Anti-Offensiveness Master Class: Stop Fucking Up Asia(ns) [Part 4]

Okay, folks! I’d been thinking of ways to wrap up this series of posts on how not to fail at making inclusive works, and then coincidentally happened to see a bunch of things cross my social media streams that managed to fail a lot at portraying Asian cultures. I mean, A LOT. And honestly, when you look at all of the RPG products out there that fail at real-life cultures, it’s most probable that the culture a given specific RPG product will fail at is an Asian culture.
And. Guys. GUYS. Seriously, I’ve been seeing SO. MUCH. ASIA FAIL lately. SO. SO MUCH.

Now I could write an entire post on my own and probably not get anything wrong. But this is the sort of the thing that seemed to call for a “guest lecturer”, as it were. So I thought I’d let Chris Chinn start us off (image insertions are purely mine), and then I’d highlight a few especially egregious examples.


1. First off, can you introduce yourself for the benefit of my newer readers and patrons?
 
Hi, I’m Chris Chinn, a long time blogger and game critic.  Most of my writing can be found at Deeper in the Game.  At this point, I’m probably best known for writing The Same Page Tool, a tool help gamers coordinate what kind of game they want to play.
2. What are the things you most commonly see games get wrong with regards to portraying Asian people and culture? What the fail that you hate seeing most?
The big thing to realize is that printed game materials – books, settings, etc. are media.  They usually get the exact same things wrong that other white produced media does in terms of racist tropes, except that roleplaying games seem to consistently be much further behind other media.
So the usual things we see wrong in rpgs are:
– Fetishization of East Asia (light skin, etc.) usually while making South Asia disappear (ignoring darker east asians, etc.)
– Monolithic cultures
– Weird projections of ultra conservative Confucianism as either an ideal to uphold or a sign of the complete alien dysfunction of a whole culture
– Hyper sexualized women, often “demure, submissive” etc.
– Projection of sexism as being worse than European cultures
– Terrible mishmash or less-than-back-of-coffee-book understanding of major religions
What’s probably the most frustrating is that I’m not asking for historical realism, just not racist stereotypes.  The fact that this is particularly hard to find…. says a lot about how far rpg culture still needs to go.
 
3. What game, not counting Oriental Adventures[1], do you think fails the most at being awful toward Asian people and culture?
It’s pretty hard to say WHICH particular thing is the worst.   I know Wolsung’s horrid Yellow Peril imagery is fairly ugly, though Glorantha’s fake-China where the culture is built on monolithic obedience is also pretty messed up.
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Art from an official Glorantha supplement. Ugh ugh ugh.

Glorantha

AUTOCRATIC ORIENTAL SOCIETY? Shit. I’m embarrassed just reading that.

I dunno, I mean, if it’s a toss up between things that look like 1800s propaganda that gave us the Chinese lynchings in California or the stuff that gets spewed by modern day xenophobes who are joining militias and stockpiling guns, I feel like it’s kind of the same thread of ugly?
 
4. What are the top three things you would say to white people who want to write game material that portrays a culture that isn’t theirs?
If you want to make a game about something you haven’t grown up with?  I strongly suggest getting to know about the culture a bit by interacting with those actual people and imbibing a lot of the media they create for themselves.
It kind of says a lot about folks who are looking to make media talking ABOUT a group, but unwilling to hear that groups’ views or ideas.
Wow, good stuff. Thanks, Chris!

Specific Examples: Less Recent

Because I think we could all benefit from some examples of Shit Not To Do, here is a TOTALLY NOT EXHAUSTIVE list of shit you should strive to NOT emulate[1].

1. Oriental Adventures is REALLY THE WORST

These are all images that I pulled from different Oriental Adventures titles. YES IT WAS A SERIES.

But wait! The shitty racist stereotypes weren’t just in the art! Nooooo. There was shitty racist stereotypes written into the rules! For instance, the first illustration there, the yellow-peril-wizard there, was for a class called the Wu Jen. Well, as this conversion of the Wu Jen for use with later editions of D&D shows, the Oriental Adventurers were just a vortex of shitty, shitty racism:

Certain taboos must be abided by in order for the Wu Jen to sustain his magic. Examples include:
  • Cannot bathe
  • Must bathe frequently (at least every other day)
  • Cannot sit facing a certain direction
  • Cannot touch a dead body
  • Cannot wear shoes
  • Cannot drink alcohol

The DM and player should feel free to create their own taboos, as long as they are as restrictive as the examples above. Taboos should relate to purity or cleansing of the body.

Seriously. SERIOUSLY???

2. Steampunk Musha: Victoriental Adventures

Oh god. So OF COURSE this was a KickStarted project and OF COURSE it raised more than 400% of its goal. The worst part is that clearly the creator thought that he was being SO CLEVER.

“Let’s see. I like Oriental Adventures. What would make that better? Steampunk? Sure. Everybody loves Steampunk, right? But what would I call it? Steam Oriental Adventures? Oriental Adventures Steampunk? OH WAIT.”

Also. Here’s some of the art.

c5f0dfe66cd54983a1c7d6041ef2b20a_large

Who thought this was acceptable? WHO??

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Oh god it’s an orc-thing only instead of GREEN we’ll make him YELLOW because his EYES ARE SLANTY. GET IT???

3. STOP USING STEAMPUNK. STOP IT.

I talked about Into the Far West in the first part of this series of posts. But here’s some art to reinforce how bad it is.

fw_wp2 Mod 750

Wut? You mean the men get clothes and the woman doesn’t because she is SEXAY AND ASIAN? That’s not awful at all!

4. India

For this point, I’m going to be a bit vaguer because I’ve actually seen these offenses in multiple recent works, some of which have current crowdfunding efforts or sites that I don’t want to direct traffic to. So forgive me while I quote myself while simultaneously remaining intentionally vague:

1. Don’t use symbols with religious or spiritual meaning to another culture – it belittles the meaning behind the symbol and dilutes the importance of the symbol

2. Don’t reinforce negative stereotypes. That just adds to the toxic background radiation that forms the dominant view of minorities

3. Be mindful of your place in a system where white artists routinely profit off of performances of cultures that aren’t their own. See Katy Pary’s geisha performance, or Miley Cyrus using black culture like a costume.

Coming back to number 1 – religious and spiritually significant symbols. The use of Vishnu, Shiva, and Bodhisattvas – these are all things that are part of living religions currently being practiced in India. Add in stereotypical “monsters” like cannibal sorcerers, which play right into #2 and reinforce a whole host of ugly stereotypes about “savage” Indian mysticism and thugee cults and the like. And then for good fun, maybe you could add in some Untouchables, and maybe give them some magic powers. Because what could be wrong with saying that a group of real-life people who face real-life oppression get oppression superpowers so in fact their oppression is actually good for them?

There are a lot, a lot, A LOT of white[3] authors who publish lazy pastiches of “awesome” stereotypes of foreign cultures because they think it’s “awesome” and they can make a quick buck. And what we NEED more of in gaming is inclusive settings that manage to portray non-European cultures as complex and HUMAN, not just as a collection of stereotypes

Actually, you know what? If you’re writing a game setting based in India, it probably would be best to avoid mentioning Indian religion at all.

5. Anything that uses the word exotic.

Exoticization of foreign cultures, especially Asian cultures, has a long and troubled past in gaming. Exotic is not a compliment. Period. Full stop. End of sentence. Have you used it anywhere in your game material? Well go remove it. And then go remove all the synonyms. And then go remove all of the sections that read as OOOOO EXOTIC. That shit is toxic. Cut it out.

[1] Seriously, I could write an entirely separate blog about the fucked up ways in which Asia and Asians are portrayed in games

[2] Because HEAVEN FORBID that shit piles like Oriental Adventures remain unconverted for use with later editions of D&D. THAT JUST WOULDN’T DO.

[3] You heard me. WHITE.

About wundergeek
In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, I am an artist, photographer, and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.

10 Responses to Anti-Offensiveness Master Class: Stop Fucking Up Asia(ns) [Part 4]

  1. Eric Simon says:

    To Chris –
    Thank you so much for this specific focus. This article and the many steampunk-related articles you have posted on Deeper in the Game are very relevant to the work that I am putting together right now on our next big release, which will indeed focus on Asia. I know that you have had bad experiences with steampunk games in the past, so I would like to offer Steamscapes as an example of a historical game that is trying very hard to do all the things you advocate. (We may not be perfect, but we’re trying.)

    I know you have avoided posting your contact information, so I would instead like to invite you to send me a message. I would be interested in your opinions of our existing work in terms of the issues you have raised in your blog, and I would love to talk to you about having your insights and critiques on our future efforts.

  2. Adam B says:

    So, what are some examples of Asian (or Asian-inspired) art that gets it “right”?

    • chuckmcp says:

      Honestly, I think homegrown movies are a good place to start. China (and Hong Kong especially) have been making movies(and costumes/sets/etc) for quite a long time now, about various topics and historical settings(some more popular than others). Ditto for India.

      • wundergeek says:

        Exactly! If you’re looking for examples of things to emulate, consume actual media made by Asian people for Asian people. There’s a LOT OF GREAT STUFF out there.

        (But if I haaad to point out an example of art by a white guy that handles this stuff well, Drew Baker’s L5R art is pretty rad: http://www.drewbaker.com/l5r/)

  3. Elkin says:

    While the idea of ‘Don’t fail at Asian’ is good, one idea that bothered me in this post was this one: “I strongly suggest getting to know about the culture a bit by interacting with those actual people and imbibing a lot of the media they create for themselves.” This, to my view, introduces the uneasy notion of the “antiquity” of oriental cultures, another common orientalist stereotype, conjured up by European travelers who would equate travel to the orient with a journey to the past.

    Let me try to show why I disagree with that claim:

    If I, say, want to write a game set in a fantasy setting based on China during the Warring States period, why would I need the input of a person who grew up in the PRC? The fact that that person might consider himself a descendant of the culture that evolved during that period does not give him ownership on that culture at that specific point in time, no more than modern-day Italians or modern Italian media should be consulted when creating a game set in ancient Rome.

    To me, it looks like using modern Chinese re-imaginings to learn of dynastic and pre-dynastic China is akin to using “Ivanhoe” as a source on medieval England or “The Three Musketeers” as a source on 17th Century France: I fail to see how it can save an aspiring writer from supplanting real humans with shallow stereotypes.

    • Eric says:

      As a historical writer, I see your point and somewhat agree with it as stated. However, there is an issue of presentation that has to be considered. While I wouldn’t look to Three Musketeers as a historical record, I would look to it as an example of how a contemporary writer fictionalized his own culture. And when you know more about Dumas (and his father in particular), you can see how his personal lenses may have colored his presentation. Yet those lenses still tell you more about the source culture than you would know if you just pulled factual historical records together.

      An example relevant to this discussion might be a movie like Lagaan. Here’s a Bollywood fictionalization of a village that fights back against a Raja and wins. (er…spoiler warning) It’s certainly very fanciful and romanticized, but it has some critical elements that clearly place it as a work written by a culture about itself. One in particular is the story of the English woman who supports the villagers. If this movie were being made in America or the UK, she very likely would have ended up with the male lead. But because this movie was made in India, that potential cultural appropriation imagery is thwarted.

      So, while fictionalized accounts are not necessarily useful for their historical accuracy, they provide important sociological information, placing history in context. In so doing, they help us to avoid external stereotypes, particularly of the exoticization variety.

    • wundergeek says:

      The reason why it’s important to talk to people who come from the culture you want to write about is because there is a special kind of privileged cultural appropriation that comes from white people who ONLY interact with a culture as filtered through white people.

      That’s how you wind up with assholes like these people who claim to be passionate about Africa but only as filtered through white people: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/fashion/hanley-mellon-clothing-line-fashion.html?_r=0
      (And you know, not even a country in Africa. Just AFRICA. Generically. Because AFRICA.)

      • elkin says:

        I agree with the idea that people often interact with foreign culture only through a filter. I do not agree, however, that this is endemic to white people* interacting with foreign cultures.

        Let’s look at our own cultural heritage. Assuming you are an American of European descent, you are related to ancient Rome about as much as a Malaysian Chinese your age is related to Han Dynasty China, or as I, as an Israeli Jew, am related to Herodian Judea. You can relate to the plantation culture during George Washington’s time as much as Bantu person can relate to the life of a soldier in Shaka’s army, or as much as I can relate to life at an early Hassidic court in Galicia. You are as close to the the Wild West as a person your age at the PRC is close to Imperial times, and as I am close to traditional Eastern European Shtyetl culture.

        Now, if I were to write a game or a story set in ancient Rome, would I need to interact with you specifically in order to come up with content that won’t display Romans (and consequently, modern Westerners) in a stereotypical or degrading manner?
        The answer, I would argue, is no, even though you do live in a place where the dominant religion and political culture are the legacy of Roman institutions, and yet you are so different from an ancient Roman person in so many respects, that interacting with you would not help me in any way fashion my characters as full and complex human beings.

        The exception is, of course, if I want to model ancient Rome on contemporary USA, or if you might want to use the Shteytl as an allegory for the state of Israel: this is when interacting with actual people living today can help us avoid crass stereotyping; but in this case, I would argue that our stories aren’t really about Rome and the Shteytl.

        On re-reading the post, I think I can point more clearly to what’s bothering me about it. I think – and please correct me if I’m getting the wrong vibe here – that this post conflates “don’t be a shitty writer who re-hashes stereotypes instead of putting some actual work into your writing” with “don’t be offensive to consumers from other cultures”. The latter might better explain the advice to interact with people living today who claim some ownership of the older culture you want to represent or draw from.

        I think there’s a clear distinction to be made here. If I write a story on Martin Luther King Jr. and write him as a malicious villain with well thought-out and nuanced personality and character, I am probably going to offend quite a few people. If, on the other hand, I replace his personality with a hastily thrown together mish-mash of racial stereotypes, I’m being a racist and a shitty writer.

        Same thing goes, I believe, for profane use of Hindu holy symbols. As long as I’m not flattening Hindu culture into the dreaded “cool Asian flair”, I don’t see a problem with using holy symbols in a profane or secularized way that might upset some people who venerate these symbols.
        Not being offensive is not a bad goal of its own, but being offensive, I believe, while it might impair sales, does not automatically makes one a shitty or a lazy writer.

        —-

        * Personally, as non-American, I find the term WHITE PEOPLE just as generalizing and confusing as AFRICA.

        • Eric says:

          I see your point. However, this blog and the various blogs linked here provide a pretty sizable set of anecdotal evidence that many game designers (who are mostly straight, white, cisgendered males from the US and UK) have a poor record when it comes to “not being a shitty writer who re-hashes stereotypes” AND “not being offensive to consumers from other cultures.

          As an industry, we have a problem with both of these things. While I agree they are not the same thing, they are definitely correlated.

  4. Mat Pérez says:

    First of all thanks for the post, as it is very enriching from a game designer/ writer perspective to learn about racial misrepresentations in games.

    But as a non-white (or am I?) South-European cisgendered male with little contact with Asian people or cultures, I find it difficult to know why some of these tropes are so offensive and what elements of said cultures they are getting wrong. For example I fail to realize how the Wu Jen rules would have had to be written in order to get them right or why it is so obviously racist to you (I don’t doubt it is, I just would like a little more insight into the topic).

    I find this kind of articles very interesting as a means of knowing the way mainstream media deals with racial groups and the problems that arise, but also because they are a way of learning unexpected stuff about these groups and their cultures (often very interesting as inspiration). I just wish the text was more about the stuff itself than about the rage (which I understand though, and is also kind of fun).

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