As far as gaming goes, I’ve been on a bit of an East Asian kick lately. I’ve been playing through the very enjoyable Sleeping Dogs, which came out last month, but I’ve also stepped several years back into the past to play Bioware’s Wuxia-inspired RPG, Jade Empire. It’s refreshing to play games with decidedly non-Western (or non-galactic) settings, but I can’t help but wonder how much of the games’ supposed “Asian-ness” is an illusion. After all, both games were created by Western developers – Sleeping Dogs by United Front Games and Jade Empire by BioWare. It leads me to wonder if these games were made with genuine respect for their East Asian inspiration or if they are merely exploiting a culture for entertainment value.
Jade Empire is set in an ancient Chinese fantasy world, full of magic, ghosts, and other supernatural phenomena. It is obviously not intended to be a reflection of reality, nor does it ever strive to be. The world is presented as a coherent whole, but upon closer inspection, it seems to be a mishmash of various East Asian terms and ideas. Characters have names like Dawn Star and Smiling Mountain. Instead of “energy” or “mana,” the game has “chi.” Combat is martial-arts-based, and references to “balance” and “harmony” abound.
The world does come across as a Western reconstruction of ancient China, so in that sense, there is an element of cultural appropriation in the game. But at the same time, it is a fantasy world, so by default, it must be a construction. Moreover, the game contains no inherent critique of its East Asian elements. They are presented respectfully, not evaluated against their Western counterparts. If anything, the game actually celebrates East Asian culture, presenting it as something worthy of being appreciated by Western audiences. This is at worst a borrowing of cultural elements, which in no way diminishes ancient Chinese culture. It’s hardly exploitation. In Jade Empire, East Asian culture is not a slave set to be eaten by a lion in the centre of the Coliseum; it is a film, lovingly projected onto a screen at the cinema for an attentive audience to see.
On the other hand, Sleeping Dogs does not have the benefit of being set in a fantasy world to excuse any cherry-picking of cultural elements. It is set in modern-day Hong Kong, and as such, aims to replicate the essence of that city with as much care as possible. Did the developers succeed? I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never been to Hong Kong. But I know that they tried. In an interview with the New York Post, the game’s producer, Don Sochan, explained that the dev team made several trips to Hong Kong to take photographs and video footage, as well as to speak to undercover cops, in order to get as good a sense as possible of what Hong Kong and the Triads were all about.
I can’t tell if they succeeded in getting that sense, but I know that Sleeping Dogs has a terrific sense of place. The game’s version of Hong Kong feels like a living, breathing city. Cars create traffic on the roadways. Pedestrians go about their daily business. Vendors hawk their wares on street corners. Large portions of the ambient dialogue are in Cantonese.
That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t answer the question about whether or not this constitutes exploitation. Upon reflection, I’d have to say no. It’s true that some of the “video-game-y” aspects of Sleeping Dogs are a little clumsy, for example, praying at shrines to increase the player character’s health. However, for the most part, the game respects its source material. It aims not to criticize Hong Kong or its culture. In fact, its story is very much inspired by Hong Kong cinema, particularly its action films. In that regard, Sleeping Dogs takes not only the superficial or immediately visible aspects of Hong Kong culture, but also its narratives. The result is that Sleeping Dogs feels like a piece of culture imported from China, albeit filtered through a Western lens.
When it comes to depicting foreign cultures, video games are still in their early stages. They have come a long way since the semi-racist accents of Deus Ex, but they still feel cobbled together from disparate cultural elements or constructed from a somewhat Western perspective instead of truly reflecting the cultures they aim to depict. At the very least, though, they understand the importance of respecting these cultures. That games like Smite can cause controversy over their depiction of Hindu goddesses, is indicative of the fact that cultural exploitation is the exception, not the rule. Games like Jade Empire and Sleeping Dogs show us that Western developers are looking beyond the borders of their countries for inspiration. The next step is to actually bring people from foreign countries into the development process. United Front Games’ interviews with Hong Kong cops are a start. Let’s hope that more developers follow their lead.