How Square-Enix’s Sleeping Dogs Opens The Door For Ethno Communications Games

December 18, 2019 at 1:44 am 1 comment

I grew up on video games. From first grade until the end of high school, I would come home from school virtually every day and play video games for at least an hour. They’ve always entertained me, and even have facilitated my learning. I like to joke that video games taught me how to read. Towards the end of young adulthood gaming stretched into sessions of three to four hours straight, with six to seven hour marathons on weekends. Predominantly, I grew up playing single player adventure games. Legend of Zelda, a handful of Japanese Role Playing Games (known colloquially as JRPGs), as well as Skyrim, Fallout, and Fable to name a few European and American releases. I’ve gravitated towards this style of game because it gives the player a degree of freedom in comparison to games like Mario or Tetris. For example, most games of this fashion feature character creation interfaces where you can design the appearance and proficiency of your character. Other single player adventure games do not allow this sort of freedom. For example, Red Dead Redemption decides that you will play as John Marston, ex-outlaw turned rancher. The common thread however, is that more often than not there is only a loose goal that you may choose to pursue or not. Otherwise it’s just you and an interactive virtual sandbox so to speak. 

Sandbox Gameplay:

As I’ve grown older and more cognizant of all sorts of social narratives, I try to note now when I play these games what it means to take that choice away. In Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed 3, you play as an indigenous American in line with colonial American forces during the civil war. All sorts of ethical questions arise from this sort of game. For example – what does it mean for me as a Caucasian man to control the actions of this protagonist? As The Video Game Studies Reader more clearly states – “computer games are not ‘just games’ but play a constitutive role in our cognitive development and in the construction of our identity … You have to do more than identify with a character on the screen. You must act for it.” (Wolf 933) Throughout the course of this class, my eyes have been opened not only to representation of race, but representation of place and class in relation to race. However, the realm of action and reaction complicates the relationship of the viewer with the subject of their gaze. For this blog post, I’ll specifically be examining Square-Enix’s Sleeping Dogs (2012). 

Sleeping Dogs is a fascinating inclusion in the single player open-world crime sandbox genre, because it’s not just one of the only games in the genre featuring an (almost) all Asian cast, but to my knowledge it’s the only game of its genre which takes place outside of the United States. Occasionally referred to and marketed as “Asian Grand Theft Auto”, the game entirely takes place in Hong Kong and revolves around Asian American protagonist Wei Shen.

Asian Grand Theft Auto:

 Before the events of the game, the player learns through in-game dialogue that Shen’s sister, Mimi, becomes addicted to drugs. She gets involved with triad activity in Hong Kong before their family moves to San Francisco, where Wei Shen becomes a documented U.S. citizen. After graduating from San Francisco College, Shen enrolls in the SFPD and graduates in the top of his class. He becomes notorious in the SFPD for his meticulous and thorough (albeit violent) execution of undercover operations, catching the eye of Hong Kong Police Superintendent Thomas Pendrew. The game starts after Wei Shen is hired by Pendrew to infiltrate the Sun On Yee (新安義), a triad group riffing off the real life Sun Yee On gang (新義安). Shen takes the job, but in a classic turn of events, becomes too invested in the gang after a civil war between the heads of the Sun On Yee territories breaks loose. The game features an impressive cast, enlisting the voices of actors such as Lucy Liu, Emma Stone, James Hong, Elizabeth Sung, Ron Yuan, Tzi Ma, Will Yun Lee, and Chin Han. The large majority of Hongkonger characters in the story are faithfully represented by voice actors who live or have lived in Hong Kong. There are no Asian characters played by non-Asian voice actors. Furthermore, there are less than a handful of white characters in the story barring a Russian bartender, an American tourist named Amanda (Emma Stone), and Superintendent Pendrew (Tom Wilkinson). 

Sleeping Dogs Trailer (Warning: VERY graphic):

 While on the surface Sleeping Dogs is a violent crime game that one could argue represents Hong Kong and Chinese Americans in a negative light, it also offers a unique insight into the experience of Asian American immigrants who move back to their homeland from the United States, and thus struggle with a loss of identity. Through various cultural references, the character arc of Wei Shen, and a large allowance of player agency, Sleeping Dogs opens the door to an exploration of Asian identity perhaps to an even greater depth than many Ethno Communications Films could.

Firstly, let’s make no mistake about it that Sleeping Dogs is not a perfect picture of representation for Asian American men. In the introduction post I make a point that games like this have the potential to explore identity better than Ethno Communication Films but it’s important to recognize that unlike many if not all of those films, Sleeping Dogs is ultimately a project directed and produced by non-Asians. In this way, Sleeping Dogs presents in a very real sense some idea of “Techno-Orientalism.” Here’s a behind the scenes video for the production of the game.

Sleeping Dogs Behind The Scenes:

If you watch the video, you’ll notice that not a single Asian voice speaks. The Executive Director Stephen Van Der Mescht claims at the start of the video that they were inspired to make the game after watching Hong Kong action flicks. He states “For us it made perfect sense to bring the action, you know, to bring an open world game, to somewhere that gamers have never been before.” Meanwhile, the Senior Producer Jeff O’Connell states immediately after, “You have the crazy extremes, and the crazy characters just there for your… your enjoyment.” So there is certainly a degree of spectacle, a degree of exoticism involved with the choice of setting and characters. To take the most sensitive aspects of a culture — its gangs, economics, police relations, colonial history — and to make a show out of it is not unlike something such as Flower Drum Song, which seeks to make a spectacle out of San Francisco’s Chinatown. In Filming “Chinatown”: Fake Visions, Bodily Transformations, Sabine Haenni theorizes that “production and consumption of Chinatown may assert a white hegemony, even as it grants its viewers access to new, rather than old, mobile, rather than static, subjectivities.” (Haenni 23) Haenni continues, quoting Sigfried Kracauer. “…[the human spirit] squats as a fake Chinaman in a fake opium den, transforms itself into a trained dog that performs ludicrously clever tricks to please a film diva, gathers up into a storm among towering mountain peaks, and turns into both a circus artist and a lion at the same time….” Haenni argues following this that Chinatown films allowed white spectators to “pleasurably experience the newly racialized metropolis by consolidating a new kind of white hegemony, and by assigning the Chinese to a constrained space.”(25) 

It could be argued that Sleeping Dogs choice of setting and characters is the digital and modern manifestation of this idea. The protagonist is a kung-fu master, who largely avoids using guns at all. Had the game been about a white, black, or latinx cop in America, or any other country, my instincts tell me that the game probably wouldn’t have involved a huge degree of kung-fu. However, while it’s true that the narrative and place are merely digital representations from the perspective of white outsiders, it’s also true that these representations are not based on observation, but on first-hand account from Hong Kong locals. In the same behind-the-scenes video above, O’Connell claims “Watching movies wasn’t enough, reading books… wasn’t enough…. We were really lucky to be able to talk to people on both sides, the police, and the triads.” O’Connell continues to describe the stories they were told by the natives of Hong Kong explaining the structure of daily life, and the experience of spending a day with triad members. To the credit of the white men at the helm, the characters and narratives told in the story of Sleeping Dogs are not merely white imaginings of Chinese characters, but largely researched and based on oral storytelling. Although the story is ultimately being crafted and curated by white men (who definitely have their own agenda), this pushes Sleeping Dogs a lot closer towards films like Chan Is Missing, rather than Year of The Dragon, or Flower Drum Song. This is because, in a certain sense, there is a Chinese voice in the narrative of this game. It’s a game that wants to play like a Hong Kong action movie, with an Asian American protagonist who loses touch with his Hong Kong roots. Because of its authentic focus on identity, oral accounts of life from Hong Kong natives, and almost entirely native cast of voice actors, I think it’s only fair to say that while Sleeping Dogs is not a perfect representation of Asian American men, it is still a respectful and well researched one, which takes care to avoid surface level stereotypes.

Beyond an extreme appreciation and in-depth research of culture and daily life, Wei Shen is also an interesting protagonist who in my opinion fits much better into the world of Chan Is Missing than Year of The Dragon and maybe even some of the action films his character derives from. The first fascinating aspect of Shen’s identity how he is represented sexually. As part of a side-narrative in the story, you can optionally choose to find and date women. In terms of gameplay this means wait until a woman is introduced to you and then take on an optional task which results usually in the screen going dark as Shen and the woman either go to her apartment or agree to meet up another time. The first woman Shen meets is a white woman named Amanda. Amanda claims to be an American post-graduate exploring Hong Kong, but after Shen takes her on a date he discovers that she is just a gold digger who’s obsessed with Chinese men and taking advantage of Shen. This is an interesting role reversal with regard to Marchetti’s concept of “Rape Fantasy.” With regard to Broken Blossoms, Marchetti writes, “The specifics of Cheng Huan’s Chinese ethnicity and racial difference simply adds a  veneer of exoticism to Broken Blossoms, encouraging a familiar fantasy of Asia as feminine, passive, carnal, and perversive.” (Marchetti 44) Amanda, in the narrative of Sleeping Dogs, by contrast serves maybe an opposite purpose in two ways. The first is that Amanda is one of the sole representatives of white America in the game. She is not “feminine” nor is she “passive”, but she is carnal, and perverse. Secondly, Shen establishes that he will not be used by Amanda or any white woman solely on the basis of race, and he cuts ties with her. Shen is also not feminine or passive, but clearly the objective for Shen is not sex, otherwise he could have been happy submitting himself to Amanda despite knowing her motivations. Primarily, while sex is a motivation for Shen, he is not sexually objectified in the same way that Cheng Huan is. He has sex with Amanda once after their date, and never again once he learns she’s met up with several other successful Chinese men. Shen proceeds to only date Chinese women for the rest of the game, each of whom reacquaints him with Hong Kong nightlife and culture. There appears to be symbolism here for Shen, who turns away from American sexualization of Asian bodies, which directly counters the representation Asian men in Marchetti’s Rape Fantasy.

Furthermore, throughout the story there is an ongoing self-conflict for Shen between embracing the values of the Sun On Yee or the values of the San Francisco and Hong Kong Police Forces. Shen must decide throughout the course of the game whether he should sell out his friends in the Sun On Yee, or whether to ignore orders from Superintendent Pendrew. It comes to a conclusion after Pendrew sets up a fight between the rival gang 18k and the Sun On Yee. Pendrew is caught on camera murdering the bedridden head of the Sun On Yee, Uncle Po, and after that evidence comes to light (and after a dramatically gore-filled chain of events), Pendrew is ultimately brought to justice and arrested by Shen on charges of corruption and collusion with the triads. Shen then not only stays on good terms with the gang of his youth, but also maintains his position in the Hong Kong police force. The ending feels a bit rushed, but Wei Shen’s last words are “strange to say it after all that’s happened, but Hong Kong kind of feels like home.” His colleague then cryptically states “But which Hong Kong officer?” Her line is followed by a high ranking member of the Sun On Yee observing their exchange from a limousine. The implication seems to be that although Shen doesn’t definitely pick a side, both sides in some form or another have allegiance to Shen, and are satisfied with his current position. Shen seems to feel that he finally has a place in Hong Kong, even though that place is ambiguous. This to me felt reminiscent of the ending monologue in Chan Is Missing, which details several accounts of Chan Hung, creating ultimately a vague vision of a centralized identity for Asian American men. Much like Chan, Shen’s identity remains ambiguous, however perhaps his identity relies on the ambiguity itself.

Ending Scene of Sleeping Dogs:

Finally, I’d like to briefly discuss what player agency means when the protagonist might represent a different race or culture, and how it opens the door for a wider exploration of immigrant and minority identity than film might be capable of. On race and identity in games, The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies states, “Games, like cultural modalities before them, help render and standardize historic racial myths as it does myths  and discourses of the body.” It continues, “Identification with games might be more intense than in the case of narratives… .“ (Wolf 934) The reason games like Sleeping Dogs are important is not just because they inform players about the identity of the main character. Any type of narrative experience could do that. However, what gaming allows (and specifically open world gaming) is the creation of experience in the shoes of the other. Games allow worlds to be explored, and interacted with. The motivation of the character and the motivation of the player becomes unified. With that power comes great danger, since it relies on respectable representations of race. So, potentially if there were a movement of Asian American storytellers, much like with the Ethno Communication Films, who could deliver honest explorations of identity through gaming — it could be huge for changing and controlling cultural interpretations of Asian Americans the world over.

While Sleeping Dogs certainly has a plenitude of flaws, the detail of research, the care given to representation of Asian American identity, and the potential for player agency to change the interpretation of that identity all set the stage for something larger. Its greatest flaw is that it establishes itself as a kung-fu game, which results in all manner of crazy silly fight scenes. As a saving grace however, at least the motion capture they used was from real kung-fu martial artists. The next step is for more game developers to take a chance on letting immigrants and minorities take control over their narratives, when the story concerns their lives. Or even, potentially for groups of Asian American game developers and writers to form, and to strive to take control of the gaming narratives themselves.

Related Texts:

Haenni, Sabine. “Filming ‘Chinatown’: Fake Visions, Bodily Transformations.” Screening Asian Americans, by Peter X. Feng, Rutgers University Press, 2002, pp. 21–50.

Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril” Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Univ. of California Press, 1993.

Wolf, Mark J. P., and Bernard Perron. The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies. Routledge, 2016.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. asianamericansinmedia  |  December 25, 2019 at 2:24 am

    I think your project could work better as a series of shorter posts, either exploring Asian American representation in different games, or each analyzing a specific aspect or discussion in the “Sleeping Dogs” game. I would also suggest including an introductory and concluding post to frame your series as a whole.

    Your comparative analysis between the representational tropes in this game to the ones in films we studied in class is interesting. However, as you wrote in the post: “Games allow worlds to be explored, and interacted with.” The experience of gaming, of “the creation of experience in the shoes of the other” is different from watching a film. I think your discussion here could also be expanded to include (perhaps your) experience of playing other games. How does different players’ subjective experiences in a game relate to that game’s representation of race and gender?

    Also, to your point regarding the female character as a “gold digger”, I wonder if that is a female stereotype that recurs within this genre of games, similar to how stereotypes of Asian American women would appear in films of widely differing narratives, settings, and genres?

    Your discussion of the ambiguity of Shen’s position at the end of the game feels more in common with Hong Kong cinema, especially with some of John Woo’s classical gangster films, including “Hard Boiled” (1992) or “A Better Tomorrow” (1986), in which the distinction between the police and the criminal are often blurred.

    Lastly, in terms of the context for your project, I would have liked to see you include more variety of web media, such as discussion and reviews of “Sleeping Dogs” from other games, or experiential components such as your playing of the game in the manner of 1ceanator99’s video in order to fully take advantage of your choice to site this project in our class blog.

    Prof Ma


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