This May, Margaret Cho, Ellen Oh, and The Nerds of Color’s Keith Chow teamed up to let Hollywood know that they were tired of seeing roles of Asian characters filled by white actors. They were joined by thousands of fans, writers, producers, and actors of Asian descent, who got the hashtag #WhiteWashedOUT trending on Twitter as they aired the film industry’s filthy, racist laundry for all the world to hear. Throughout the month, the hashtag has brought attention to the shocking lack of representation faced by Asian Americans in every part of the film and television industries, and spawned several news articles, Twitter trends (including #StarringConstanceWu and #StarringJohnCho), and even a rap song about the lack of Asian visibility in media.

Although the majority of the conversation has been about the plight of Asian Americans in film and television, it raised a poignant question: where are the Asian protagonists in video games?

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The scope of the problem

When you think of a game with an Asian protagonist, which ones come to mind? Probably Sleeping Dogs. Maybe Street Fighter. Possibly Mirror’s Edge, the long-anticipated sequel of which is releasing in June. But for a medium that has so many Asian fans, markets, and creators, it’s surprisingly hard, isn’t it? If you have to think of an Asian American protagonist, it becomes even harder. Mirror’s Edge’s own Faith Connors was one of the first and only Asian protagonists to star in a game developed and produced in the West. And she’s not Asian American — she’s Asian European. How about a South Asian protagonist? One of the only examples I could come up with was Far Cry 4’s Ajay Ghale — and even then, he’s voiced by a white guy.

It’s no secret that video games have a problem with whitewashing. Creators and developers have infamously struggled to make games that feature any protagonist that doesn’t fit the white cishetero male mold. But even as diversity slowly starts to creep in with protagonists like Max Caulfield from Life is Strange, Alex from Oxenfree, and Angela from Sunset, Asian protagonists are still scarce. In fact, the vast majority of Asian protagonists can be found in games produced in China and Japan. Even then, some of the most well known Japanese games — such as Metal Gear, Zelda, and Final Fantasy — feature white (or at least stereotypically Anglo-looking) main characters.  

If you have to ask why this lack of representation is damaging, it’s very likely you, yourself, don’t suffer from it. When we don’t see ourselves in media — or even when we don’t see other types of people in media (such as people of color, trans people, or gay people) — it has a big impact on how we perceive one another, and the world we live in. Studies show that from the time we’re children, we use media to evaluate our worth and role in society. And as video games become a larger and larger portion of the media that we consume from childhood, representation (and lackthereof) is finally becoming a topic of conversation in our community.

“Gaming has a huge and rising impact on how children see the world, and yet in so many ways, the industry is repeating the worst mistakes of earlier forms of media,” says Latoya Peterson, editor of the blog Racialicious. “You have a type of entertainment that has the potential to be a quantum leap forward, and you don’t see that. Technology is changing, the world is changing, but the same old cliches are being trotted out again and again.” When asked in a survey conducted by Neilsen, 49% of Asian American gamers expressed strong feelings that video games are not inclusive or representative of characters of all races. And by all accounts, they’re right.

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Stereotypes keep Asians on the sidelines

So why do so few people strive to create games with Asian protagonists? Well, there are a few reasons. Publishing execs claim that games with protagonists of color don’t sell, because gamers can’t relate to a non-white protagonist. The white “everyman” is presumed by most media moguls to be the default — the kind of person everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation can relate to. Most of this is rooted in the unfair assumption that white, straight, cisgender men experience a “purified” version of reality, untainted by issues of oppression based on any of those things.

But no matter what executives may say, the smash success of more diverse franchises rules out the possibility that keeping people of color strictly relegated to the background is a sound business practice. Bao Phi is a gamer and performance poet, and has written extensively about the dearth of Asian protagonists in gaming. “[Execs] excuse it as a money thing,” Phi says. “[They say] 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?”

It isn’t just executives that keep Asian characters out of the limelight. Creatives who rely on outdated, racist stereotypes also contribute to the problem. Asian characters aren’t allowed the same kind of complex, multifaceted personalities or narrative arcs of their white peers. They’re frequently cast as villains, double agents, or crime bosses — people the heroic protagonist is pitted against. From Heihachi Mishimura (Tekken) to Tomb Raider’s Queen Himiko, Asian villains are often depicted as devious, scheming, and sinister, and almost always face off against white protagonists.

In his book Asian American Culture: From Anime to Tiger Moms, author Lan Dong aptly notes that many first-person shooters, Call of Duty among them, feature a white hero gunning down swarms of Asian enemies, with the direct result of alienating many Asian American players, and communicating a message of ‘Asian as the enemy’, or ‘Asian as foreign.’ Dong writes, “With the enemies primarily being Asians, players may assume that Asians are the primary threats to the world. As a result, Asian Americans will be seen as foreigners and will continue to be viewed as a threat to the United States.” Despite the fact that Asian Americans have been in the US since before the Civil War, this idea of Asians as eternal foreigners or outsiders endures, and is reinforced in video games and other media.

If they’re not outright villains, Asian characters are often relegated to sidekick status — the quirky hacker, the exotic femme fatale (Resident Evil’s Ada Wong), the martial arts master (Virtua Fighter’s Lau Chen), or the comic relief character. On rare occasions, they get to play the catty neighbor (Life is Strange’s Brooke), a samurai (The Way of the Samurai), or a landlord. But they almost never get to be fully-realized heroes, separate from those stereotypes. “[There’s] … the stereotypes of Asians,” Phi says. “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.” These stereotypes place serious limitations on the types of Asian characters who do make it into games, and on the roles they can be expected to play.

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The revolution will be gameified

There’s no question that the lack of Asian protagonists in games is founded in institutional, systemic oppression — oppression that saturates the social perception of all people of Asian descent. So how do we tackle that, in games? What can we do to change the very white landscape, and start seeing more Asian protagonists in games?

One solution is obviously to throw the problem to indie devs — Minh Ta is one such developer, who started working on a game starring the Chinese Detective Di after becoming increasingly disenchanted with the lack of Asian protagonists in gaming. “I grew up in Canada and have watched American film and television all my life,” Ta told me. “As a kid growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I can only remember seeing two Asian faces on the screen, that of American tennis player Michael Chang, and WWF wrestler Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat. Ask me what Western video games starred an Asian character in those days and you got me stumped.”

Like many people who hunger for representation on screen, Ta struggled to find his voice as a creator, and worried that executives might not be willing to take a financial risk on a game starring an Asian protagonist. His solution? Kickstarter.

“I chose that path because I thought it could give me a platform to speak directly to those who were willing to listen, a way to overcome the challenges we’ve been talking about. I was able to make a connection with hundreds of people willing to support my crazy idea to make a game about a Chinese detective solving crimes in ancient China! But only years ago, this platform did not exist. However we get there, my hope is that Detective Di will be just one of many Asian characters my 11-year-old son, and others like him, will be able to cheer for.” By allowing consumers to fund projects directly, crowdfunding is making it increasingly viable for creators like Ta to bring their vision for a more diverse gaming experience to fruition.

Another way consumers can take action? We can stop being so forgiving of this kind of thing in the first place. We have to stop blithely accepting the common defenses of whitewashingthat the casting was “raceblind”, that white protagonists are more “bankable” than protagonists of color, or that representation doesn’t matter. We can all have a part in changing the industry by participating in conversations like the one started by the #WhiteWashedOUT hashtag — by rallying to the side of people who ask for more, and by promoting the voices of Asian fans and creators.

Of course, it’s also on the powers within the industry to listen. “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,” say Phi. People within the industry — creators, programmers, and executives — need to come together to examine their own prejudice, and to explore the possibility of creating and promoting diverse games that represent more than just one type of person.

In his article Kungfusion: Asian Stereotyping in Video Games, Alex Theologidy writes: “I’m not calling for a revolution in game design… What I am saying is that there should be at least a couple of real, dynamic, Asian characters who don’t conform to these overabundant stereotypes. Nothing would be more refreshing than an Asian character like Ezio Auditore or Nathan Drake, someone who has personality, love interests, uniqueness, and flaws, who doesn’t know kung fu or karate.” Asian gamers aren’t asking for the moon; they’re asking to fairly and equitably represented by media they love. And I, for one, think they’re long overdue.

Want to read more of my interview with gamer and poet, Bao Phi? Check it out by clicking here.

  • Louis

    I was going to write a counter-statement about how this is an incredibly Americanized way of thinking, that you were making blanket statements about Japanese games without seeking feedback from the Japanese developers who made them, but really, you’re from San Francisco and thought it was important to mention that you have pink hair. I think that really says everything that needs saying.

  • grovian

    Protagonists are designed to appeal to the target audience. As you said: ” In fact, the vast majority of Asian protagonists can be found in games produced in China and Japan”.

    Also you forget to explain this; “Even then, some of the most well known Japanese games — such as Metal Gear, Zelda, and Final Fantasy — feature white (or at least stereotypically Anglo-looking) main characters.”
    In a bunch of countries in Asia (out of the 49) having white skin is desirable as it represent that the person does not have to do dirty work on field. Good luck finding even a sun cream in China without whitening compound. I had to pick up one made for children…

    And please don’t say things like “she’s Asian European”. There is no such thing. Someone is either Danish, or French or Romanian, etc.

  • Let’s see. While I worry that to say something like “it’s injurious” to not have representation, is probably not a healthy way to think about this; and focusing on “industrial” video games is probably not a good thing to do on this website in particular, or anywhere for that matter; it is just plain bizarre when you have an Asian character who is transmogrified to be non-Asian. This is what the uproar is about concerning Hollywood’s failing to hew to the source material.

    For examples, as a kid I always assumed Ryu from Street Fighter was Asian. But in screenshots I see of new SF games (I don’t play them) he looks like he is U.S. American, or Canadian, like Ken. Especially in the latest screens where he has a beard, that looks nothing like Asian facial hair that I’ve ever seen.

    Industry is never going to save us from its blandness. It’s like English cuisine. You can eat it all of the time, but your life will be very insipid if you do that. Generally speaking white “everyman” is very boring, and probably off-putting for a lot of people and players alike. So there’s every reason to mix things up. But don’t look to industrial anything to do that anytime soon. This medium is not full-fledged (yet.) It’s a proto-medium.

    • Louis

      Ryu is Asian. It took like two seconds to look up his birthplace and find out he’s from Japan. Just for kicks, I then went and looked up pictures of Japanese men with beards; the difference is negligible. You want to have more Asian representation in video games, sure, but don’t go and dismiss the existing ones for “looking too white”, that’s just counter-productive. Especially for characters like Ryu who are visibly Asian.

      • I don’t actually care about representation of anyone. It will come about naturally when the medium grows out of its little kids pants; becomes more accessible, and relevant.

        Ryu is not Asian, Japanese, beard or otherwise in these new games. Sorry, his bio can say he’s a black woman (negligible my ass) but he’s still the Brawny paper towels man. I’m sure he is in the Japanese copies of these games as well.

        • Louis

          The only thing keeping the medium from “maturing” in your eyes is people like you making up arbitrary excuses for why games are not yet “relevant”. It’s like judging all of film based on the Michael Bay Transformers trilogy.

          But whatever, have fun complaining that Asian characters aren’t Asian enough for your enlightened tastes. I’m sure the Japanese would love to hear all about it.

          • All of games wish they were 1/10th of Michael Bay’s oeuvre. The medium is not relevant, because it’s not diverse, because it’s not possible for people to make a video game, in the same way that anyone can write a book.

            When the time comes that anyone can make good video games, then people will make games, that represent an order of magnitude more interesting scenarios and more brilliant conceits, just like when you go onto Netflix it has a half-decent representation of cinema, which is a medium that is relevant, in a way that video games are not, and cannot be, yet.

            It’s not an indictment of culture. It’s just very complicated stuff, even while on the other hand, in theory, you can make video games without money, or without really having to choreograph an entire credits roll worth of people. It’s pure digital, but unlike in other mediums, you get nothing for free.

            PS: Stop being angry at ghosts. You’ll feel much better, and go on to do more good things for others.

          • Louis

            Boy oh boy, did you pick the wrong generation to imply people can’t just make video games. Game making software is at an all-time high in popularity, be it big Unity projects or small free RPG Maker toys, and the advent of Steam Greenlight’s made it easier than ever to make personal projects known to the public. Maybe some of them are terrible, but a lot of books are terrible too. Every medium has shit stains on it, don’t fixate on video games because it offends your delicate sensibilities and you can’t be bothered to acknowledge games more thematically diverse than Call of Duty.

          • My career is competing with these “game engines”. I think I know something about this. Unity is a million miles away from being of any use here.

          • Louis

            That’s not a response, and you know it. This argument isn’t about the quality of the programs, but their effectiveness in making game design accessible to people.

          • Exactly.

          • Louis

            So you’re not giving a straight answer why Unity isn’t accessible to people, or why it isn’t easier than ever for anyone to make a video game, or even why Ryu can’t be Japanese. Are you just arguing for the sake of being contrary?

          • Comments aren’t a full blown discussion forum 🙂 (Of course it’s easier than ever (before) but that is incredibly not easy. Just like there’s more to making a video game than just having a PC, (and money to buy one, and people to invent/manufacture them) there is more to making something worthwhile than just simply having made something.) La Fin.

          • Louis

            And there’s more to making a movie than having a video camera, and there’s more to writing a book than having words. Like you said, there’s more to making something worthwhile than just simply having made something, and that applies to every medium. Quit pretending video games are the only thing that have ever been bad.

          • You are A) having a different conversation than everyone else. B) Terse replies to comments, or person-to-person exchanges in general, are a way of signaling that the exchange has run its course. You might have to learn to pick up these cues on your own if this does not come naturally for you, or you will find yourself in awkward social situations in public, where you may not mind the awkwardness, but others will regard you as a social pariah.

          • Louis

            You said games are not relevant or accessible, I argued that it was accessible, and then you argued that they weren’t accessible ~enough~. Then when I pointed out that no medium is accessible ~enough~, you went and claimed I was “having a different conversation”. You are pretending the conversation we were having did not exist, and that anyone else was ever involved in this discussion. It’s just you saying video games aren’t “mature” as a medium, and then avoiding any counter-argument. And why are you even going so far as to pretend internet comments are the same as real-life public conversations? If you don’t have a real argument, either say so or just leave, but insisting that the person you’re arguing with must be crazy is childish.

          • You’re generating like a 20 long string of comments. That’s not appropriate, and looks absurd. Just look at the page. It’s not how comments work. I am not encouraging you, I just try to be a bit more humane/considerate than most people would be (by not simply ignoring you.)

          • Louis

            Look, if you don’t wanna argue your opinion anymore, just say so. You’re not proving your point by trying to make me shut up.