Native Americans in Video Games: Racism, Stereotypes, & The Digitized Indian
Tomahawks, bows and arrows, feathered headdresses, a connection to the spiritual world — these are just a few of the stereotypical elements associated with the “Indians” of popular culture. Generally, these features, among others, are mixed together and poured into a cliché mould that characterizes Native Americans as either an outdated civilization of savages or romanticizes them as mystical, nature-loving warriors and shamans. This mould has solidified across the breadth of entertainment media over time; in literature, film and television, and most recently, video games. A few notable Native American characters that have appeared in video games include Mortal Kombat‘s Nightwolf, a tribal warrior who dons feathers and face paint, wields a bow as well as a tomahawk, and can transform into a wolf to defeat his adversaries, Street Fighter‘s equally prosaic Thunder Hawk, and Banjo Tooie‘s magical shaman Humba Wumba, who lives in a “wigwam” and becomes oddly sexualized in the sequel. We tend to glance over these stereotypes as fun and harmless, but can these simplified, misleading images of Native Americans have a negative impact on consumers? Many aspects of these characters, whether they have some sort of basis in history or not, are certainly not relevant to the contemporary Native American. The common perception of Native Americans as an antiquated and singular people contributes to a general misunderstanding of their cultures (note: culture is pluralized because there are many different groups of First Nations people and their beliefs and values are not necessarily congruous) could potentially hinder their ability to synthesize with mainstream society. That said, it is interesting to consider the place of Native Americans in video games over the past thirty years, as they are certainly under-represented, often portrayed in a disrespectful manner, and almost always constructed from the same toolbox of long-established stereotypes. What follows is a look at some of the most memorable characters and controversies that have punctuated the existence of the “Indian” in video games, accompanied by a discourse on how these trends hurt the image of Native American people and degrade contemporary social harmony.
Can you spot the similarities?
“How many kids will play this game and then carry what they’ve experienced into their interactions with real, live Apaches and other Native Americans?” the Association for American Indian Development asked video game publishing giant Activision in a public letter accusing the company’s 2006 PC and console title GUN of containing “some very disturbing racist and genocidal elements toward Native Americans”. The AAID went on to launch an online petition demanding that Activision “remove all derogatory, harmful, and inaccurate depictions of American Indians” from the game and reissue a more culturally sensitive version, threatening to campaign to have the game pulled from store shelves internationally. Although Activision thereafter issued an apology to anyone who may have been offended by the game, they justified the content of their product by pointing out that such depictions had already been “conveyed not only through video games but through films, television programming, books, and other media”. The AAID’s subsequent attempts to have the game recalled were barely acknowledged.
As evident in Activision’s defense of GUN, many negative stereotypes about North American indigenous peoples are so ingrained in mainstream media that the near-genocide of an entire continent of tribes and ethnic groups is rarely granted the same sensitivity with which we regard similarly tragic occurrences like the Holocaust, or apartheid in South Africa. The AAID argues that video games like GUN undermine the severity of the atrocities committed against First Nations tribes by the European settlers and marginalize this violence in a way that negatively affects the image of contemporary Native Americans. Millions of people play video games, and entertainment can leave long-lasting impressions on consumers, so it is understandable that an organization such as the AAID would be concerned about the images people are exposed to, but were their claims about GUN‘s potentially damaging effects warranted?
To the AAID’s credit, GUN certainly does exploit numerous stereotypes, reinforces several misleading aspects of imagined Native American culture, promotes frivolous violence in the form of scalping (which is merely an aesthetic feature that does not add to the gameplay whatsoever), and creates misconceptions about Indian traditions involving the killing of sacred white animals. Furthermore, the game does indeed demand that players slaughter vast numbers of Apache Indians in order to progress through one particular mission in the game. However, the material is not as slanted as the AAID suggests. In addition to killing Apache warriors, the main character Colton White also kills white men and white women, and actually befriends various Indians in the game, even helping the Apache and Blackfoot tribes defend themselves against unjust and corrupt whites. In fact, he eventually discovers that he himself is of Native American heritage, and switches sides to take down a malignant railroad tycoon named Magruder. So, while GUN certainly does reinforce a number of misleading stereotypes and trivializes frontier violence, it is possible to see why the AAID’s plea was ignored. Ruthless violence against Indians is advocated throughout the game, but brutality is also encouraged towards many whites, hispanics, and so forth. Additionally, much of the violence towards Native Americans is contextualized as part of the attempt to protect migrant Chinese rail-workers from Apache train line raids. The story itself is one of redemption and revenge, and the story is never as simple as “wiping out the Apache” as the AAID would lead us to believe. To briefly describe the story, the narrative follows the consequences set in motion by Colton’s adopted father, Ned, who brought ruin upon the Apache tribe when he introduced them to a party of Confederates, including the aforementioned Magruder. As one would expect, the tribe was massacred by the settlers when it stood in the way of “progress”. Seeking repentance for his grievous error, Ned has dedicated himself to exacting revenge upon the Confederates. When he dies in Mission 3 of the game, the torch is passed to Colton, who continues his father’s fight to avenge the Apache people. The violence is never classy, but the racial slant is debatable.
Violence against Apache warriors in GUN.
Over the course of the story Colton encounters many racists, but these unsavoury characters don’t exclusively hate Indians; rather, they are intolerant of many different races, creeds, and religions, not only spewing racist comments about Native Americans, but also about the Chinese, Irish, and Mexicans (they are essentially bigoted to the point where it becomes farcical). The story is never really framed from the racist-towards-Indians angle that the AAID claims, even considering the misconceptions about Native American culture that surface here and there. Regardless of the stance one takes on GUN‘s treatment of Native Americans, the controversy surrounding the game draws attention to the portrayal of Native Americans in other video games. After all, the AAID’s reaction to GUN was not the first time the issue of racism towards North America’s indigenous peoples has stirred up controversy in the industry.
Introducing one of the most offensive games ever created.
Twenty four years before GUN raised the eyebrows of Native American activists, a game called Custer’s Revenge was released for the Atari 2600. Whereas GUN‘s racist undertones are debatable, Custer’s Revenge is blatantly racist, extremely vulgar, and highly offensive, especially to Native American women. Made by now-defunct video game developer Mystique, which developed a number of pornographic video games throughout the 1980′s, the game is widely regarded as one of the most racist games ever developed. Mystique’s games were programmed in the United States, so one would think the creators would be imbued with a sense of cultural sensitivity for the people of that region, but this was certainly not the case with Custer’s Revenge. The game has players taking on the persona of a character named “Custer”, who is quite clearly inspired by George Armstrong Custer, a United States Army cavalry commander who fought in the American Indian Wars and directly took part in the slaughter of thousands of Native Americans before his death at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Based on the game’s title, it is clear that Custer intends to carry out post-humous revenge on the Indians for killing him and his men. And how exactly will Custer carry out his vengeance? By repeatedly raping an Indian woman, of course. Oh, and by the way, “Revenge” is actually the name of the woman he rapes. Custer’s Revenge brutally objectifies women and disrespects Native Americans in a manner that words like “tasteless” or “crude” cannot do justice to.
Yes, in the role of Custer, a man who historically took part in the killing of countless Native Americans, players must weave past volleys of arrows in order to rape a naked, large-breasted Native American woman tied to a cactus. Of course, you would never know that she’s Native American were it not for the stereotypical feather in her hair and a tipi billowing smoke in the background. It’s interesting how these symbols can so easily establish the context for an otherwise generic — if disturbing — premise, isn’t it? Racist, misogynistic elements aside, the game itself is simple: dodge, rape, repeat. The game gets more challenging each time you rape the Indian woman, and you will need to rape her many times indeed in order to achieve a high score. That’s the experience in its entirety, and the game’s box exclaims that “she’s not about to take it lying down, by George!”, clarifying the intentions of the developers. The game’s designer, Joe Miller, claims that the purpose of his game was to get people “smiling” and “laughing”. Needless to say, many people were not smiling or laughing when the game hit store shelves in 1982. Custer’s Revenge was met with considerable criticism from the enthusiast press and targeted by Native Americans, women’s rights activists, and various other groups for its racist and misogynistic content. American feminist Andrea Dworkin claimed that the game “generated many gang rapes of Native American women”, lawsuits abounded, and the game was eventually pulled off the market. But only after selling around 80,000 copies, meaning that 80,000 people either laughed while they raped a naked, bound Indian woman against a spiky cactus, or cringed. Or something in between.
Racism and Misogyny in Action (uncensored).
Of course, the sexual objectification of Native American women in popular culture is not something that started with Custer’s Revenge. The image of the exotic “Indian Princess” is widespread, though usually not in such a graphic and violent manner. In the Disney films Pocahontas and Peter Pan, in television, in literature from the early nineteenth century — this image is not something new or isolated. There is a book by M. Elise Marubbio titled Killing the Indian Maiden that looks in depth at these images as they appear in film, explaining how and why the “white male-dominated” film industry constructs Indian women as “subservient, simplistic, self-destructive” and desirable “Others”. The video games business is also dominated by white males, and thus many of the ideas in Marubbio’s book can be applied to it as well. It’s worth checking out if you want to learn more about the driving forces behind these reoccurring images.
The sexualization of Native American women in video games did not stop with Custer’s Revenge. Although never again reaching the same absurd level of offensiveness, eroticized images have continued into the new millennium, visible in Mature-rated games like Bonetown, Darkwatch, and even the all-ages game, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Characters like Darkwatch‘s Tala (also known as “Stalking Wolf”) are definitely a step up from the woman victimized in Custer’s Revenge, but are still positioned as objects of lust in an industry led by caucasian men. For example, by using her sex appeal, Tala seduces the story’s main character, Civil War veteran Jericho Cross, having sex with him in order to further her own agenda. Tala is not only a temptress, but also a shaman with mysterious powers, adding boilerplate “Indian mysticism” to her sexualized persona and other stereotypical ‘Indian’ traits. There is something about the mystical, exotic “Other” that is deeply appealing to most audiences, and this appeal can be extrapolated beyond the boundaries of sexual objectification. That is to say that our attraction to the popular images of what we see as Native American culture is not limited to female eroticization, but can be extended to explain our fascination with character archetypes such as the spiritual shaman, the noble savage, the skilled warrior, and other constructed images. With regard to these romanticized stereotypes which we find so enchanting, Michael A. Sheyashe, the author of Native Americans in Comics, writes that video games “target a young and impressionable audience and leave them with no idea who we are as Natives or what our viable culture is all about”. His statement rings true when we look at all the games out there that make their characters “Indian” by simply handing them bows and arrows, slapping war paint on their faces, putting feathers in their hair, or giving them mysterious spiritual powers, in addition to other superficial qualities that distort the identities of contemporary Native Americans. If the naked woman of Custer’s Revenge is the sad extreme of these romanticized misconceptions, the warriors dancing around fires to bolster their powers in Age of Empires III: The Warchiefs is the typical.
One of the first encounters I had with “Indians” in video games as a child was granted by the Turok series. The first game, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, was released in 1997 and was one of the first blockbuster video games to feature a Native American as the central protagonist. The main character was a warrior named Tal’Set, who was charged with stopping the evil Campaigner from using a powerful, ancient weapon to control the universe. In the series mythology, every generation the title of “Turok” is passed down to the tribe’s eldest male, who must then guard the barrier between Earth and the Lost Land; a barrier that the Campaigner desperately desires to break. The Lost Land is a primitive other-world of sorts that is inhabited by dinosaurs and animals, entirely segregated from the struggles of modernizing humanity. It seems somewhat cliché that Native Americans would have this connection to another mystical, spiritual world, doesn’t it? The mysticism is bolstered in Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, which introduces an “Energy Totem” and magical talismans that grant special powers to the new Turok, Joshua Fireseed. Simply put, Turok embraces many of the stereotypes that have clung to popular media’s construction of a universal “Indian culture” for the past several hundred years. A mystical connection to the spiritual world, superhuman tracking and sneaking abilities, bows and arrows, tomahawks, feathers — the staples of “Indianhood” are in full bloom. The Turok series, while admirably colouring Native Americans as cool and powerful, reinforces stereotypes that depict their cultures as ancient and alien. The games never delve into the culture of the characters behind the bows and arrows, hunting, and the usual mill of superficial features. We perceive Tal’Set, Joshua, and the other Turoks as “Natives” based only on stereotypical characterizations that we have come to accept from literature, Hollywood, and the games industry.
Although it was great to see Native American characters at the helm in a series of million-seller video games for the first time, Turok never gave its protagonists personalities that extended very far beyond the conventional, run-of-the mill stereotypes that have persisted for centuries. Recently, however, a game titled Prey was released that attempts to explore its Native American characters at a deeper level. Like Turok, Prey casts a Native American as the protagonist. However, Cherokee tribe member Tommy Tawodi is very different from Tal’Set and Joshua Fireseed. Unlike those characters, Tommy ditches decorative feathers and war paint, puts on a shirt, and dresses in contemporary fashion. Prey makes it clear that Tommy and the other Cherokee are characters of the modern world — not members of a romanticized culture of the past. Perhaps most importantly, they are specifically identified as Cherokee; not just as members of a one-size-fits-all “Indian” culture that doesn’t credit the differences between the many distinct tribes and ethnic groups present in North America. Tommy is interesting compared to most Native American characters depicted in popular entertainment in that he wants to break away from the traditions of the Cherokee, dislikes life on the reservation, and is spiteful of those around him who are caught up in cultural customs and humdrum. The game begins in a rundown bar on a reservation. As Tommy walks out of the bathroom and players see lines of gambling machines, one worries that the game will just be another jumble of stereotypes, but Tommy’s dialogue soon establishes the setting as something intended to raise questions about Native American identity. Tommy has a thought-provoking conversation with some people in the bar, and the next thing you know, he and the other Cherokee are abducted by aliens and brought to a mysterious ship.
Experience Prey’s story up to and including the abduction.
The plot sounds a bit ridiculous, but the atmosphere and storytelling are solid. As one might anticipate, Tommy’s “mystical Indian heritage” comes into play aboard the ship, as Tommy is able to use his previously unrealized spiritual powers to destroy foes with a magically enhanced bow and arrows, sense impending threats, see paths that others cannot, and so forth. These abilities reek of conventional “native mysticism”, but Tommy must ultimately accept the value of his people’s unique connection to their ancient beliefs and spirituality. Tommy’s spiritual abilities, while typical of the “mystical Indian” image, are integral to the innovative gameplay and not merely superficial inclusions, evading the trap of senseless stereotyping. The game’s story is closely tied to Tommy’s perception of himself as a Cherokee, ending with Tommy in a state of bliss about his Cherokee heritage. The personal journey during which Tommy gains confidence in his identity as a Cherokee is both unique and charming considering the typically flat portrayal of Native American characters in popular culture. Tommy’s voice actor, Michael Greyeyes, laments that Hollywood “typically relegates different indigenous cultures into either a single pan-Indian construct” (e.g. radical protester, anglicized casino businessmen) or “most commonly, as a historical figure — typically from a Plains culture”, and states that he was excited to voice Tommy because he breaks away from these stereotypes. Greyeyes excitement was well-founded, as Tommy is neither a typical Indian stock character nor an outdated “noble savage”. Prey takes a step away from typical Indian stereotypes by offering a complex character who is intriguing and dynamic. The game draws heavily on Cherokee myths and falls back on a few clichés, but ultimately offers a refreshing and positive Native American story for a mainstream audience. One can only hope that this trend will continue, and that Native American protagonists continue to break from traditional character roles and time-hardened stereotypes.
Based on your own experiences with supposed “Indian” culture in interactive entertainment, what do you think about the portrayal of Native Americans in video games? Are recent games, such as 2010′s Red Dead Redemption, making progress in depicting Native Americans that aren’t trapped by traditional character archetypes? Persistent stereotypes presented through film, literature, video games, and other media, can damage society’s understanding of visible ethnic groups, and there are numerous misconceptions about Native Americans upheld by the stereotypes in video games. Are we headed in the right direction?