Emerging Voices in Asian/American Game Studies

This panel highlights emerging scholars in Asian/American games studies. Panelists present recent and/or ongoing work, sharing a glimpse of the emerging research questions animating the field. Topics include He’s analysis of NPC discourse, particularly the phenomena of NPC streaming, as an Asiatic form;  Ganzon’s examination of Filipino political activism in digital games that extend public and community spaces; and Howard’s inquiry on 'region locking' in online games as racial practices. 

Watch the highlights:

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Meet The Panelists

Picture of Sarah Ganzon

Sarah Christina Ganzon, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Gaming, Media and Communication at Simon Fraser University. Her research revolves mostly around the areas of game studies and digital fandoms. Recently, she finished her thesis on otome games in English, and otome game players. She holds a PhD in Communication Studies at Concordia University and an MA in English Literature from Cardiff University. Prior to starting her doctorate, she taught courses in literature and the humanities at the University of the Philippines, University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern University. 

Picture of Huan He

Huan He, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Recently, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Digital Studies Institute. His research engages Asian/American literature and culture, digital studies, and critical game studies. Currently titled The Racial Interface, his book project examines the racial associations linking Asian Americans and information technologies. His research appears / is forthcoming in Configurations, College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies, Media-N and an anthology on Asian American game studies. He also writes poetry, which can be found in Poetry, Sewanee Review, A Public Space, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. 

Picture of Mathew Jungsuk Howard

Matthew Jungsuk Howard, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Loyola University, Chicago's School of Communication. He writes "gyopo media histories" that explore the intertwinement of the "Korean Wave" of globalized circulation of South Korean popular culture and peninsular diasporas, particularly in North America. He is particularly interested in the media-cultural histories of race, ethnicity, and nationality. When he is not spoiling all of our favorite entertainment forms, Matt can be found chasing his step-pug Morty around the house, sneaking treats to his baby conure, Jennie, and withering under Goober the Cat's disdainful gaze. 

Key Terms

Tactical media: Described by Rita Raley as “interventionist media art practices that engage and critique the dominant political and economic order.” Dr. Ganzon argues that games like Animal Crossing, used in Filipino protests against the Rodrigo Duterte government, can be used as tactical media even if game developers did not intend for this. 
NPC (non-playable character): NPCs are characters in games that cannot be controlled by players and instead help fill out the game space. The phenomenon of NPC streaming, in which content creators act like NPCs on interactive livestreams, has recently gone viral. Dr. He explains that Asianness’ is read in the practice of NPC streaming and that its popularity coincides with the rise in the use of AI across tech industries. 
 Gyopo-gam: Gyopo is a Korean term that literally translates to ‘sojourner’ and negatively describes Korean emigrants as ‘pleasure travelers’ who have lost touch with their true Koreanness, while ‘-gam’ is a suffix used to denote a hunch about something. Taken together, Dr. Howard describes gyopo-gam’ as the feeling of being a member of the Korean diaspora while contending with the idea of being both a model minority and a perpetual foreigner. In the context of e-sports, gyopo-gam describes how this ambivalent racialization affects Asian Americans and accounts for them in discourse surrounding League of Legends.


Mañanita on Digital Islands: Animal Crossing and the #JunkTerrorBill Protests

Dr. Sarah Christina Ganzon


Dr. Ganzon explains that the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, whose release came near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been used to organize virtual protests in The Philippines. Animal Crossing had previously been used during other political demonstrations in 2020 but was also prominently used by Filipino protestors in response to legislation introduced by Rodrigo Duterte’s government that defined activist protests as a form of terrorism.

Duterte’s government used the pandemic as a rationale to tighten restrictions and ban gatherings for protest. When news broke that a police chief held a birthday celebration that defied government restrictions, he justified it as just a mañanita,’ a small birthday celebration consisting only of immediate family members. Activists responded by conducting protests that they labelled as mañanitas of their own, both in-person and through digital spaces such as Animal Crossing, where the game’s eight-person invite limit mimics the small nature of mañanitas. Dr. Ganzon refers to this as an example of a local form of sociality being extended into games, and of games as a form of tactical media being used outside of their developer’s original intentions as a form of political activism.

Dr. Ganzon suggests that future research could examine how games may be used as a starting point towards understanding local cultural practices in other online spaces that are designed for larger, nonlocal audiences. Her ongoing studies will interview participants of the Animal Crossing mañanita protests to explore:

  • how protester identities link with gamer identities 

  • how the game was used alongside social networks like Twitter and Facebook 

  • what the game’s use as a tool for protests around the world shows about international forms of solidarity 

  • what the use of Animal Crossing as a global space implies for local organization, perhaps bridging local protester communities within the Philippines as well as the Filipino diaspora

Reflection questions: How else have video games been used as tactical media? How else might video games with social elements be used to recreate culturally specific instances of social interaction? How does your research account for the impact of local cultural practices in online spaces?

“What exactly are we seeing here? … These are forms of digital sociality. But what we see here too are extensions of more local forms of sociality in digital spaces… the mañanita has its traditions but it became a thing in Animal Crossing. You can only invite a maximum of eight people, so it is perfect for a mañanita.

                          -Dr. Sarah Christina Ganzon

Non-Playable Character

Dr. Huan He


Dr. He describes the recent viral phenomenon of NPC streaming and how spectacle of streamers performing as NPCs comes from how their physicality, and the often-sexualized bouncing streamers do to mimic NPCs, combines with repetitive, pre-programmed gestures and dialogue. Dr. He argues that NPC streaming blends together various digital subcultures such as “gaming culture, sex work, and sensorial media such as ASMR content.

Shortly after the boom in popularity of NPC streaming, online focus turned to Natuecoco, a Japanese streamer who has been referred to as the originator of NPC streaming. Dr. He argues that Natuecoco's Japanese origin might directly correspond with her framing as the ‘original AI queen, because of her explicit visual references to Japanese culture and the ways in which her gestures are programmatic and embody computational procedures. This framing rings true with the longer history of gendered Asian bodies being likened to abstract, ornamental objects.

Dr. He notes that the virality of NPC streaming has also coincided with the rise of generative AI and the subsequent rise of humans sharpening their skills at discerning human expression from AI expression. NPCs are a representation of a world in which AI usage is becoming more commonplace and their popularity indicates that viewers find pleasure in scrutinizing “portrayal[s] of artificial personhood and the labourers behind sustaining its representation. Dr. He suggests that game studies may have a lot to offer in terms of understanding broader AI culture, and that Asian American studies may help understand these new genres of communication facilitated by AI culture which locate Asianness not only through avatars or character skins but through procedural animation. 

Reflection questions: What other ways does race play a part in our growing ‘AI culture’? How might AI reproduce and further entrench stereotypical ideas of Asianness, and how might this Asianness interact with entrenched conceptions of other races?

“The phenomenon of NPC streaming might offer clues for how race manifests as logic within the rise of AI culture … The search for the origins of NPC streaming, which yielded the fame of Natuecoco for a Western social media audience, reflects a narrative impulse to situate the unbelievability of technologically compromised human expression within a familiar, situated cultural narrative of globalized Japanese aesthetics.

                                        – Dr. Huan He

Hallyu, Heels, and Global Im/Mobilities in Professional League of Legends: A Gyopo Media History

Dr. Matthew Jungsuk Howard


For most of its existence, professional League of Legends e-sports has been dominated by Asian teams, particularly South Korean teams. Dr. Howard notes that this has created what some call the “Korean Problem,” in which Asians dominate the game and Americans and Europeans have no viable contenders to root for. Organizers of professional e-sports profited from this by creating drama from an East-West narrative and portraying North American and Europeans as white underdogs against an Asian Other that was constructed as naturally better at e-sports.

However, in 2014, a “Korean Exodus” occurred, in which many South Korean League players left the country, going to China, North America, and Europe for improved wage opportunities. In response, Riot Games, League’s developer, implemented region-locking: the Worlds Championship official rules are that three of five starting players in any given match need to have citizenship or proof of permanent residency with the region they were affiliated. Dr. Howard compares region-locking to immigration quotas and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Noting that these policies do not consider Asian Americans, who are themselves heavily represented in e-sports, Dr. Howard introduces his theorization of gyopo-gam, the feeling of being a member of Korean diaspora contending with the global and local tensions, and of the pressures of being both a model minority and a perpetual foreigner.

To Riot Games, Koreanness is thought of as a profit-producing resource in the marketing narratives of e-sports. The people within the gyopo-gam framework represent both the model minority and the Yellow Peril at the same time (link to Tara Fickle’s talk), which repeats the double-sided racialization of Asian Americans as both a tool used by Americans to triumph over Asia as well as a threat to North American jobs, and in the case of League of Legends, a threat to the viability of the e-sports industry. Gyopo-gam, Dr. Howard notes, allows Asian Americans to be brought into “the e-sports conversation in important and as-of-yet minimally explored ways. 

Reflection questions: How might theorizations of gyopo-gam be applied to other studies of Asian Americans in games? Are there feelings similar to gyopo-gam that exist for other Asian diaspora groups, and how might these theorizations interact with one another? How does your research account for this ambivalent treatment or perception of players/users? 

Gyopo-gam and gyopo-duel, so people, so gyopo as people-objects within this framework, represent both the central labor and Yellow Peril simultaneously. This reiterates the long-term Asian American ambivalent racialization where you’re both the tool that is going to help North America beat the Undertaker and you are the threat to North American jobs and indeed the very livelihood of the e-sports ecosystem.

                          – Dr. Matthew Jungsuk Howard