Review of The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities by Tara Fickle
Even in the arrangement of its chapters, The Race Card clearly showcases its author’s command of the subject matter, originality, and wit. The structure of the book is “guided by the formally playful, ludic logic of a six-sided die” (22), divided into six chapters and grouped into two parts. As with the six-sided die, in which the opposing sides add up to seven, resulting in a “secondary ordered coherence created by a common sum”, so too do the book’s chapters possess an “oppositional yet complementary coherence”, with links made explicitly between chapters 1 and 6, 2 and 5, and 3 and 4 (22). By arranging the book in this manner, Fickle self-consciously engages in the kind of the rule-based, ludic systems of her subject matter, creating a structural contrivance which adroitly pulls together the breadth of the book’s contents. At the same time, she points out that a lack of awareness of the logic underlying the die’s construction (and accordingly the book’s oppositional coherence) “is, from one perspective, meaningless: it has no effect on a player’s ability to roll dice or the dice’s ability to generate random numbers”, meaning that the player can:
allow these systems to perform their disciplinary work as quietly and invisibly as they always have. To be aware of a die’s underlying logic, on the other hand, is to be counterintuitively drawn further into the game.
The internal consistency of the die’s construction “comes to signify as evidence of its nonarbitrariness” (26). It is this kind of subtle dynamic which is at play throughout Fickle’s book, in her concept of “ludo-Orientalism.”
Ludo-Orientalism (not to be confused with the related but narrower concept of techno-Orientalism) takes in a wide range of phenomena, “wherein the design, marketing, and rhetoric of games shape how Asians as well as East-West relations are imagined and where notions of foreignness and racial hierarchies get reinforced” (3). Placing focus on the concept’s history in the United States, Fickle shows how the rules, logic, and popular conceptions of skill- and chance-based games, whether digital or analog, have informed and continue to inform the racialization of Asians and Asian Americans. Ludo-Orientalism is shown to be present in various social processes and policies, often in ways which have long gone unaddressed.
Chapter 1 addresses the use of stereotypes of Chinese Americans as “inveterate gamblers” from the mid-nineteenth century to bar Chinese immigration and refuse naturalization to Chinese Americans. While many historians have been quick to dismiss such stereotypes, Fickle demonstrates that “gambling was minor neither to early Chinese American experience nor to debates over immigration and exclusion” (34). Rather, gambling was prevalent and popular among many of the settler communities of the western United States, only taking on a negative attribution to Chinese Americans between the 1850s and 1880s. Fickle’s analysis of this shift draws on sources including the anti-Chinese San Francisco Illustrated Wasp and Bret Harte’s infamous poem “The Heathen Chinee” to show how the concept of “fair play” was used against Chinese Americans. Chapter 2 unpicks how game theory underpins Japanese internment narratives, revealing a “subtler version of ludo-Orientalism that uses the logic rather than the language of games to achieve analogous ends” (49). In directing her focus on this subtler role of games, Fickle shows how “theories that use games (game theory) and theories about games (the field of game studies), despite being seen as disparate entities, are, like ‘real’ and metaphorical games, necessarily related in practice” (52). Chapter 3 looks at the ludo-Orientalist means through which Asian Americans came to be redefined after the Second World War with the myth of the “model minority”, “beginning with the steady stream of mainstream media representations of postwar Chinese and Japanese Americans as heroic risk-takers reaping the rewards of an all-American life” (85).
In the second half of the book, Fickle addresses modern game studies and digital gaming technologies. Chapter 4 focusses on how academic scholarship on games has Orientalism built into its very foundations. Showing how Johan Huizinga’s and Roger Caillois’s interventions in modern game studies “‘unwittingly’ reveal the implicit role of the Orientalist imaginary as the formal logic guiding their ludic theories” (118), Fickle seeks to question, “not so much, What was Orientalist about their ludic theories? […] but rather, What was ludic about their Orientalism”? (117-8). In their pioneering work in addressing how “the institutionalization of play and its absorption into the social infrastructure […] paved the way for the progression of human civilization,” these scholars were referencing a specifically Eurocentric viewpoint on human civilization, one which has since found its way into a vast number of contemporary studies (115). In Chapter 5, Fickle addresses the popularity of the Pokémon franchise (and particularly Pokémon Go) in America. This chapter reveals how the effort to develop “global characters” without an obviously Japanese identity actually foregrounds a Euro-American conception of culture, revealing how “political ideologies can inhere in games that don’t necessarily see themselves as political” (149). Finally, Chapter 6 brings the discussion full circle, looking at how the gold farming players of World of Warcraft have been pathologized by American game developers and medical professions “as exclusionists had Chinese gambling: symptomatic of an ‘Asian’ psychosis that fails to respect normative boundaries between play and work, virtual and real work” (23).
The Race Card takes on a vast diversity of forms of play, from fan tan and poker to Starcraft and augmented reality, analyzing works of fiction such as Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Hiroshi Nakamura’s Treadmill alongside such documents as political speeches and scientific working papers, and revealing in the process the long history of ludo-Orientalism in America. Fickle executes this in a way that makes The Race Card both fascinating and enjoyable to read. This book should certainly be of interest to those working in race and ethnic studies and game studies but, given the interventions the book makes in multiple fields, it is likely to be a compelling read to those in adjacent areas as well.
The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities by Tara Fickle. New York University Press. 2019. 257pp.