Less of a Question, More of a Comment

If you attend panels or presentations, ever, I need you to read this article because, best case scenario, I need you to help protect me from “less of a question, more of a comment” guy. Worst case scenario, you are “less of a question, more of a comment” guy. Let’s talk about panels in general, panels about diversity and identity topics in particular, and how you as an audience member can make choices and ask questions which improve that experience for both panelists and audience. I’ll also answer some questions we both did and didn’t get to at PAX East’s “Designing Asian Settings and Themes in Analog Games” panel.

Viewed from the audience, panelists Clio, Sharang, Banana, and Mendez speak to an audience at the PAX East convention on Saturday 2019-03-30 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Viewed from the audience, panelists Clio, Sharang, Banana, and Mendez speak to an audience at the PAX East convention on Saturday 2019-03-30 in Boston, Massachusetts.

I’ve spoken on this panel—henceforth, “the Azn Panel”—thrice now: at PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, Breakout in Toronto, and PAX East in Boston. My co-panelists and moderators have included Agatha Cheng, Banana Chan, Clio Yun-su Davis, Brother Ming, Victoria Caña, Sharang Biswas, and Daniel Kwan. Top three lessons I’ve learned about how to panel:

  • As moderator: stick to an outline/schedule

  • As panelist: bring a notebook, write down bullet points for what I’m gonna say before I say it, and don’t say things I haven’t written down

  • Stay close to the announced topic

Adhering to these rules results in a focused, coherent panel which the audience may follow easily, with lots of time for questions. But did you know there are also better and worse ways to ask questions at panels? The best questions do three things:

  • make good use of the panelists’ expertise

  • make it easy for panelists to formulate quick, trenchant answers

  • make the answer relevant to multiple audience members

Audio/video version of the article. 42 minutes.

In this article, I’ll try my damnedest to provide positive, active, constructive recommendations; but to be honest, I don’t think of the advice I’m about to give you in positive, active, and constructive terms. The way I actually think of it is: it seems like at most of the diversity panels I attend, someone in the audience is out to get the panelists. Either they want to get us on the hook for something we can’t give—usually, absolution or permission for acts they suspect might be harmful—or they want to catch us in errors or contradictions for some baffling personal reason, like maybe they’ve won a couple of arguments on the Internet and want to try the next weight class up in terms of proving strangers wrong to feel good about themselves. So if you pay attention to what I’m about to tell you, you can make sure you are not That Guy—and you can model good behavior for all potential That Guys out there.

What to Know Going In

You get a lot more out of the panel if you know what you’re supposed to know before it starts. Since we don’t necessarily have an audience we know will follow us to multiple conventions and see us do multiple panels, there’s this tendency to make every diversity panel the “101-level” panel which introduces a topic to an audience which may know nothing about it. 101-level panels are great, and essential to educating ourselves and the convention population, but we never get time to talk about the really good stuff unless we plan panels where we get to assume some audience knowledge going in. Some things 101-level panels tend to go into include …

  • The fact that a problem exists

  • Proving a problem exists

  • Proving to obnoxious dudes who think SJWs are ruining gaming that talking about the problem won’t destroy their fun

  • Definitions of basic, important terms, like …

    • Orientalism

    • the male gaze

    • the white gaze

    • intersectionality

    • identity-positive language

    • accessibility and barriers to entry

    • microaggressions

    • cultural appropriation

    • decolonization

    • I’m just gonna look at the list of Franchesca Ramsey videos and like copy it in here

    • guess I should look at ContraPoints too huh

    • also Jay Smooth

    • wait if I put links I can stop writing things out

  • The fact that you should do some research

  • The fact that you should talk to people from the group you’re representing

A panel might be 101-level if it has a general name, like “Diversity in Gaming,” “Feminism and Gaming,” “Accessibility in Gaming,” something like that. Panels with 201-level emphases might have a more active, specific, or academic-sounding title: “Decolonizing Your Worldbuilding,” “Character Design Beyond the Gender Binary,” “Bionics and Disability.” “Designing Asian Settings and Themes” is kinda in-between: it’s talking about a pretty specific activity with regard to a more general topic.

If you want to encourage more 201-level panels, get familiar with the items on that list above. Stopping to explain things is fine and productive—it’s our job-that-we’re-not-paid-for—but if we don’t have to do it, we can get to more advanced topics.

The Worst Questions, in Ascending Order of Sin

That means the questions at the beginning aren’t so bad and the question at the end (you already know what it is) is The Worst™. After watching it work well at Breakout in Toronto, we at the Azn Panel have started asking audience members to write questions on index cards and pass them to a moderator, so we can choose our favorites and screen out ones we don’t like. That process mitigates the problems below a little; but especially if you’re doing a traditional grab-the-mic-and-talk Q&A session, please think your question over before you do one of the following.

“Any Thoughts On …”

Questions of the format “Any thoughts on [topic]?” seem to happen at most convention panels. Audience members like to ask us here at the Azn Panel our thoughts on Legend of the Five Rings, Scarlett Johansson, cyberpunk Orientalism, audience members’ game ideas, and especially (although rarely phrased as such) reverse racism. As a matter of personal opinion, I find this format a little vexing because, like many of us who were assigned male at birth, I once upon a time learned that the best way to get rewarded when asked a question is to start talking and keep talking and never stop until someone validates me or gives me an A or increases my salary or something, and now here I am with this blog. A question this open-ended complicates my approach: where do I start? What if no one actually has any thoughts on that thing? Other panelists probably like this question for the freedom it gives them, and they’re not wrong—this is a matter of personal preference. That’s why we have multiple panelists, right?

How to Respond

I feel like there’s no right answer to this one, which is kind of the problem.

How to Improve

It’s not wrong or harmful to ask “Any thoughts” questions, but if you get a little more specific, panelists can easily focus their answers—and if they have other thoughts and time to state them, they may well do so anyway. So instead of asking, “Any thoughts on Asian gangsters in games?” you might choose something about Asian gangsters that interests you: “How do Westerners depict Asian gangsters versus the way Asians depict them?” for example. It’s kinda like the difference between the 101-level and 201-level topics. Make your question a 201-level question. They’re actually easier to answer than 101-level ones. Usually. Me, I don’t know that much about Asian gangsters.

“How Would You Depict/Handle/Avoid [Giant Topic]?”

When we get to the questions below, you’ll see a few from this category. “How do I depict Black people?” “How would you handle Asian martial arts?” “How do I avoid stereotypes?” It’s 100% okay you’re wondering this thing, but these questions are difficult to answer because the answer is book-length. As with the above question, you’re likely to get an answer to this question (after a bit of an awkward thinking silence), but the probability it’s gonna be the answer you were actually looking for is a bit low. I’ve tried to come up with productive, specific answers to them anyway, but I can only do that because I have time to stew over them and write blog posts (such as this one and this one, expressly designed to handle such intimidating questions). If you asked a panelist, say, “What’s a good way to get started with playing diverse characters?” they’d probably give you the really obvious answers (do lots of research! talk to experts from those groups!) because damn, otherwise, where do they start?

How to Respond

As a panelist, you have the option of asking the person to clarify or specify their question. Sometimes that works and sometimes it spawns a confessional (see below). If it’s a question that an article on the Internet answers, like one of mine, ask the person to give you their email afterward and you can link them to my article and thus avoid having to give a book-length answer in a ten-minute Q&A session. As a sort of compromise between the two, you could have some relevant article queued up on your phone and read out the headings as bullet points. Audience members may then ask follow-up questions if any of those points aren’t clear.

How to Improve

Improving this question is difficult because the most obvious solution is to come up with a specific situation that you’re dealing with, or a specific example of some kind. Trouble is, those can take some time sometimes, and turn your question into a “solve my personal problem” question (also see below). So try to find a way to make it more specific which is still gonna be relevant to other audience members, a balance between this problem and the over-specific problem below. That pre-panel research I told you about helps. But to look at the above examples, here’s what we get if we try to specify the question by means of bringing in a common problem: “What is a common misstep people make when trying to make positive depictions of Black folks?” “What’s the difference between a cool Asian martial artist and a stereotypical one?” “Stereotype sounds hard to avoid even under the best of conditions—is it okay for some characters to be stereotypical?”

“So I/My Friend Did This Thing—Is It Okay?”

This is another question which comes from a really good place, but which gets weird and uncomfortable fast. My friends and I refer to this question as “the confessional”: when people not of our identities come to us and ask us for permission or absolution for their borderline sins, like wearing ethnic clothing you bought from a person of that ethnicity, or making a game about a group they’re not part of, or publicly describing themselves as allies.

  • “I really like Japanese mythology, so I want to make a game about yōkai. Is that okay?”

  • “I bought a kimono from a Japanese store on Thompson Street. Is it okay if I wear it?”

  • “I’m designing a game inspired by Asian fantasy which [three-minute long description of your fantasy heartbreaker], does that seem OK to you?”

This question has a number of problems. First, it tends to take forever. Second, it’s all about you; no one else has that piece of jewelry or is designing that game, so the probability it’s relevant to what they’re doing is relatively low. Third, it’s nigh-on impossible to tell you whether something is okay or not based on the summary of your concept. The summary is usually fine; the racist devil will likely be in the details. Like, remember the Chinese prom dress fiasco? When I first heard a white American girl had worn a qípáo to prom, I thought, “seems fine, dunno why it’s a controversy.” Then I saw the pictures she and her friends took while wearing the dress in a pose which caricatures Asian women’s formal body language. Concept, fine. Details, bad.

In this scene from Marvel’s  Daredevil,  Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) sits in a church confessional, preparing to ask Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie) whether it’s okay for him to make a role-playing game about priests.

In this scene from Marvel’s Daredevil, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) sits in a church confessional, preparing to ask Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie) whether it’s okay for him to make a role-playing game about priests.

This question’s moral quality also implicates the panelist you’re interrogating in whatever it is you’re then about to do. You’re gonna ask us a question, pay us nothing, and then trade on the answer to do something which may or may not harm someone. If someone calls you out on it, are you gonna tell them we said you could and make it our fault?

How to Respond

“I couldn’t say without seeing the specifics” and/or “Let’s talk after the panel about the details” are ideal here because you can then control the degree to which you’re engaging in the conversation. If it gets too elaborate and detailed, you can gently inform your interrogant that this is a professional-cultural-consulting kinda problem; and best case scenario there, they actually hire you! I got a question like this at the last Azn Panel about a game about Meiji-era fashion, which was way too specific for the general Q&A session but which led to a really fun conversation afterward.

How to Improve

Revise the thing you want to ask about your game until you think at least a third of the audience needs or wants to know the answer. In a panel like ours, you have a decent shot of succeeding—it’s a panel about designing settings, so what about your setting isn’t unique? What about it applies to other people’s settings they’re designing, as well? If you can’t come up with something, save it for after the panel. We’ll be more than happy to talk about it with you then.

“What About [Other Unrelated Problem]?”

The above questions are inconvenient, but that’s okay—and they’ll still spawn a relevant, informative answer. Starting with this question, we’re getting into Just Don’t territory.

Given the diversity of things we care about, we sometimes struggle to stay on topic here at the Azn Panel. Beyond setting and theme design, there’s so much of Asian experience in gaming to talk about, and so much of social justice that has to do with other aspects of our identities besides that. It’s even harder to stay focused when someone asks us about a topic we care about that’s outside the scope of the panel. But most of all, it’s a problem when it’s asked in bad faith to derail the discussion. “But isn’t disability a big problem too? Why aren’t you talking about that? What about class? What about other ethnicities? Why are you so worried about microaggressions when there are macroaggressions?”

This question exemplifies the tu quoque fallacy and its higher-rate-of-fire, lower-accuracy variant, whataboutism. A whataboutist derails a discussion of topic A by bringing up a similar and perhaps valid, but not actually relevant, topic B. Facebook memes love this fallacy, in the format “Why are people talking about the royal family/superhero films/a thing Kanye West did but not about global warming/mosque bombings/crooked cops?” as if we’re incapable of caring about two things at once.

“Oh Yeah! What About Chappaquiddick?” by Art Buchwald. If you’re using a screen reader, there’s a text version at the Kansas City Star, here:  https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/syndicated-columnists/article187662578.html

“Oh Yeah! What About Chappaquiddick?” by Art Buchwald. If you’re using a screen reader, there’s a text version at the Kansas City Star, here: https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/syndicated-columnists/article187662578.html

Whataboutism’s anime final form is, of course, #AllLivesMatter.

How to Respond

You’d be totally justified responding with “Sir, this is a Wendy’s,” but if you wanna show a little more gravitas: It’s totally fine to say, “This is a panel about [x] and that question is outside the scope of this panel.” Totally fine. Me, though, I’ll never be confrontational enough to actually say that. I prefer either giving a really short answer, or relating the question to the original topic. Example: Suppose someone asks, “Well, what about class? Isn’t class the real problem?”

You have a few ways to respond. One is, “Yes, class is a problem, but let’s focus on problems related to the topic of the panel for now, okay?”

Another is, “Yes, class is also important.” Period. Next.

Probably the most constructive answer, though, makes it intersectional. “Yes! In fact, economic class affects Asian people in this particular way, which comes into gaming this way, etc. etc.”

This is a Wendy’s.

This is a Wendy’s.

How to Improve

You should only ask this question if you can relate it to the actual topic. That intersectional option, for example: “How does class affect Asian people in gaming?”

“Less of a Question, More of a Comment …”

No.

Don’t do this, and what’s more, if someone else does this, please shout them down so we don’t have to. Do not violate the panel’s social contract by taking up time in this short, short hour to say something literally no one asked you to say.

I’ve also seen several “less of a question, more of a comment”s in sheep’s clothing. There’s the personal diatribe (usually about cancel culture or political correctness or cultural appropriation or reverse racism or some other comments-section-worthy topic) in the form of a question whose answer you don’t want to know. There’s the boast about something you’re doing with a cursory question hastily appended to the end of it. We once had a well-meaning white guy give a description of the very very respectful and well-researched Asian-themed game he was designing with “… um so do you think Asian themes require more cultural consulting than, uh … African things?” at the end. I responded with “nah, ‘bout the same,” and moved on to the next question. Generally speaking, saving the comment for after-panel discussion is safe, but read the room: at one of my Breakout panels, after the panel was over, someone pigeonholed a woman who’d asked a question to give her his own unasked-for answer to the question.

How to Respond

Interrupt with “Hey, I’m really interested in what you have to say, but let’s reserve this time for questions specifically. Maybe you can share your comment with me on our way to the next panel.” As with other ideal responses, you want to validate this person’s enthusiasm while at the same time setting out a model of appropriate behavior for other commenters.

Inappropriate responses include …

  • drawing a Nerf gun and darting them right in the forehead

  • vaulting over the table, charging at them screaming, and physically carrying them out of the room

  • Super Saiyan 3 (1-2 OK)

  • bees

  • wasps

  • ants

  • pulling the moon into the earth

  • shrieking at the top of your lungs until time runs out

  • immediately remixing and replaying the comment but with autotune and stuff

and of course

It’s my “what the christ are you talking about!!!!!!!!” meme from the old Exalted forums. If you don’t immediately understand what all of those words mean, holla at me on Twitter ( https://twitter.com/LulaVampiro ) for a long explanation because I can’t fit three pages of single-spaced text into an image caption.

It’s my “what the christ are you talking about!!!!!!!!” meme from the old Exalted forums. If you don’t immediately understand what all of those words mean, holla at me on Twitter (https://twitter.com/LulaVampiro) for a long explanation because I can’t fit three pages of single-spaced text into an image caption.

How to Improve

Rethink all your life choices.

Actual Questions

Here are some real questions from PAX East’s Azn Panel. I have corrected the spelling and grammar errors, but I really didn’t want to because some of them were great.

Japanese games sometimes have characters that look non-Japanese, or “Western.” Have you ever felt offended or heard of people from the “west” being offended?

First off, quick reminder: Japanese anime, manga, and video game characters whom Westerners sometimes read as Western (usually for hair and/or eye color reasons) are not necessarily intended or read as such in Japan.

If I understand this question, the interrogant suggests that Westerners may find Japanese depictions of Westerners offensive? Sure, yeah. I have discovered that any slight against Americans inevitably stirs up a very long angry paragraph in the comments section of something. But I think we need to talk a little about the relationship between offense, harm, and systemic oppression.

It doesn’t take much for an expression to offend. Nothing’s inherently offensive, after all, not even racial slurs; context and meaning imbue those expressions with the potential to offend. Anyone can find any expression offensive, potentially, if they think the expression insults them or someone else. But there are different tiers of offense, for example:

  1. Things you find insulting.

  2. Things you find insulting which generate harm.

  3. Things you find insulting which generate harm which feeds a system of oppression.

People who cite that Stephen Fry quote about offense not mattering often fail to differentiate between the tiers of offense. If I insult the President of the United States, that’s offense on a far less impactful scale than if the President of the United States insults, say, a senator from Minnesota. I still use the term “offense” casually to refer to all three of those tiers; but increasingly, I’m trying to refer to expressions as “harmful” or “oppressive/racist/etc.” as much as possible to specify in which tier they fall. In my line of work, I haven’t got time to worry about #1 or even #2 much of the time.

Looping back to the original topic: sure, Japanese portrayals of Westerners often offend. Within Japan, I can even believe they might harm Westerners sometimes. But Japan’s most harmful and oppressive characterizations of Westerners tend to portray Black folks. Imma turn this over to Yedoye …

What are some depictions of Asian-inspired fantasy you think are very well done?

Avatar: the Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra prove that yes, white men are capable of getting it right if they ask for help. Actually, you know what? So is Big Trouble in Little China. I avoided watching it for years because it looked like a cliché, appropriative movie about a white savior. It’s the opposite, though dated by modern standards. It upends common tropes in Western presentations of Asian themes, de-centers white heroism, and did so in a time period when no one ever complained about this kind of thing. It still missteps from time to time, but if we could all live up to its standard, I’d have much less to worry about as a cultural consultant.

When creating a fictional world, what is a good way to avoid stereotypes and planet of hats?

This is kind of a “how do you [giant topic]” question. I’m struggling to come up with a method for avoiding stereotypes more sophisticated than

  1. Learn all the stereotypes.

  2. Don’t put them in.

  3. Make sure there’s more than one member of any group.

  4. Show your writing to a cultural consultant you paid with actual money.

I had to look up what “planet of hats” means, but it sounds like a planet of hats is a fictional culture, species, or planet where everyone is unrealistically similar, right? So I think it’s the same principle: the more rounded characters from that group you add, the less likely you are to wind up perpetuating stereotypes. If instead you have only one Asian character, any trait you apply to them is gonna apply to 100% of the Asians in your world, so good luck avoiding all of them.

What are some current games, analog or otherwise, that do a good job at properly representing Asian culture?

You want good Asian-themed games? Support Asian creators! Check out everyone I mentioned as panelists up top, plus Tobie Abad, Mariam Ahmad, Sen-Foong Lim, Christopher Chung, Nicole Jekich, and Liam Liwanag Burke. Also try the Japanese RPGs translated by Starline Publishing or Kotodama Heavy Industries. For example, Tenra Banshō Zero has some sexist art and unsophisticated attitudes toward indigenous people, but is otherwise a dope take on feudal Japanese and anime tropes.

A discussion I once had was about cyberpunk’s vapid, fetishistic fascination with modern East Asian aesthetics—do you have any thoughts on this?

My original question was too complicated—do you have any thoughts on how Asian aesthetics are used in cyberpunk?

I actually prefer the first version of this question! It’s still technically an “any thoughts” question, but the specificity helps me. At any rate, cyberpunk Orientalism in the West grows out of several real-world factors, such as the Japanese postwar economic miracle, China’s rise as a world economic power, and Asian emigrants’ position as market-dominant minorities in myriad countries. These forces grew Asian people and especially Asian consumer goods and services—remember the relationship between those and racism?—in visibility and relevance to non-Asians. Their reactions ranged from fear of a new Yellow Peril to engrossed fetishization, which they expressed through a genre intimately intertwined with commercialism’s carrots and sticks: cyberpunk.

Dave Bautista as Sapper Morton, the only Asian in  Blade Runner 2049.  Go ahead, ask me how long he’s in the movie.

Dave Bautista as Sapper Morton, the only Asian in Blade Runner 2049. Go ahead, ask me how long he’s in the movie.

Trouble is, most cyberpunk historically foregrounds white characters and themes. Asian settings, material culture, and media become set dressing, supporting characters, and objects of violence or sex. We wind up with a katana-wielding white dude riding a Kawasaki sport bike down city streets, surrounded by glowing Chinese-character signs and perhaps faceless Asian people. If Asian themes do show up, we learn how the white dude is better at them than all the Asians. Even beyond the fetishization element, cyberpunk Orientalism tokenizes us in that it represents Asian people and things, but not Asian voices and perspectives. Fortunately, Asian cyberpunk by Asian creators exists! If you act now, you can consume it as an antidote to this trend before someone remakes it with Scarlett Johansson.

Would you consider stereotypes the same as racism?

They’re two different, related concepts. There are stereotypes that don’t have to do with race, some of which relate to another kind of systemic oppression and others which are unrelated. Racism is the systemic application of racial prejudice to empower one or more races above others. Stereotypes are generalized characterizations about a group based on limited or erroneous data. Racial stereotypes are a subset of both racism and stereotypes, the middle of the Venn diagram.

How would you recommend depicting mythology in a game or setting that melds both history and contemporary practice?

This question is difficult to answer because how I would recommend depicting mythology is a book-length issue. I can’t say more without knowing some details about which mythology and which contemporary practices, but you can look at my work in Scion on the Deva, Òrìshà, and Shen Pantheons for some examples.

Thoughts on the depiction of men and women in Asian games and how westerners view them?

Yes. This is an “any thoughts” question, but fortunately I have some specifics in mind. Content warning for gender and sexuality disasters.

The West ties its portrayals of Asian identity to Asian masculinity and femininity. Asian identity narrows the range of acceptable performances; Asian gender narrows it further. Generally speaking, the West hyper-feminizes the physical signifiers, behaviors, and roles of Asians of all genders, binding women into patriarchally defined characterizations (conservative, studious, submissive …) and men into permanent outsider status (nerds, instructors, support professionals, etc.). Asians who are neither men nor women get classified as grotesque “feminine men” regardless of their self-definition. I’m not gonna go into too much detail here—this is a whole-article topic and also I don’t want to pack that much triggering content into this article because I’m already tired.

Then there are positive Asian portrayals. Even when those don’t fall into offensive territory—actually, especially when, in some ways—only a narrow range of gender performances don’t start trouble with the white patriarchy. I use he/him pronouns so Imma zero in on masculine portrayals here. For Asian men, the safest archetype is the Strong Silent Type. There is nothing wrong or even really racist about a strong silent Asian man. Lots of real Asian men are strong and silent. Lots of Asian heroes like Ogami Ittō, Kyūzō, and Tsubaki Sanjūrō fit into this category (although Westerns heavily influenced all those heroes). But consciously and unconsciously, we tend towards strong silent Asian men because the Western patriarchy doesn’t see them as serious threats. Asian men who are sexy, funny in non-self-deprecating ways, or—worst of all—better at something than a white man without cheating upend that narrative.

Mifune Toshirō, the only Asian man it is truly safe to be, as Tsubaki Sanjūrō in  Yōjinbō.  He’s sitting in a shack practicing his knife-throwing.

Mifune Toshirō, the only Asian man it is truly safe to be, as Tsubaki Sanjūrō in Yōjinbō. He’s sitting in a shack practicing his knife-throwing.

The most important frontier of Asian personalities concerns characterizations orthogonal to their positive and negative gender stereotypes. Again, strong silent men and studious, conservative women aren’t bad. They just don’t broaden the range of acceptable portrayals and, correspondingly, the range of safe and validated ways for real-life Asians to perform their gender and their truth. To find groundbreaking characterizations, look to Asian comedians like Ali Wong and hip hop artists like Awkwafina.

To hear me talk more about this subject, check out Alex Roberts interviewing me on Backstory.

What is something that, to non-Asian people, seems like not a big deal due to a lack of societal context, but bugs the crap out of you?

To continue with the previous question’s theme of acceptable positive Asian characterizations: when the West attempts to portray Asian culture, it harps on concepts which are especially obvious to the Western gaze, overplaying and then eventually colonizing them. Especially honor. Reputable sources like subtitles and James Clavell have told Westerners that Asians care about honor; but the West filters its take on Asian honor through Westernized ideas like bushidō and face. Oh, hey, what kind of Asian is the most honorable? A samurai, right? But the honorable samurai comes from a) those cowboy-influenced Japanese heroes from the previous question, and b) the Quaker author Nitobe Inazō’s book Bushidō: the Soul of Japan, a heavily Christian-influenced text which simplifies Japanese mores into terms comprehensible to Westerners. Real samurai had heard of honor and bushidō, but they were often too busy shooting, screwing, and betraying each other to make a big deal out of them.

This conceptual confusion means that, when I see honor in a Western work describing Asians, I rarely know what it actually means. I expect it to refer to personal reputation based on adherence to broadly accepted societal codes of behavior, and to modes of behavior enforced by widespread public gain or loss of reputation and social cachet, akin to mana in modern New Zealand or street cred in hip hop culture. Instead it denotes a nebulous grab bag of Orientalized reskins of the following Western concepts: destiny, familial obligation, etiquette, duty to employer or government, personal reputation, skill at arms, fairness and adherence to the rules of war, performance of cultural values, self-sacrifice, or chivalry. So it means everything and nothing, averaging out to an uncanny Asian-ness that renders us inscrutable to Westerners and unrecognizable to actual Asians. In practice, then, “honor” signifies “stereotypically positive Asian behavior, whatever the hell that means,” or else “adherence to Western virtues which we’re gonna pretend Asians invented.” Stereotypical or colonized. Take your pick. Japanese characters written by CC “Akira Yoshida” Cebulski, Ernest Cline, or other lowkey and highkey racists accordingly chatter nonstop about their own honor, others’ honor, honor this, honor that. There are these street dancers in Manhattan who finish every show for tourists by jumping over an Asian guy they drag out of the crowd with the threat, “If you do not help us, you bring dishonor upon your family.”

The Ember Island Players version of Zuko from  Avatar: the Last Airbender,  burning to death while shouting “HONOOORR!” You’ve come across this one before.

The Ember Island Players version of Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender, burning to death while shouting “HONOOORR!” You’ve come across this one before.

Accordingly, I avoid the word “honor” like the plague when I write about Asian people. Duty? Reputation? Chivalry? Sure, I’ll write about any of those things. But I’ve found that there is always a better and more precise word for me to use than “honorable” when I talk about Asians.

Also? Alternate spirit worlds. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean spirits don’t occupy alternate universes or separate dimensions, as spirit worlds are sometimes portrayed in the west. They occupy the same world we’re in. No spirit planes. No spirit worlds. They’re in the literal forest and sky. Don’t colonize other people’s mythology with D&D cosmology.

How do you avoid Asian Mysticism in a setting that features high fantasy, such as a yokai/shinto-infused Japan?

Make religion and the supernatural practical and relevant. If you actually depict Shintō realistically, you won’t end up with wise mystical Asian masters spouting philosophy because Shintō’s about the real world and your relationship to it. Two primary qualities define the mystical Asian stereotype: esotericity and ineffability. Unlike Western religious ideas, which are (supposedly) practically grounded, Asian mysticism concerns abstruse philosophical ephemera far removed from practical life. They’re confusing and irrelevant to practical concerns, which makes them impotent and forgettable—a philosophical hyper-feminization, like we saw with gender stereotypes. If that’s what you’re getting out of Asian religion and philosophy, you don’t understand it.

Potential/experienced issues when member of one vulnerable demographic portrays/plays (or is asked to play as) a different but also vulnerable group member? i.e. Colombian immigrant as Japanese American

Same issues. Look, we all internalize racism. We even internalize racism about ourselves. That’s how the kyriarchy works: it enlists us in our own oppression and the oppression of one another. There are flavors of racism particular to every nation and culture: like, South American countries are really into doing that thing where you pull the skin on your face back to make your eyes look stereotypically Asian for some reason, I dunno what’s up with that. They aren’t really more racist than North Americans are against Asians—just different.

1. What are the most common/typical mistakes do you see made in game design? is it primarily stereotypes? Art?
2. What is the one thing (book, movie, game) that you feel has most accurately depicted Asian culture, or your culture in specific?

1. This question is pretty general, but the most common problems revolve around a conception of Asians as white people are able to consume and understand them through commercially available media. It’s the specific version of Asians we see in TV and movies and stuff. Those things extend to art and stereotypes both. The excuse or reasoning we often get for these crimes is “this is based on a pop culture thing, not on real-world Asians” which … okay, that’s like saying “this game has Black people, but they’re based on Black people from an offensive TV show, not on real Black people!” Like, okay bro, but basing your work on material that mischaracterizes a population doesn’t make things better.

2. Pearl from Steven Universe is the most Filipina character on television.

Rebecca Sugar’s black-and-white sketch of Pearl from  Steven Universe.

Rebecca Sugar’s black-and-white sketch of Pearl from Steven Universe.

“But Mendez,” you’re probably saying, “Pearl is a gay space rock. How could she possibly be Filipina? Is this like when you tried to convince me Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a parody?”

SIDEQUEST! Spoilers through Season 2 of Steven Universe.

There’s this old nickname for the Philippines in general and Manila in particular, although it’s applied to some other Asian locations too, like Hong Kong. It’s even in the Philippine national anthem. Second line. Perlas ng silanganan. “Pearl of the Orient.”

Pearl belongs to an oppressed, commodified underclass created as domestic servants and emotional laborers for beings of higher status. She joins a violent revolution and develops a reputation as a terrifying martial artist. At the moment of her greatest triumph, a white American man steals away the thing she wants most and has worked hardest for.* She now lives as an expatriate in the United States, taking care of that white man’s son. She enjoys tidying up and playing the violin.

Speculative-fiction racism analogies often frustrate people of color because they replace representation of racism’s targets; but Steven Universe’s Pinxy representation owns, both on and off camera. Many voice actors are of Philippine descent: Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), Lapis Lazuli (Jennifer Paz-Fedorov), Peridot (Shelby Rabara), Ruby (Charlyne Yi), and Jamie the mailman (Eugene Cordero). In addition, a major character (Lars Barriga) is biracial, white and Filipino.

*I realize I should explain this. The Philippine Revolution of 1896-1898 CE ejected the Spanish authorities who had dominated the Philippine Islands since the early sixteenth century. On 25 April 1898, Filipinx rebels had beaten Spain back until they held the capital of Manila and basically nothing else. Then, as part of the prosecution of the Spanish-American War, the American Admiral George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay, sank the Spanish fleet, and generally took credit for breaking Spain’s hold over the Philippines. The rebels shrugged and busied themselves setting up Asia’s only democratic republic. Meanwhile, the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris. Spain sold the Philippines to the United States for twenty million dollars, which is a pretty good price for a country they essentially neither owned nor held at this point. During the treaty process, President William McKinley consulted a map to determine the location of the Philippines, whose existence he understood only rather vaguely. In 1898, American troops showed up in Manila announcing they had bought the place, which tested poorly with local audiences. Then the United States conquered the only democratic republic in Asia, a story which I have summarized in a previous article—but it’s the reason why so many Filipinxs (like Pearl!) live in America today.

Scientology

… what?

How do you view parody of religion in games? I.E. Unitology from Dead Space and IRL =>

ooooh okay I read those in the wrong order. I haven’t played Dead Space but I think parodying or satirizing religion is okay as long as a) you’re punching up, or b) you’re talking about your own religion you were raised with, and also c) you’re not echoing oppressors’ talking points. Suppose, for instance, that you are Zoroastrian. Suppose you would like to make some media which calls out Muslim oppression of Zoroastrians. Cool. You should also be aware that Muslims are an oppressed minority who suffer violence and marginalization in various countries. If you are a Muslim calling out violent Hindu nationalism, you should be aware that Hindus are an oppressed minority in the United States. I’m not telling you not to make your thing—just to be mindful of the repercussions. This idea goes back to the Giant Robot of Offense: are you gonna build up to the arms and body and stop, or are you gonna make something no one can use as a weapon against a marginalized population?

Also, lampooning Scientology is always acceptable.

When do you push back against an accusation of racism?

My favorite question! Here are a couple times when we would push back against an accusation of racism.

  1. When people of color are accused of racism against white people, also known as “reverse racism.” While racial prejudice against white people exists, studies show it to be far less common than the other kinds. But racism is a subset of racial prejudice, specifically referring to systemically enshrined racial prejudice—or in other words, racial prejudice used as an instrument of systemic oppression. Generally speaking, these accusations are spurious and turn out not even to have anything to do with racial prejudice; rather, we’re pointing out instances of white privilege or patterns of racist behavior.

  2. When we’re playing the secret PoC game where we’re all racist to each other on purpose because no wypipo are around and it’s funny, and you try to make up a new racial stereotype. No. We are not going to laugh and validate your spurious claim that “Black people really like sandwiches” is an actual stereotype. All the rest of us are trying our hardest to offend each other and there you are just making up new things. It’s the equivalent of playing a made-up word in Scrabble and should be penalized as such. Certain individuals who may or may not be reading this and may or may not be named Jeff know what they did.

But generally speaking, even if I disagree with someone’s accusation, I’d rather listen than fight them, because that way I get to learn something about why they’re upset—especially if they live closer than I am to the thing we’re arguing about. I have lots of academic and professional experience which helps me when African issues come up in cultural consulting, but I still don’t have the same life at stake as a Black person because I can set those things aside if I don’t want to think or talk about them. If someone has more at stake, more to lose, they’ll be more sensitive—but that’s a good thing for me, because it’s important for me to know why they’re sensitive. So if this issue comes up for you, if someone says something offends them? Even if you’re sure they’re wrong, listen and find out why they broke their silence. Care more about their feelings than you do about being right.

In Conclusion

Whenever That Guy manifests at the panel, it feels like one of those cartoons in which a recurring villain always delivers the same line when they show up. Just less cute.

Catra says “Hey, Adora” in  She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.  Such mean. Very flirt.

Catra says “Hey, Adora” in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Such mean. Very flirt.

But I have to remember Those Guys probably aren’t a coordinated conspiracy to prevent me from enjoying diversity panels. Probably, like Daniel Kwan always reminds me, most of them come from a place of ignorance and actually want to learn. As frustrated as I sound at times during this article, I know that’s true of you too. So don’t let me scare you off. Please come to diversity panels. Please ask us questions, even questions you think might be bad, because I can’t ask you to improve unless you try and fail. But challenge yourself to excel, even there. We’re getting better at this. You can, too. Let’s grow together.

Any questions?


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