Tara Fickle and The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities

Tara Fickle English professor Tara Fickle, who will join two guest panelists to discuss their work on race and gaming, has been researching the intersection of esports, gaming and race and recently offered her thoughts on what she has uncovered.

Fickle also is an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies, the Center for the Study of Women in Society, and the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies. She will be joined by Crystal Parikh, professor of English and social and cultural analysis and director of the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University, and Lynn Fujiwara, a UO associate professor of Indigenous, race and ethnic studies.

The trio will take part in the Center for the Study of Women in Society’s Women of Color Project on May 7.

Fickle is the author of the 2020 American Book Award-winning title “The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities,” which explores how games have been used to both establish and combat Asian American racial stereotypes.

Fickle recently received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support her latest project, “Behind Aiiieeeee! A New History of Asian American Literature.” The project examines the 1974 publication of “Aiiieeeee!,” a canonical and deeply controversial Asian American literary anthology whose title refers to the stereotypical expression of Asian characters in early American films, radio and comic books.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Q: What is “The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities” about?

A: “The Race Card” uncovers games’ role in the cultural construction of modern racial fictions. It argues that gaming provides the authority behind racial boundary making, reinforcing and at times subverting beliefs about where people racially and spatially belong. It focuses on the experience of Asian Americans, wherein play, the creation of games and the use of game theory shape how East-West relations are imagined and reinforce notions of foreignness and perceptions of racial difference.

Tara Fickle and the Race Card book cover Q: What is “model minority” and how does it relate to the racism and violence aimed at the ADPI Asian, Desi and Pacific Islander community? Does this perception of Asian Americans create a racial wedge, minimizing the role racism plays?

A: The racist stereotype “model minority” describes the ostensible economic and educational success of Asian Americans because of “inherent” racial and cultural characteristics (work ethic,” perceived aptitude for math and science, etc.). This myth, along with that of Asians as “perpetual foreigners,” is complex and powerful.

The racial wedge is used as a state-sanctioned project of “divide and conquer” and an instrument of anti-Blackness, in particular. The model minority myth, which frequently depends on the language and logic of gaming and competitive sport, has been effective as a weapon against class struggle as well as cross-racial solidarity.

Q: What is game theory and how is it relevant to the Asian American experience?

A: Game theory describes mathematical models for strategic decision-making. The connection between game theory and “games,” in the lay sense, has increasingly been lost. This is unfortunate because it continues to be a crucial framework for understanding how we perceive and rationalize the relationship between winners and losers, as well as what sorts of actions can be justified.

What brought me to game theory was the history of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. My research shows that a decade before it was applied to containing the so-called “red menace” during the Cold War, game theory was used to amplify and then neutralize the supposed threat posed by the “inscrutable intentions” of 100,000 Japanese Americans. Game theory was used to reframe that group’s assertions of U.S. loyalty as little more than a bluff and thereby justify their unconstitutional imprisonment.

You may also recognize game theory paired with the infamous mah-jongg scene, from the film “Crazy Rich Asians.” That these scenes of “ruthless” Asian women gaming form the bookends to a movie about Asians’ especial intimacy with global capital is no surprise.

Q: What inspired you to explore this topic, and what did your research reveal?

A: I have been interested in, and played, games since childhood but rarely thought about them as anything but diversions, and certainly not as political or in relation to issues like identity or race. It was not until graduate school, where I focused on Asian American literature, that this connection became apparent, because games are everywhere in Asian American literature.

I was initially struck by how Asian North American narratives consistently framed immigration and assimilation as a high-stakes game, one simultaneously strategic and chance-ridden in which the prize was the American Dream. I began to value those minority narratives for giving the lie to the notion that American success was due to hard work and the putative end of racism and structural inequality.

My dissertation began as an analysis of games as a vehicle for Asian American writers to articulate their experience of being Asian in America; my research ended up diving into actual video games. I talk, for example, about the history of imperialism and the racialized logics of mapping in Pokémon Go and connect the language and rhetoric of games with the longer history of U.S.-Asian relations.

It surprised me to find that one of the ways it’s continued all along is through the language and medium of gaming. You continue to find familiar tropes, stereotypes and logics of exclusion — and the strategic pitting of one minority group against one another in the service of white supremacy.

Q: In light of the violent attacks and racism leveled against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the past year, what are your thoughts on why this is happening now and what can be done to combat it?

A: The view of Asian Americans as “honorary whites,” or contradictory configuration of Asians as “white-adjacent,” yet never fully American, has led, not to a diminishment but to an intensification of the “yellow peril” stereotype, stoked by growing resentment over China’s economic success in the global arena.

While acting, in the moment, as an individual ally to assist those being targeted is important and desirable, combating this violence requires education and long-term allyship at the local level, including in our own campus and community, where racial violence remains endemic at macro and micro scales as the exception rather than the rule.

I recommend students investigate the course offerings of our own Department of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies and I urge all community members — students, faculty and staff at the UO, and those from the larger Eugene-Springfield area — to actively advocate for these issues by attending to institutional initiatives like the forthcoming Center on Racial Disparities and Resilience and thinking collectively about how such sites can be organized in a way that honors the struggles and lessons of the activists and academics that have come before.