Sunday, July 23, 2006

Model Minority

Breaking news from the University of British Columbia: the entertainment industry stereotypes Asians. Actually this is news, since we're talking not TV or Hollywood but PC games, the supposed strutting ground of the under-30 Asian male. Specifically, four best-selling desktop titles have been surveyed by a sociology honours candidate and found to reek of subliminal racism.

Parungao, an avid gamer, says the games feature evil gangsters, all of them non-white, who "function as narrative obstacles to be overcome, mastered or ultimately blown to smithereens by the white hero".

I'll accept that Asians get shoddy treatment in GTA, Shadow Warrior and Kung Fu, incidentally those three out of the four that I don't happen to play myself. But Warcraft 3? How exactly are we degraded by a talking alcholic panda? Even if you don't play the game, see which of the two characters below you warm to and which comes across as a complete stiff.

I bring Panda-monium!

Let me face the peril!

Of course the point is that the Asian-accented panda provides comic relief, and that granite-jawed Uther there is the 'norm' around which players are supposed to orient themselves in the Warcaft universe. Ironically the Panderan hero was - rumour has it - introduced in response to complaints that Blizzard had created yet another fantasy world where the humans are all white. Parungao might have noted that it's also a world where the females are all luscious sorceresses or bikini-wearing amazons, but racial pigeonholing would have given him more than enough material for his honours thesis.

It's a strange fact that in the US, Australia and Canada, East Asians are still lampooned to lengths that wouldn't be tolerated for any other minority, as anyone who's seen a Cornetto, Marsbar or Kan-Tong commercial in the last year can attest. At the same time we're burdened by positive stereotypes ranging from industriousness (no affirmative action needed for this model minority) to mathematical competence (I've personally borne that cross everywhere from cadet platoons to history classes). Western societies have a sort of cultural schizophrenia towards East Asians, one with deep historical roots; since Marco Polo set pen to paper, European visions of the Orient have oscillated between earthly paradise and earthly hell, as surveyed by one sinologist.

For other minorities - Hispanics in the US, Muslims in Australia - political debates are about alleged refusal to assimilate. With East Asians it seems no amount of assimilation is enough, not even becoming a US congressman. Instead the problem is getting the white mainstream to defetishise Asians as objects of mockery, mystery or fear. Even as shelves of books are being written about 'the Asian century' and schools scramble to introduce mandarin language courses, Asians remain fodder for everything from condiment ads to gratuitously offensive animated sitcoms.

Yeah, he's an Asian chubby-chaser! Ohh, him so hor-neh! Soooo horrrnnnyyyy!

Coming back to video games, Parungao still has to show that racial stereotyping translates into behaviour, something that's never been conclusively done in the context of game violence (which has brought at least one of his four titles into the public glare before). But he does make an interesting obervation about the industry's social progressiveness vis-a-vis other pillars of the entertainment media -

“Film and television come under greater critical scrutiny so civil rights and minority groups can voice their concerns and effect some change,” [Pangurao] explains. “But video games have generally been seen as kids’ toys. There aren’t the same mechanisms or critical forums to encourage game designers to evolve.”

Parungao may have been a shade generous to film and television. Just how much progress has been made in evolving screen roles for Asian males beyond 'geek', 'triad' or 'martial arts expert', and for Asian females beyond 'exotic sex object'? Rather than continuing to beat the political-correctness drum, I'll let readers judge for themselves from this sample of prominent Asian-American/Australian entertainers. You may notice a trend...

Lucy Liu

Kelly Hu

Kathleen de Leon

Grace Park

Amy Wong

Ming-Na Wen


Linda Park

Michelle Ang

Dichen Lachman

Bradley Wong


I emailed Rob Parungao about his perceptions of racial stereotyping in Warcraft 3. Turns out I missed the obvious candidate -
I found that Asians have been repeatedly been typecasted in a sterotypical way (for example, the honorable warrior, the kung fu fighter, or triad gang member). Warcaft 3 was used as an example where 'Asian-ness' in games is sometimes subtle - that is the Orc Blademaster isn't physically Asian (he's big and green) but he is inferentailly Asian. While not overt, racial sterotypes still persist in WC3. For example the Blademaster's bad accent or the framing of him as an honor bound samurai-esque warrior. Pandarians too follow in the same fashion with the large rice hat and again heavy accented. Since WC3 was put out quite recently, I used it to illustrates the fact that many of perceptions of Asians we find in early video games and early film (like Hollywood movies of the 1920s and 1930s) are still still being reproduced today.

That's an extract from a lengthy explanation Rob prepared for a concerned Blizzard employee (possibly from their PR department). The other side of the coin is that the blademaster is arguably the most versatile hero in the game, a fact I suspect Rob left out of his thesis. Good at many things and good-for-a-laugh - that's what it means to be Asian...

Tasta Mah Blade!

Update No.2

More discussion at China History Forum, which may seem a strange site for it if you know nothing about people who spend spare time talking history online.


Shaun said...

You forgot about Maggie Q!

Anyways. Command and Conquer Generals plays the racial sterotypes to great effect. Play the game and you'll see what i mean :)

John Lee said...

I have played Generals. "Building for Chi-nah!"

Of course the Russian voice-overs in Red Alert were pretty dreadful too. The media caricatures all non-westeners, whether it's Tom Clancy novels with Russians saying things like "honourable comrade" and "dosvidaniya!" or 60 Minutes wheeling out their 'ethnic' soundtrack for an overseas report (for Chinese stories it's always one of two or three reed flute pieces which I swear they share with Foreign Correspondent).

But I stick by my point that East Asians - the Chinese specifically - have peculiar difficulty getting accepted as plain 'American' or 'Australian'. I doubt I'd get comments like 'where are you from?', 'you speak very good English' etc if my name was Liebowitz or Mueller, or even Hassan or Mirkovic.