Be the Cat of the Prime Minister of Iran
Video games can be places to bury identity or build on it, erase it or embroider it. Asian American Arcade, the new exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum, is a chance to consider the options, and to consider which options are missing from the code.
Take Calvin and Hellen's Bogus Journey, a parody of the classic side-scrolling fighting game Double Dragon from the 1980s, by indie gamer Derek Yu and zine illustrators Calvin Wong and Hellen Jo. Avatars for Wong and Jo (a real-life couple) are fighting an onslaught of naked Mohawked guys in a world that looks like a cross between Sesame Street, Henry Darger's "Realms of the Unreal," and Max Ernst's surrealism.
If there is any way to win at this game, surely it's only by reading it like a poem, decoding the charismatic/absurdist parade floating by. You are left to imagine for yourself what powers could possibly be gained by suddenly acquiring the visage of, say, a blowfish or a bloody-stumped evil ghost girl.
In The Cat and the Coup, by Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, somebody dies in the course of the game: its central character, Mohammad Mossadegh. To be more specific, he starts out dead and comes back to life to replay his story, and history. Mossadegh is the democratically elected Iranian prime minister who supported the nationalization of the oil industry and was ousted in 1953 in the CIA-backed coup that installed the Shah.
In the game, you play as his cat. At the end, Mossadegh floats to his death on a cloud/wave of oil. He's going to die no matter what you do, but in his last days, you get to navigate a seriously pleasurable landscape that combines collage, Persian and Indian miniature painting styles, and comics. You'll miss him all the more.
Asian American Arcade is not just playable games, it's also two-dimensional artworks, original panels from graphic novels, and a documentary film called Gold Farmers (by Ge Jin). The movie is about a mind-boggling shadow industry in which Americans pay Chinese workers for video-game characters that have already been played at the lower levels and now come stocked with privileges and extra lives, wealth, weapons, and power. Gold farming easily becomes a metaphor for nonvirtual global labor systems that reinforce racial stereotypes. "Get the goddamn Chinese out of this game," one commenter wrote on a World of Warcraft message board, to a chorus of positive responses that echoed the anti-Chinese sentiments of the 19th-century railroad-building American West.
But gaming is of course a world of unprecedented freedom and imaginative projection, too. A striking triptych of paintings by Jonathan Wakuda Fischer combines industrial, ukiyo-e, and street-art motifs. Running up the side of each painting is a row of button combinations referencing cheat codes—codes that can be entered to gain power or control in a game. The three paintings are versions of each other, variations within repetitions. The same Japanese woman wearing an elaborate kimono and holding a controller in her hands gains a different headdress with each different code. She looks basically the same across the three paintings. But the more you look at her, the more you see how much she can change despite the rules.