Sunday, June 21, 2015

Nintendo as cultural import

Tauriq Moosa had a good article on people of color in video games.  The article kicks off with a discussion of Rust, a western game which recently added POC to its previously all-white population.  In a simulation of reality, each player is stuck with one race forever, with no way to change it, not even by restarting your character.  I'm marveling at the sheer artistic brilliance of that idea.

You can read that article, but I'm going to go in a different direction.  As is typical of discussions of race in video games, there is a lot of focus on dark-skinned POC in western "realistic" games.  While this is certainly a worthwhile topic, it doesn't really address my experience as an east-Asian American who mostly plays Nintendo.

Japanese video games are fascinating, because they're possibly the most significant foreign cultural import to the US.  We here in the US are used to exporting our culture to the rest of the world, and experiencing Japanese imports is the closest thing to knowing what it feels like for other people in the world.

As I said, this topic is fascinating, but I also don't know what to say about it.  I am no student of Japanese culture, and I don't really understand which aspects of Japanese media are informed by Japanese culture.  There's something significant there, but I don't know what it is.  Is... is this perhaps what it's like for the rest of the world to experience US culture?  Hell if I know.

Indeed, it seems that most people in the US simply ignore the Japanese-ness of these video games.  The most obvious marker of a foreign culture tends to be the portrayal of non-white characters.  However:
  1. Most Nintendo games have cartoony aesthetics, and often no humans at all.  Compared to the "historical accuracy" excuse, this is a much more plausible reason to not portray different ethnicities.
  2. Japan, being colonized by the US after WWII, tends to portray a lot of white people, and otherwise admire white characteristics.
  3. Even when Japanese games portray characters that they think of as Japanese, Americans think of them as white anyway.  It doesn't help that Japanese people portray themselves with all sorts of hair colors.
For example, is Link white?  He may have blonde hair and blue eyes, but I think he's Japanese.  His facial features are Japanese, though they're not as exaggerated as they would be when Americans try to portray someone as distinctly Japanese.  He also obviously falls into the bishonen boy archetype, which Americans just interpret as androgyny.

Rinku: sooo Japanese.

Of course, officially, Link is Hylian, and he lives in a world with Gorons, Zoras, and, ummmm, the Gerudos.....

A race of dark-skinned thieves, not racist at all, Nintendo.  From ZeldaWiki.

I also think the preoccupation with cartoony aesthetics might be peculiarly Japanese?  But nobody seems to talk about that.

So given the Japanese influence on video games, you'd think we'd see a lot of East-Asian representation in video games.  And we do, more so than TV or movies or books.  But it's less representation than you might think because most characters are indeterminate, or appear white to American audiences.

Instead of character representation, I think we mostly get a lot of Japanese cultural influence.  But I don't recognize or understand the cultural influence, and as an Asian American it's not my culture in any case.