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The Prevalence and Variations of Orientalism in the Gaming Industry: Report

Edward Said (1978) states that “the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority”. This view of the West versus the Oriental East is shown through the medium of video games. It’s important to understand this presence of Orientalism in video games, as Leonard (2004, cited in Höglund, J. 2008) states that “video games-more so than schools, religion, or other forms of popular culture-are teaching Americans about race, gender, sexuality, class, and national identity”. This can be translated to everyone in the world and not just Americans. 

— Lack of Critical Evaluation

Very few video game consumers according to Tucker (n.d) possess the knowledge and critical thinking to critically evaluate the games they are playing. Gamers focus on the gameplay and aesthetics, with little understanding or knowledge of the cultures produced in those works (Tucker, n.d.). Because of this, Orientalism continues to be present in this industry as consumers do not question the ethics, racism, or Orientalism in the games that they are playing.

— Why does this Issue Matter?

This is why it is important to increase people’s knowledge on the issue and presence of Orientalism within the video game industry, and the various categories of Orientalism occurring including the East’s internalised Orientalism as well as Orientalist superiority. If this issue was successfully understood by the industry and consumers, the cycle of Western hegemony and Orientalism in games could decrease and eventually cease to occur.

Types of Orientalism

EXOTICIZATION OF THE EAST BY THE WEST

The exoticization of the East by the West is the most common and well-known form of Orientalism, which often occurs in the depiction of Middle Eastern men as barbaric and women as submissive or exotic (Sensoy, 2016). Military shooter video games capitalise off of the concept of Islamophobia, where the East is seen as the enemy (Sensoy, 2016) and Western powers as the heroic figures who the consumer plays as. For nearly 3 decades, games such as Full Spectrum Warrior, Tom Clancy Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, Call of Duty, and Balefield have also been used by the American army for recruitment and training (Aji, 2021).

— Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time demonstrates the exoticization of the East by the West through a Westernised Prince as the protagonist and his travels through a “mystical” Persian palace, which is an “expression of the enchantment and wonder of the Middle Eastern Orient” (Tucker, n.d.). Whilst other characters in the game speak in a Middle Eastern accent, the Prince has been Westernised and speaks in a British accent (Tucker, n.d.). An insertion like this of a Western character within video games as the protagonist is a common trope in Orientalist games such as these.

— Assassins Creed

A unique form of Orientalism presents itself in the Assassins Creed series where assassins as historically terroristic figures have been transformed into a generic Western hero (Komel, M. 2014, cited in Aji. A.P 2021). Komel (2014) states that when understanding the stereotype of assassins as precursors for terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, Assassins Creed can be seen as a “self-orientalistic subversion this type of ideology”. Many games such as Assassins Creed also do not alert players beforehand of their fictitiousness in preliminary disclaimers, but “pretend to be a faithful reconstruction of the real Middle Eastern reality” (Komel, 2014).

— Far Cry 3

The military shooter Far Cry 3 follows a Western protagonist exploring a dangerous, foreign, and seductive tropical region (Aji, 2021). The game demonstrates Western hegemony over the East through the depiction of people on Rooks island, who are seen as naive, sensual, and primitive (Aji, 2021). There are two stereotypical and Oriental depictions of women within Far Cry 3. Most women of Rooks island are depicted as helpless, innocent domestic citizens, while women located in Amanaki and Badtown are depicted as attractive, sexually submissive individuals who wear revealing clothing (Aji, 2021). These are both Oriental views created by the West when looking at Eastern culture.

INTERNALISED ORIENTALISM

The second form of Orientalism can be identified as internalised Orientalism or the East’s production of Orientalism through their internalisation of the Orientalists fetish (Tucker, n.d.). 

— Onimusha and Techu Series

Japan is a key example of this fetish through their commodification of the ‘Ninja’ and ‘Samurai’, demonstrated through video games such as Onimusha and the Techu series which rely on these stereotypical Japanese archetypes (Tucker, n.d.). Players in the Tenchu series play as ninja assassins of stealth from the shadows, while Onimusha takes players to mid-1500s Japan as players take on the role of a Samurai (Tucker, n.d.). These cultural stereotypes of the Ninja and Samurai have been successfully used by Japan to market themselves to a Western audience.

— Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda franchise is another example of Japan’s internalised Orientalist fetish and its attempt to appeal to a global market through the mimicry of Western conventions whilst downplaying Japanese elements (Herfs, 2020). This is part of the narrative termed dōka, which explains Japan’s distinctive ability to retain its core identity while transforming and mimicking a foreign influence (Herfs, 2020). Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is acknowledged as the first Zelda game to include a variety of skin colours (Herfs, 2020). Despite this improvement, the most prominent race and protagonist characters remain Caucasian with anglophone names which are present even in the Japanese version of the game (Herfs, 2020). High fantasy narratives draw upon what Monson (2012, cited in Herfs, 2020, p.38) believes to be the iconography of an idealised medieval Europe when representing hegemonic races, while Jewish and Muslim stereotypes are presented in the border races of games such as these. This demonstrates the internalised racism represented within the video game industry but also begins to demonstrate ‘auto-extricating Orientalism’ (Tucker, n.d.), explored in the next section of this report.

— Orientalism by Consumers

This Orientalist fetish is also demonstrated through the players of video games, as 48% of World of Warcraft players are Asian (Vlisides, 2013). Asian consumers who are dominating the video game market are reinforcing Orientalism and the Orientalist narrative within the gaming industry. (Vlisides, 2013).

ORIENTALIST SUPERIORITY

The third form of Orientalism is what Tucker (n.d.) describes as ‘auto-extricating Orientalism’, where a country like Japan establishes a cultural hegemony over the rest of Asia. 

— Dynasty Warriors

Japan has conducted this imperialist stance through the video game series Dynasty Warriors which was taken from the Chinese pseudo-history of the Three Kingdoms period (Tucker, n.d.). This adaption paints a view of Chinese history from the perspective of the Japanese video game industry. In asserting a dominant position over China, Japan takes on the role of cultural oppressor and instead of being the country that it exoticized, establishes itself in a position similar to Western Imperialists (Tucker, n.d.). This can be interpreted as Japan proving its power to its Western counterparts through its superiority over other Asian nations.

Conclusion

Komel (2014) states that much like Marshal McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’, “the video game as a medium has become a unique cultural and social space, where ideology is ripe within the semiotics of the virtual world and interactions within”.

Despite the international video game market which is present today, Orientalism and the Orientalist perspective still exists. It’s crucial to understand that Orientalism does not just occur from Western perspectives of the East, but Western hegemony has created societal norms resulting in internalised Orientalism and ‘auto-extricating Orientalism’ (Tucker, n.d.). Until the perception of Eastern Otherness changes, the video game industry will continue to produce works with Orientalist depictions of the East.

References

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