This paper argues that video games expose the presumptions separating “Asian America” and “Asia” in the traditional senses of isolation, origination, and presumed distance. It does so by focusing on the most “Asiatic” genre of video games today, the North American visual novel, which offers a counterdiscourse to normative modes of play and attempts to offer utopic spaces to reflect upon the “real” genres of race and neo–Cold War geopolitics. Using theories of performance from Dorinne Kondo and others, the author shows how queer indie visual novels are primarily aspirational, in that they build queer, utopic, and seemingly anti-racist worlds through the Asiatic space of the visual novel form. In so doing, they also allow players to explore the Asiatic as a means of repairing the traumas and distances of American imperial cultures. The article analyzes four visual novels to make this argument: three by non-racially-identifying North American designers—Doki Doki Literature Club! (2017) by Dan Salvato, Analogue: A Hate Story (2012) by Christine Love, and Heaven Will Be Mine (2018) by Aevee Bee—and Butterfly Soup (2017), a game by the queer Asian/American designer Brianna Lei. If games make the boundaries of Asia and America irrelevant, visual novels explore this irrelevance through Asiatic irreverence.
As a scholarly practice of interdisciplinary methods meant to investigate empire and race-making, Asian American studies—and its related disciplines of inter-Asia cultural studies and Pacific studies—has been uniquely positioned to study video games. Though underutilized in game studies, these fields can reveal how games offer a critical questioning of racial, national, and sexual identities that are situated—as games often are—within transpacific global markets, “Asiatic” aesthetic forms, and Asia Pacific imperial histories. Since the early 2000s, Asian American studies has shifted emphasis from forming “Asian American” identity—with fidelity toward American empire—to understanding how national ethnic recognitions can reinforce and reify the split between Asia and America. In turn, scholars have explored and theorized racial forms that can adequately call attention to the imperial presumptions and consequences of ethnicized identities in ways that recommit to the transnational critiques of the early Asian American movements during the Vietnam War. This paper argues that video games, as globally circulating products with ambiguous national ties, offer a critical purview for conducting this work by exposing the presumptions within “Asian America” and “Asia” in the traditional senses of national belonging and presumed distance. Video games push the limits of such categories, as their very genres and histories challenge the separations of region, nation, and place. In other words, Asian, American, or Asian/American1 cannot go very far in categorizing games without spinning off-balance. For this reason, this essay invokes a transpacific game studies that foregoes the confining and often binary notions of Asia and America. I make this argument by focusing on the most Asiatic genre of video game today, the visual novel. As an Asiatic genre played in North America, visual novels offer a counterdiscourse to colonial and meritocratic forms of play, which often reiterate the position and identity of the North American player. And, as seen in more recent visual novels made by designers and artists of color, visual novels can offer alternative spaces to reflect upon the “real” genres of race and neo–Cold War geopolitics.
As many scholars in Asian American studies have pointed out, the separations of Asia and America are entangled with anti-immigrant racial formations that were violently equipped and remade during the Philippine-American War, World War II, and the Cold War, which included the Korean War and the Vietnam War, which (secretly and illegally) included the bombings of Laos and Cambodia. Today, America is in Asia in multiple ways: as its fiftieth state of Hawai‘i, as colonized territory (Guam/Guåhan), as military bases scattered across the region, as hegemonic global media, and as the ubiquity of American capital and the English language. America is also present through what Kuan-Hsing Chen has identified as the American sub-empires of Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and others that establish imperial routes and buttress an American Pacific “transnational garrison state” (Bello 2010: 311). These transpacific imperial relations conditioned the emergence of games industries in both the United States and Japan. The emergence of US games was entangled with military technology and the growing IT industry of Silicon Valley. In Japan, video games emerged, according to Martin Picard (2013), through a “media mix” of multimedia companies who were already producing toys, card games, television shows, and manga. In this context, video games (or geemu) were extensions of other medias and were “not linked to an ‘essence’ of any kinds (national, mediatic, etc.), but to a market.” Similarly, in their influential book Games of Empire, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter (2009: 6) compare “the hacker clubs of the 1960s that liberated games from the Pentagon” with “the delinquent manga artists that animated Japan’s revival of a burned-out American industry in the 1980s.” While American gaming, in this brief snapshot, emerged from militaristic and IT-industry “hacker[s],” Japanese games came from “delinquent” artists devoted to other crafts. Despite the hybridity of games as Asian/American aesthetic and mechanical products, the Asia/America spectrum has remained an implicit political and historical separation rooted in histories of militarism, tech, and artistry. As Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter argue, the shift from American to Japanese games in the 1980s is often narrated as a political and historical “reclamation” where “video games were rescued not by the military-industrial complex from whence they had sprung but by the victims of its atomic bomb” (14). As an entertainment media that emerged during the Cold War, video games were made possible by manufacturing routes that included extractive mining in Africa, processing factories in Malaysia and southern China, and innovations in Japan. Games thus take a step beyond blurring the boundaries of Asia and America but put the terms themselves (and the distance suggested by them) into irrelevance. Visual novels explore this irrelevance of Asia/America through their Asiatic irreverence.
This essay will feature the following arguments: First, many queer and independent North American visual novels have been able to capture the aspirations of marginalized players and designers, as they attempt to make queer, utopic, and seemingly anti-racist worlds through the Asiatic space of the visual novel form. I use frameworks from performance theory scholars like Dorinne Kondo and Takeo Rivera to show how many independent visual novels make worlds within a queer and anti-racist “magic circle.” In so doing, they reveal how the visual novels can allow us to condition and understand the Asiatic as a means of revisiting the traumas and distances of American imperial cultures, a means to “de-cold war” as Chen might put it.2 I will then focus on four queer North American visual novels to make this argument, three by non-racially-identifying North American designers—Doki Doki Literature Club! (2017) by Dan Salvato, Analogue: A Hate Story (2012) by Christine Love, and Heaven Will Be Mine (2018) by Aevee Bee—and I will conclude with an analysis of the visual novel Butterfly Soup (2017), a game by the queer Asian/American designer Brianna Lei. While the games by non-racially-identified (presumably white) designers attempt to create queer and anti-racist worlds by seeking to salvage progressive Asian characteristics from more patriarchal traditions, Butterfly Soup and other games designed by queer Asian/Americans make no such attempt and rather allow us to see the potentials of Asiatic media as a form of creative and reparative art.
In literary studies, where I received my PhD, we often assume that the vast audience who engages with the literatures under study is situated within North America or the United Kingdom, while other countries with English-speaking populations are relegated to outsiders (Mufti 2016). Asian American literary studies, in turn, often assumes that our audience is American, even as Asian American literary works are read and written in Asia. In video games, the presumption of an American audience is even more fickle, as only 26 percent of the global game market is in North America, while 48 percent remains in Asia (Statista 2020). Furthermore, many game studies scholars write about games that have been translated into English as if they were originally written in English or as if the original language, intended audience, and localization process were irrelevant to the analysis.3 Not only do such studies miss the nuances and context of a work, but in conducting analyses without attending to the translation, localization, and circulation of games, it can be very difficult to understand the desires, pleasures, violences, and affordances that such games leave in their wake.
This article plays the role of a brief sequel to my recent book, Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games (2020). In it, I emphatically argue that video games are tied to Asia even when they contain no explicit racial representations, as they are manufactured and innovated upon in Asian contexts and remain colored by Asian associations as new media products, wherein, as the editors of the Techno-Orientalism collection write, “the Asian subject is perceived to be, simultaneously, producer (as cheapened labor), designer (as innovators), and fluent consumer (as subjects that are ‘one’ with the apparatus)” (Roh, Huang, and Niu 2015: 14). Tokyo, not Hollywood or New York, has been the center of game innovation and genre creation from which nearly all game genres derive. For game scholar and philosopher Chris Goto-Jones (2015: 39–40), Japan’s enormous impact on video game aesthetics and form has molded games as “a medium of Digital Asia,” even when their “subject matter has little to do with Asia per se.” Consequently, games can be seen as a “ludo-orientalist” medium, as Tara Fickle (2019: 3) writes, “wherein the design, marketing, and rhetoric of games shape how Asians as well as East-West relations are imagined and where notions of foreignness and racial hierarchies get reinforced.” In Open World Empire, I extend the works of these scholars by using the term Asiatic to characterize games for their “forms, spaces, and personages that many players will find similar to Asia, but that are never exclusively Asian, or are obscured from any other recognizable racial genre, or are not foreclosed to other given identity tropes” (Patterson 2020: 58). This article will offer a crucial extension of these arguments by exploring how visual novels in particular illustrate the Asiatic as both “a style rather than substance, a technology rather than an essence” and as a politically charged aesthetic whose staged magic circle “shapes the interactions in video games as neither Asian nor Asian American, but as an unrepresentable blend” (60).
As Shu-mei Shih, Gavin Walker, and Naoki Sakai have recently argued, traditional means of studying Asia have reinforced logics of distance so that white Western scholars are thought to contain an air/heir of objectivity, a “remote control” feature where distance from Asia “is artfully deployed, given the context of global flows of information” (Shih 2019: 42; Walker and Sakai 2019). In response, scholars in Sinophone studies, Transpacific studies, and Pacific studies have sought to disrupt logics of distance with new forms of mapping, new ways of seeing linguistic and artistic commonalities within a region, while revealing histories and forms of art whose logic is not distance but an indistinguishable blending of self and other. Likewise, Asiatic forms in games refuse the logics of distance and separation. Instead, they dwell in an Asiatic space of simultaneity, sharing, overlapping, and blending, though not with the coevality of, say, a national imagined community.4 In games, one is no longer able to recognize which exact characteristics are Asiatic or “Americanish,” but at the same time, one can recognize degrees to which some game genres appear more Asiatic than others. While we might see the first-person shooter as the most American genre (developed by id Software in Texas), visual novels would be at the most Asiatic end of this spectrum. Rather than meet the Asiatic alien with alienation, I read the Asiatic in visual novels as an intimate and inviting characteristic, producing forms of queer erotics, that, from a distance, might seem othered or perverse, but for marginalized queer players, can appear as an aspirational gateway into better worlds. The visual novels in this study do so by pushing the conventional themes of polished AAA games (“blockbuster” games with grand-scale budgets) into the messier topics of race, queerness, and sex. Their Asiatic modes of expression provide spaces for queer, trans, and marginalized designers and audiences, but they also allow such audiences to see themselves as settlers, as Westerners complicit in neocolonial projects, and as subjects of empire, and so too that the Asiatic forms they celebrate could also be tied to racist, imperial, and colonial projects.
On Visual Novels
Until the late aughts, visual novels were known as a niche market in North American video games, one that spoke to both the sexual diversity of games from Japan (most were known for pornography and gay or BDSM romance) as well as the aesthetics of anime and manga that were typical of the genre. A 2006 survey found that in Japan, visual novels made up nearly 70 percent of PC games (Anime News Network). Today, visual novels are estimated to make over 25 billion yen annually (Galbraith 2011). Their popularity has led to visual novel being used as an umbrella term to categorize the subgenres of female-led romance (otome), male-led romance (bishōjo), queer (yaoi or Boys’ Love), and pornographic (H-Games, eroge). As Domini Gee (2014) asserts, visual novels have traditionally been ignored in game studies despite their global impact because they are too erotic and too similar to novels, while they have also been ignored by literary critics because they are too game-like. Visual novels also expose how dedicated and incorporated these disciplines are to Western modes of analysis, as their Asian-inspired aesthetics can prove too challenging for scholars unfamiliar with studies of Japanese media. Even so, the first visual novels did not have manga art styles and were in fact inspired by the Western point-and-click adventure games of the early 1980s. Only with the emergence of easy-to-use DIY creative tools, like Ren’Py in 2004, and the advent of casual gaming on smart phones and tablets did visual novels emerge as a formidable market in the West, albeit still tightly tethered to their Asiatic associations.
All four games analyzed in this article were created with Ren’Py, a free-to-use engine that preceded the vast democratization of game design in the early 2010s with free game engines like Twine (2009). All the games investigated here also use itch.io for distribution, and all games are free with suggested donations (as many of these games use copyrighted assets that would make them illegal to sell for commercial purposes). itch.io is the most popular platform for indie games, with over 650,000 games in its current catalog, and over 9,000 tagged as “visual novels.” Even though they represent a small number of its total games, visual novels have been extremely popular on itch.io. At the time of writing, six out of itch.io’s ten top-rated games are visual novels. These DIY infrastructures like Ren’Py, itch.io, and other free tools like Audacity “exist outside and in opposition to the heteronormative gaze of mainstream gaming” (Salter, Blodgett, and Sullivan 2018). Visual novels are also the main genre that distributors rely upon to prop up the sexual and racial diversity of indie games; during Black Lives Matter 2020, itch.io announced a “Visual Novel Romance Collection for Black Trans Lives” that included fourteen games by queer designers.5
Much of the audience for visual novels in North America comes from the narrative-game tradition of choose-your-own-adventure-style games made in Twine or in RPG Maker, both of which are cheap or free DIY game engines known for their progressive, queer, and anti-racist politics. As many have argued, independent games from DIY engines take a “troublemaking” route of disobedience against heteronormative game cultures writ large (Phillips 2020). In 2014, the #GamerGate harassment campaign that targeted women gamers, game makers, and games journalists was, as Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross (2015: 108) write, “a never-ending, violent, and steady eruption of toxic misogynist hate,” but it was also on par for an industry that has been, since the 1980s, overwhelmingly male dominated, with women making up only 11 percent of the game industry workforce. As Jodi A. Byrd (2018: 601) eloquently points out, #GamerGate was no mere niche cultural debate; it drew on academic discourses of games as an exceptionally “machine-oriented” medium made up of “platform, code, and hardware,” that can exist outside “the petty identity politics of feminists and other social justice warriors.” In contrast, games that are made in Ren’Py, Twine, and RPG Maker, and are available over itch.io, are known for focusing sharply and unapologetically upon these and other “social justice warrior” themes.
For many Asian gamers, it may seem ironic that the most progressive, queer, and anti-racist games in North America come from the genre most closely tied to Japanese conventions of gender, sexuality, and racial formation. Indeed, games scholar Paul Martin (2016: 570) argues that the dismissal of Japanese cultural conventions in games studies has kept scholars from understanding how “the cultural baggage of Western discourses of race and colonialism becomes interleaved with a Japanese social imaginary.” Similarly, Se Young Kim points out that even for scholars and fans who do take Asiatic forms into account, Japan often plays the role of a “moving signifier . . . especially in terms of sexuality” (Fickle et al. 2021). Kim compares the Western gamer’s attitude to Japan as an example of Edward Said’s “positional superiority,” where “producers and fans can capitalize on Japanese media sexuality (the art style, the mise en scene), but immediately cast it aside as ‘deviant’ at will.”
Much of the “positional superiority” reiterated in game studies is dependent upon a logic of distance that sees Asia and America as two distinct entities, even as many games resist this binary. As Mari Kotani, Hiroki Azuma, Tamaki Saitō, and many other Japanese scholars have pointed out, anime, video games, and visual novels were partially inspired by American cartoons (Disney), Western arcade games, and adventure games like King’s Quest (Sierra Entertainment, 1984). Whereas today, game cultures have begun to see Japanese, Korean, and Chinese games as queer compared to American-made shooting games, in Japan in the 1980s, the shift toward science fiction in popular culture—which produced many of the dystopic worlds of anime and visual novels—was influenced heavily by feminist science fiction movements in the United States (Kotani 2002). Koichi Iwabuchi (2002: 53) famously argued that Japan’s postwar popular art undertook a strategy of “strategic hybridism” that “absorbs foreign cultures without changing its national/cultural core.” This hybridism does not unsettle nor blur sexual or racial identities but fixes and “reinforces the rigidity of these boundaries” by consistently calling attention to the Japanese culture’s ability to “absorb” while still remaining pure (54). Video games thus appear as global objects, or mukokuseki, as lacking in nationality, as “culturally odorless” (27–28). For Christine R. Yano (2013: 18), the reception of mukokuseki products in North America shapes them as “white face” commodities, as their ambiguous origins make no attempt to challenge or to deviate from “the masculine gaze or white, middle-class values,” and their “unmarked elements indicate where normative power lies.”
In the Asiatic world of odorless games, visual novels are exceptional, as until recently their popularity has remained sequestered to Japan, with many visual novel companies refusing fan efforts at translation or localization. Unlike most Japanese popular art that circulates the globe, visual novels were rarely intended to leave Japan, and their “cultural odor” has not been sanitized to the same extent as other game genres. Though many Japanese visual novels remove their pornographic content when adapted for US audiences, they keep their representations of nonnormative (for Westerners) sexual and gender norms. When companies decline to export their visual novels abroad, many games are made playable by communities who do the free labor of reformatting, porting, and translation. These fan communities thus do the work of transporting the “odor” of Japanese racial, sexual, and gendered norms to a North American audience who has only previously received Japanese games in their “odorless” form (Gee, Rockwell, and Gouglas 2013).
As exporters of sexual, gendered, and racial “odor,” Japanese visual novels have become widely interpreted as queer outliers in the white masculine norms of video games. As scholars have recently argued, queer aesthetics like camp, queer romance, and Asian American representation manifest most in Japanese games that have not been catered (or very well catered) to Western audiences, as such games have proven “conducive to precisely the kinds of projective identification, enthused amateurism and felicitous mistranslation that Sedgwick identifies with camp” (Gallagher 2014: 40). This is most manifest in visual novels, which can read as queer even when they have no same-sex relationships, as their images of hypersexualized women are “surprisingly often . . . flanked by a male character who is just as desirable,” a trope that has been “well-encoded into Asian media and storytelling” (Clough 2017: 22). For Hiroki Azuma (2009: 108), visual novels are especially subject to an audience’s erotic projections, as their play tends toward a “double-layer structure”: the sexually explicit (moe) images of character sprites (the erotic desires of knowing, collection, database completion), and the pleasures of discovering a visual novel’s intertextual elements that facilitate its erotic subcultures. For Azuma, the communities of visual novel players are based upon erotic feelings rather than national or racial identities, and their members play by sharing information and appreciation in online spaces where communal creative worlds can emerge. It is this “double-layering” of the erotic and the communal that has made visual novels a beacon for queer game cultures today.
It is important to note that when visual novels are produced in Asian countries outside Japan, their worldmaking projects can be radically different than those produced in North America. In the case of South Korea, Sarah Christina Ganzon has shown how otome games mainly reinstate ascribed gender roles. Ganzon (2017: 234) considers the Korean-based game company Cheritz,6 which boasts of having an all-female design team, yet whose games present women as “glorified caregivers” who only have power or agency “via performances of femininity.” While Korean-produced visual novels can be even more restricting in their propagation of sexual and gender norms, independent visual novels made in North America respond to the conservatism found in Japanese and Korean visual novels by revising their tropes, aesthetics, and archetypes to reparatively make new genre-based worlds that are queer and (at least in theory) anti-racist. As we will see in the article’s second half, the artistic decisions of North American visual novel developers reflect many of the complaints from North American fans who call out Asian game companies for their conservatism, queer-baiting, and faux feminism. While Asian visual novel companies have lacked an adequate response to community petitions for better queer and racial representation, indie designers in North America have responded in kind to remake the world of visual novels in their own queer, racialized, and pluralistic images.
To understand how visual novels can facilitate the messy racial and gender politics to produce various worlds, this essay employs theories of racial performance that see games as a form of drama. Though not all games can or should be analyzed in this way, literary and performance theories can be useful for visual novels, just as film theories may be useful to understand cinematic games like Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games, 2013), or sports-based theories can be useful to understand the FIFA game series (Electronic Arts, 1993–present). In her 1991 book, Computers as Theatre, the game designer and scholar Brenda Laurel was perhaps the first to argue that the way gamers interact with games is similar to the way audiences react to live theater. For Laurel (2014: 13), this can be traced first from a game’s “real-time enactment and the enhanced attention it evokes,” second, that over time, “emotions take on greater resonance, ideally producing empathy,” third, that the “interface” or “stage” begins to “disappear from conscious awareness” the more the player plays, and last, that “theatrical audiences have an expectation of emotional pleasure.” Following and sometimes debating Laurel’s arguments, a growing number of recent scholars have written about games as performance, including Takeo Rivera, Dani Cavallaro, Alexander Jackson Graves, and Clara Fernández-Vara.
While performance scholars have argued about whether video games are more performative (as in gender performance) or performance-based (as in theatre and drama), visual novels stand out as a genre that is remarkably similar to dramatic plays, in that they use scripts and are driven by character and dialogue. Like theater, visual novels also entrust audiences/players to willfully suspend their disbelief and to creatively collaborate with the author(s). Whereas in theater, a change in light can denote a metaphorical shift in time and space (a memory, a direct address), in visual novels these changes come in the various combinations of art/asset and dialogue, as well as the use of italics to denote action or a direct narrative voice. Simple animations like a single line across the screen can express a shift into the future or a memory. Though visual novels are played through a screen, their sense of foreground and background works similar to theatre, with a set or background that remains consistent, while the actors/characters appear in the foreground to express action and dialogue. In visual novels, backgrounds are separated as completely different assets from the character drawings (known as sprites), but unlike comic panels, visual novels separate sprites from the background in any number of ways, and the visual effect is to continually remind the player that something is being staged. The player thus remains aware that the game’s narrative differs from what other players experience, as the assortment of backgrounds and sprites are made unique by the player’s choices.
The generative collision between visual novels and performance theory can be seen in the ambiguity of agency between the actor and the audience. In Anime and the Visual Novel (2010)—perhaps the first monograph in English to focus on visual novels as a genre—Dani Cavallaro (2010: 1) insists that visual novels operate through a creative collaboration between designer and player, meaning that visual novels are not “strict narratives,” nor do they attempt to immerse the player, but they instead consistently foreground their own artificiality. Players then must act as “productive agent[s]” who “work” for the narrative and take an (inter)active role (4). Player and author interactive “co-authorship” reaches a performative level in the player’s ability to rearrange and reinterpret the appearance of sprites, the character drawings that change with nearly every line of text and are often categorized into specific “looks” or gestures and emotions. As Brian Crimmins (2016) has argued, sprites and asset-swapping are the most distinguishable generic attribute of visual novels, and their cartoonish yet subtle two-dimensional forms invite players to reframe their own ways of seeing gender and racial identity. Alexander Jackson Graves reads sprites through Judith Butler’s (1999) theorization of the performative as visible markers that create norms through a “fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies” (Graves 2016: 174). Character sprites are not just characters in a drama but are conversationalists who speak directly to the player. Their default performance is within the realm of direct address, an intimate and private relation that shifts depending on the player’s choices. For the performance and games scholar Takeo Rivera (2014: 69), such a first-person point of view in games can cause an excess in empathy and intimacy that is similar in effect to the protagonists of performed dramas, who provide intimate asides and narrativize the events on stage.
Though game studies scholarship traditionally uses the term magic circle to designate a space of performance and play, I prefer the term worldmaking to capture how visual novels mix player/designer agency within creative and collaborative acts. Kondo (2018: 29) describes worldmaking as the collaborative and productive processes of race and identity making that “evokes sociopolitical transformation and the impossibility of escaping power, history, and culture.” Worlds, like genres, are imagined within communities as sets of norms and conventions yet can be remade so long as they “always work with this givenness.” If genres are world-makers, then these worlds are responding to and refracting the “real world” genres of race, class, sexuality, gender, nation, etc. For Sylvia Wynter and Alexander G. Weheliye, white supremacy has been inescapable due to the overarching standard of whiteness within “different genres of the human” (Weheliye 2014: 2–3), where white subjects are seen as more human than others. Worldmaking is thus a collaborative and interactive process that can offer reparative responses to the “genre of man” by inviting audiences to take part in remaking their already genre-based worlds. As Kondo (2018: 25) stresses, in a world structured by race, worldmaking as a frame allows us to trace “the production of race—racialized structures of inequality, racialized labor, the racialized aesthetics of genre, racialized subjectivities, racial affect.” Worldmaking, in other words, is not only about making an alternative space for a particular group but also about “making and unmaking race.” Visual novels in North America are a genre seeking to make worlds that respond to both the genres of heterosexual man in North America, as well as the perceived genre of heterosexual man in East Asia, and in so doing, they too (often unintentionally) participate in the making and unmaking of race.
To read visual novels within methods of performance studies à la Rivera and Kondo opens game analyses to dimensions of performative worldmaking, but also demands that we be aware of the audiences’ role as cocreator of these worlds within contexts of racial spectatorship, or what Kondo calls “racial affect,” when a performance’s “affective violence” becomes “the enactment of exclusion” because there exists an “abyss between our reactions and the play’s rapturous mainstream reception” (18). In this article’s second half, I will employ concepts of worldmaking and racial affect to understand how three popular visual novels by non-racially-identifying North American designers build queer worlds by mobilizing the Asiatic but, in so doing, also reproduce techno-orientalist discourses by seeking to distance themselves from Asian cultural forms.7 In turn, I will show how Brianna Lei’s Butterfly Soup can shift our understanding of racial affect to “racial interaction” in the way the game centers the irreverent and turbulent forms of queer and trans Asian/American community.
Archetypes and Ambiguity in Three Queer Visual Novels
In July 2018, the tabletop game designer Adam Koebel tweeted: “Can we please have more queer games that aren’t visual novels?” (Cross 2018). Naturally, this statement garnered much controversy from queer visual novel designers and players who argued that visual novels were a unique medium that allowed them to imagine an alternative to the white and heteronormative worlds of AAA gaming. Yet, what we do not see discussed in either Koebel’s tweet or in the conversation it generated is that the very game it was responding to, Aevee Bee’s Heaven Will Be Mine, is entirely populated by characters of color, as are other visual novels that attempt to queer the visual novel genre, such as Dan Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club! and Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story. Though racial differences are entirely present within these games, the games themselves are more typically read and marketed as queer rather than anti-racist or even diverse. These three games, made by designers who rarely (if ever) reveal or discuss their own racial/ethnic background, attempt to deploy the Asiatic space of visual novels to make queer worlds, but in so doing, must also contend with the patriarchal and “sex-negative” associations of Asia. These games thus capture the anxiety of needing to separate the Asiatic reparative worlds of visual novels from the Asia of orientalist design.
The biggest breakout hit of indie visual novels, Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club! (2017) is, on its surface, a Japanese-made bishōjo visual novel where the player inhabits a “blank-slate” young male who is invited to an all-female literary club (see fig. 1) and is encouraged to romance one of four archetypical “maidens.” There is Sayori, your childhood friend and ditzy klutz; an archetypical genki, who is energetic and emotional and whose main role is to get the player to come outside their comfort zone.8 Then there is Natsuki, the “red hot” girl whose pink clothing and red hair reflect her aloof and fiery temperament, which can grow into an intense and maddening love for the player; she is the archetypical tsundere character thought to have originated from Rin Tohsaka in the adult visual novel Fate/stay night (Type-Moon, 2004). Then there is Yuri, the blue oni to Natsuki’s red oni,9 who is shy, cute, and literary but hides a maddening love for the player; she is the archetypical dandere character thought to emerge from the blue-haired Rei Ayanami of the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1995). Finally, there is Monika, the literature club’s leader; she is a quintessential yandere archetype (“sickly in love”), whose spirited and commanding surface is offset by a maddening love for the player (notice a theme here?).
Most of these visual novel archetypes are conditioned by the dere suffix (デレ) (short for dereru [デレる] or deredere), meaning “lovestruck” or “fawning,” with some dere terms far more common in English (presumably for fans of anime and visual novels) than in Japanese (Fandom.com 2019). These archetypes are thus Asiatic in the sense that they use Japanese terms to assign their foreignness, even as there are no ostensible Japanese racial signifiers that distinguish them as such. The archetypes thus don’t function as characters to identify with in a narrative about identity or empowerment but as sprites that contain intertextual erotic elements, what Azuma (2009: 42) calls “moe-elements,” that are collected in various online databases. Such characters make no claim to authenticity but are “broken up into elements, categorized, and registered to a database,” where the player community will sort them into traits of hair-like antennae, cat ears, bells, green/blue hair, uniforms (maid, servant, student), and dere types. In North America, these databases are vast and rate themselves based on their high counts of logged traits and characters.10 Character archetypes are thus not meant to be representations of particular communities or people but rather are similar to cosplay outfits that encourage audiences to project their desires and fantasies.
Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club! queers Asiatic dere archetypes to reveal their excesses of erotic desire and their artifice as mere collections of database elements. Sayori, the enthusiastic genki girl, commits suicide at the end of act 1. Yuri, the quiet dandere, becomes more unstable, prone to self-harm, and she eventually kills herself out of love for the protagonist. Monika, the yandere vulnerable to bouts of “sick love,” reveals that she is an AI who has been corrupting the game’s script and deletes all the other girls from the game’s memory. Doki Doki thus revises visual novel archetypes to reveal them as artificial fetish and as interchangeable elements within a database (the player’s actual stored memory). Yet in doing so, the game also reproduces techno-orientalist Asian racializations by reducing Asiatic characters to artificial intelligence, remaking them into orientalist depictions akin to Madame Butterfly, whose maddening love and suicidal fawning is reserved only for the Western player.
Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story (2012) and Aevee Bee’s Heaven Will Be Mine (2018) have both led the way for greater queer, trans, and minority representation in gaming, as both attempt to remake visual novels into more queer and diverse worlds, and they are both made by queer and trans women. And, like Doki Doki Literature Club!, their forays into the Asiatic space of visual novels also trace the anxiety of needing to separate the queer Asiatic from the patriarchal and techno-orientalist depictions of Asia. Analogue is blunt in doing so, as it focuses on a Korean character with modern feminist sensibilities—*Hyun-ae, “The Pale Bride”—who is a “modern girl” awakened from cryostasis into a spaceship culture based on the Confucian-patriarchal norms of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. Love’s (2012b) disdain for the Joseon is clear in her interviews, as she claims she considered being drunk throughout the writing process to deal with “the Joseon dynasty’s reprehensible history,” claiming that she chose to base Analogue on the Joseon because of “the way its treatment of women degraded over time” to be so “horribly dehumanizing it seems like it’d be a fate worse than death.”
Analogue: A Hate Story was the breakout visual novel that preceded Doki Doki Literature Club!, as it was the first visual novel ever available on the commercial game platform Steam. Analogue explores a form of Asia where a Korean-inspired misogyny is the norm and is reproduced by both men and women. Like Doki Doki’s Yuri, *Hyun-ae is a dandere archetype, shy and quiet and musing, only to later transform into a being of queer desire and romantic impulses—a transformation that manifests when she declares that she is not actually the AI for the ship but the imported memories of a real human being, a “modern girl” forced into a regressive and patriarchal world. Likewise, *Hyun-ae can fall maddeningly in love with the player. The only other character sprite besides *Hyun-ae is the Security AI, *Mute, who, like Doki Doki’s Natsuki, is of fiery temperament, the complimentary red oni to *Hyun-ae’s blue oni (see fig. 2). As an AI lacking human memory, *Mute tends to reproduce the worst of Asian patriarchal norms, believing that women should be subservient to men and holding dear to the repeated Confucian adage, namjon yeobi (남존여비), which Love translates as “Men are honoured, women are abased.”
Love’s (2012b) choice of recreating the Joseon dynasty’s “horribly dehumanizing” attitude toward women may seem quite random and orientalist in positioning Asian cultures within the “waiting room of history,” and in seeking to narratively act as a Canadian woman seeking to “save brown women from brown men.” There are a wealth of other locales that Love could have chosen: the Victorian age, chattel slavery, or the infamous sterilization, sex trafficking, and forced adoption of Indigenous people that occurred in Canada over many generations. Yet, Korean history is not entirely incidental to Love’s reparative project, as her attempt to creatively remake the visual novel seems to require her to distance the parts of Asian culture she finds meaningful from those she finds patriarchal. Love’s remaking of an Asiatic form is not only present in the anime-like sprites and visual novel genre but also in the practice of cosplay, which is thematized throughout the game as a means of queering Asian patriarchal norms. Though *Hyun-ae herself was subjected to horrendous gendered violence, she finds pleasure in cosplaying student and maid, and calling the player “master” (see fig. 3). Once granted *Hyun-ae’s permission to dress her up as student, maid, scientist, traditional hanbok, or detective, the player can deploy the game’s sprites freely, personalizing them for the player’s own erotic fantasies within a queer feminist politics.
In Japan, the first documented cosplay was performed by the feminist pop-culture and queer theorist Mari Kotani (2002), whose later scholarship focused on the forms of erotic feminisms in Japanese pop cultures and even came to the defense of pornographic representations of rape in yaoi manga and visual novels, arguing that such images represented creative acts by female artists intended for other women. Indeed, this messy mixture of erotics, violence, and women’s agency is present in Analogue through *Hyun-ae’s own forced marriage, her decision to kill everyone aboard the ship (including herself) by turning off the life-support system, and her love for cosplay. As she tells the player, “That’s the fun of it, isn’t it? Putting yourself in that sort of position by choice.”
Love’s Analogue and Salvato’s Doki Doki both merge the visual novel form with techno-orientalist depictions of Asian women, who slide easily from computer to sprite, from AI to human, from stoic to fiery to maddeningly in love. Similarly, the 2018 game Heaven Will Be Mine, written by Aevee Bee, plays with techno-orientalist representations of technology, but it does so by dividing technology into two types: the queer, transformative, and erotic technologies; and the technologies of surveillance, violence, and control. Bee describes Heaven as a “lesbian yaoi” and as “a giant robot anime if all the mecha pilots were girls and all the gay subtext was actually just happening instead” (Bell 2019). Inspired by mecha animes like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (directed by Masashi Ikeda and written by Katsuyuki Sumizawa, 1995), where young people pilot humanoid robots, Heaven makes a world where queer and trans people of color share erotic experiences through the very mecha robots that they pilot.
As “gravity generators” aboard every mech keep pilots from dying, the robotic fights in Heaven take an intensely playful and erotic style (see fig. 4). The three characters—Saturn, Pluto, and Luna-Terra—take on the form of a queer family, whose eldest (Luna-Terra) was the first to prove they could transition among genders in space, leading the way for Pluto to do the same. Similarly, the youngest, Saturn, uses her erotic play-fights to convince Luna-Terra to make herself more vulnerable, as she says, “These ships are meant to touch. If you never lose, you never let anyone in.” The Asiatic mechs—or “self-ships” as they are called in game—resemble armor for erotic experiences, and act as conduits for queer desire. Movements in mechs become flirtatious “eyeroll”s and “like a giggle.” The Asiatic mechs abstract sexuality into psychological sensory inputs that cause erotic stimulation, as Saturn says, “I’m a human being with five senses and [the mech]’s trying to cram a dozen more into me.” In their self-ships, even pain is “not really pain” but is still an “overwhelming” feeling of being “full of information.”
The queer Asiatic selves of the Asiatic mechs contrast one of the game’s main antagonists: “the autonomous unit,” a militaristic drone driven by an AI that “doesn’t have a shape that remotely resembles a person.” It is described as such:
The autonomous military unit is extremely simple: it fires a simple burst of metal directly at a cockpit, particle unaffected by gravity, instantly lethal.
It takes all the drama and expression out of fighting. The ultimate anticlimax. That’s why true combat is ugly, arbitrary, horrifying, a struggle for power in absolute terms. Not a romance, like fighting in a perfect body can be. (Bee 2018)
Made by “humans” rather than lab-bred pilots, the autonomous units resemble the militarized technology of war that shoots only to kill. In contrast, the game’s queer and trans characters see their Asiatic mechs as “a perfect body,” where desire and friendship can form “the fullness of being human.”
Despite their trans and queer characteristics, the three main characters of Heaven Will Be Mine are worth a critical pause. Two of its characters, Saturn and Pluto, are ambiguously brown skinned, and though Luna-Terra has no racial identification, her appearance is clearly inspired by the “beautiful boys” (bishōnen) that inhabit anime and manga, and thus appears androgynous and queer to American audiences (Ting 2020). Their racial ambiguity is a convention of Japanese visual novels that take place in non-Japanese settings and contain characters without reference to their racial heritage, and though Heaven queers so many conventions of visual novels, it keeps the colonial baggage present in its use of racial ambiguity. According to Soraya Murray (2017: 90), many games responding to white heteronormativity can fall easily into an “aesthetics of ambivalence,” where whiteness is erased, reversed, or set aside in order to tell stories of feminine empowerment or queerness. Indeed, the ambiguities around racial background in Heaven feel particularly stilted, as in interviews Bee has stated that she sought to make the characters’ queerness and trans features “present and unambiguous” (Bell 2019). While such racial ambiguity could be read as anti-racist—as the characters can represent many marginalized gamers who have been denied representation in mainstream games—at the same time, ambiguity becomes a burden saddled onto characters who then cannot chart a specific history or lineage, and thus repeats the gesture of insisting that race is merely visual, not attached to history, culture, or power.
The racial ambiguity of Heaven’s characters reflects the ambiguity of designers themselves in their online self-presentations. Though the three designers discussed (Salvato, Bee, and Love) can be eager to represent themselves in terms of gender, queerness, or trans experience, none (as far as I’ve been able to find) claim or acknowledge their ethnic background. To be fair, none of the questions posed to them by interviewers or fans attend to their racial background either. Online searches with any of these designers’ names and the words “race,” “ethnicity,” or even “background” yield no positive results. Indeed, one could also see the refusal of each of these designers to discuss their racial background as attempts to make themselves racially ambiguous and perhaps to allow marginalized gamers to project racialization onto them. Yet such an erasure speaks to an ambivalence with whiteness: not wanting to reproduce white supremacy but, at the same time, unwilling to identify the self within a position of racial power. As with these designers’ own self-presentations, the only clickable options put race under erasure: “Missing:
ethnicity”; “Missing: race.”
Butterfly Soup’s Irreverent World
The way that visual novel designers present themselves and their characters is important. Their characters’ features are not merely restricted to the games themselves but are part of international databases that fans use to make meaning within the visual novel genre-world. Racial ambiguity thus stands out as a strictly intentional trope, as multiple online databases track and rate thousands of characteristics, with gender and pronoun usage near the top, then height, weight, and visual elements like bows and “hair-antenna.” Race and ethnic background are almost completely absent from these characterization lists. This absence from both designers and communities speaks to the aspirational qualities of the visual novel genre to be postracial, as well as the problems that arise from doing so when gender and queerness are seen myopically as the central framing devices for progressive politics.
If there is one grand exception to the postracial worldmaking of many queer visual novels, it is Brianna Lei’s Butterfly Soup, released for free in 2017 to win PC Gamer’s first Best Visual Novel award ever and to quickly become itch.io’s top rated game of all time (it still holds this title as of March 2021). Butterfly Soup may be the first video game ever by a queer Asian/American woman about queer Asian/American women, though there are other visual novels by Asian/American designers (Ken Wong’s Florence , Angela He’s Missed Messages  and a new life. , Matthew Seiji Burns’s Eliza ). While Butterfly Soup seems similar to the visual novels discussed earlier, its main difference is in offering an intersectional racial politics that makes no attempt to merely separate the Asiatic from Asia, nor does it offer a primarily aspirational form of worldmaking that attempts to imagine a postracial, posthomophobic future. Instead, Butterfly Soup focuses on the recent past, on the complex and sometimes bigoted feelings of growing up queer and Asian in Oakland, California. Asia in Butterfly Soup is not something one picks and chooses qualities from, or something to salvage; it is present in one’s parents, grandparents, and siblings, as well as one’s queer chosen family, and is thus indistinguishable from America.
Unlike the previously analyzed games, Butterfly Soup’s use of Asiatic archetypes is not to display a distanced irony to the “real Asia” but to remake these conventions to express the Asian/American queer experience within a politics of irreverence. We might thus read the revisioning of Asiatic tropes in Doki Doki, Analogue, and Heaven as ironic in Roland Barthes’s (1974: 44) usage, as “a signpost [that] thereby destroys the multivalence we might expect from a quoted discourse.” Irony, for Barthes, can reduce the discourse it seeks to critique by signaling a departure from it. The ironic text positions itself against the discursive other—whether a text, a history, or a culture—to signal itself as playful and the other as innately serious. Irreverence, in contrast, seeks not to disown other narratives, but to contest the silencing of sexual and racial forms within dominant narratives by putting these themes front and center. For the scholar Valerie Chepp (2015: 208), irreverence appears in Black feminist media as “unapologetic, vocalised, playful, and often raunchy.” Similarly, Butterfly Soup does not seek to make its relationship to Asian cultures and histories ironic, but to transition the visual novel’s Asiatic tropes into an explicit and unapologetic narrative that allows its own Asiatic form to shape its meaning (see fig. 5). All of Butterfly Soup’s characters are queer, trans, or both, and each deeply subverts the stereotypes of their role through irreverent humor that allows each character to reclaim their desires within (rather than despite) their racial backgrounds.
In Lei’s (2017a) words, Butterfly Soup is “a visual novel about gay asian girls playing baseball and falling in love”; one plays from the perspective of each of the four main characters as they grow up from elementary to high school. Like the previously discussed visual novels, Butterfly Soup’s four main characters contain observable traits similar to the dere archetypes of visual novels, yet their dere assignments also overlap with their Asian/American identity traits. Arkasha is the energetic/outgoing genki girl with a history of depression; her traits are rooted in the parental pressure for success and feeling like she lost much of her heritage due to her parents’ strict Americanization. Similarly, Min-Seo is the harsh but loving character represented as an androgynous and violent tsundere; her personality is rooted in her parents’ strict South Korean gender norms. Diya is the “Rei Ayanami” dandere archetype who is silent, shy, and harbors unexpected desires—love for Min, in this case; her personality is rooted in the anxiety formed around her racial difference and in her parents’ high expectations. Finally, Noelle is a yandere archetype much like Doki Doki’s Monika, but here remade into the role of a Taiwanese American model minority.
Whereas visual novel characters often do not have their own histories but are presented as collected elements within a changeable database, Butterfly Soup’s characters resist such cataloguing and rearrangement. As the Asian/American trans designer Marina Kittaka has said of Butterfly Soup, the game is able to deploy visual novel archetypes without calling attention to them as subjects of irony or parody, and in so doing, it avoids a “humor that is preoccupied with stereotypes, whether aligning with them or attempting to undermine them” (Fickle et al. 2021). Instead, the game allows these characters to show their Asiatic irreverence without appearing merely zany or cute, while also following irreverent behavior with a sense of “discomfort or resentment or self-disgust.” For these characters, their associated visual novel archetypes are not roles that they can keep at an ironic distance, but are inseparable from their racial backgrounds, their Asian American experiences, and their queer desires. The game’s irreverence thus suggests darker histories and emotions beneath the hypervisible expressions of race and desire, akin to what the Asian/American game designer Jenny Jiao Hsia (2017) says of Asiatic cuteness or kawaii in independent games, an aesthetic that is not about ownership or power but that expresses characters as disarming and relatable and allows audiences to take deep dives into issues of mental health, trauma, and violence. As Butterfly Soup’s main jokester, Akarsha, says in perhaps the game’s most memorable line: “I tell gay jokes because I am a gay joke.”
Butterfly Soup’s Racial Interaction
The revisioning of Asiatic tropes as irreverent rather than ironic is integral to Butterfly Soup’s story of a racial queer community, which expands the project of Asiatic queer worldmaking by seeking to account for the audience’s various racial affects. In the progressive and queer worlds of most North American visual novels, racial affect can pronounce some players as killjoys or spoilsports; it can expose how a queer South Korean player might play Analogue, or how a trans South Asian player might play Heaven Will Be Mine, or how a Japanese student might play Doki Doki Literature Club!. Butterfly Soup, however, accounts for such racial affect by focusing upon what I call racial interaction: the way one’s racial positioning compels a player to make choices and to interpret options in ways that are unexpected or indifferent to the game’s own system of morality or ideological (procedural) functioning. As roleplaying and visual novels especially attempt to invoke choices based on abstract moral and universal positions (“Is Korean patriarchy good or bad?,” etc.), racial interaction accounts for the ways that felt experiences compel particular routes that are not abstracted or distanced for the racialized subject.
While in the previously analyzed games, racial interaction emerges as a means of interpretation or even indifference to the game’s narrative and form, Butterfly Soup is not in tension with a queer Asian/American player’s positioning but rather aligned with it. This is most clear in how the game thematizes racial interaction from multiple queer and trans Asian American women’s subject positions. As Saitō et al. have argued, one of the most powerful mechanics in visual novels is the player-perspective, which is usually (as in Doki Doki and Analogue) a “blank slate” body for players to inhabit (with no profile or image) or, alternatively, divided into multiple characters, creating a “fluid oscillation of viewpoint” where the player is always estranged (Saitō et al. 2011: 186). While Heaven Will Be Mine features multiple main characters, each is animated just as prominently as other character sprites, while Butterfly Soup uniquely combines both effects: the player is a “blank slate” and oscillates from character to character, creating an experience that both estranges and intimates. The player thus inhabits all roles equally, seeing themselves as both subject and object of desire and pain. Furthermore, this oscillation is not left to player choice but is presented as a random game of chance in the game’s opening when the four characters flash on-screen in the style of a casino slot machine. Though the slot will always land on Diya, this mimicry of a game of chance (or fate) refuses even the appearance of a narrative choice by either the player or the designer, thus shaping these characters as more than mere sprites that can be rearranged at will. As Lei (2017b) has said in an interview, Butterfly Soup is not about teaching players about queer of color experiences but is “unabashedly tailored toward me because I care about myself, and if I don’t do it, no one will.” In that sense, the game’s oscillating but intimate viewpoint is not a means of gaining sympathy for its characters, but it captures what José Esteban Muñoz (2020) might call the discord, turbulence, and out-of-syncness of queer and racialized communities. The game’s title, “Butterfly Soup,” refers to this discord. It describes, as the character Diya says in the ending scene, “how during metamorphosis, inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar turns to soup” before becoming a butterfly. Or, as Min-seo adds, “It’s okay to be a flaming dumpster fire.” In this titular ending scene (see fig. 6), the player no longer takes on a first-person perspective but for the first time sees all four characters on screen together, the multiple selves the player has intimately inhabited yet is now estranged from, as the player’s own self remains distinctly outside of their frame.
The racial interaction in Butterfly Soup is not merely present in its seemingly randomized and oscillating player-perspective, but also in the player’s interpretations of the options made available for them to choose. Options rather than choices are foundational to marginalized experiences. One cannot make the choice to invest capital that one does not possess or to speak a language one never had adequate training in. As Tara Fickle, myself, and Se Young Kim argue in a roundtable about Butterfly Soup with the Asian/American designer Marina Kittaka, the game not only queers visual novel archetypes and sexuality, but it also challenges the very game-like form of visual novels themselves, as it consistently thematizes its own “constrainment of choice” as a defining feature of being “queer Asian American women” (Fickle et al. 2021). While Butterfly Soup’s four characters struggle against their families’ and their own constrainments, the player feels this lack of choice in the singular arch of the characters: one cannot choose a character to play as, or to romance, or to dress up, and there are no multiple endings. While many players may be disappointed by this lack of choice, to play the game with racial interaction means recognizing the constrainment of choice itself as a meaningful shift in the kind of privilege and power it denies the player over the game’s queer and Asian characters, whose very stories are about being constrained by heteronormativity, poverty, and white supremacy. In other words, the game refuses the player the power to add to these characters’ already immense lack of control: These young Asian women, the game seems to state, will find their queer selves and love each other, whether you, the player, like it or not! For audiences well-acquainted with visual novels, having power and control might feel tedious and presume that the player can take the position of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s (2008: 177) “console cowboy” role in being expected to investigate and tame an Asiatic space. Where Asian and queer characters are expected to be controllable, such wayward love, says Butterfly Soup, cannot be tamed.
As an Asiatic space of queer and trans artistic expression, visual novels are not immune to the exclusionary effects of racial affects, where Asian artwork and heritage can be divided into forms of salvage and rearrangement. In their attempts to offer reparative modes of design, artists take risks, and their anxieties about the “real world” inevitably get captured within their art. By seeing the Asiatic as a space of queer experimentation, I too could be seen as insisting that there is something definitively queer about Asianness, or definitively Asian about queerness. Yet, there is something about the racialization of Asianness as both emasculated and feminine men and exoticized women that lends to the imaginings of queer worlds, or what Nguyen Tan Hoang (2014) calls seeing “a view from the bottom.” Thus, it is also crucial to repeat that “Asianness” is not exoticized or queered in Asia, quite the opposite, as queer genres of Japanese manga like yaoi and Boy’s Love often use exoticized Western and non-Asian settings to convey a sense of queer liberation (Ting 2020: 316). Perhaps visual novels from the global South like Coffee Talk (Indonesia, Toge Productions, 2020) and VA-11 HALL-A (Venezuela, SUKEBAN GAMES, 2016) can offer alternative worlds conscious of the racial interactivity missing from most North American games.
Asian American studies and similar disciplines like inter-Asia cultural studies and Pacific studies are uniquely situated to offer nuanced readings of video games as transpacific commodities and as Asiatic art forms. Asian American studies scholars can account for the queer worldmaking processes in games that too often lead to postracial futures, increasing the gulf among the “progressive audience” and the racialized players for whom race and colonial history still hold significant meaning. Racial interaction in video games can be particularly impactful for Asian/American players, whose experiences take place within an Asiatic medium that mirrors, displaces, or otherwise attends to their own cultures and aesthetic forms. Racial interaction for the Asian/American can be fraught with feelings of anger and shock from a game’s casual racism against Asians, while at the same time, Asian/American bodies are hypervisible in games, not as Asian Americans per se, but as Asiatic figures. The many games that take place in Asia can contain hundreds of characters who look similar to the Asian/American player and who speak a neutral American-accented English, though they were created to look and act Asian, not Asian American. For Asian/American players, then, racial interactivity can coincide with modes of reparative creativity through the choices they make and the options they perceive. Choices to pursue certain romantic interests or ideological ends could reflect the player’s creative decision to see themselves within a game’s Asiatic figures, to identify with them, or to see them within their family members or friends. Even as Asian/Americans continue to make up the least represented minority group in video games, it would be too simple to say that the Asian/American subject is under erasure. Rather, we just interact differently, and make different Asiatic worlds.
Much thanks to my interlocutors Tara Fickle, Melos Han Tani, Christine Kim, Marina Kittaka, and Danielle Wong. Ever thanks to my intimates Y-Dang Troeung and Kai Troeung.
I use the slash rather than the hyphen to signal how games slide along elements of Asia, America, and Asian America through a “dynamic, unsettled, and inclusive movement” (Palumbo-Liu 1999: 1).
Chen (2010: 4) calls “de-cold war” the recognition that our current “moment of decolonization requires us to confront and explore the legacies and ongoing tensions of the cold war.”
Japanese game studies has been either absent or marginalized in these debates. As Rachael Hutchinson (2019: 11) writes, “the contributions of scholars from Japan who write about videogames have not made a distinct mark on Game Studies as a broader field . . . as much of the Japanese-language scholarship is not available in English translation.”
In comparing games to film and literature, I previously argued that games have been envisioned “as a global art form, as global commodities produced by transnational companies that seem, initially, to hold no nationalist sentiments or orientations” (Patterson 2020: 38).
Roh, Huang, and Niu (2015: 2) define techno-orientalism as “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.”
These character archetypes and traits are taken from the popular visual novel databases: The Visual Novel Database (VNDB), tvtropes.com, and AniDB (Anime Database).
Perhaps the biggest database of visual novels is the Visual Novel Database (VNDB), which as of 2020 boasts of archiving over 27,000 visual novels (6,500 in English), with over 90,000 characters and over 2,700 “traits” shared among the characters.