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Programmed Moves: Race and Embodiment in Fighting and Dancing Videogames

  • Author(s): Chien, Irene Y.
  • Advisor(s): Williams, Linda
  • et al.

Programmed Moves examines the intertwined history and transnational circulation of two major videogame genres, martial arts fighting games and rhythm dancing games. Fighting and dancing games both emerge from Asia, and they both foreground the body. They strip down bodily movement into elemental actions like stepping, kicking, leaping, and tapping, and make these the form and content of the game. I argue that fighting and dancing games point to a key dynamic in videogame play: the programming of the body into the algorithmic logic of the game, a logic that increasingly organizes the informatic structure of everyday work and leisure in a globally interconnected information economy. Games make bodily habituation to new forms of digital technology both intelligible and pleasurable by investing players in familiar racial, sexual, and national identifications.

Programmed Moves explores how the bodily mastery cultivated in fighting and dancing videogames relies on and reproduces figurations of gendered and racialized technological mastery. The first half focuses on fighting games, beginning with how the earliest martial arts videogames emerge in the 1980s with the rise of Japan as a global economic power and game industry giant. I proceed in the next chapter to examine how videogames featuring transnational kung fu star Bruce Lee ambivalently figure Asian/Asian-American masculinity. In the second half of my dissertation, the focus shifts to dancing games. I critique how dance games that discard traditional game controllers in favor of full-body interfaces propel players into racialized physical motion. I end by showing how mobile, touchscreen rhythm games for the iPhone both recall and disavow the Chinese female factory laborers who touch each device before it is offered up for western consumption. My investigation of how racial difference becomes embodied in gameplay goes beyond critiques of racial stereotypes to understand how videogames produce politically urgent racial formations through actions and processes rather than just images. Programmed Moves thus points to the connections between technological and racial coding in videogames.

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