A recent trailer for Cyberpunk 2077’ was upsetting to a lot of people of colour in my gaming circles. Most notably, my Asian diaspora friends were abuzz by the blatant orientalism in a segment about an in-game gang called the Tyger Claws.
The trailer’s first shot of the Tyger Claws was drenched in red, a colour I associate more closely with Chinese visual culture. The promo image for the gang began with an English logo that was partially composed of suspect katakana letters, and basically written in a “chopsticks font” that is heavily associated with western caricatures of Chinese people. Although the music in the background reminded me of Chinese operatic ballads, with its distinct vibrato, none of my Chinese or Japanese friends could confirm the origin of the music. It was ethnically ambiguous, and I didn’t understand why a lovely ballad was playing over a video about a murderous gang. I spotted a bonsai tree, and one of the characters was wielding a katana. The cultural markers were all over the place. Turns out, the gang is Japanese.
Sure, confusion happens. But the mix-up becomes a problem when video games can present clear differences between Anglo culture versus French culture, and then we have Asian characters who are a mish-mash of Chinese and Japanese. This is part of a larger video game history of western designers not being able to differentiate between different Asian cultures, yet choosing to exotify them for a non-Asian audience. I have no idea how the Tyger Claws were winning all those turf wars if they kept bringing swords to a gunfight. Yet, they are the one gang in that Cyberpunk trailer that is swinging swords. The Asian character who wields a sword is a mainstay in western video games.
Let’s talk about the history of East Asians in western games.
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines was a 2004 computer role-playing game that featured a Chinatown vampire clan called the Kuei-jin. Despite the Chinese names of all of the clan members, the clan name is a portmanteau of badly romanized Mandarin and Japanese. When I kill the generic vampires in that game’s Chinatown, I can loot katanas off their bodies. No other enemies drop katanas. One of the white American vampires from Hollywood describes Chinatown as “a cheap replica of Asian architecture better off in a theme park.” That may be true for the neighbourhood that Vampire had built, but actual Chinatowns are real places with distinct local differences, communities, and histories.
Could there be a Sino-Japanese community in Los Angeles? It’s not how Asian enclaves have historically formed in the United States, but let’s say “sure” for the sake of argument. My concern isn’t about accuracy. It’s about care. The original tabletop game upon which Bloodlines was based didn’t demonstrate much care about where these vampires came from, and it created a cultural amalgamation out of an entire continent. Instead of omitting this piece of flawed lore or lampshading its inaccuracy, the video game doubled down and added katanas to the lore.
The entire plot of Vampire revolves around the ways in which the vampires of Europe have successfully adapted in order to blend in with a human society. Even in a game about monstrous vampires who have successfully adapted human personas, the East Asian characters can’t assimilate into American society. Instead, they choose to bring Japanese swords into gunfights. Their strangeness is not a source of empowerment. It is a marker of difference.
As I battled my way through the Golden Temple in Chinatown, I grew steadily impatient at the power fantasy of demonstrating combat prowess over mystical martial arts warriors. The game didn’t care to tell me why they brought Japanese swords from across the ocean. Why not use guns and baseball bats like all the other gangs? As I dutifully looted another sword off grunt number five, I knew that no answers would be forthcoming. And I was right. This was not a game that cared about the Kuei-jin’s story. There are human stories to be found in the ghoulish monsters of Vampire, but none to be found in racial caricatures.
Whether it’s Los Angeles in 2004 or the larger galaxy in 2186, East Asians in western RPGs can never fully escape the specter of being forced to fight with racialized weapons. Look at the cyber assassin Kai Leng from Mass Effect 3. Despite being of biracial Chinese and Russian heritage, he fights the player with a Japanese short sword.
I am so tired of these design choices. Western developers may be more familiar with Japanese culture than that of other Asian nations, but there are a lot of problems with using Japanese swords as a shorthand for the entirety of Asia. Among them is the relatively recent history of Japanese imperialism, when nationalists considered their culture to be superior to those of their colonised subjects. Feelings of racial supremacy over Chinese and Korean people is still a huge problem in Japanese popular culture and politics. Erasing other Asian cultures for Japanese culture only serves to enable reactionary sentiment, even if it comes from a place of western ignorance.
Kai Leng’s Japanese short sword is also a huge gaffe for a setting that emphasises humans’ identities with their species, rather than their ethnicity. Characters in Mass Effect are typically identified by their birth city, rather than nation or cultural group. The setting of Mass Effect is just post-racial enough for the player to disregard the possibility of a human race war, but not post racial enough to avoid casting a Chinese character as a Japanese ninja.
I had a better experience with the most recent Spider-Man game, which had Chinese villains called the Inner Demons. I was initially bothered by their use of swords (ok, maybe I still kind of am), but it became clear that the designers took considerably more care portraying their villains as people. I am not just talking about the leader, who gets plenty of dialogue and characterization. We shouldn’t solely judge representation by a group’s most exceptional leader. I was more impressed with the depiction of the villain’s ordinary henchmen. They have a lot to say, too, and are frequently bantering in lines that are fully voiced in Mandarin. I found this refreshing. As I played the game, I would spend a ton of time perched above Inner Demons hideouts just to listen to their ambient arguments. They’d talk about They would complain about the job, their coworkers, or lightly rib each other. I was used to listening to guards argue about petty drama in a lot of stealth games, but I wasn’t used to hearing them in my first language. Spider-Man demonstrated awareness that humanity extends to all members of an Asian group, and not just their most exceptional edge case.
Asian characters are poorly represented in western games. The mistakes I’ve mentioned above — the obsession with giving Asian people swords — are not innocuous when you look at them in the context of games history. They are part of a larger western disregard for the historical dynamics of Asian people. When Asian people are given martial weapons in a setting where everyone else is using guns, it racializes their physical abilities.
There’s no hard and fast rule where representation is concerned, but I just want western studios to demonstrate more care for Asian stories. If an Asian character gets a qiang (Chinese polearm), then I think it’s only fair that at least one European character gets a glaive. If carrying a medieval French weapon seems ridiculous in a serious modern setting, then katanas should seem equally ludicrous.
At the very least, it already seems ridiculous to a large segment of the gaming audience.
Sisi Jiang is a game designer who prefers making games over writing about them.