Games of Death: Playing Bruce Lee

CHIEN QGCon 2015 headshotSPEAKER: Irene Chien

This talk examines the uneven afterlives of transnational Asian film star Bruce Lee in digital form by tracing his appearances in video games from the original Atari game Bruce Lee (1984) through the 2014 mobile app Bruce Lee: Enter the Game. Animated by the desire to “be Bruce Lee,” these games allow players to resurrect and inhabit the body of Bruce Lee by re-animating the cinematic traces of his body in digital form, and putting this digitized body and its movements under the control of the game player. I argue that the gameplay in these video games is structured by these competing desires to see Lee’s body reproduced in full motion and to fully control these bodily motions as a way to manage techno-orientalist fears and fantasies of Asian male technological proficiency and bodily lack.

Bruce Lee’s body foregrounds the ambivalent assimilation of the Asian male body into the American national body. Lee models a desirable form of racialized masculinity wherein fluidity, diminutiveness, and agility outperform the stolidity and brawn of traditional white American masculinity. Yet, at the same time, Lee’s body also signifies a racialized bodily abjection, in which the Asian male body is equated with weakness, vulnerability, and death. Due to his sudden demise in 1973, two weeks before the U.S. release of his blockbuster film Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee’s body was never fully present for American audiences. In an updated version of the overtly racist Vietnam War-era refrain that “the only good gook is a dead gook,” Bruce Lee’s abjected state reveals the conditions for the American embrace of the Asian male body—it must be dead. Yet Lee’s dead body refuses to lay still, and only incites desire to re-animate it and give it concrete form again.

Video games featuring Bruce Lee as a playable avatar are the ultimate manifestation of this desire to re-animate Bruce Lee, and thus offer an important entrypoint into this potentially predatory mode of identification. Video games not only foreground the virtualization of Lee’s body through digitization, but they allow players to “become” Bruce Lee by controlling onscreen Bruce Lee avatars that leap, kick, and punch in direct response to their own movements. Players experience their game avatars both as idealized technological extensions of themselves and as tools or puppets that they expect to do their bidding. Bruce Lee video games reveal the close links between the desire to be Bruce Lee and the desire to master him—to access some of his bodily power by exercising power over his body—and they reveal how racial meaning is produced in this exchange. But videogames also trouble this question of possession—of who possesses or takes control of whom, insofar as games program players to move in tune with computational processes, and games require players to repeatedly experience failure, defeat, and violent death.

Irene Chien is an assistant professor of Media and Communication at Muhlenberg College. She teaches and writes about the politics of race and gender in cinema, new media, and videogames. She has published on gaming in Film Quarterly and has contributed essays to Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games and the forthcoming Identity Matters: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Game Studies.