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.