The Game Changers: Decolonizing video games

Jul 28, 20

This is a guest post by Franki Webb. Franki holds an MA in Archaeology from University College London, and a BA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She currently works as an archaeological consultant and researcher in London. She can be followed on her Twitter

The misrepresentation of indigenous culture in Western literature and film is as old as the history of colonization. Sadly, it seems videogames have inherited many of the cultural biases of legacy media. Videogames have had a chequered past when it comes to representing Indigenous nations, communities, and cultures. While purposefully designed indigenous characters can reflect the knowledge and culture of the people they represent; mainstream developers often rely on harmful tropes that reduce Indigenous people to primitive and romanticized stereotypes.

Distorted takes on indigenous culture and experience abound in games – some egregious, others more subtle. As we will see, some developers even strive to challenge colonialist assumptions; yet, many of the design and narrative choices they make remain problematic. Challenging these blinders will require a new set of game development practices, based on direct collaboration with indigenous developers.

In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the story focuses on the archaeologist Lara Croft and her mission to track down an underground organization known as Trinity in the Amazon Rainforest. European imperialists have a well-known history of colonization and looting precious artifacts from occupied countries with the pretext of promoting civilization and advancing science; throughout the game, Lara follows in their footsteps by taking artifacts from the Incan city of Paititi. The game does attempt to critique its own problematic setting when Lara steals a ceremonial dagger and quickly feels a pang of remorse when this triggers the near destruction of Cozumel. She does not extend that regret, however, to the stolen artifacts she holds onto during her quest or takes home to her manor by the end of the game.

This discrepancy could be attributed to contradictions between gameplay and narrative. This time around, the developers sought to address the colonial undertones that have plagued previous games in the franchise by allowing the indigenous characters to have some form of agency, such as Unuratu, the noble queen of Paititi, by providing her with moments of extreme heroism. Yet, colonial undertones still extend to the gameplay where players still actively “tomb raid.”  Furthermore, Lara Croft does not realize how her tomb raiding activities are perceived by indigenous non-playable characters and she takes no personal responsibility for those actions, as Dia Lacina states in her review of the game, “No matter how much Lara changes in the course of this adventure, she’s still an instrument of hegemony.”  In relation to colonial hegemony (Western colonizers controlling the colonized), Lara’s presence and actions symbolize the effects of European hegemony over foreign and often what is considered “unknown” territories to Europeans.

Ratonhnhaké:ton / Connor in Assassin’s Creed III by Ubisoft. Screen capture by PtP Eds.

In Assassin’s Creed III, Connor, a part Native American and part British character, is the game’s central protagonist. When evaluating how games can represent historical identities, Connor’s Native heritage is important, yet Connor’s visual appearance does not matter much to the gameplay. The game doesn’t engage with how race might shape Connor’s interactions with others, especially with white settlers.  The complexity of Connor’s heritage should create a challenge for players trying to navigate a colonial world, but this appearance is largely aesthetic. As Andrienne Shaw points out, the game allows players to “put on racialized masks in the game without actually being asked to take on the perspective of marginalized groups”. As Gilles Roy states, “Connor’s simple motives often clashed with the complexity of the characters that crossed his path, thus hindering player identification.” This is not a new trend— video games have a notable history of inaccurate portrayals of indigenous characters and stories. Games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed III,which include indigenous characters in their narrative, must assess the implications of incorporating these characters and address how their presence can influence gameplay and player agency.

Indigenous Cultural Representation in Video Games

 But how about fictionalized versions of pasts that attempt to represent core aspects of indigenous cultures, communities, and traditions? Take, for example, Sid Meier’s Colonization (1994), a “4X” strategy game that purports to simulate the exploration and subsequent colonization of the American continent. The player could take the role of either English, Spanish, French or Dutch seafarers. The player-as-colonizers must establish successful settlements by setting up small towns and balancing their resources, harvesting the land, and negotiating with the local natives for trade and land. But at the game mechanics level, native peoples are not algorithmically-endowed the way Europeans are. Native peoples are unable to establish new cities; they simply wait for Europeans to take advantage of them in trade or obliterate and loot their civilizations.

Games like Colonization carry problematic connotations for representation and inclusion of indigenous cultures in video games.  Trevor Owens argues that the representation of the process of colonization in the game can be used to criticize the colonization process.  Owens also points out that for First Nations to become subjects of history (and not just objects of Western knowledge) their perspective must be adopted. In a video game which depicts the colonization process, this would involve modifying the game at the level of its code to ensure that the Native characters can be playable. 

This Land is My Land’s gameplay revolves around stopping the settler invasion. Photo © Game Labs LLC

Even when a game takes on a Native American perspective, the representation and diversity in these historical narratives has often been marred through insensitive and derogatory portrayals of these group identities.  In This Land is My Land , set in the late 19th-century frontier, you play from the point of view of a Native American during a time when “America” was being overrun by white settlers.  This Land is My Land’s lead developer Denis Khachatran presents the game protagonist’s identity as an amalgam of western tribes. “You represent them all,” says Khachatran. “The Chickasaw, Cherokee, Lakota, Cheyenne, Apaches, Navajo, Shawnee, Shoshone, Mohawk, Utes and all other tribes large and small.” This is where part of the problem lies: popular culture and movies perpetuate a homogenized Native America and ignore the incredible diversity of Native groups across North America.

Identity is multilayered, and the culturally homogeneous direction which non-indigenous developers/designers adopt with their indigenous characters roots them in an historic past—a past focused on the brutality of colonial overrule, systemic eradication and marginalization. So how do we create stories that move the narrative forward while still allowing the past to shape characters’ cultural identities? Hélène von Bismarck (2010) suggests that “there is the possibility of seeing decolonization as the reversal of the process of European imperial expansion with all its political, economic, social, cultural and linguistic consequences.” The reversal proposition may be unrealistic, given the depth of historical transformations brought about by the centuries-long colonization process. However, promoting indigenous language and culture will allow a form of decolonisation to take place, which goes against the hegemony of European-derived cultures and ways of knowing.

This definition not only allows for the liberation of land and territory from colonial powers, but also the social, cultural, and economic aspects of this process. Decolonizing digital spaces would require the investigation and reconstruction of the way indigenous knowledge is created and produced. Following this perspective, decolonizing digital spaces could allow for the production of different types of games, that  encourages indigenous cultural expression  in game development.

By creating spaces for indigenous cultural expression within videogames, the process of decolonization also enables and empowers indigenous people during the development process.  The development process has the potential to be an influential space for indigenous voices. Statistics Canada states that 1.7 million indigenous people make up 4.9 percent of the population of the country. In the United States, 5.2 million Native Americans represent 1.7 percent of the population, yet account for only 0.42 percent of the “high-tech” industry, according to a U.S. Equal Employment and Opportunities Commission study from 2016. The percentage of characters in popular films and primetime TV shows who are Native American ranges from zero to 0.4 percent, according to content analyses, and make up 0.09 percent of video game characters. It’s no surprise, then, that Native Americans experience “relative invisibility” in the media.  If they are included, they are most often portrayed as historical figures – individuals from the 18th and 19th centuries who wear buckskin, ride horses or live in teepees. When they are shown as modern people, they often are associated with addiction, poverty, and a lack of formal education, although there are growing exceptions.

Giving Indigenous stories a voice

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) by Upper One Games. Screen capture by PtP Eds.

A rising number of Indigenous artists are using video games to incorporate indigenous narratives, teachings, and ways of knowing to mark sovereignty in digital spaces.  For example, in Never Alone, the player plays as an Iñupiaq girl who performs common gaming actions like jumping across platforms and avoiding obstacles while living out a family story. The game is a collaboration between storyteller and poet Ishmael Hope and Iñupiaq elders and community members from Alaska.

Tipi Kaga or Tipi Builder is a game about constructing a Lakota Tipi. All the dialogue is in the Lakota language. Photo © Carl Petersen

Carl Petersen, a Lakota native, is developing a game of his own, Tipi Kaga (“Tipi Builder”). He secured funding with the help of a $10,000 Dreamstarter grant. The grant is awarded annually to help young indigenous Americans pursue dream projects. Petersen stated he wanted to “create video games to ensure the survival of the Lakota language” in an interview with Polygon

Another game utilizing indigenous knowledge as part of its game mechanics is Mikan, a video game adaptation of the Anishinaabe version of a traditional “moccasin game.” In Mikan, players click on moccasins to find birch bark carvings of tools and belongings related to harvesting wild rice. Games like these encourage Indigenous cultural expression while bringing new and innovative game mechanics determined by indigenous epistemologies.

Thunderbird Strike, the 2D sidescroller created by Elizabeth LaPensée ©

The legacy media of film, photography, and writing has been under the control of white European men;  with notable exceptions such as This Land is My Land and Assassin’s Creed III, most games have shied away from depicting the effects of colonization on Native peoples and their ancestral lands. Elizabeth LaPensée is an assistant professor in the Departments of Media & Information and Writing, Rhetoric, & American Cultures at Michigan State University who has designed, written, and developed several video games focusing on Indigenous self-determination and narrative reclamations. She is Anishinaabe, Métis, and settler-Irish. One of her games, Thunderbird Strike, focuses on the oil pipeline development on Native lands. The snake refers to the pipeline, as during the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, the pipeline was often referred to as the “black snake.” The seizure and violation of Native lands is a frequent occurrence throughout the Americas and one which needs a spotlight on it. The upsurge of indigenous-developed games such as Thunderbird Strike will hopefully allow non-indigenous people to better understand the issues facing Native Americans today.

If representations of indigenous characters and cultures in video games remain woefully inadequate, indigenous people have also, for the most part, been completely left out of the development process. This is why indigenous developers are needed to represent their own communities and develop games that incorporate new and innovative ways of gameplay for all players. As an example, LaPensée created a new game development workshop for youth called Generative Generation during which students come up with a game idea, and then incorporate elements of Indigenous science assigned with “activation cards.” Following LaPensée’s tools and guidelines, these young designers make use of indigenous knowledge about water, physics, blood memory, land, particle systems, and other teachings to develop gameplay and game mechanics.

Decolonization, of course, should not only apply to indigenous-created games. Decolonization should be envisioned within the larger collaborative process of game development and the studio system.  with the aim of including indigenous narratives and game mechanics that can reach larger audiences. Video game developers  have too often denied indigenous people the  power, status and authority to tell their own stories. Non-indigenous developers seeking meaningful indigenous representation in their games need to bring indigenous developers on board to address the historical exclusion and appropriation indigenous peoples have endured as a result of having been left out of their own narratives. Only with indigenous representation in the development team can game developers truly move forward to be inclusive and more accurate in the representations of Native peoples, their diverse cultures and civilizations.

 References

Von Bismarck, H., 2012. Defining decolonization. The British Scholar Society, 27.

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