I contacted Bao Phi while I was researching for my recent article, #WhiteWashedOUT: The Dearth of Asian Protagonists in Video Games. As a performance poet and a long-time gamer, Bao’s written many times about the shocking lack of Asian protagonists in games, and as we spoke, it became readily apparent that he has many more valuable things to say about the issue than I do. So, with his blessing, here’s a transcript of our correspondence.

Sheva: As I’ve researched this topic, your name pops up over and over; you’ve written about this on a lot of different sites many different times. I suppose my first question would be: why do you think more people don’t write about it?

Bao: By and large, the burden of bringing up, and writing about, race seems to be placed on people of color.  Race is still a very touchy subject in all media and all spheres of life.  And concerning Asian and Asian American representation, I think there’s also this assumption that, since there are Asians working in game development, it’s a non-issue.  That assumption is wrong in several ways: 1) Asians working in game development in Asia don’t necessarily have the same experience and lens regarding representation as we do in the U.S. 2) Just because you have Asian bodies does not mean you have an Asian politic 3) If it’s a non-issue because Asians work in the industry, why don’t we see more Asian playable characters?  Some of the most well known Japanese franchises – Metal Gear Solid, Mario, Zelda, Resident Evil, many of the games in the Final Fantasy series, etc – feature white characters or characters with Anglo features.

Also, there has long been a conflation in the West where Asian = Asian American, which is problematic.  Just because Asians may have success in various Asian countries does not mean that Asian Americans benefit.  And due to racism, we often bear the brunt of racist backlash when we have nothing to do with that success.  Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was brutally murdered by two white out-of-work autoworkers because they were angry with Japan for ‘ruining’ the American auto industry is probably the most well known example of this.

Sheva: If you exclude games developed and produced in Asia, the number of playable Asian protagonists in games is absurdly low. It’s obvious that racism plays a huge part in that (assuming there’s any other factors at all), but how do you think executives and game developers consistently excuse that lack of diversity?

Bao: They excuse it as a money thing.  That they are trying to reach the most wide audience as possible.  Which is ridiculous.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens had a black male and a white female character and was a smash hit around the world.  Then you have people who say it shouldn’t matter who the protagonist is if you’re immersed in the game.   OK, if it doesn’t matter, then why not make more women and people of color playable characters – if, for nothing else, do something different?

That being said, I read that the producers of Far Cry 3 listened to criticism that the game had a stereotypical white man saving brown people narrative, and made the [main] character of Far Cry 4 a person of color.  Which, to me, is pretty impressive.  It would have been great if they gave the voice acting job to a person of color, though.  I think the voice actor was, ironically, the same guy who voiced  the protagonist in Far Cry 3.*  So… baby steps?

*Author’s note: He’s right — Jason Brody and Ajay Ghale (the protags of Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 respectively) were both played by James A. Woods, a white guy. Eek!

Sheva: It seems like Asian American characters are even less likely to be game protagonists than black characters — certainly less likely than white women characters. Based on your experience, why do you think that is? Do you think social stereotypes about Asians make it more difficult for Asian Americans to be cast as heroes in American media?

Bao: Certainly it’s racial.  I want to be careful here, because I don’t think just because there are more Black characters and more white women characters, Black people and women “have it better” than Asians and Asian Americans.  I think what it comes down to is that the specific type of discrimination Asian Americans face in the Western world is that we’re forever foreigners.  We’re not “American”.  So except for a couple of exceptions, we can never be American heroes in Western entertainment.  When I bring this up, people always say “what about people like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Michelle Yeoh?”  All of them came from overseas and/or had to find success overseas before they saw any success in America.  And even then the characters they portray are ‘foreigners.’

Asians and Arabs are pretty much seen in the Western world as “the enemy” when it comes to war.  So part of why I think you don’t see playable Asians and Arabs in Western war games such as Call of Duty is because of these racially informed ideas of who the “enemy” is.  Western/American soldiers representation in Western pop culture can be nonwhite, but usually they are not Asian and Arab.

And there’s also the stereotypes of Asians – that Asian men are cold, cowardly, sinister, and weak; Asian women are submissive sex objects.  So in a lot of these macho, masculine games, you can see how Asian men only fit into those worldviews as villains and punching bags, and Asian women as dragon ladies or exotic damsels in distress.

Social stereotypes bind all of us.  In gaming, if there’s an Asian character, they’re probably a martial artist or someone’s girlfriend/love interest.  Latino/as are only represented as gangbangers.  Pacific Islanders are usually only in football sims.  Black people are usually in sports, military, or street gang roles.  Native Americans are only in Westerns.  Arabs are usually only in war games and are represented as “terrorists” and the “enemy.” And women/women of color – well, usually they are sex objects or need to be rescued.  There are of course exceptions, but few.

Sheva: Do you think games developed and produced in Asia should be excluded from this kind of discussion? As an Asian gamer, do you feel represented by Asian characters in games made outside the US? Is it silly — or even unwise — to exclude them when talking about this?

Bao: I don’t think they should be excluded. It just complicates the discussion. I acknowledge that I am by no means an expert on Japanese history and culture. I’m sure some of the Anglo-looking characters can be attributed to a rebellious urge in a very racially homogeneous society. But there is also colorism in various Asian cultures including but not limited to Japan, leading to a hierarchy loaded with classism and racism. For example, fair skin is often viewed as a sign of wealth and desirable. Darker skin indicates working in the fields and poverty. There are skin bleaching products and plastic surgery which are all the rage in Asia, much of it towards more Western standards of beauty. I don’t want to impose my American view on race onto Japanese society. But I will say that it bears consideration that so many gaming products coming out of Japan feature white protagonists.

Sheva: Do you have any thoughts about what non-Asian people can do to help change the very white face of games?

Bao: I think writing about it and including alternate perspectives, like you are, is important. I think vocally expressing a need for more equitable representation is necessary. I think the game industry could do more to challenge itself and create more compelling characters of color, including but not limited to, Asian and Asian American characters that go beyond the tired stereotypes that Western media has leaned on for decades. And just because some Japanese game developers or an Asian best friend says it’s OK to whitewash characters, doesn’t make it OK. Game producers are in a position of power, they have a responsibility to go beyond listening to the opinions that reinforce their current problematic practices.

  • Louis

    Please. Really? You’re going to blame racism for this, and claim that it’s the only possible explanation? You’re putting the burden onto non-Asians to write more about things they might know nothing about? This entire debacle is just painful to witness, and it turns accusations of racism into a meaningless joke.

    “Oh, Star Wars had a diverse cast and it was a smash hit” of course it was a smash hit, and it had nothing to do with the cast. It’s because it’s Star Wars. It’s a multimillion dollar franchise that’s known in nearly every household in the known world. The Force Awakens could have starred a CGI alien as the main protagonist, and it still would have made box office records off the Star Wars name alone. (I would actually support that. When was the last time a big-budget blockbuster movie had a non-human protagonist?)

    Suggesting that racism is the only possible reason for race casting in a video game is just the most idiotic, simple-minded, actually offensive thing I have heard in the longest time. You don’t know what goes on in the mind of every single game developer in America. Maybe they are interested in money; maybe they want to have a bland generic protagonist because they want to reach the widest target audience, and don’t have the backing power of, say, Star Wars. Maybe they’re afraid of offending people by not portraying an unfamiliar culture in exactly the right way. Maybe someone, somewhere, had a specific idea for their story, and an Asian protagonist just wasn’t a part of that. Are you going to tell someone to change their entire vision to fit your criteria or else they’re racist?

    You want there to be more Asian protagonists, sure. Fine. You can request it, you can start a petition, that is within your power. But what you’re doing now, with this, is shaming people for not doing exactly what you want. You accuse people of actively hating Asian people for not giving them lead roles. This is not empowering minorities, this is trying to bring everyone else down.

    Speaking of which, I saw what you wrote about me on Twitter. I don’t even use Twitter; the only reason I looked in the first place was because I had to confirm for myself that this pink-haired, video game ranting San Franciscan has a Tumblr as well. (Your Tumblr, by the way, looks exactly the way I imagined.) But you decided Twitter was the best place to publicly decry me, “where ppl listen”. Because people paying attention to you is more important than addressing me somewhere where I would notice it. You then simplified my case as “Western games don’t need Japanese representation at all because Japanese games do it already”, which I not only never implied at all, but fails to consider that your original article addressed Japanese games in maybe two sentences tops. You called Heihachi a Japanese stereotype, without even considering the details of his character, the multitude of other Japanese characters in Tekken, or the fact that Tekken is a Japanese game. You claimed that the most popular Japanese games don’t count because the characters look too white.

    You know why I bring up your pink hair? Because you’re filling a very small, very niche stereotype. You have pastel-colored hair. You brag about your pastel-colored hair. You brag about “fighting oppression”. You’re from San Francisco. You describe yourself as someone who writes rants on the internet. You accuse people you’ve never met of being racist, because they don’t conform to your worldview. And when someone poses a different opinion, instead of responding directly to them, you took your response to Twitter for your followers to see, instead of whoever you’re responding to. You are matching nearly every stereotype of the Social Justice Warrior; if you play this comment off as a Gamergate death threat, you could get Bingo.

    • Josh Hinke

      Hey Louis,

      I’m part of the leadership at Indie Haven, and I personally look at every article that we post and have the final say in what we publish. I appreciate your passion for games and taking the time to read our site. You certainly have a strong opinion here and it is worthy of a response. So I’m happy to do so.

      Racism isn’t always born from hatred or a pointed desire to exclude an ethnicity. It can often simply be born from unconscious decisions made every day. When you talk about “… maybe they want to have a bland generic protagonist because they want to reach the widest target audience..” you are hitting whole point of what Sheva is expressing. Saying is that a “generic protagonist” shouldn’t be white, is a puzzling issue in games. The west is a more diverse place than ever and saying that the default person is white is an odd thought, isn’t it? With such a wide variety of ethnicity, saying that the white characters should be the “generic” choice, is exactly what Sheva is questiong.

      The idea that developers who are “interested in money” need a white protagonist seems to be a misguided excuse to justify inequality. What proof is there that a white protagonist sells better than an Asian one? It’s difficult for me to imagine that people buy Uncharted because Nathan Drake is white or that they want to play Overwatch strictly for the white characters. Also, saying that “Maybe someone, somewhere, had a specific idea for their story, and an Asian protagonist just wasn’t a part of that.” is only furthering Sheva’s point. Again, when we think of stories, why do we constantly resort back to the same ol’ character archetype? Why can’t we think of “specific ideas” with multi-racial characters? Instead of defending our “specific ideas” maybe we should question why we have those ideas in the first place.

      Great art never happen when people say, “That’s the way it is and that’s the way it should be.” Great art happens when it is challenged, when the status quo is called into question and when we poke at the norms which construct our characters and stories. To address your last point, about developers” …afraid of offending people by not portraying an unfamiliar culture in exactly the right way.” I would argue that Sheva didn’t say we need stories that talk about the immigrant experience or that dealt with the struggles of being Asian-American. She simply stated that we need diversity. Using Mirror’s Edge as an example, Faith’s race never really comes into question. It’s never addressed that she’s of Asian descent or that it would matter to anyone. I often think that this is the best form of representation (though I know there are counterpoints) because it reinforces the idea that we’re all just people. Creating an Asian character doesn’t always require extensive knowledge about certain experiences. And even if it did, is it so bad to research, interview, and request the help of people with a sufficient background to help you write such a story?

      I don’t intend to change your mind, but such a passionate response as your’s deserves one from us and my position allows me to provide that.

      Lastly, I am sorry for anything said that hurt you. In the end, I don’t control Twitter and if you would like to hash it out with Sheva through social media, I can’t help that. I can, however, control what is written on this site and do not condone remarks that insult the way a person looks. I appreciate good conversation and a differing opinion, but I will not allow people to insult someone based on appearance. You’ve done that a second time in this post, and there will not be a third. I hope that you can continue reading our work and commenting with your thoughts.

      • Louis

        I just want to specify something here: my exact complaint here is about using racism, as an excuse and as an accusation, because racism and sexism as labels have more power than you seem to believe. They carry social stigmas that people can and will fixate on, as reasons to boycott people and organizations if not outright attack them over it. Two years ago, we landed a satellite on a comet, and folks decided it was more important that one of the scientists was wearing a shirt of buxom cartoon women and needed to be demonized for it. Attacking others for cultural wrongthink is not an effective way of accomplishing anything worthwhile, and that’s exactly what a piece like this does when it makes these broad, sweeping accusations of people without consideration for their own viewpoints.