On Gaming Cultures and Asian American Gamers

Dean Chan


Asian American gamers are, paradoxically, both hypervisible and out of sight. Their presence especially in game arcades, tournaments, and Internet cafes is often noted in online forums. This dominant stereotypical perception of Asian American ubiquity and prowess is often circulated at the expense of diasporic subjectivity and agency. This paper goes some way towards redressing this gap by initiating a consideration of Asian American gaming cultures. At the same time, it also recognises the problems inherent in any attempt to discuss the ethno-cultural constituencies of gamers and their play practices. At issue here is the dialectical tension between self-naming and socio-cultural categorisation. There is, of course, no such thing as a “typical” Asian American gamer. It is similarly impossible to homogenise the diversity of American gamers of Asian descent into a single, cohesive community with uniform preferences. Nevertheless, certain sets of cultural meanings are socially ascribed to this particular grouping of gamers. In this paper, I advance a preliminary analysis of attendant links between external ascriptions and self-identifications in this diasporic Asian context. Specifically, I am interested in examining the affective and sociocultural dimensions of Asian American gameplay. By offering such a meditation on the localised constituencies of play, this paper contributes to a broader conversation within games studies about the need to cultivate differential frameworks for analysing communities, practices, and types of gamers, and their complex relationship to the wider socio-cultural and spatio-temporal milieux.1

Negotiating Dennis Fong

Dennis Fong (a.k.a. “Thresh”) is arguably the highest profile Asian American gamer. He is a former world champion in Doom and Quake; plus he earnt hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, prizes, and endorsement deals with Microsoft and Diamond Multimedia as a professional gamer over the five-year period between 1995 and 1999. Most famously, he won a Ferrari at a Quake tournament held at the 1997 E3 Expo. Since retiring from professional gaming in 2000, he has been voted the “Top North American E-Sports Figure of All Time” by the E-Sports Entertainment Association. In 2002, Dennis Fong co-founded Xfire, an instant messaging and social networking website for gamers. In April 2006, Viacom acquired the company for US$102 million.

AsianWeek published a main feature article in 2002 titled “The Gaming Revolution” in which Fong is introduced as: “A 24-year-old, Chinese American, multi million-dollar-start-up-owning CEO, driving around in his new Ferrari in the posh San Francisco suburb of Marin, Calif.” (King, 2002). This new face of the pro gamer is presented as a paragon of upward socio-economic mobility, which carries highly specific connotations for the publication’s core Asian American readership. Such textualisation of the figure of Dennis Fong ripples along the historical grain of the repressive representations of the Asian American community which, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, was simultaneously celebrated and demonised as the “model minority.” However, the context for this particular contemporary representation of Fong’s undeniable success deserves additional consideration. Founded in 1979 and based in San Francisco, AsianWeek is the only English-language, pan-ethnic print and online newsweekly focussed on Asian/Pacific Islander American issues. In the article on Fong, the publication’s rhetorical practices of community pride and self-affirmation rub against the dense weight of model minority ideology to produce an example of the emergent vernacular of “new ethnic exceptionalism promoted by Asian transnational elites” (Ong & Nonini, 1997, p. 329).

The paradigmatic model minority image of Asian Americans as a successful case of ethnic assimilation (that would, in particular, be held up to African Americans and Latinos) has not completely waned so much as morphed. Robert G. Lee traces how the model minority figure within the United States imaginary evolved in the 1980s and 90s to resemble a “cyborg” who is “perfectly efficient but inauthentically human, the perfect gook” (p. 11). Hence, the contemporary enunciation of ethnic exceptionalism is an act of refutation and self-affirmation born out of these specific histories of racialisation and concomitant minoritarian self-identification. Following Stuart Hall’s (1993) influential characterisation of identity politics, this strategic enunciation can be in part understood not as an “essence” but a “positioning” (p. 395). At the same time, however, this positioning cannot completely escape its racialised ontology. The rhetoric of ethnic exceptionalism as a mode of self-identification and as a measure of self-worth ineluctably affirms and oppresses in the same breath. Suffice it to say that what is consequently at issue here is the disentangling and interrogation of specific representations of the Asian body politic in the American digital gaming context that effectively interpellate Asian American gamers as such, hailing them into agentive action.

Affective Dimensions of Asian American Gameplay

Written by Chi Kong Lui (2002) and Michael Nguyen (2004), the following review articles draw attention to how biographical referentiality can be situationally invoked to identify persistent experiential gaps and contradictions within the hegemonic national imaginary. More to the point, both articles identify salient racialised tropes within modalities of play. Race might well be a social construct; however, the lived experience of race is real and consequential.

As the joint founding editor of GameCritics.com, an independent gaming webzine, Chi Kong Lui has himself contributed numerous reviews. One game prompted him to go into considerable biographical detail, as evident in the opening paragraphs of his review of Saiyuki: Journey West:

For bi-cultural children growing-up in the United States, it's not easy to be proud of their ethnicity. The popular media and education system has a funny way of influencing impressionable young people into believing a distorted and Eurocentric brand of patriotism. This often leaves children of minority backgrounds often feeling ashamed and wanting to renounce their natural heritage in favor of being just like everyone else on TV, a white-bred American. That's how it was for me growing up in the town of Jackson Heights, New York….

In spite of the nationalistic brainwashing I had endured for years, I still managed to fall in love with story and characters of the distinctly Chinese mythical novel ‘Journey To The West’ to which I was exposed to in bits and pieces thanks to my non-English speaking parents … Most of all, I was enamored with the brave and mischievous antics of the revered Son Goku protagonist whose ideals were drastically different and far more complex than those of the Saturday morning super-heroes I had grown up watching (Lui, 2002).

The difficulties inherent in the lived experience of social contradiction are clearly exemplified in Lui’s acerbic tone. His narration gives voice to the type and range of imag(in)istic desires born out of specific material conditions and social circumstances. His sense of diasporic “Chineseness” has been forged both on familial ground and in response to perceived societal norms and circumstances. This sensibility has also been formed simultaneously through and in spite of popular culture. These variegated concerns have shaped and informed the needs and subsequent expectations of this gamer. For Lui, the availability of this game in the U.S. and the possibilities for play that it engenders is irrefutably significant; it offers a productive ludic space for negotiating projected desires.

But what happens when the projected desires for certain types of gameplay and game settings become manifestly fraught? In an article published in Viet Weekly, Michael Nguyen (2004) offers a reflective commentary on the prospect of playing games based on the Vietnam War. At base are Nguyen’s concerns with Shellshock Nam ’67 – firstly, as a game that is set during the Vietnam War (complete with profanity, gore, and, as he puts it, “the ‘comforts’ of indigenous females”); and, secondly, as a Vietnamese American gamer who desires to play this game. He articulates his anxieties as follows:

While I don’t expect that playing Shellshock will make me cry, it will be a little strange to kill other Vietnamese people, even if they are fictional. Will I feel the temptation to yell racist slurs about the Vietnamese while under fire? Will I have an opportunity to shoot down POWs or torch villages? What if I shoot down someone who looks like someone I know, or worse – what if he looks like me?

I do want to play this game. From what I’ve read about it so far, I expect it to be quite good. And I want it to be as haunting and realistic as possible. In a way, it’s another way to get closer to understanding what it meant to live through that war.

… [But] I do wonder what will happen when my dad sees me playing it. I wonder if I’ll see any Vietnamese characters and hear them speak Vietnamese. Wouldn’t it be cool to hear the Viet Cong shout orders in Vietnamese and be able to understand it and use it to my advantage? That would be a nice irony (Nguyen, 2004).

Through his hesitations, speculations, and affirmations, Nguyen’s account powerfully captures the range of affective vacillations following on from his self-recognition as a specifically ethnicised gamer. His closing sentiments are especially telling. Like Lui, he, too, wants to claim a possessive (re)investment in his ethnic identity. Both their accounts make clear the processes, conditions, and contingent circumstances under which the desires to explicitly identify as such are created and how these decisions are made. At stake here are particular linkages between self-identifications and external ascriptions within diasporic Asian contexts. Equally at issue here is the dialectic between personal positioning and the broader sociocultural mileux.

Sociocultural Dimensions of Asian American Gameplay

In 2001, a fatal stabbing in the parking lot outside PC Café in Garden Grove, Orange County in California led city officials to toughen rules for cybercafés. In the months that followed, five similar incidents at cybercafés throughout Garden Grove prompted the local government to pass a moratorium on the establishment of any new cybergaming facilities. By the August 2002, city officials had adopted the strictest rules in Orange County to control the 23 cybercafés within its borders, requiring owners to set up cameras, hire a security guard during peak weekend hours, ban minors during school hours, and close by 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends.

Julian Sanchez (2004) proffers a closer consideration of the Garden Grove incident. He pointedly asks:

But does the fault really lie in the cafes? [O]nly three of the 23 Net cafés in the city have experienced the ‘gang related violence’ that prompted the law… Moreover, most of the incidents occurred, not in the cafes, where a camera or security guard might make some difference, but outside in the parking lots, or even further away, a distinction elided by the police memorandum, which … noted crimes ‘in or near’ the cafes.

In other words, most of these incidents can only be circumstantially linked to the cybercafés and the crimes had little to do with gaming per se. Nevertheless, this has not stemmed the flow of print and online news articles enforcing those links by inference or even by direct association. For example, in an article titled “Game Over in Little Saigon?” – somewhat surprisingly published in AsianWeek – John Scott Lewinski (2002) offers his prognosis of the situation:

All indications point to the cyber cafes perfectly blending several potential factors for violence. First of all, Garden Grove experiences its share of ethnic and gang-related conflict as the Korean and Vietnamese immigrant communities often find themselves at odds. In addition to the ethnic tensions between some of the youths, the games they play fuel potential fires. As games become more realistic, the level of violence in many titles grows more severe. It’s common to find games allowing players to riddle their opponents with full clips of machine gun ammunition or blow human targets to bloody bits with grenades.

Hence, an all-too-familiar chain of associations is orchestrated linking Asian immigrant communities, inter-ethnic tensions, gangs, games, and violence. The main point of topical difference here is that these associations are now being yoked to cybercafés, which, in the case of Garden Grove, are predominantly owned and run by Asian immigrants, and mainly frequented by members of the Asian immigrant community. How, then, can we begin to think through these sociocultural imbrications?

The Garden Grove incident plays out Doreen Massey’s (1994) focus on how “locality”, or a place’s specificity, always must be understood in terms of the spatial and temporal organisation of social relations. This is key to negotiating the sociological vernacular of Asian American gaming in cybercafés. In their essay “‘No Lattés Here’: Asian American Youth and the Cyber Café Obsession,” based on an in-depth study of Californian cybercafés that included those found in Orange County, Mary Yu Danico and Linda Trinh Vo (2004) emphasise the magnitudes of class stratification in any consideration of these gamers. These cybercafés are usually clustered in “middle- and working-class neighborhoods in which immigrants and refugees reside” (p. 181). In addition, it must be noted that “[i]mmigrant children of working-class parents often live in cramped, multigenerational households, and in some cases, with multiple families, so the cyber cafés provide a refuge for youth” (p. 182). Perhaps most tellingly, even though many youths might have computers of their own at home, they still regularly frequent the cafés because these venues provide a palpable sense of community and belonging. This observation is key to understanding the significance of these gaming locales as a conduit for in-group sociality, particularly for working-class male youths. As Danico and Vo explain:

Cyber cafés have become a social and cultural outlet where young Asian American men can feel a sense of achievement and assert their masculinity in a society that often demasculinizes them. In a culture in which Asian American male youths see few positive images of themselves in the media, computer games are a safe means by which they can gain a sense of empowerment. In some cases, these youth may not excel at athletics or school; however, they are good at these games. They are not the ‘model minority’ whiz kids, nor are they the trouble-making ‘gang bangers’ – extreme stereotypical labels often ascribed to Asian American males. They struggle with school and realize that they are not living up to the educational expectations of their immigrant parents, who have made incredible sacrifices for them to have educational opportunities unavailable in their homeland (p. 185).

The multiple functionalities of cybercafés are thus foreground. These spaces of ludic activity can also serve as productive spaces for momentarily escaping from the strictures of societal and familial pressures, while equally providing a means for bolstering their sense of self-worth, however partially and provisionally. Therein lies a vital alternative perspective on this rarely acknowledged aspect of cybercafé gaming and the function of gaming for this demographical constituency of Asian American youth.


The case studies traversed in this paper – ranging from Dennis Fong, gamer-testimonials by Chi Kong Lui and Michael Nguyen, the Garden Grove incident, and cybercafé gaming – all attest to the magnitude of ongoing discursive and experiential tensions between external ascriptions and self-identifications in Asian American gaming contexts. Indeed, if anything, they underwrite the importance of positioning – and maintaining – the continuum between the personal, the social, and the ludological as a foundational premise for continued research on the sociology of gamers and gaming cultures.


1The 2007 conference of the Digital Games Research Association (www.digra.org), the lead body for game studies research, provided a clear sign of this topical multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary orientation. The “Situated Play” conference in Tokyo encapsulated a broad range of recent and ongoing international studies on the locative aspects of games culture and play practices.


Danico, M.Y. & Vo, L.T. (2004). ‘No Lattés Here’: Asian American Youth and the Cyber Café Obsession. In Lee, J., & Zhou, M. (Eds.), Asian American Youth: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity (pp. 177-189). New York & London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (1993). Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In Williams, P., & Chrisman, L. (Eds.) Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (pp. 392-403). New York: Columbia University Press.

King, B. (2002, March 28 – April 3). The Gaming Revolution. AsianWeek. Retrieved March 2, 2006, from http://www.asianweek.com/2002_03_28/feature.html

Lee, R.G. (1999). Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Lewinski, J.S. (2002, August 2-8). “Game Over in Little Saigon?” AsianWeek. Retrieved February 28, 2006, from <http://www.asianweek.com/2002_08_02/bay_cybercafe.html>

Lui, C.K. (2002, March 13). Review of Saiyuki: Journey West. GameCritics.com. Retrieved March 1, 2005, from http://www.gamecritics.com/review/saiyuki/main.php

Massey, D. (1999). Power-Geometries and the Politics of Space-Time. Heidelberg: University of Heidelberg Press.

Nguyen, M. (2004, September 5). New Vietnam War Video Game Sparks Controversy. Viet Weekly. [Online Reprint]. Retrieved March 2, 2006, from http://news.pacificnews.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=22a27b8af527a81680fc8ce155cddce4

Ong, A., & Nonini, D.M. (1997). Towards a Cultural Politics of Diaspora and Transnationalism. In Ong, A., & Nonini, D. (Eds.) The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism (pp. 323-332). New York & London: Routledge.

Vo, L.T., & Danico, M.Y. (2004). The Formation of Post-Suburban Communities: Koreatown and Little Saigon, Orange County. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 24(7/8), 15-45.