Asian characters have a long history in video games, thanks to Japanese giants like Nintendo and Sony. Now, US-based Microsoft is working to acquire, promote and create more games with Asian characters – like industry responds to increased calls for a diverse representation.
The move is part of Microsoft’s broader strategy to acquire new content and expand their global reach. The company went on a spending spree, buying up gaming companies to expand their roster of services like subscription-based service Xbox Game Pass. Earlier this year Microsoft bought the beleaguered Activision Blizzard. In 2020, it absorbed Skyrim Bethesda publisher. The Xbox brand now offers a more diverse range of games than ever before, both in terms of genre and representation.
Microsoft wants its customers to know that. Throughout Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in May, they promoted Xbox Game Pass banner ads featuring Asian characters and game creators. This includes the years 2017 Prey, which features an Asian American protagonist named Morgan Yu and a space station infested by a hostile alien force. Five years later, critics clap again the sci-fi thriller for its unique gameplay, story, and thoughtful approach to racing.
Asian representation in a Microsoft studio
In a interview with VentureBeatRicardo Bare, co-director of Arkane, said: “[Making the character Asian] makes as much sense as having any other type of character. It makes no more or less sense. We just thought it was interesting. Morgan’s gender-neutral name also aligns with a player’s choice to play with a male or female character model.
Bare also says that Arkane wanted to explore new ideas and more diverse backgrounds in how they characterized their heroes. The studio’s former franchise, Dishonored, were mostly whitespace characters. On the other hand, Morgan Yu is mestizo, the child of a Chinese father and a German mother. “Maybe it’s because I have a similar background, but characters of mixed heritage are always interesting to me because they have to mix two different worlds,” Bare told NPR.
In Morgan’s apartment, players can see how identity converges in everyday possessions. These include things like a wok cookbook, a poetry book from the T’ang dynasty and even a bamboo steamer. While these items reflect Morgan’s culture, Arkane has also taken care to organize their position in the game world. For example, the T’ang Dynasty book is interspersed with others on topics ranging from space to electronics. This subtle environmental storytelling shows that heritage is just one side of Morgan, Bare says.
“For Morgan, it was important for us to convey that he grew up as an Asian American, in particular. In some cases, these details allow you to be specific instead of abstract,” continues bare. “Being precise and concrete is always more interesting than being generic.”
After PreyArkane continued to make 2021 Death Loop, which featured two black protagonists. They are now working on red fallwhich has four playable characters, including a South Asian, a population rarely represented in video games.
Bare says developing more diverse characters requires extensive research and inviting experts from similar backgrounds to act as fellow creators or consultants. Then, during the final stage of the process, Arkane makes sure to choose voice actors that match a character’s ethnicity as closely as possible.
Increase diversity and be competitive in the Asian market
Ada Duan, Xbox’s general manager of social impact and partnerships, is at the forefront of the games industry’s efforts to bring more authentic representation to the medium. “Having been in the video game industry for over 15 years, it’s exciting for me to see the growing diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander creators and the breadth of cultural influences they bring to the games they create,” says Duan.
All first-party Xbox titles, including Prey and the next red fall, are included in Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s game subscription service, which also organizes titles from third-party publishers such as Life is Strange: True Colors. This game follows empath Alex Chen, the first Asian American to headline the franchise. Xbox has also given indie games a bigger platform with various settings, from Based in Singapore Chinatown Detective Agency to Inspired by Kurosawa Hike to Yomi.
For Xbox, expanding representation makes good business sense, Duan says. “Our catalog will continue to grow with all the needs of our global players in mind,” she said. “Taking into account local language needs, playing style preferences and cultural considerations.”
This includes penetrating Asian gaming markets, particularly in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Just this month they even did major breakthroughs in Japan, the home of rivals Nintendo and Sony. Xbox has partnered with developers through local gaming events and workshops to bring their games to more gamers and within the Microsoft corporate fold.
For Microsoft, developing an Asian presence on screen and behind the scenes is both about representation and part of their efforts to further capture the gaming market. As Duan said, “We continue to champion greater diversity in the games we create, including characters and storylines, as we seek to reach 3 billion players on the planet.”
George Yang is a columnist for Join the game and a freelance writer specializing in video games and culture. Find him on Twitter: @yinyangfooey