Tara Fickle on Asian American Game Studies

May 3, 2017

What do game studies, literary studies, and Asian American studies have in common? How can immersive role play games help us better understand racial formation and resistance?

In episode 35 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach and guest Tara Fickle talk about why games and literature are such fruitful sites for understanding racial formation; what it was like for Tara to design and build her own video game about Japanese-American internment during World War II; how emerging scholars can gain the technological skills they need to create public, multimedia work; and how Tara uses cultural forms like tarot and comics in her teaching to get students to imagine different worlds.

This episode of Imagine Otherwise is part of Signal Boosting, a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire, and the Association for Asian American Studies. Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting an emerging scholar who is building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. The Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists are producing socially engaged work in multimedia forms, as well as inspire you to create your own.

In this episode

  • How studying the ludic in literature can help us explore Asian-American identity (03:00)
  • Games as a form of literacy (05:40)
  • The application of game-design frameworks to the concept of race formation (10:08)
  • What immersive role-play games can reveal about freedom and constraint (14:45)
  • How academia, art, and activism function as three different lenses through which to approach the same idea (21:55)
  • Imagining otherwise (24:00)

About Tara Fickle

Tara Fickle is an assistant professor of Asian American Literature at the University of Oregon. Tara works at the intersections of literature, ethnic studies, and new media, exploring racial formation from a simultaneously historical, sociological, and theoretical standpoint.

She is writing a book called Serious Play: Asian Americans and the Gamification of Race, which argues for the centrality of games to minority American literature. Serious Play develops an alternative model for reading canonical novels like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and phenomenon such as recent Chinese International Student migration through novel ludic dichotomies of constraint and freedom, chance and choice, persona and avatar.

She is the creator of the historical role play game Inside the Japanese Internment and her critical and creative work has been featured in Modern Fiction Studies, Comparative Literature Studies, and MELUS.

She also runs the public humanities resource You on the Market, a comprehensive website for academic job-seekers.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read the transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach [00:22]:

Welcome to Signal Boosting a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire and the Association for Asian American Studies. Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we are highlighting an emerging scholar who’s building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. The Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists and artists are producing socially engaged work in multimedia forms as well as inspire you to perhaps create your own.

Cathy Hannabach [00:55]:

We’re kicking off the Signal Boosting miniseries with Tara Fickle, who’s an assistant professor of Asian American literature at the University of Oregon. Tara works at the intersections of literature, ethnic studies, and new media, exploring racial formation from a simultaneously historical, sociological and theoretical standpoint. She’s writing a book called Serious Play: Asian Americans and the Gamification of Race, which argues for the centrality of games to minority American literature. Serious Play develops an alternative model for reading canonical novels like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and phenomenon such as recent Chinese international student migration through novel ludic dichotomies of things like constraint and freedom, chance and choice and persona and avatar.

Cathy Hannabach [01:41]:

Tara’s critical and creative work has been featured in modern fiction studies, comparative literature studies and may lists. She also runs the public humanities resource, You on the Market, a comprehensive website for academic job seekers. In our interview, Tara and I talk about why games in literature are such fruitful sites for understanding racial formation, what it was like for Tara to design and build her own video game about Japanese American internment during World War II, how emerging scholars can gain the technological skills they need to create public multimedia work and how she uses cultural forums like tarot and comics in her teaching to get students to imagine different worlds.

Cathy Hannabach [02:23]:

Thanks so much for being with us.

Tara Fickle [02:26]:

Thank you.

Cathy Hannabach [02:27]:

Let’s just jump right in. You’re writing a really fascinating book called Serious Play: Asian Americans and the Gamification of Race. What’s that book about?

Tara Fickle [02:36]:

Well in the broadest sense, it’s about how play can give us a different lens for understanding what it means to be Asian in America beyond the dominant discourse of work. And it’s about how Asian American experience in turn can help us see how the ludic works as a kind of epistemology to secure these national myths about America as a level playing. The book basically makes a two pronged argument. First, it introduces the insights of game studies to bear on Asian American literatures. many depictions and descriptions of play to really show how, whether we’re talking about the hide and seek game in Woman Warrior or the game of Mahjong in Joy Luck Club or the baseball diamond in The Interment Camp, which was featured in a number of literary texts, that all of these things, they’re not these trivial temporary diversions, but really they’re different ways of seeing the world and the people around us. They’re different ways of quite literally making believe, of constructing belief in these collective fictions about why certain things happen and why certain people act the way that they do.

Tara Fickle [03:48]:

And then secondly, the book looks at how Asian American literature itself, especially more recent authors, are using the ludic to find different ways of talking about what it means to be Asian American. For example, by using play as a formal technique to create these texts that are interactive or nonlinear, which sort of can’t or aren’t supposed to be read in the traditional teleological sense. And I’m thinking here as something like Lily Kwong’s Changes or by using a game like Pacman in Gene Yang and Thien Pham’s Level Up, which is a recent graphic novel, as a way of literalizing this experience of being a little yellow entity, being chased by ghosts, as he describes it. And hence really emphasizing the broader cultural significance of what are these seemingly kind of innocuous or non Anthropocene ludic artifacts.

Cathy Hannabach [04:44]:

What got you interested in games?

Tara Fickle [04:48]:

It’s funny, I used to kind of hesitate over that question because I wasn’t sure whether it was asking, how did I get interested in playing video games? Or how did I get interested in studying them? And it’s actually turned out to be a really useful question because it was only quite recently that I realized for me the answers to both are kind of the same. Growing up for me, video games were a really natural and embedded part of my childhood as they were for many other people in my generation. But at the same time, a lot of the broader context, the broader aspects of that video game era completely passed me by. In particular, the idea of Nintendo as a Japanese company really flourishing in the context of a broader kind of techno Orientalism and eventually an anti-Japanese backlash in the 80s was something that truly seemed to be disconnected from the games that I was playing.

Tara Fickle [05:43]:

But at the same time, my other exposure to video games outside of the kind of traditional console was that my grandmother who was a Chinese immigrant from Soochow by way of Hong Kong, was sort of addicted to playing video poker. These old sort of handheld button pushing ones, not on a screen in the traditional sense, but these little mobile, first mobile games I guess. And part of the reason I realized that she played these so much was because she was illiterate and in both Chinese and English. And so there were really a limited number of kind of recreational activities for her to do.

Tara Fickle [06:25]:

And I realized that that latter aspect is part of what attracted me to studying games in graduate school because it helped me recognize how games function as a kind of literacy or kind of illiteracy. Not only a way of reading people was, we talk about with poker, but also having to do with ways of not being able to read, about not understanding certain cultural signs or rules or at the same time things that we don’t kind of consider worthy of interpretation or that kind of escape our notice because we read right over them or right through them.

Cathy Hannabach [07:04]:

What I find so fascinating about your work is that you bring together fields that don’t often talk to each other very much. You mentioned bringing together game design and game study is with Asian American studies, but you also have a serious kind of literary studies bent to what you’re doing. You’re not just studying video games themselves, but you’re also studying representations of games in other media, which is an interesting twist. And I’m curious what drew you to that intersection. What does that nexus produce for you that a purely literary analysis or a purely game studies analysis wouldn’t be able to get at?

Tara Fickle [07:43]:

Well I think for me, the connection between the three, despite as the fact that you pointed out, they don’t usually talk to each other, is the fact that I wish that they would because they have a lot in common. That commonality for me rests in the fact that they’re all interested in one way or another about these fictions that are experienced as reality. Albeit in very different ways and with very different mediums, but the main difference there for me is that when we talk about that experiential reality with literature or with games, it’s usually understood as a positive thing of immersion and engagement. Whereas when we talk about race as a social fiction given reality, that’s usually understood to be a negative thing.

Tara Fickle [08:29]:

And so in terms of what those fields might gain from talking to one another and what I’ve gained from trying to put them in conversation with one another, is to think about how from the perspective of ethnic studies, when we look at games that have representations of race, the way that games in game studies race is usually discussed I think, has to do with things like skin color and avatar customization. Or the race and gender of a main character or protagonist. Well, I think that representational aspect is obviously really crucial. What I think recognizing race as a social fiction from ethnic studies can help us do, is to look also at the kind of encoded ideologies, the mechanics that go into producing that racial representation. That what seems to be just pixels on the screen we can also think about how that’s being translated from how ideologies are basically kind of being put into play as well as official game rules.

Tara Fickle [09:35]:

And that I think also speaks to what ethnic studies might gain from, or just race studies more broadly might gain from some of the conceptual terminology from game studies and game design, which is thinking about the connection between the physiological embodiment of race, the external manifestation of it, and these ideological or institutional mechanisms. Thinking about the connection between those as in terms of the process between the process of their conversion, of their recursion. In a sort of very reductive sense, the way that game design is often schematized is as this triad called mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics.

Tara Fickle [10:19]:

Essentially the idea is that game designers create mechanics or rules or algorithms, and then the way the players experience those mechanics is called dynamics. In poker for example, there are rules about betting order, about what constitutes a hand, but bluffing is, for example, not an explicit rule. That’s a dynamic that’s created out of the opportunities from the mechanics. And then as a whole, that framework is considered the aesthetic of the game. For me, it’s been really useful to be able to use that terminology and those ideas to think about race, to disengage and look at separately, even though they’re part of the same synthetic whole, but to examine separately, the idea of race as both a mechanic and a dynamic in that way.

Cathy Hannabach [11:08]:

In addition to writing about games and analyzing how they work in culture, you’ve also made them yourself. You have this kind of fantastic video game that you created called Inside the Japanese Internment. I’d love to hear about that process of building it. Was that a different experience? Was that a new experience for you? Or you had you made them before? And also, what did that do to the research process?

Tara Fickle [11:30]:

Yeah, this was definitely the first game that I had created at least from sort of start to finish and it was really fun. I started doing it, I want to say in 2014 or so, and it’s a game book which is built on this British web based platform called Text Adventures that is a free online pool for both building games and then for playing them. And they offer sort of two ways of building. A game book, which is basically an online version of choose your own adventure books where you select between a number of branching alternatives to create this kind of nonlinear narrative. You navigate basically through the story by clicking on certain hyperlinks. Or interactive fiction, which is more about navigating a space using keyboard input also. Something like the game Zork for example, is one where you sort of type commands and the text parser responds and you can kind of move through a world or a map.

Tara Fickle [12:30]:

For me, I thought that the game book structure was particularly well suited to trying to see whether I could take the experience that’s described in a lot of internment literature. I’m thinking specifically of Hiroshi Nakamura’s Treadmill, but also John Okada’s No-No Boy. The experience of not being just deprived of agency and choice, but actually constantly being buffeted by choices. Not just the loyalty questionnaires, yes, no, but on an individual level all the time. Having to make oftentimes zero sum choices. And that also extends at the legal level, for example, to Fred Korematsu, deciding whether to report or not report, whether to sign up for this kind of job or that kind of job. Deciding what to do with one’s parents, whether to bury a camera or not bury it. Those sorts of things.

Tara Fickle [13:29]:

And so for me, the experience of trying to code that, that description to kind of bring it to life for somebody who is far removed from that original historical event was kind of the experiment that I wanted to put into play. Beyond just expanding the audience for these really important texts and this obviously really important historical event, especially to a younger audience, I kind of wanted to challenge these ideas that some things are sort of out of bounds of what can be played with. That there are some things that are too serious to joke about and therefore too serious to make a game out of.

Tara Fickle [14:08]:

And this is something that I was particularly aware of because I had been following a larger project I think at UC San Diego where they were trying to create a role playing game that was based on the Japanese internment, Japanese American internment, where you play as a young girl navigating the camp and it got a decent amount of criticism for supposedly kind of reducing the seriousness of the event to quote unquote, mere play. And I’m in the same way that those designers, where I really wanted to try to challenge that idea and to emphasize that in fact it’s through playing these experiences as a game, first of all, that we even have a chance to immerse ourselves in it and to have a chance of experiencing it and therefore recognize the importance. But also it’s through games that we’re able to really experience the kind of formal constraints being placed on freedom that was really central to that event.

Tara Fickle [15:09]:

And so for me the nice fit that came out that I hadn’t originally anticipated was that the game ended up showing something not just about the internment experience, about how having many decisions or many dilemmas doesn’t equate to a greater sense of agency, but at the same time how playing games, which we often think as inherently freeing is really not the same thing as agency. That it’s this sort of illusion of choice, an illusion of freedom that’s really key to that experience.

Cathy Hannabach [15:40]:

This episode is part of a special miniseries that is highlighting folks like yourself, emerging scholars who are doing really exciting, fantastic work and giving them a platform to share their varied kinds of projects with a more diverse or larger audience than the traditional academic paywalled journal article might allow. But you’ve been doing this work, this type of work, this type of public work, for a really long time. Your game itself is a good example of this. Your other digital humanities where you teach comics, you have been working at the nexus of the academic and the public sphere for a long time and I’m curious if you have any advice for other scholars or soon to be scholars who are contemplating that kind of more public voice.

Tara Fickle [16:24]:

Yeah, I think that just from a basic pragmatic level, gaining some technological proficiency is really crucial. There are so many tools out there now that make it possible to create these very professional and sophisticated interfaces for communicating your work that don’t require a significant amount say of programming knowledge. Just learning the basics say of building a WordPress website or playing around with a number of digital humanities open source tools, things like Omeka, that would allow you to create repositories that are much more complex than those that were traditionally available. Even just in the last four or five years I think that field has really exploded and the number of resources for creating things like infographics, for doing data visualization or text analysis have really opened up, which is really exciting.

Tara Fickle [17:19]:

Beyond that though, I think being willing to accept criticism in a different way. I think as academics we are much more used to a pretty narrow band of what constitutes criticism. And that usually looks something like the academic readers report. And we’re familiar with that language and we can kind of prepare ourselves for it. We are less prepared to be in the position of being criticized as say artists and recognizing that there’s a very different kind of criticism and a different kind of audience that comes with publicly distributing your work rather than distributing it within say scholarly journals. Being prepared for that, but also just recognizing that it will be brand new I think is helpful. At the same time, not getting discouraged by the lack of response I think is important. On the one hand, for example with the website or with my game, I also run a website called You on the Market through WordPress, which is a sort of series of how to guides that I put together when I was on the job market in graduate school.

Tara Fickle [18:27]:

On the one hand it’s really gratifying to be able to see, oh wow, 2,000 people have played this game and being able to track those kinds of metrics. On the other hand, the lack of say comments or the fact that nobody has publicized that or it’s difficult to come up on a Google search without looking for it specifically can be a little bit frustrating. And I think as a result, not being afraid to self promote. That that can be kind of an awkward and embarrassing medium for us or a genre, especially for academics that kind of want their work to speak for itself, but not being embarrassed to share that with people and do plugs about it. I think it’s something that took me quite a while to learn. And so I think also for those that are working in non-traditional mediums and non-tech space mediums to not think that just because it’s not your scholarship is not a sort of conventional monograph or article, that it’s not real scholarship in some way.

Tara Fickle [19:33]:

I had a recent experience that kind of really drove this home for me, which is I recently received this tarot card deck that was originally started as a Kickstarter through the Asian American Literary Review and it was intended to draw attention to mental health issues in the Asian American community. But through this very interesting medium of turning it into a tarot card deck. It so happened that I was teaching a course on Asian American comics as well on the day that I received it. And so I brought it in and shared it with my students and they were really fascinated by it.

Tara Fickle [20:08]:

And as a result for one of their final projects, they do a creative and a critical project, one of the students decided to adapt one of the Asian American comics that we were doing Belle Yang’s Forget Sorrow into a tarot card deck of her own. And in doing so I think really experienced that recognition that this sort of unconventional medium or what seems like a sort of a trivial game or outside of what we were doing in class was actually extremely relevant to it. And that the challenge of that kind of translation, an adaptation was very fruitful and very sort of cognitively challenging too.

Cathy Hannabach [20:49]:

I love that tarot deck! On two of the previous episodes of Imagine Otherwise, we had Mimi Nguyen who contributed to the deck and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis and Mimi Khúc who put it together. And so it’s really exciting to see kind of how that deck has moved through the world, how it’s shown up in classrooms, how it’s showing up in people’s scholarship in really exciting ways. And hats off to Mimi and Lawrence for figuring out what could be such a fantastically diverse but also kind of interesting medium. To teach about Asian American studies, to teach about Asian American literature, to teach about cultural production. It’s really exciting to see how it’s moved through the world.

Tara Fickle [21:29]:

Yeah, absolutely.

Cathy Hannabach [21:32]:

I’m curious how you’ve kind of danced around this, but I’d love to hone in on this a little bit more specifically. I’m curious how you bring together, how you see yourself bringing together your academic work, your artistic, or maybe your media work and your activism.

Tara Fickle [21:48]:

Well, I think that my work is more interested, not necessarily trying to combine all of those three, but really showing how each of those three can be used as an interpretive lens. That when we read something as art versus when we read something in scholarship versus when we read something as an activist work, that it creates three very different kinds of interpretations. And my interest is sort of in drawing attention to the underlying assumptions that we have about the value of each of those three separate endeavors. For me, I think in all ways, whatever I’m producing, my interest is in trying to force a greater attention to the seemingly kind of trivial or minor and things that different audiences for those works wouldn’t normally talk to one another about and wouldn’t necessarily even see themselves as having in common.

Tara Fickle [22:44]:

But I feel like disengaging from this sort of equal stereotypes of this kind of bespectacled scholar or this protestor who’s wielding a megaphone, or the sort of paint spattered artist, to think about those not as kind of three different people, but three different ways of approaching the same idea. For me, the works that I create are not intended really to have the same audiences but as a whole to try to create a larger synthetic audiences out of those three, which is why as you mentioned, the sort of public humanities component is something that I’ve always seen as part of what I’m doing even with my sort of scholarly work in journals.

Cathy Hannabach [23:29]:

This actually brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which is their version of a better world. That world that you’re working towards when you, in your case, when you make your video game, when you step in front of a classroom, when you write an academic or nonacademic article, when you do the work do in the universe. I’ll just ask you, what kind of world do you want? What kind of world are you working towards?

Tara Fickle [23:50]:

Yeah, it’s a big one.

Cathy Hannabach [23:53]:

It is a really big question, but I love it.

Tara Fickle [23:55]:

No, I think it’s great. I would say that the world that I am envisioning is one where people are less afraid, where they don’t have to be afraid all the time or as much and I mean that both at the broadest sense in terms of fear of death, detainment these things that we think of as sort of inherently serious. But also at the kind of local level, anxieties about what we are and are not allowed to say and thinking that by not saying certain things or not acting in certain ways, that that is the same as those things sort of being gone. I’m thinking specifically of a kind of post racial or colorblind discourse.

Tara Fickle [24:38]:

And for me, this quote that I’ve been hung up on for a while, I don’t know exactly who said it, is the worst thing that you can call a liberal is a racist. And the sort of disturbing truth of that to me in particular, the way it resonates with something like Rey Chow’s Protestant Ethnic, is that because of these anxieties, and this is especially true in the institution where I teach, where there are so many great students, the majority of our student body is white. That in a class like Asian American writers or Asian American comics that I teach, the overriding I think assumption is that if we just sort of don’t talk about race, then that means everything is okay. And that we’re not racist and these things don’t matter, et cetera.

Tara Fickle [25:29]:

But of course the fact that this is an Asian American literature class, renders those assumptions really problematic. That’s the kind of world that I want to create. And I see it, especially in my teaching and in some of my public humanities work is to try to open up a space where people can investigate the things that makes them afraid and why those fears are actually helping to serve a more conservative and a less progressive agenda then they think.

Cathy Hannabach [26:01]:

Well, thanks so much for being with us and sharing your version of Imagining Otherwise.

Tara Fickle [26:05]:

Thank you.

Cathy Hannabach [26:10]:

Thanks for joining us for this episode of Signal Boosting. You can view the show notes for this episode created by Priyanka Kaura on the Ideas on Fire website at ideasonfire.net, as well as find links to the people, projects and resources we discussed.

The Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian American studies as a dynamic interdisciplinary field; Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive interdisciplinary academics; and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a migratory museum that brings Asian Pacific American history, art and culture to you through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the United States.

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