having grown up without many choices as to the main character, I am also used to just playing the character and still getting the same experience. If anything, having a female protagonist adds a little something extra that can be both motivating and inspirational for the female gamer.

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