Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass
Fei Long and Justin Wong

Pat Miller | 13 Mar 2007 12:03
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Many veteran arcade gamers, particularly those who were around during the early '90s, can recall a stereotype of an Asian or Asian-American kid, usually a male, who is unusually gifted at videogames. He is young; he can be loud and vivacious or soft-spoken and patient. He is known simply for his skill; his fingers glide over the buttons of the arcade machine with practiced agility and impeccable reflexes. Black, white and brown players dutifully line their quarters on top of the machine, each waiting for their chance to defeat him and prove themselves to the rest of the group, but they'll inevitably find themselves digging in their pockets for another quarter after two short rounds, perhaps three if they get lucky. He is found in arcades, movie theaters, family restaurants and 7-11s across the country. When he is defeated, it is usually by another Asian player, most likely a close friend or maybe even a cousin of his, who plays the game with him often enough to win.

People don't always agree on why "Asians are better at videogames," but it remains a particularly complicated issue in the Street Fighter II community, no doubt because this perception of Asian and Asian-American players is reinforced by the very real presence of international competition from Japan. Very, very good international competition.

We could simply watch the Justin vs. Daigo video as another instance of amazing gameplay. We could also watch it as Justin Wong, a Chinese-American, playing and very narrowly losing a game of Street Fighter III: Third Strike to Daigo Umehara, a Japanese national player, and begin to unpack the elements of race and nationality within. Justin Wong is, in some ways, the textbook example of the Asian arcade-whiz-kid outlined above: He's significantly younger than most of his opponents in the American Marvel vs. Capcom 2 scene, where he made a name for himself. But his reputation as a dominant force is equaled by his reputation as a boring player.

He is not a crowd-pleaser. A Shoryuken.com forum thread entitled "I Think I Have A Plausible Reason Why Justin Is The Greatest!" yields the following insights: "Justin Wong has god-like execution, awesome mindgames, and unrivaled blocking skills," "justin wins because hes a fuckin robot," "Justin is the best at mvc2 because hes a demon from the 7th layer of hell in human suit." Like the archetypical Asian whiz-kid, any discussion about Justin's ability in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 evokes comparisons to superhuman abilities. Justin has robotic precision, mechanical reflexes and a methodical style of play that simply grinds down his opponent.

But these adjectives - "mechanical," "methodical" and "robotic" - don't merely apply to Justin. The depiction of Asian and Asian-Americans as tireless workers is not new to Street Fighter. This kind of description, generally known as the "Yellow Peril," has a long history ranging from American World War II-era propaganda to the American-Japanese automobile rivalry of the 1980s. So while Justin is seen as robotic and methodical, Japanese players are viewed similarly. That is to say, the Street Fighter community's common sense places the robotic, methodical Asian player as the dominant force, opposite the underdog. The underdog is, in opposition to the dominant Asian player, aggressive, risk-taking, occasionally rash and, ultimately, American.

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