Indigenous Representations in Commercial Video Games

Posted on June 17, 2009, 4:01 pm, by Elizabeth LaPensée, under Games, representation.

I’ve been toiling over the script for the “Indigenous Representations in Commercial Video Games” portion of the forthcoming Skins documentary film for the past several days. I’m still at 1 minute and 40 seconds when I need to get it to 1 minute. I don’t think it’s possible, so I’ve decided to go ahead with the existing script, and leave it in the hands of the editor to decide which sections stay and which go. As a compromise, I’m going to put this very short script up here on the blog so that people can catch whatever details go missing in the final documentary.

Believe me… I’m leaving out a lot of details and could probably write a paper on each one of these games or overall themes.

In commercial video games, indigenous peoples are stereotyped and appropriated—at worst, they’re killed for points; at best, they’re the half-breed hero in Red Dead Revolver and GUN (where, by the way, you start off killing Apaches).

With real time strategy games, you take over land represented by maps and collect resources rather than sustain them. In Sid Meier’s Civilization III, you have Iroquois riding mounts. No Man’s Land has “Prairie Indian Medicine Men” who can “cast mighty magic spells.” In Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs, you increase your units’ speed, damage, and skills by having your villagers dance in a pit.

In fighting games, there are T. Hawk, Nighthawk, Nightwolf, Wolf Hawkfield — all stoic, folded arms, body paint, leather – the “keeper” or “protector” of his people, but who are his “people”?

In first person shooters, we have Turok, a warrior in an alternate world who hunts dinosaurs. In Prey, you play as Tommy, a Cherokee garage mechanic who reluctantly saves the world from an alien invasion. In the gothic western Dark Watch, you run into Tala—a voluptuous Native woman who tempts you to become a vampire.

However, in Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, cartoon-like and colorful, you protect the imaginary salamander-like Grubbs against a Springs Bottled Water Company. The game ends with a quote from Chief Standing Bear, pointing out the analogy with the indigenous experience of colonization.

We too as Native people, mixed or otherwise, can create our own video games to represent ourselves, whether historical or contemporary, or even as allegory, which is what motivates the curriculum and projects developed by the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace.

- Beth

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  • DrMahuta

    wow how have I not been on this site any sooner. Love the thoughts on this page

  • Arachne

    What? no comments?
    This is an interesting overview of a problem commonly seen in video games: misrepresentation and misappropriation of minority groups. I was thinking of writing a blog in Screwattack about this problem because it's something I don't see being talked about much.
    I guess one of the big problems is that the games are primarily made by and for non-native people, following game mechanics that promote those views. It always bothered me how resource gathering in a video game rarely deals with issues of resource management, too.
    I think what is needed are more indigenous peoples making games. Just as the literary depiction of native peoples has been changed by self-representation and the teaching of indigenous values, video games can do the same.

  • That's why we've started the Skins workshops on Video Game Design & Aboriginal Storytelling (skins.abtec.org; otsi.abtec.org), to train a new generation of young Native digital media producers who can tell our stories our way.

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