Xbox promotes Asian characters and creators amid calls for greater diversity in games
Asian characters have a long history in video games, thanks to Japanese giants like Nintendo and Sony. Now, US-based Microsoft is taking pains to acquire, promote, and create more games with Asian characters — as the industry responds to increased calls for diverse representation.
The move fits in with Microsoft's larger strategy to acquire new content and expand their global reach. The company has been on a spending spree, buying up game companies to broaden their roster on services like the subscription-based Xbox Game Pass. Earlier this year, Microsoft purchased the beleaguered Activision Blizzard. Back in 2020, it absorbed Skyrim publisher Bethesda. The Xbox brand now boasts a more diverse lineup of games than ever before, both in terms of genre as well as representation.
Microsoft wants its customers to know this. Throughout Asian Pacific American Heritage month this May, they promoted banner ads on Xbox Game Pass with Asian game characters and creators. This includes 2017's Prey, which features an Asian-American protagonist named Morgan Yu and a space station infested by a hostile alien force. Five years on, reviewers are still applauding the sci-fi thriller for its unique gameplay, story, and its thoughtful approach to race.
Asian representation at one Microsoft studio
In an interview with VentureBeat, Arkane co-director Ricardo Bare said, "[Making the character Asian] makes as much sense as having any other kind of character. It doesn't make more or less sense. We just thought it was interesting.." Morgan's gender-neutral name also fits a player's choice to play with either 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 previous franchise, Dishonored, mostly featured white characters. In contrast, Morgan Yu is mixed-race, 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 blend two different worlds together," Bare tells NPR.
In Morgan's apartment, players can see how identity converges in everyday possessions. These include items like a wok cookbook, a book of T'ang Dynasty poetry, and even a bamboo steamer. While these items reflect Morgan's culture, Arkane also took care in arranging their position in the game world. For example, the T'ang Dynasty book is interspersed with others on subjects ranging from space to electronics. That subtle environmental storytelling shows that heritage is just one facet to who Morgan is, Bare says.
"For Morgan, it was important to us to convey that he grew up Asian American, specifically. In some cases these details allow you to be specific instead of abstract," Bare continues. "Being specific and concrete is always more interesting than being generic."
After Prey, Arkane went on to make 2021's Deathloop, which featured two Black protagonists. They're now working on Redfall, which has four playable characters — including one who is South Asian, a population rarely represented in video games.
Bare says developing more diverse characters takes careful research and invitations to experts from similar backgrounds to act as either fellow creators or consultants. Then, during the final stage of the process, Arkane makes sure to cast voice actors that match a character's ethnicity as closely as possible.
Expanding diversity and competing in the Asian market
Ada Duan, Xbox's general manager of social impact and partnerships, is at the forefront of the gaming industry's efforts to bring more authentic representation to the medium. "Having been in the gaming industry for over 15 years, it is exciting for me to see the increasing diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander creators and the breadth of cultural influences that they bring to the games they make," Duan explains.
All of Xbox's first-party titles, including Prey and the upcoming Redfall, are included in Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft's gaming subscription service, which also curates titles from third-party publishers like Life is Strange: True Colors. That game follows empath Alex Chen, the first Asian American to headline the franchise. Xbox has also given a bigger platform to indie games with diverse settings as well, from the Singapore-based Chinatown Detective Agency to the Kurosawa-inspired Trek to Yomi.
For Xbox, expanding representation makes business sense, Duan says. "Our catalog will continue to grow with all the needs of our global gamers in mind," she says. "Taking into account local language needs, game style preferences and cultural considerations."
That includes breaking into Asian gaming markets, particularly in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Just this month, they even made significant inroads in Japan, the home of rivals Nintendo and Sony. Xbox has been partnering with developers through local gaming events and workshops in order to get their games in front of more players, and into the Microsoft corporate fold.
For Microsoft, growing an Asian presence on-screen and behind the scenes is both a matter of representation and part of their effort to capture more of the gaming market. As Duan put it: "We continue to champion greater diversity in the games we make, including characters and storylines, as we look to reach the 3 billion gamers 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