David Cole is a poet and writer from Wayne County, Kentucky who has spent his entire life playing games. His work focuses on the strange and powerful connections we feel to media and celebrities, including his breakout collection I’ve Been A Prisoner All My Life (And I Can Say To You).
Modern video games owe a lot to the Asian continent, from the revitalization of the industry after the crash of 1983 to the oft-used gimmick of “eastern mysticism,” the idea that being from an Asian country connects a person to a spiritual and/or magical force that conveniently moves a plot along. But despite the large output of video games from Japan, China, and Korea from the 1980s into the 2000s, actual representation of Asian cultures has been fairly minute in games that have either been developed in the west or localized for a western audience. The number of influential games with Asian protagonists is even more limited, especially when considering that a fair number of Asian-developed games don’t see a release in western territories. This is not always true, of course, but the presence of stereotypical portrayals of whole cultures is undeniable. These eastern-developed games focus on generalized concepts of life in the east that appeal to a western market. That is to say that, on face, they feature the same sorts of protagonists and settings the west has already become comfortable with through exposure to years of other media, like movies.
But in recent years, the Japanese video game industry has declined. So, since the western industry has become the dominant force in game development, how has it come to represent Asian peoples and cultures in their video games? Is that representation able to be boiled down to marketing bullet points? A Nielsen study conducted with Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American subjects found that Asian-Americans are the most dissatisfied with racial representation in video game characters. What’s surprising about the study is that 49% of Asian-American respondents are dissatisfied with racial representation in games, compared to roughly 21% for other groups. There’s a clear lack of Asian representation in these games, which could easily account for this dissatisfaction. But why the lack? It’s a difficult question to answer, but there is a shift happening. Perhaps, in part, as a response to earlier representation.
One early western-developed game featuring an Asian protagonist is 3D Realms’ 1997 first-person shooter Shadow Warrior. The premise of Shadow Warrior is this: In the far-off land of Japan, a mega-corporation called Zilla Enterprises is summoning demons in order to take over the world. The player, taking on the role of protagonist Lo Wang, must fight the demon horde until he finally reaches his fateful encounter with Master Zilla, who rides into battle from the cockpit of a giant samurai-mech.
A number of problematic matters become apparent before booting the game. We’ve got a protagonist with a dick joke for a name, though this isn’t terribly surprising given the sort of lowbrow humor that populated 3D Realms’ runaway success one year earlier in Duke Nukem 3D. I can remember holding the box for Shadow Warrior in my pudgy, little hands sometime around 1999 and seeing that both the front and back of the game’s box proclaimed in all capital letters: “WHO WANTS SOME WANG?” The back also boasted that this game had “More detail, interactivity, gags and hilarious ‘Lo Wang Speak’ than Duke Nukem 3D.” ‘Lo Wang Speak’ refers to the continuous pidgin English spoken by the protagonist. It’s an uncomfortable set-up that feels aimed exclusively at a pre-pubescent boy demographic, the kind of people who are learning to speak liberally about their own reproductive organs, a group I definitely was part of at the time I originally played.
When I first started Shadow Warrior, I was placed in a Japan unlike any I had encountered before. Between Lo Wang’s battles with demons, he must pass through sliding doors made of bamboo into a subway station, toss shuriken at possessed men carrying nuclear-grade weaponry, and fight both Uzi-wielding ninjas and sedge hat-wearing zombies that the game calls “Coolies.” It is clear from the beginning that Shadow Warrior operates within a world of stereotypes, but as Elliot Chin declares in his review for Computer Gaming World: “3D Realms can’t even get their own stereotypes right” (Chansanchai). Elements of Japanese and Chinese culture come together in a mish-mash that lacks sense or forethought, but the game’s creators themselves declared that the game was merely a “parody of bad kung-fu movies” (Ow 56). It becomes quite easy to accuse the developers of committing one of the same sins that numerous “bad kung-fu movies” did: Yellowface.
When first playing the game, I was greeted by the growling voice of John William Galt. It’s a shock, in that it’s clearly the performance of a white man playing an Asian man. But the performance is less kung-fu hero and more poorly-received impression, with references to “ancient Chinese secret” and liberal switching of the “L” and “R” phonemes. Galt forces out Lo Wang’s broken pidgin English in a way that hearkens back to the performance of David Carradine in Kung Fu. Jeffrey A. Ow argues in his widely-circulated essay “The Revenge of the Yellowfaced Cyborg Terminator” that Lo Wang not only represents a curious mixing of these cultures, but does so to disguise the fact that he is an instrument of colonization (Ow 62). Lo Wang is, to Ow, an Asian character created by a white man, not a truly Asian developer. The distinction is that Wang’s entire existence is for the sole purpose of other white men stepping into his shoes and living a life in “mystical Asia” that they could not otherwise experience. Lo Wang is merely a caricature meant to give to video games what the Japanese “wanderjahre” genre offers to literature—a place full of mysticism and very specific cultural touchstones that can serve as an escape for the young, white male.
In “What Yellowface Hides: Video Games, Whiteness, and the American Racial Order,” Anthony Sze-Fai Shiu compares Shadow Warrior to hip-hop as an escape for white youth from what Shiu calls “whiteness” (Shiu). From the developers’ perspective, Shadow Warrior isn’t supposed to be harmful in any way. Lo Wang is a badass in the same manner other first-person shooter protagonists of the time were. I do not think that the original team at 3D Realms meant to create something belittling or hurtful, but their creation carries an irresponsibility with it that is concerning. In raising the “parody of bad kung-fu movies” defense, it becomes fair to question that. The game’s amalgamation of Japanese and Chinese culture feels as if the developer team saw these films as one large genre and had no consideration for their cultural or historical backgrounds. After playing Shadow Warrior, I don’t feel that the 3D Realms team could distinguish between a Hong Kong martial arts film like Fist of Fury and a distinctly Japanese-style film like The Street Fighter. I think the takeaway for them was less the commentary on two different parts of the world represented in those films and more the fight scenes. And while there’s certainly entertainment to be had there, meshing them together as if they were one culture and one place misses what makes those different kinds of films special. What’s more, to call it a parody implies that the game is satirical in some fashion. But satire is supposed to carry with it some degree of social or political commentary. Rather, Shadow Warrior feels more akin to a farce than any parody. In the years since my original encounter with Shadow Warrior, and numerous playthroughs along the way, I believe that the message 3D Realms hoped to deliver and the one they actually did are wholly different. Shadow Warrior isn’t a parody; it’s racist.
The world of Shadow Warrior presents a romanticized view of Asian cultures that erases all types of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. By senselessly mixing multiple geographic locations into one, 3D Realms ignores and devalues the Asian body. It is treated not as a type of human being, but as a commodity, and then mocked for a mixture of cultures that it is wholly not responsible for. The issue here is not only rooted in the stereotyping present in Shadow Warrior, but in what that stereotyping accomplishes. When the developers responded to Chin’s criticism with the claim that they intentionally wanted Lo Wang “to have a fuzzy background,” (Ow 55) they proved how they viewed Asian cultures—an amalgamation of similar ideas and expressions that require no observant eye or discerning mind. 3D Realms themselves said, in this statement, that they didn’t care about the specific cultures and peoples they were referencing in making this game. Their frame of reference was again, “bad kung-fu movies,” and what they produced doesn’t feel like a parody of those so much as an attempt to distill their own impression of what an Asian place is like based on only that source.
In 2013, Wild Hog Studios released a reboot of Shadow Warrior simply titled Shadow Warrior (referred to herein as Shadow Warrior (2013) to avoid confusion). The game takes a step back from most of the “canon” established by 3D Realms in 1997 and reimagines both Lo Wang and the world in which he lives. The story is much more intricate and meaty, with actual character development on Lo Wang’s part, and takes the player across a wide range of Japanese locales. Gone is the mixture of Chinese and Japanese cultures in favor of a firm placing in Japan and focus on its culture. But, most importantly, the racial humor of its predecessor is entirely absent within Shadow Warrior (2013), as the new game relies on smartly-written dialogue and character-based interactions with enemies and the environment without horrible pidgin English.
Shadow Warrior (2013) invents its own fiction, involving a “Shadow Realm” and new demons that look more monstrous because they are designed to be just monsters, not monsters that embody racial stereotypes. This fiction allowed the developers to explore and invent a world that was inspired by Japanese culture instead of trying to parody it. Despite the reputation of the original Shadow Warrior, Flying Wild Hog knew very well that they would have to avoid association with the less scrupulous elements of the game they were recreating. In an interview with Joystiq (now Engadget), the game’s lead writer said of the game: “But one thing we did take out was a lot of the cheap jokes that had a lot of racial stereotyping and kind of sexist jokes [replacing them with] a little smarter comedy than the cheap ones that were in there” (Suszek).
The world of Shadow Warrior (2013) is still distinctly Asian, yes, but it steps away from cultural amalgamation to focus on a Japanese culture-inspired world. The protagonist is skilled with a katana, and the entire game can be played with one, yes. It still touches on “Asian mysticism,” yes, and Lo Wang is able to cast spells and summon demons. But the progress is baffling when compared directly to its predecessor. Shadow Warrior (2013) may not be the best example of an Asian-led video game that there could be, but it certainly signals a shift in how games featuring Asian leads are made in the west. Shadow Warrior (2013) follows 2012’s open-world action game Sleeping Dogs in starting a trend in western-developed video games where Asian characters are specifically represented, rather than being portrayed as the “Asian amalgam” that the original Lo Wang was.
But does a positive move away from racism denote better representation? Absolutely not. Shadow Warrior (2013) is not a sign that a predominantly white industry will be anything else in the near future, but it does serve as a landmark in racial representation. It has, in effect, “reclaimed” the tainted name “Shadow Warrior” from a product that is undeniably racist. The Nielsen study showing a 49% dissatisfaction rate among Asian-Americans with racial representation was conducted long after the release of Shadow Warrior (2013); however, that data does present a positive change. Of the polled gamers, 27% of Asian-Americans responded that they did not feel strongly one way or the other about racial representation in games. Comparatively, 30 to 36% of the other groups responded as such. It’s a small shift away from apathy, and not toward a positive answer, but a shift toward an opinion is a change.
It takes a lot of negative feedback and criticism to make changes happen. This is especially true in game development, an industry seemingly tied to the identities and cultural wishes of white men. If a greater number of people feel strongly that they are not accurately represented in the game industry, then that can lead to positive change—namely, more diverse teams and minds making the games we all get to play. In that way, games like Shadow Warrior (2013), that make strides to give that group of people the representation they desire, are helping to make real, positive change in entertainment.
Chansanchai, Athima. “Yellow Peril.” Village Voice. Village Voice, LLC, 07 Oct. 1997. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
“How Diverse Are Video Gamers-And the Characters They Play?” Nielsen. The Nielsen Company, 24 Mar. 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Ow, Jeffrey A. “Revenge of the Yellowfaced Cyborg Terminator.” Race in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 2000. 51-68. Print.
Shiu, Anthony Sze-Fai. “What Yellowface Hides: Video Games, Whiteness, and the American Racial Order.” The Journal of Popular Culture 39.1 (2006): 109-25. Wiley Online Library. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Suszek, Mike. “Reinventing Shadow Warrior for the Modern Era.” Engadget. AOL Inc., 20 May 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.