A few years ago, a story about Asian representation and Asian developers in video games might not have warranted much thought. But the story of Asians in America has always included other people believing the Asian identity is a simple one.
What’s become clear recently, however, is that it’s a time for self-reflection in the Asian immigrant community. A confluence of events, some good and some violent, has thrust Asian Americans into the spotlight — and a reckoning.
I started researching for this article weeks before the events in Atlanta, Georgia, where a gunman attacked three massage parlors, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women.
Those events mean a lot has changed between when I began this article and where the conversation around Asian Americans is now. For Refinery29 Connie Wang writes, “I fear that placing so much importance in cultural trophies like representation wins is misleading — a distraction.”
A part of me agrees with Wang. But representation in popular culture isn’t a mirror where we only see glowing, ideal versions of ourselves. Sometimes it’s a mirage created by others and projected onto people of color, and failure to examine and tackle this distortion will only entrench harmful stereotypes. Where film has taken steps to provide a more nuanced representation, gaming all too often still presents that mirage.
When I put out a call in February looking to speak with Asian American game developers I was primarily looking at the conversations around movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, The Farewell, and Minari which provided a platform to ask questions like “Can you be Asian and American simultaneously?,” “Are Asians sexy?,” “Are Asians people of color?” Even the term “Asian American” itself is a complex one, bringing about questions of who does and doesn’t ‘qualify’.
In Minari, the Oscar-nominated film tells the story of Korean immigrants in rural Arkansas and, like The Farewell before it, represents a bold new future where members of the Asian Diaspora can tell uniquely Asian American stories, separate from those of mainland Asia, which is its own identity and experience. Minari is part of a future where a new generation of Asian Americans can take control of our own narratives.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CThe%20word%20Asian%20is%20just%20such%20a%E2%80%A6%20it%E2%80%99s%20a%20dumb%20term%2C%20right%3F%20To%20some%20degree%3F%20It%E2%80%99s%20like%20%E2%80%98indie%20games%E2%80%99%2C%20it%20could%20mean%20anything.%22″]It seems odd, then, that video gaming isn’t seeing a similar cultural moment. After all, video games are Asian culture. Countries like Japan, South Korea, and China not only consume a lot of video games, but some of the biggest developers and manufacturers in the industry are based there. Icons like Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima are Japanese, and instantly recognizable characters like Ryu and Chun-Li are Japanese and Chinese respectively.
So why would there be an Asian representation problem in video games? With characters, stories, or in the workforce?
For this story, I spoke with over a dozen Asian American game developers — primarily of East and Southeast Asian descent — to share stories that may be familiar to Asian Americans, but can be glossed over in the way that a lot of aspects of Asian American life can be.
Those stories range from the complicated feelings Asian Americans have about representation in games, to the stereotypes that can follow them in the workplace. But I also saw the beginnings of excitement for the future, and how the Asian American community’s part in gaming culture could lead to a more diverse, interesting world — both within games themselves, and the companies making them.
The Asian Identity Issue
To unpack Asian representation in games and the games industry first requires us to detangle the Asian identity which is often mistaken for a monolith.
“Asian representation is a tough topic, right? I guess for me, it’s really hard for me to even grasp what Asian representation means nowadays,” says Zhenghua Yang, founder of the video game studio Serenity Forge.
“The word Asian is just such a… it’s a dumb term, right? To some degree? It’s like ‘indie games’, it could mean anything. I mean, I grew up in Colorado. Out of 2000 people in our high school, we had 15 Asians, 15 people of Asian descent. And that’s immigrants, that’s first-generation [the children of immigrants] It’s anything. People from Korea, from Laos, from Southern China — I’m from Northeast China, which is next to the border of Siberia, Russia.”
The contradiction with being Asian in games is being able to physically identify, perhaps, with characters like Ryu from Street Fighter or D.Va from Overwatch, but knowing that identification is only skin-deep. There’s a chasm between regional neighbors like Korea and Japan, Vietnam and China, or The Philippines and Indonesia— never mind those whose homes are thousands of miles away from those of the characters that supposedly represent them.
“Do I relate? No,” says Victoria Tran community director at InnerSloth when asked if she can see herself in East Asian characters as a Vietnamese Canadian. “I think what happens is I go, ‘it’s really cool that that’s happening’ And I feel a little bit of connection with them. But I don’t think I had the same [moment of], like, ‘yeah, wow, somehow I see myself or see my culture in there.’”
That identity distortion — the feeling that Asian Americans could see themselves in East Asian characters — is a result of the way a huge number of video games focus primarily on East Asian cultures, whether it’s in the games themselves or the culture around them. Esports has been historically linked with South Korea, while the most critically-acclaimed games from Asia come primarily out of Japan thanks to studios like Nintendo and Capcom.
“A part of me gets an immediate high just from seeing any sort of representation, like when companies acknowledge something like Lunar New Year,” says Kevin Schultz, an associate producer at Firaxis Games. “But it’s hard to keep my cynicism down when that art is being used to promote a Lunar New Year Sale. Is this appreciation or appropriation? Is this company just using pictures of Hong Bao and the color red to sell more product? Am I the problem, and I should just appreciate what I can get?
“A lot of it is: ‘It’s good enough’” says Sen-Foong Lim, co-designer of the tabletop RPG Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall. “Like, ‘Oh, you should be happy that they’re representing you at all.’’
“And it’s a lot of ‘Asia as a monolith’ and very much like, “Let’s just mix all the cultures together and shoot them in one space and not give them any distinction. So it becomes very much like, ‘Everybody’s a ninja. We’re all ninjas. We’re just ninjas.’ Like, ‘I don’t care if you’re Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai – you’re a ninja.’”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CThat’s%20why%20it%20feels%20weird%20to%20talk%20about%20like%20Asian%20American%20representation%20as%20a%20whole%2C%20because%2C%20again%2C%20it’s%20a%20tenuous%20alliance%20within%20the%20Asian%20community.”]Using imagery from a specific country and calling it representation for all Asians can lead to unintentional discomfort. The samurai, for example, is a uniquely Japanese symbol and one associated with an imperial engine that invaded and colonized many of its East and Southeast Asian neighbors in World War 2.
That’s not to mention the tropes of a samurai, of honor-bound duty, and being stoic to the point of feeling robotic and celibate. The problem is these traits increasingly feel less like characteristics of a particular class of warriors, and get extended to all Asian people.
“That’s why it feels weird to talk about like Asian American representation as a whole, because, again, it’s a tenuous alliance within the Asian community — because there is all of that history there for each of the communities,” says Christal Rose Hazelton, a video game writer.
“I mean the Philippines has been invaded so many times, by so many different cultures, that there definitely is prejudice against other Asian communities, but we are presented as this one identity.”
Asian women have to contend with an entirely separate layer of stereotype; characters that are sexualized due to tropes deemed unique to them.
“I think a lot of the time, thinking about Asian women in terms of media, we get exoticized a lot,” says Banana Chan, who is also co-designing Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall. “And there’s always that one character — when we’re thinking about film — who’s a badass on screen but doesn’t speak, has no lines.”
The Asian American identity can be a messy one, no matter what area of culture is presenting it — but for video games, and the creative industry in charge of making them, there are unique challenges that don’t necessarily impact filmmakers and other creatives.
Asian Representation In Video Games
Where an independent film like Minari can be in contention for some of the highest awards in the industry, AAA studios don’t typically make games about Asian farmers in Arkansas. On the contrary, many video games tend to be set in larger-than-life settings where the focus naturally lends itself to characters like ancient warriors, or ninjas.
“I think film and games are radically different, and I think it boils down to infrastructure and community,” James Nadiger, an Associate Narrative Director at Ubisoft Montreal tells me. Nadiger says the way AAA game development functions makes the kind of personal stories found in film difficult for the industry to replicate.
“I think most AAA game core teams are still overwhelmingly white, which makes that authenticity not impossible, but definitely more difficult. Not to mention we need more people of color in all levels of development with technological expertise to turn that creativity into an actual game.”
Nadiger adds that he believes the breadth of Asian American diaspora experiences is so vast “that it also doesn’t naturally lend itself to a AAA space, which tends to focus on high-level fantasies.”
That isn’t to say all games flatten the Asian identity to be set in these high-concept settings. Across the board, developers praised ‘cast games’ like Overwatch for differentiating between cultures and characters.
“With things like Overwatch and a lot of cast games, when you do get Asian representation, it’s pretty nuanced to the point where people of that community can tell that that accent is regional, which I think is excellent,” says Hazelton. “But for single-player games, you still don’t really see [that]. You have to go, again, to cast games or indie games.” Even in those more positive examples, some Asian cultures are simply never represented. As Hazelton points out, “I’ve never played a game with any Filipino characters.”
“I want there to be nuance in these characters or these games, but I want the people to be making the games too because they should have a say in how we’re represented,” says Emma Kidwell, a writer at Hangar 13. “Even now, if you have one Asian person on your team, they cannot speak for every single Asian person, which is why it helps to have a really diverse team.”
“I did really appreciate Jesse as a character from The Last of Us 2, “ says Schultz. “His race being Asian doesn’t define him or how he survives in that world. He isn’t equipped with a trusted heirloom katana that he uses to stealthily cut through enemies in the middle of Seattle.
“After having so many game characters who are defined by mastering martial arts, wielding swords in a gunfight, empowered by glowing dragons, or being a nameless sexual prize, all I want to see is an Asian character who is a person or has at least a second personality trait.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Ultimately%20I%20think%20if%20it%E2%80%99s%20going%20to%20be%20good%2C%20nuanced%2C%20salient%20representation%2C%20it%20needs%20to%20be%20created%20by%20Asian%20people%20or%20Asian%20diaspora%20people%E2%80%9D”]Representation doesn’t need to solely be in the form of a main character. James Kazuki Palermo, an associate UI artist at NetherRealm studios, says the first time they felt represented in a video game came from a less obvious source.
“I think the first game that felt like Japanese representation without it being a samurai or a ninja was playing Katamari Damacy,” says Palermo. “It was all I played all summer and I remember playing this game… this game is so unapologetically Japanese without it being a samurai or a ninja or a hacker… All the objects and stuff, the erasers, Japanese stationery, it was all there.”
Game developers also agree that Asian stories shine when told by Asian people. Detention, a horror game set in 1960s Taiwan, and made by a Taiwanese studio, came up repeatedly in my conversations with different developers.
“Detention was cool because I always see photos of my parents when they were high schoolers, and it was the same time period too, so it felt kind of cool for me… to have this connection with my parents who grew up and lived in Taiwan,” says Eddie Lee, founder of Funktronic Labs.
“Ultimately I think if it’s going to be good, nuanced, salient representation, it needs to be created by Asian people or Asian diaspora people,” says Christal Rose Hazelton. “Like, I think that’s why Minari was so salient because it was a director who was pulling from their own experiences. And I see a lot of people talking about the kid laying on his mom’s lap, to get his ears cleaned — that is something that I wouldn’t think a white person writing an Asian family would [include].”
“We just need more Asians in the industry, like in every role. And I think it’s very common to see Asians in non-creative roles. You see them as engineers or technical roles. You don’t see them as sound designers or mission designers or writers.” That skewed placement of Asian American developers tells its own story.
Being an Asian American Game Developer
If you’re Asian American, you know the term ‘microaggression’. It’s a disregard of our individual qualities delivered in a way that’s so slight, it’s hard to tell if you should even be angry. Questions like, “What kind of Asian are you?” or, “Your English is really good,” can be delivered in a way that’s so innocuous that it’s hard to tell if it’s racist at all.
Then there’s the model minority myth, which stereotypes Asians, particularly East Asians, as high-achievers working primarily in the STEM field. With game development combining creative and technical arts, these myths and microaggressions combine to follow Asian game developers around the industry.
“When we say Asian developers, I think those folks usually tend to get pigeonholed as software engineers, as technical folks,” says Jessica Jung, a video game producer.
“People know that I’m in the game industry, and the first thing they ask is, ‘Oh, so you’re like a programmer then? That’s cool.’ And it’s like, ‘No, I’m in community management and development.’” says Elisa Choi, a community developer at Ubisoft Montreal.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CI%20remember%20when%20I%20first%20started%20out%20in%20the%20gaming%20industry%20at%20another%20company%2C%20they%20were%20upset%20that%20I%20was%20direct%20in%20an%20email%E2%80%9D”]Zhenghua, who conducts business on behalf of his own company, had to make it a policy to bring along a white coworker to be taken seriously as a businessman, and not be mistaken for a programmer.
“After our first GDC, because I realized [how] little people would take me seriously in a convention setting — in a meeting setting — we had a new policy that I always had to bring a white person from our team to these meetings,” Zhenghua tells me. “That’s the only way for them to realize that I’m an American businessman.”
An unspoken anxiety of the Asian American identity is that we are a people without a land. Too physically different to be accepted in white spaces, and not properly ‘authentic’ enough to return to China, to Korea, to Vietnam, to the homes of generations past.
“Oh, Japan and Korea and China, they have a lot of — there’s a lot of game developers there. But I feel zero connection with those studios,” says Jung. “It’s not as if I could just — I live in the west coast of California I’m not going to just be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to start job hunting in Japan or even South Korea.’ And I’m Korean, right?”
For Asian women, the stereotypes that are baked into their fictional representations — the sexually aggressive dragon lady or submissive kawaii anime girl — can hound them in real-life.
“It’s the stereotype of Asian women in general, right? I’ve had those weird internet comments where I’m like, ‘I think you’re being a little familiar,’ and assuming a little too much about me or like how kawaii I am or whatever,” says Victoria Tran. “That is very weird, at game events being like, ‘no, stay away,’ [after getting] really weird comments you have to laugh off and walk away from.”
Tran even says that, at one industry event, someone told her she, “looked expensive.”
“I remember when I first started out in the gaming industry at another company, they were upset that I was direct in an email,” says Elisa Choi. “But when I pointed out that a colleague of mine — who is in the same position, but she’s white — when I pointed out that she was just as direct to me in an email she was given that excuse of, ‘Yeah, but she’s from Russia so it’s okay. You should be able to give her that cultural understanding.’
“And I’m like, ‘Wait, what about me then? What are you expecting me to be? Quiet? Submissive?’ And then there was that expectation of me just, I guess, backing down and quietly accepting what is expected of me.”
The question remains of how these damaging assumptions can be tackled, not least in the current climate. When COVID-19 arrived in the United States in 2020 it created a new atmosphere of fear for Asian Americans. The ominous blame put upon the Chinese, who’ve been singled out as the sole cause of the pandemic, worried me even as a Korean American because I know America’s proclivity to flatten Asians into a single group. The words of then-President Donald Trump haunt me:
“Did anyone see my speech the other night — on Saturday night? There’s never been anything with so many names,” said President Trump about COVID-19 to a crowded audience. “I can give you 19 or 20 names, it’s got all kinds of names, right? There’s Wuhan— Wuhan was catching on… Coronavirus? Kung-flu?” The latter met thunderous applause.
“Just hearing about the demonization of Asian folks because of COVID, that’s a whole conversation,” says Jessica Jung. “I certainly think there is a degree to which Asian people will always be foreigners, no matter how long they’ve been living in the United States or consider themselves American. There’s some element to Asian people as foreigners. They are other, or vectors for disease, or they have strange customs, they have backward cultural beliefs, or mystifying cultural heritage, or something like that.”
A New Story
In a recent profile for the New York Times, Minari actor Steven Yeun put it thus, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
But seeing Yeun in a profile at all, being able to express ideas on the Asian American identity is progress where there was none before. Coming to the United States at the age of 10, it felt like there wasn’t much in terms of representation — until suddenly there was, in movies, TV, and music.
And it certainly feels like a generation of Asian American video game developers are thinking about themselves and what it means to be Asian in the space more recently. Some I spoke to are hopeful, while others remain skeptical that change in representation, at least as far as video games go, is near.
“I really want to say yes [to better Asian representation coming to AAA games] because, obviously there are creators who are very passionate about it, who really want it,” says Hazelton. “But I think there are so many roadblocks to what that means, and you really need to have a team who really cares about it.”
Hazelton points to existing teams as a sign of progress, such as the team at Insomniac that recently shipped Spider-Man: Miles Morales. “Like, you saw it there for other communities, it can happen. The stars really do need to align for it to happen. I would love it to happen.”
It’s not like there are simply no stories in which Asian characters can headline AAA games. Believing Asian leads can only work when a game is about samurai or cyberpunks is something Jung says is “almost a failure of imagination.”
“I think of the Yakuza games as games that people really like about stories being told in Asian metropolitan areas. Obviously, that takes place in Japan, but there are plenty of similar areas inside the United States, right? Like Flushing in New York City; San Francisco Chinatown. I think a lot of these places hold historical tales, or there’s a lot of cultural and historical legacy there that often just isn’t represented. Why can’t we explore New York through a new lens?”
Kidwell says the process can begin small, by hiring sensitivity readers and consultants to be involved in the process: “I think that’s where it starts first. And then having authentic casting once you create a character; cast authentically, don’t cast a white person to voice a Japanese person.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22I%20would%20like%20to%20not%20be%20the%20only%20Asian%20person%20in%20the%20room%20anymore%22″]And when Asian Americans can be an active part of a company’s creative decisions, good things can happen. “I’m lucky to work at a studio that makes games about the world,” says Schultz. “Inclusivity is part of the design. I’ve used my voice in the past to point out when something might not be hitting the mark in capturing Asian characteristics, and the feedback has been graciously received.”
For Robyn To, a software engineer at Very Very Spaceship who previously worked at a major studio, the last four years in regards to Asian representation in film and TV has been a revelation.
“It’s definitely contributed to how I think about my identity and also how I think about my work,” says To. “I’m starting to just now see a future, a potential future where I can have both [my identity and work] come together versus typically going to a predominantly white space and trying to leave my race at the door.”
To tells me that even thinking about the possibility of a game studio focused on telling Asian American stories is exciting. “What would that look like? And just for me, it opened up this bright potential future where I was like, ‘Okay, we have the people, people want to organize.’ For me, it got really exciting because I have been really inspired from a lot of the Asian-American history I’ve been reading, from talking with my grandparents a lot about how they grew up… I would like to not be the only Asian person in the room anymore, and it sounds like there are other people out there and for me, that’s very exciting.”
Choi, who began our conversation by telling me she is “in the process of giving up on fair representation” in games, says the recent representation she’s seen in movies, in films like Minari, The Farewell, and Raya and the Last Dragon, has stirred something in her — though not enough to completely remove the cynicism.
“I’d love to see it one day. I’d love to see a focus on the Korean dynasty or something, I don’t know. That’d be cool. Oh my god, like Kingdom? If we ever made a game based on the Netflix show Kingdom? I would die. That would be the best feeling in the world.”
The term “Asian American” was created in the 1960s by students at the University of California Berkeley, who envisioned a coalition of identities that could overcome national origin in favor of an inter-ethnic, pan-Asian American identity. 60 years later and it’s not any easier to answer what it means to be Asian American other than an alliance based on physical likeness and common experiences.
But for the first time in a long while, it feels like the Asian American community is not only ready, but hungry to turn the page and forge ahead on a new representation, divorced from the old stereotypes of the past and instead focusing on the unique experiences and ideas of Asian Americans.
Speaking with Asian American game developers is a reminder that even in an industry with strong footholds in Asia or admirers in the west, there’s still a whole world of experiences left untapped. This article can’t possibly capture the full scope of the Asian American experience, but I hope that by highlighting the representation we see — and the representation we don’t — along with the representation we want to see, it can be a step towards taking control of our own narrative and away from the confused, and sometimes violent gaze of others. It could be gaming’s own Minari moment.
Matthew T.M. Kim is IGN’s News Editor. You can reach him on Twitter @lawoftd.
Original Illustrations by Saniya Ahmed.