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Video Gaming's Appropriation Of Asian Culture Needs Addressing

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Video Gaming's Appropriation Of Asian Culture Needs Addressing

Words: Alan Wen

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As someone who is British Chinese, I've always been conscious and proud of the importance and role that Asian games have played in shaping the gaming industry as we know it.

Japan has a reputation as the spiritual home of video games - it's where Super Mario, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter and countless more beloved game franchises came from. China is not just one of the largest gaming markets in the world, but where the majority of our consoles and devices are made. South Korea is just as dominant a force in esports as well as in online gaming, and the country has the world's fastest average internet speed.

When you look at that, it might be easy to think that Asian games have it pretty great, and are embraced by people all over the world. Yet just as the myth of Asians as the model minority makes it easy to downplay the racism Asian minorities face, it's easy to overlook the reductions, fetishisations and appropriations of both Asian games and cultures. And at a time where the Western world is facing a rising number of hate crimes against Asian people, and video game studios are vocally offering their support for #stopaapihate, it's a pertinent time for all players to reflect on the foundations of their Asia-inspired favourites.

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Above: a Ghost of Tsushima accolades trailer / Credit: PlayStation Australia, SIE, Sucker Punch Productions

There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from a game or culture you love. Stardew Valley was heavily inspired by Japanese developer Marvelous Inc.'s Harvest Moon series; Ghost of Tsushima is inspired by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa; and the most popular game genre in the world, battle royale, is based on a Japanese novel and film of the same name.

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What I find more problematic is when these games become hits, they are often also given the credit of representing a high point for their genre or style. While the actual genre-defining titles are eclipsed, or just outright ignored from the discourse. And this isn't just about how games play, but how they look, too - how often are anime-styled games overlooked for coverage, in favour of others that play similarly but have a grittier, more 'photo-real' aesthetic? Compare the reception, column inches and award nominations for Code Vein and Mortal Shell, for example.

Stardew Valley / Credit: ConcernedApe
Stardew Valley / Credit: ConcernedApe

That isn't to say that a game like Stardew Valley, which arguably improved the farming sim formula, doesn't deserve its success. Yet it's deeply frustrating when a publication describes another cute farming sim as "Stardew-like", as if it was the pioneer. Or how many people who play Fortnite or PUBG have even heard of the original Battle Royale?

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On the flip side, 2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild initially prompted impressions that Nintendo was finally learning from Western open-world games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, as if 1986's original The Legend of Zelda wasn't among the very first open-world games created. If anything, the masterpiece of BOTW reinvented a tired genre, and other developers are still learning from its fresh approach to open-world game design, such as Ubisoft's Immortals Fenyx Rising.

My biggest bugbear goes to Ghost of Tsushima, a samurai game from American studio Sucker Punch that rides on the wave of the renewed interest in Japanese games and series like Persona, Nioh and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Audiences and critics were falling over themselves in praise of what I ultimately found to be a bang-average open-world game where its faithfulness to Japanese culture and history rings hollow when they can't be bothered to lip-sync the Japanese voices, or where you can compose haikus four centuries before they came to be.

Ghost of Tsushima / Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Ghost of Tsushima / Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Yet even Japanese audiences - perhaps overwhelmed by their culture represented on a budget their native developers can only dream of - fell hook, line and sinker for it. We've seen this in the Kurosawa estate giving its blessing to the game's film-grain-patterned monochrome filter, which is officially called the Kurosawa Mode; and how the real island of Tsushima has appointed Sucker Punch's directors as permanent ambassadors.

Commercial success is one thing, but it's quite another to see Ghost of Tsushima being showered with 12 BAFTA nominations in the UK, while one of 2020's biggest Japanese-made releases Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which not only breaks new ground for the series but has one of the most stellar localisations ever without losing an authentic representation of Japanese culture, gets completely snubbed.

Yakuza: Like A Dragon / Credit: SEGA, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Yakuza: Like A Dragon / Credit: SEGA, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

That doesn't mean there aren't major Japanese IPs that achieve commercial and critical success, and the awards that can follow; but they're notably ones with established brands recognised by the West, such as Zelda, Resident Evil or Final Fantasy. And, of course, the latter only really crossed over into a mainstream hit when it embraced a Western realistic aesthetic with 1997's Final Fantasy VII, whereas the similarly huge-in-Japan Dragon Quest series is even now considered a niche attraction for international gamers.

That word, "niche", is almost always used by the Western games media in reference to Japanese games, an excuse to brush it under the carpet as something "too weird" for mainstream players to understand. Even when Japanese games were at their most dominant in the 1980s and '90s, their marketing was frequently repackaged with ugly Westernised artwork to make it more appealing to Western audiences, god forbid they knew they were playing a Japanese game.

Genshin Impact / Credit: miHoYo Co., Ltd
Genshin Impact / Credit: miHoYo Co., Ltd

This goes hand in hand with the Yellow Peril racism that extended into the 1980s when Japan was becoming a new economic superpower, a breed of discrimination reflected in science fiction films like 1982's Blade Runner and the tabletop Cyberpunk game of 1988 (the same tone persists in the 2020 video game). Nintendo arguably side-stepped this because its games of the era were never "too Japanese" or "foreign" in look or feel.

Sometimes however, these niches are huge, such as Genshin Impact. Despite attracting more Twitch viewers than Fortnite at launch and making more than $800 million in revenue to date, I'm disappointed that so much of the coverage of miHoYo's RPG has been reduced to its "predatory" gacha mechanics, rather than a focus at what the game does well. After all, it's not like plenty of Western-made games don't have their own egregious monetisation models, which while criticised are rarely at the centre of wider, release-window coverage.

Another reason that Asian-made games are easily dismissed is down to aesthetics - even though anime is hugely popular in the West. But being popular doesn't make anime free from stigma, much like how mobile games get derided despite their huge market share - which also happens to be mainly in Asia. Part of that may be down to perceptions of its fandom, also derisively referred to as "weebs" - but your average anime fan isn't so different from anyone invested in the geekdoms of Marvel or Star Wars.

I'm not saying that there aren't problematic elements in anime or Japanese culture, but for a whole aesthetic of a certain culture to be repeatedly equated to porn (that's hentai, a subgenre in anime) is in itself reductionist. That Western audiences have that kind of viewpoint reflects their own racist perceptions where all facets of Asian culture, from hairstyles to fashion to the language (e.g. senpai, a respectful way to address someone older than you in school), can be little more than sexual fetishes.

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Above: GAMINGbible in conversation with Yakuza producer Daisuke Sato

That said, there's nothing wrong with either stylised art or horny games, as long as it's not anime, apparently (although you can skirt by with more gravitas if it's 'Ghibli-esque'). But what is this double standard of seeing sites getting horny on main for Hades - or all the romances in Mass Effect or Dragon Age - only for anything remotely anime to get the side-eye? It's just like that cartoon aesthetic versus what is a supposedly more realistic low-fantasy style imbalance, again. And speaking of romance, what about the entire visual novel genre that barely gets a look in despite its popularity in Japan?

So you get aspects of Asian culture that are at once fetishized but then not taken seriously, yet these signifiers get casually appropriated in Western games like Cyberpunk 2077, Katana ZERO or Ghostrunner, whether it's katana blades, ramen shops or ninjas. To some extent, a country like Japan becomes guilty of perpetuating these stereotypes since this is what sells. I actually spoke to Yakuza producer Daisuke Sato a couple years ago (check out GAMINGbible's interview with him, from Gamescom 2019, above) and asked why Sega hadn't brought the series' samurai period drama spin-offs to the West, to which he replied: "Maybe if the main character was a ninja, there might have been more potential." Meanwhile, Ghost of Tsushima struts over with all the plaudits.

Ghostrunner / Credit: 505 Games
Ghostrunner / Credit: 505 Games

I realise that I've mostly focused on Japanese games here, which in itself is also problematic, as other Asian countries get completely left out of the discussion - or worse, have their cultures conflated as Western developers pick and choose, presenting Asians as one monolithic culture. That's also not including how some Asian countries rarely get to represent themselves - but as documented in People Make Games, who spoke to developers from Malaysia and Indonesia, they more often become part of the outsourced, and invisible, labour crunching on behalf of big Western studios.

There are, however, some studios that are doing a better job at collaborating with Asian developers. For instance, Stardew Valley publisher Chucklefish is also working with Shanghai developer Pixpil to release Eastward, an upcoming adventure game steeped in multiple Asian cultures. Kudos should also go to Immortals Fenyx Rising, whose Myths Of The Eastern Realm DLC - based on ancient Chinese mythology - is the work of Ubisoft Chengdu. Another positive step is seeing more diverse Asian representation and stories, as we'll hopefully see in Life is Strange: True Colors.

More importantly, even as I am hopeful for more Asian cultures to be seen and played in the future, I hope that developers and players alike do not forget the rich foundations and genres that Asian developers and cultures have built. For those who do love and enjoy Asian aesthetics in their games, I hope it's done with a desire to understand the cultures and people they represent, and that these are works that deserve both acclaim as well as serious criticism like any other multifaceted media.

Follow the author on Twitter at @DaMisanthrope, and GAMINGbible at @GAMINGbible.

Featured Image Credit: miHoYo, SEGA, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Topics: Ghost of Tsushima, Genshin Impact, Opinion

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