Native American Images in Video Games

Minority representation in video games just straight up sucks. Over the last few weeks, two new projects debuted that focus specifically on Native Americans.

The first is a short video. Directed and narrated by Irish, Anishinaabe, Metis writer Beth Aileen Lameman and edited by Beaver Lake Cree filmmaker Myron Lameman, the video looks at really common stereotypes being deployed in game narratives. Lameman points to the common framings of “cowboys vs. indians,” guides, and “wise old Indians” and heavy doses of the white savior narrative and the “half-breed hero” trope.

Native Representations in Video Games from Beth Aileen Lameman on Vimeo.

The second is an essay over at Project COE that tackles the politics behind representation:

“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 Native American culture are so ingrained in mainstream media that the near-genocide of an entire culture is rarely treated with the same sensitivity with which we regard similarly tragic occurrences like the Holocaust, or African American slavery. 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, making it important to be able to criticize misconceptions and separate fantasy from reality. The impact of media on our mentality towards people and events certainly cannot be underestimated, so it is understandable that an organization such as the AAID should be concerned about what kind of images audiences are exposed to, but were their claims about GUN‘s potentially damaging effects warranted?

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  • Logoskaieros

    When I first played WoW, I appreciated that there was a race based on Native American culture–the Tauren starting zone felt very unique and carefully crafted.  ….But after a while the marginalization of the Tauren with the realization that there never was a single Nat. Am. culture really grated on me (Tauren live on the plains but have totem poles, for instance).  The other race fails in the game (goblins are Jewish (They have big noses and like money), Trolls are PoCs (they have Carribean accents and there’s a quest where you help white frontiersy humans enslave them–no joke) make the stereotypes about the Tauren stand out that much more. 

    Ironically, I shied away from Red Dead partly because now that I’m aware of the Nat. Am. fail in video games, I assumed there would be a lot of cringe worthy moments.  

    Also, Amazon Trail (#2 or #3 can’t remember) could be included in this list for how you, a traveler/explorer/non-native of South America interacts with mystical tribes and I think this one Indigenous person who guides you as a spirit. Although, you do get to go back in time and can give a laxative to an evil conquistador to put him out of commission.  Small brownie point for that. (Warning: I played the game when I was 13 so I might be mis-remebering some of the details.) And I did learn a bunch about the Inca and South American geography zoology, and botany. 

  • Bumble

    I’ve always felt REALLY conflicted about the Tauren in WoW. They play off of a huge number of stereotypes and tired old imagery. FFS, many Tauren characters even greet you with “How”. Their role in the world has been terribly minimized in WoW after something of a promising start in WCIII and it wasn’t until the most recent expansion that the Tauren had any real development at all. There are plenty of ‘little’ annoyances about them – Tauren profession trainers usually teach herbalism, leatherworking, or skinning. Outside of Thunder Bluff and the Tauren starting zone, there are no Tauren engineers, alchemists, or enchanters, even though Tauren elevator technology has been vital in their faction’s infrastructure. A person could go on for hours about this stupid shit. When their NPCs do show up in higher level play, they’re generally restricted to a small number of roles, usually – sigh – the wise old mystic (druids or shaman) or brave warrior.

    On the flip side, it is, in some ways, marginally better than most other portrayals. The Tauren are currently adapting to a new way of life in Mulgore and the sameness of all their architecture allegedly represents the cultural and political dominance of the ruling tribe. The video calls them ‘pan-indian’, and I’m not too sure exactly what that means, but the Tauren do have many disparate tribes who do not necessarily play nice. Which is, I dunno, I guess that’s sort of OK? It’s probably just because they didn’t want to spend the resources coming up with different designs. And it’s annoying that that sort of laziness is acceptable, but at least the explanation makes some sort of sense. In the end I stopped playing WoW for other reasons, but I never really sorted out how I felt about the Tauren.

    • Caprette

      I was thinking the exact same thing.  I’m still an active player in WoW, and I’m really conflicted about the Tauren (as well as the Trolls, who are portrayed as having an Afro-Caribbean-esque culture and a religion that takes most of its cues from Voudou.)  But at the same time, in a game with many races it wouldn’t make sense for all of them to come from the same Western European standard-issue high fantasy mold, either.  I think it’s very difficult within the context of a game to establish a very different history and culture for each of ten different playable races, especially since real-life race issues probably aren’t something that the average game designer thinks about all the time. 

      But I think it helps that the Tauren are playable characters, instead of supportive NPCs that players meet in their adventures.  A player could decide that their character is an engineer, or an enchanter, or loves nothing more than to amass as much gold as possible–all theoretically inconsistent with the stereotypes of Tauren culture, but totally doable in-game.   The cultural stereotypes are for flavor, but don’t have to define the player experience.

      (And I don’t mean to give WoW a total pass.  There really is a lot they could improve upon in the race area.)

  • Ebony

    Really liked the video. Had no idea about those characters in WoW.
    FYI, some of the images in the video are NSFW.