When Homefront was announced as an game about a North Korean invasion on American soil, I had to roll my eyes. Here was yet another instance of "Yellow Peril," where Asians are painted as the ultimate enemy by the entertainment industry, and this time, we were threatening precious American freedom. We've already dealt with enough problems from Hollywood, from the stereotypical portrayal in movies (will the images of Long Duck Dong from 16 Candles ever die?) to the lackthereof when we expect it (e.g. the white-washing of Shyamalan's The Last Airbender or even in Prince of Persia video games).
Homefront seemed the culmination of our worst fears as Asian Americans: A first person shooter game where civic duty was fulfilled by shooting at a parade of enemy Asians--in other words, faces that look just like us. We could live with battling the Imperial Japanese army in Call of Duty: World at War since it was within a historical context, but Homefront illustrates a current foreign policy nightmare: an invasion by a menacing North Korea, a mysterious country that nowadays makes headlines for their nuclear weapons program. In this game, we would be subjected to violent imagery against people of our own race to save the good ol' US of A. Would Homefront perpetuate antagonism against Asians and Asian Americans, two different demographics that are often lumped together by the entertainment industry?
I reached out to Tae Kim at Kaos Studios, a former CIA Field Officer who was hired as a consultant for Homefront and—as far as I know—the only Asian American face publicly linked to the game. I was interested to see Kim’s relationship to a title that ignited concerns from the community and his opinions about working with such delicate issues.
An avid gamer, Kim was first brought onto the project after a chance encounter over dinner with friends, which included Danny Bilson, Vice President of THQ. Their conversation over Kim's expertise in North Korea and foreign relations led him to meet with the game developers, David Votypka and Zachary Wilson. From there, he was brought on as a consultant and helped formulate a plausible storyline about a future where North Korea was able to invade an economically collapsed America. His work on Homefront extended beyond developing a believable timeline for the campaign. Kim worked on the translations and dialogue within the game, and also helped Raymond Benson and John Milius put together the backstory for the companion novel.
The developers were clearly careful in putting together a realistic story about the fall of America as a superpower and the politics behind North Korea taking over the East Asian continent. I personally had a hard time believing a situation like this could happen, but Tae and the writers created a detailed timeline based on existing political events between North and South Korea.
"While we see diplomatic tensions between North Korea and South Korea, it was only 11 years ago that Koreans thought that two countries were only few years away from peaceful unification," Kim said, "In 2000, just after the first Inter-Korean Summit between North and South Korea, the North Korean leader Kim Jung-il enjoyed higher approval rating than the South Korean President in South Korea by South Koreans."
In Homefront, the death of Kim Jong-il and the rise of his son, Kim Jong-un lead to North Korea extending a peaceful unification with their Southern counterpart, based on the same idea proposed by former ruler Kim Il-sung in the early 1990's.
"Once peace has been established between two countries, Kim Jong-un is elected to represent the nation of Korea," Kim said, "However, Jong-un has been preparing for his takeover from the start by using his secret police, and no one can stop him from becoming a dictator of now unified Korea...[H]is takeover [and the] the peaceful unification of Korea forces energize the anti-American sentiment and cause removal of American forces based in Korea. This also triggers rise of Nationalism in Japan that has also led to rapid withdraw of American forces in the region.
Kim says that in Homefront's ficitional near-future, there is heightened tension between Korea and Japan after Japan arms itself. Kim Jong-un takes advantage of the sudden rise of violence against ethic-Koreans in Japan to justify a war against the country, but before Korea can establish a real shooting war, a number of North Korean sleepers already in Japan are able to take various nuclear reactors hostage, leading to a Japanese surrender.
It's a fascinating look into the political power-play between countries who already share an endless history of culture exchange, warfare and occupation, but the story changes once the forces land on American shores.
The game justifiably villifies a North Korean enemy, but it is hard to sympathize with the idea when the game seeks to strike an emotional cord with its players through a frightening and almost realistic setting. We're not dealing with an alien invasion or zombie horde--enemies we have little qualms about slaughtering--but characters who represent a racially different adversary. They don't look, act or speak like White America. Therefore, Americans must fight back with guns to defend our culture and life.
This violence and antagonism against the so-called "yellow peril" isn't new territory when it comes to Asian American issues, especially when our community is often treated as foreigners. A generation of Japanese Americans were relocated to internment camps during World War II out of fear of disloyalty and espionage. We still remember Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American who was murdered in Detroit by people blaming him for Japan's dominance in the car industry. We saw the government's treatment of Dr. Wen Ho Lee when he was falsey charged with stealing nuclear arsenal secrets for China and we dealt with the racially charged attacks against Asian students in Philadelphia.
The controversial marketing efforts for Homefront aren't very appealing, either. The game already treads on dangerous ground when it comes to race relations with the Asian American community, but the trailer featuring a Caucasian family working together to shoot down a North Korean helipcopter and the script for the Internet video campaign preyed on American xenophobic fears. E3 even hosted a staged march of North Korean soldiers to play on the paranoia over foreign enemies occupying our beloved country. Was Kim aware that people in his community would not take the controversial topic of Homefront so lightly?
"Prior to making the decision to consult for the game, I hesitated for the same reason," Kim said. "If the game is perceived in a manner to perpetuate such acts by many individuals, then it would mean that it has failed as an entertainment vehicle. People will see in the game that there is a conscious effort to show the human element on both sides. The game attempts to show players that there are consequences of violence and hatred."
He was also careful to note that Homefront was not meant to generate any fears about a potential invasion by Asian enemies. "I do not think Americans should lose any sleep over war coming to our soil. Even within the Homefront’s timeline, the invasion of unified Korea has been in plans for years, even prior to North Korea’s takeover of the South, and the United States sees the potential threat. However, we needed to have a lot of unlikely events happen to make the invasion possible in our fictional story," Kim said. "We hope that people see this game as great work of fiction, and appreciate all the time and effort that went into every detail."
According to Kim, Asian Americans should also understand the viewpoint of a fictionalized game. "The heart and soul of the game is not about Americans versus Asians, but rather Americans defending their home from foreign invaders," Kim said. "For years games have made the Soviets, Russians and Chinese as major threats, and we chose North Korea because it was the only country that we could argue and make a case for plausible motivation."
The writers and developers at Kaos Studios made a serious effort to "make sure that certain lines are not crossed. The story will show that the brutal aspect of the invader is not because of who they are rather due to their leadership." The main focus of Homefront is to play the premise of experiencing war in our own homes, especially in an age where today's warfare takes place far outside of our borders," Kim said.
Concerned gamers could be comforted to know that Homefront isn't merely a shooter game that pits White (or Black) America against Asian enemies: the characters in the game represent a diverse crowd, including one key Korean American who helps the resistance movement against North Korea. The writers and Kim made sure to showcase "many Asian Americans fighting against the invaders" to further the story's angle of Americans fighting together against a common enemy, regardless of gender, age and race.
Homefront's strategy of creating a first-person shooter game with a compelling storyline is brilliant: the story works to hit close to the hearts of gamers through the web of politics, economics and the destruction of our homes. There is an impetus to the mindless shooting we enjoy so much in these kinds of games, but more importantly, a game is just what Homefront is: a form of entertainment. As Kim states himself, "There is no hidden agenda, nor an expectation that people should stand up to action for a cause. We are not trying to make a political statement nor cause controversy other than deliver a quality product that will not only make us proud, but separate us from other franchises."
Homefront may be only a highly enjoyable game from Kaos Studios but it's important to understand that it plays off a situation that allows the industry to manipulate the existing fears of our country. America treats anyone perceived as an outsider with wariness; even today, politicians like Rep. Pete King can hold Homeland Security committee hearings on the "Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community" to incite paranoia among his constituents.
Entertainment or not, the racial implications behind Homefront exist. As players, we are still defending our American culture from a racially foreign adversary but we can learn from our reactions to the game's premise. Homefront should serve as a reminder about who and how we view our enemies in battle. War continues all over the world today and though history may repeat itself through changing politics and ensuing bloodshed, we have the ability to learn from our mistakes to form a stronger, more united front. America, f*ck yeah!