rowing up Asian and seeing products showcasing Asian themes always initially felt uplifting. Then you realize some of those products capitalized on hurtful stereotypes, reduced or blended cultures, or appropriated elements from a culture. As the tabletop community becomes more diverse with newcomers into the hobby, recognizing harmful stereotypes and avoiding the pitfalls of tropes is paramount for an inclusive and safe play environment.
When it comes to Asian themes in a tabletop game, many of them perpetuate Orientalist or Model Minority stereotypes. What are Orientalism and Model Minority? Orientalism is a critical theory coined by Edward Said’s 1978 publication, Orientalism, wherein ideas and views remain predominantly Eurocentric or Western focused with their broad understanding of Asian cultures. Fundamentally, it’s a power dynamic that promotes an “otherness.” When addressing Asian media created by non-Asians in media (especially in tabletop RPGs), there are frequent pitfalls that occur when portraying Asian cultures:
- A sense of otherness, such as Asian cultures depicted as savage, primitive, irrational, or regressive compared to “contemporary” philosophies or beliefs and frequently portrayed as needing saving, reinforces the power dynamic.
- Worldbuilding based on harmful and real-world stereotypes and the reductive blending of cultures, ethnic groups, and time periods which often stems into creating cultural monoliths.
- Appreciation can promote a sense of “othering” if done incorrectly or without awareness. Promoting even positive tropes can be harmful, as they often reinforce tired or dated tropes.
- Asians are objects of fetishization or exoticism. Even profiting off the images of misogyny and sexual violence.
The term Model Minority was first coined by sociologist William Peterson in 1966 to describe, at the time, Asian Americans achieving success despite being a marginalized group. This prevailing concept widens the disparity between marginalized groups, particularly Asian Americans and Jewish Americans, versus Black and Hispanic Americans. One group is portrayed with stereotypes as the “good” and law-abiding. In contrast, the other is described as prone to crime and dependent on welfare.
As the saying goes: “knowing is half the battle,” right?
When implementing any culture (Asian or otherwise), consider why you bring those particular themes or stories into the setting of your game? A follow-up question would be how to approach those themes in a nuanced way that doesn’t reinforce biases or stereotypes? Using media from entertainment is generally considered an ill portrayal of a culture. That doesn’t mean you can’t draw inspiration from your favorite media. Just be aware that some elements may have cultural connotations that you may not be aware of. One thing to avoid, especially if you’re referencing someone else’s real-world culture: avoid drawing from religious or sacred iconography. Finally, researching an Asian culture will help one immensely. I would focus on literature or media from scholars from those respective cultures. Please be mindful when asking any Asian friends about their respective cultures and the emotional labor involved with their heritage, as there are different types of Asians in the diaspora. We should undoubtedly celebrate and promote Asian cultures when feasible. Still, it’s also essential that the effort doesn’t mask or overshadow the Asian voice.