Reflecting on Indigenous Women in Video Games
I recently presented “The Good, The Bad, and The Sultry: Indigenous Women in Video Games” at the Unpacking the Indigenous Female Body Symposium put on by Dana Claxton at Simon Fraser University. I figured I would share some of my thoughts since I’m all twisted up dreaming about new media culture jamming these representations.
So before you read this, keep in mind that I’m a gamer and a game writer. I don’t mean to condemn the game industry, nor do I mean to excuse it. The easy thing to do would be to shun the game industry and cast aside the medium, but there is great potential in games to incite change, given their educational and interactive properties. Not to mention they’re fun.
Unfortunately, most games with Indigenous representations are based on, guess what, Western films. In my own work, I’m looking at reimagining these figures and gameplay mechanics to create Indigenous video games that not only represent Indigenous people well, but also give players the experience of Indigenous knowledge.
Indigenous women appear literally as bodies separated into units with little to no distinction in the genre of Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. These are games where the goal is to discover areas on a map as you battle enemies and stake your claim. Colonization much? When Native characters are in this genre of game, they’re often male, but when female, they rarely fight. They’re most often kept back at the main camp to dance for special abilities or gather resources. In this world, the Indigenous woman is generic, but to be fair, so are all of the other characters, Native or not. You could say this is an overall flaw in RTS games.
Custer’s Revenge – Revenge
However, this same treatment of the body has occurred in other genres, including the classic side-scroller. Side-scroller games are ones where you maneuver your character left or right through obstacles to reach the end. What you see here is Custer’s Revenge, made in 1982 in a time when anyone could develop a game on an Atari system without seeking permission. A company of guys who wanted to hit it big with pornographic games made Custer’s Revenge, where you play as General Custer, erect and ready for action. The goal of the game is to dodge the evil Indian arrows until you reach the other side and rape an Indian maiden already pre-tied to a pole. The game ends in one of two ways—either you die from an arrow or your rape her for enough points that you win. Ironically, her name is “Revenge.” She is a victim, a helpless body, and nothing more.
Despite a boycott from an American Indian organization and a women’s organization at the time of its release, where they were promised all copies would be taken off of shelves and destroyed, gameplay footage is up on YouTube and copies are available online for free to anyone who has the know-how to download and play ROMs.
Prey – Jen
Although representations have gotten better overall, the “victim” theme hasn’t passed. In Prey, we meet the character Jen, a hardcore Cherokee chick that runs a bar. She’s Tommy’s (and thus our) girlfriend. Aliens kidnap her, which propels us to become the reluctant hero and save the world in order to get her back. Only problem is she ends up dying anyway and we get one of those “I’ll see you in the next world” deals. Too bad she isn’t the player character who can save herself.
Darkwatch – Tala
Now, Tala’s quite another story. In Darkwatch, Tala plays an agent who is supposed to help our character Jericho (a vampire who kills other vampires), but she ends up in a lusty moment with us, lures us into biting her, and turns on us when she becomes a vampire. I’ve always found it interesting how Tala, the dark sultry Native woman, is juxtaposed with Jericho’s other guiding companion, Cassidy, a blonde cowgirl who dies and helps us for the rest of a game as a pure ghost. When I asked the game developers if they ever thought it was odd Tala was so evil and Cassidy was so good, they said, “Oh, Tala isn’t evil. She’s just ambitious.” Well, I guess so! I don’t need to say much about how Tala’s physical depiction is much more overt than Cassidy’s… Do I?
Interestingly, originally, Tala was intended to be the main character of Darkwatch, but the marketing department decided that wouldn’t sell. Odd, since they’ve gone on to make comic book series about her and display her in Playboy, the real life magazine.
So what do we do? Boycott, get angry, fight back? Yes, we educate our youth, ourselves, and we change the representations by making video games ourselves with our own traditions, stories, and knowledge in mind.