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Bear with me in this column because I’m angry and I’d like to make a reasoned argument that the game industry can do something about the cause of the moment — #StopAsianHate. Moments like these are opportunities because someone is probably listening.
It has always been easy to pick on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders because we are such a small part of the U.S. population. Haters can think of us as “others,” or people who are out of sight, not well understood, easily stereotyped, and less than fully human. (For more on that last claim, check out the book War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War by John Dower.)
When former U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly talked about the “China Virus” or “kung flu,” he did so in a calculated way. Asian Americans are just 5.6% of the U.S. population. He could afford to offend us because we weren’t big enough to vote him out of office. Of course, he treated other minority groups no better. He was confident his base would reward him for being openly racist. No one stopped the bully. Fox News reveled in his clever wordplay. The predictable downstream effect of this is blood running in the streets.
The thing all minority groups share is that we never have enough people to protect us when things get bad. We couldn’t stop the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans — including my father and many members of my extended family — in incarceration camps in World War II. Last week, others protested the “cancel culture” that got six books by the beloved Dr. Seuss pushed out of publication. I tried to remind people on Facebook that Seuss was initially in favor of the internment, and he created some racist images that stirred hate against Japanese Americans. Later on, he apologized. In the children’s book Horton Hears a Who, he wrote a dedication to a Japanese friend. The book’s refrain is, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”
This week, things got bad again. A man in Georgia killed eight people at three spas, and six of the victims were Asian women. While the true motivation behind the killings isn’t known, they were part of a disturbing trend. Activist group Stop AAPI Hate reported this week that it has received 3,795 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the past year.
I recall when I worked at the Los Angeles Times in the 1990s we were about 3% of the population — too small to be included in polls that broke out the opinions of Latinx, Black, and white populations. I complained about this, and the pollster and editor explained that not enough Asian Americans had responded to be statistically significant. I felt the pollsters could find Asian American responses if someone was willing to spend more money. But the net result was that we were invisible.
It felt like nobody really wanted to know our opinions because they assumed we were more like white people than other minority groups. Asian Americans have long been cast as “model minorities,” an attitude that surfaced in the 1960s. Proponents of the myth used it to show that America wasn’t racist. If Asian Americans could succeed, the American system was fair, and so Black and Latinx people should be able to succeed too. It was a myth that left behind many Asian Americans who weren’t successful, and it was a way to pit minority groups against each other.
The question arises: Is it better to be invisible or to be viewed as a model minority? The answer, of course, is that it is better to be viewed as individual people.
I grew up stereotypically quiet. I would physically shake and have to steady myself before I spoke up in class. It took me years to find my voice and to realize that I was more at home in an English literature or journalism class than I was in business, engineering, or science courses. Years later, I found some solace in Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
And so I understood the urge in older generations of Asian Americans to be quiet. To comply. To not talk about it when they were victimized, harassed, bullied, or passed over. The Japanese have a phrase shikata ga nai or “it cannot be helped.” Another phrase, deru kui wa utareru translates to “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” But newer generations said to hell with that. They fought for our rights, vetoed victimhood, and got the U.S. government to apologize to us for the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.
At this time, I’m heartened to see people speaking out. NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin and actress Olivia Munn have done admirable jobs of speaking out against the hate. And I was inspired by Ashlyn So, a 13-year-old middle school student who organized a march against hate in San Mateo, California a few weeks ago. My wife and I attended that demonstration, and it was good to see hundreds of people — including non-Asian people — marching together against anti-Asian hate.
As a company based in Japan, the recent rise in anti-Asian hate has truly hit home for our employees.
— Bandai Namco US (@BandaiNamcoUS) March 16, 2021
I was also delighted to see the game industry speak out on our behalf. Bandai Namco US tweeted, “As a company based in Japan, the recent rise in anti-Asian hate has truly hit home for our employees. We always appreciate support from our fans and we now ask for your support to #StopAsianHate and fight the rise in hate crimes committed against people of Asian descent.”
Xbox chief Phil Spencer tweeted, “Hate has no home on Xbox. Team Xbox is appalled by the violence and racism against Asian communities. For all Asian players and peers, I want you to know that we see you, we hear you, and we will and must do more together to #StopAsianHate.”
Hate has no home on Xbox. Team Xbox is appalled by the violence and racism against Asian communities. For all Asian players and peers, I want you to know that we see you, we hear you, and we will and must do more together to #StopAsianHate.
— Phil Spencer (@XboxP3) March 17, 2021
Bethesda tweeted that it “rejects racism in all forms and stands in solidarity with our Asian employees and the AAPI community.” Sony Interactive Entertainment said it was “troubled by a recent pattern of violence targeting the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.” Ubisoft said it “condemns the horrific racist and xenophobic attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.”
But here’s the next step, and it’s similar to the steps people can take to follow up on last year’s commitments in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. Make us visible. Give us representation. Show us in your games. I remembered when I played Prey, the triple-A shooter game from Bethesda’s Arkane Studios, it struck me that the main character was an Asian American male. I had never seen that before, and so I became lost in thought while I played. I was struck again when a few major Asian characters in The Last of Us Part II — including the transgender Lev, the protective Yara, and the macho Jesse — were given memorable roles in a mainstream video game.
And I was overjoyed to see yesterday that Square Enix and Deck Nine Games included an Asian American woman, Alex Chen, as the main character in the upcoming Life is Strange: True Colors game coming on September 10. I don’t want us to be invisible anymore. It’s too dangerous. It allows ignorant people like Trump to define us. To the game industry, I say: Represent us as human and normal so it becomes a little harder to dehumanize us. And thank you for the diversity you’re designing into your games.
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