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.
We invite you to check out the episode, as well as our show notes and highlights below.
Guest 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. Tara’s 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.
We chatted about
- 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)
Tara’s book Serious Play
“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. It’s about how Asian-American experience, in turn, can help us see how the ludic works as a kind of epistemology to secure national myths about America as a level playing field.”
The intersection of game studies, literary studies, and Asian American studies
“The commonality is that they’re all interested in fictions that are experienced as reality, albeit in different ways and with very different mediums. The main difference is that when we talk about 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.”
What game studies can contribute to ethnic studies
“We can think about how ideologies are being put into play [in video games] as well as official game rules. That also speaks to what race studies might gain from some of the conceptual terminology in game studies and game design, which is thinking about the connection between the physiological embodiment of race, the external manifestation of race, and these ideological or institutional mechanisms.”
Advice for academics looking to share their work with a wider audience
“Recognize 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 scholarly journals. Being prepared for that, but also recognizing that it will be brand new, is helpful.”
What immersive roleplaying games can teach us about history
“The game [Inside the Japanese Internment] ended up showing something not just about the internment experience and 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 of as inherently freeing, isn’t the same thing as agency—that it’s this illusion of choice and illusion of agency that’s key to that experience.”
Teaching with nontraditional mediums
“This unconventional medium, or what seems like a trivial game or outside of what we were doing in class, is actually extremely relevant to it, and the challenge of that kind of translation is fruitful and cognitively challenging.”
“The world that I’m envisioning is one where people are less afraid. And I mean that both in the broadest sense in terms of fear of death, detainment, these things that we think of as inherently serious. But also at the local level, anxieties about what we are and are not allowed to say. And the assumption that by not saying certain things or not acting in certain ways, that those things are gone. I’m thinking specifically of a ‘post-racial’ or ‘colorblind’ discourse.”
More from Tara
- Tara’s website
- Tara at the University of Oregon
- Tara’s book, Serious Play
- Tara’s historical role play game, Inside the Japanese Internment
- Tara’s job website for academic job seekers, You on the Market
Projects and people discussed
- The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, a memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston
- The Joy Luck Club, a novel by Amy Tan
- Level Up, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham
- Mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics (MDA framework)
- Text Adventures, a free online service for building and playing games
- Zork, an interactive fiction game
- Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale, a graphic novel by Belle Yang
- Treadmill, a novel by Hiroshi Nakamura
- No-No Boy, a novel by John Okada
- Fred Korematsu
- Drama in the Delta, a roleplaying game about Japanese-American internment camps
- Asian American Tarot, part of the Open in Emergency special issue of the Asian American Literary Review
- The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a book by Rey Chow
- Imagine Otherwise interview with Mimi Nyugen, episode 25
- Imagine Otherwise interview with Mimi Khúc + Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, episode 26
- Omeka, a free and open-source tool for displaying archival and scholarly collections
- WordPress, a free website-building platform
- Public humanities
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a 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 and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
About Signal Boosting
This episode and the Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive, interdisciplinary academics, the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian American Studies as a dynamic, interdisciplinary field, 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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