Native Americans in Videogames: Stereotypes, Racism, and Misogyny

Tommy Tawodi from the game, Prey. A Native American man with shoulder-length black hair, brown leather biker jacket and white button down shirt shown from the waist up. He is looking sternly at the camera and holding a large, futuristic, science fiction style gun up in readiness.

Tommy Tawodi from the game, Prey

Project COE has an extensive post discussing the portrayal of Native Americans in videogames, stereotypes, and racism by taking a closer look at memorable Native American characters in videogames:

We tend to glance over these highly stereotypical portrayals as fun and harmless, but can these simplified, misleading images of Native Americans have a negative impact on consumers?

That said, it’s interesting to consider the Native American’s place in video games over the past thirty years as they are certainly under-represented, occasionally portrayed in a negative light, and almost always plagued by long-established stereotypes that separate them from the dominant majority, just as they are in film and literature. So, here 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 can affect attempts at contemporary acculturation and hurt the image of Native American people.

Read the entire post over at Project COE (trigger warning: detailed discussion of the rape game-mechanic in Custer’s Revenge; embedded video of Custer’s Revenge game play) and share your thoughts about the article in the comments section below.

About Brinstar

Brinstar is an Editor (on hiatus) at The Border House blog. She is a cisgender, temporarily able-bodied, Asian, culturally-mixed woman from the United States. She is a longtime gamer and works in the videogame industry as a community manager. You can find her blogging about games at Acid for Blood and on Twitter at @Brinstar.
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9 Responses to Native Americans in Videogames: Stereotypes, Racism, and Misogyny

  1. Korva says:

    I’d heard the name Custer’s Revenge in passing as well as the fact that it was awful, but I didn’t know what it really was. There are just no words.

    And I think I’m someone prone to falling into the “spiritual noble savage Other” trap. I like such characters — but tarring real-life people with that brush, and only that, or creating an obvious “idealized stereotypical Native ripoff” culture in fiction, is definitely something to be more careful of …

  2. Jonathan says:

    Oddly, the article left me with the impression that Native Americans have fared a lot better in video games than many minorities. As pathetic as it sounds, between the Turok series and Prey, I’d guesstimate that they’re doing better than most groups in the protagonist representation stakes, especially if you look at it proportionally. I’m also finding it hard to think of many groups that have had the same kind of treatment that Prey gave Native Americans.

    Of course this isn’t a good thing, it just highlights how bad games are when it comes to minority representation and characterisation as a whole. It’s not like all those white, male, American protagonists are actually interesting characters.

    • 8mph Ansible says:

      I’d have to disagree with your guesstimate but I’m thinking that impression could be because the writer hasn’t sought out or played that many games with Native characters in them from the sound of the article.

    • Jonathan says:

      Yeah, this is where I’m gonna say no too. I don’t get how you can get “Not that bad” out of Rape Object/Villain(Custer’s Revenge) and then the various incarnations of the Noble Savage. I mean, those are the big ones that are always around First Nations people.

      Turok isn’t any good, he’s the “mystical hunter” that has to “protect the land.” From what I remember about the game there isn’t a lot of talking and Turok is that stoic kind of character which is the hallmark of the Noble Savage. Same thing with the Fighting Game characters, they’re just the Noble Warrior that gets to fight wearing a feather in their hair.

      Hell, I could keep going and talk about Colonization (which they remade for some ridiculous reason) where basically the only thing that the First Nation people become are roadblocks to your “glorious nation.” How about almost every single western shooting game out there, they’ve got to have the obligatory “angry Natives” scene and/or villain that you end up shooting.

      Prey might only just be slightly better from what I’m reading on it. As soon as you utter the worlds “mystical Indian heritage” a know a lot of people who roll their eyes. I hear that he might actually be more of a well rounded character, but that makes how many … one?

      • Jonathan says:

        I’m not suggesting that they’ve had good representation in games, I’m just making the observation that it the representation seems better than many minorities. Let me explain in a bit more detail.

        Take video game protagonists. Think of as many fixed (as opposed to the variable characters you find in a lot of RPGs) human protagonists from games as you can. Now take away the white ones. There aren’t many left, are there? Just being able to count the Turok series and Prey makes Native Americans a much better represented ethnic minority than most, especially considering their relatively small population. The representations aren’t good, but they’re there.

        “Prey might only just be slightly better from what I’m reading on it. As soon as you utter the worlds “mystical Indian heritage” a know a lot of people who roll their eyes. I hear that he might actually be more of a well rounded character, but that makes how many … one?”

        The very sad point I’m trying to make is that it’s one better than most ethnic groups. (Just to clarify, I use the term ethnic in the sense of a specific cultural group and not as a synonym for race.) How many games can you think of that attempt to make the protagonist’s ethnicity a central aspect of the game and not just a different skin and accent on the same bland white American framework?

        Clearly Custer’s Revenge is a bloody abomination, but I did think that should have gone without saying.

        The fact that Native Americans have poor representation in video games does not shock or surprise me. The realisation that it’s still better than just about every other ethnic group out there is what horrifies me.

      • Lyss says:

        If by “roadblocks to glorious nation” in the new Colonization you mean awesome trading partner, training resource for units you can’t get otherwise, source of population (granted, only if you’ve set up a mission), and serious asskicking force to help beat the king if you’ve maintained good relationships. Granted, I’ve not played the old Colonization, so perhap in that one the Native villages functioned like the barbarian encampments in regular Civ, but they’re nothing like that in the Colonization update.

  3. 8mph Ansible says:

    What I left over there
    —————————-
    To me it’s frustrating that once you find and go through (either by playing or reading up on extensively) it feels like Tommy Tawodi from Prey may be the only decent Native character without too much squick or heinousness in his characterization or the game. And this is out of scores of games out there that have Natives as playable, party or NPC characters. Yet at the same time the game still falls back on stereotypes.

    And just as frustrating is how the sequel does the typical thing of being about the umpteenth game of white boy as a main character. A part of me feels like they caved given that during the production of the first Prey, Tommy was still Native but instead was the generic, hulking, linebacker size, human wall, big gun toting protagonist still prevalent in many shooters but fans complained that they couldn’t relate to the character *rolls eyes*. Mildly similar, I’m also annoyed about the Assassins series too when it could of went the route of Muslim and/or Middle Eastern characters.

    I encourage you and anyone else to rummage around through Blue Corn comics site which has links and articles about Native American characters in video games as well as comic books, like in this one: http://www.bluecorncomics.com/navidgam.htm

    Sadly some of the linked pages are missing or moved but it can help springboard you into doing your own sleuthing about Natives in videogames nonetheless.

    • JenniP says:

      I haven’t played the Assassin’s Creed series, and always assumed Altaïr ibn La-Ahad of the first game would be a Muslim based on historical context. Seems like a cop-out that they decided to make him agnostic with Christian and Muslim parents (dunno if this information is in the game but it’s what the producer said). I wonder what kind of Muslim content there is in the game – characters, symbols, mosques – and if the game treats it differently than the Christian content? Based on screenshots they certainly don’t mind showing crosses on the chests of Templar.

  4. Ironically, I put out a short video about Native representations in video games a day before this article came out. You can find the video at http://www.vimeo.com/25991603 and a brief follow-up blog at http://www.abtec.org/blog/?p=375. I’ve been writing about this for over six years and come from the perspective of being a Native gamer and game writer, so I have a much broader view of representations over the years. There are strides being made in commercial game industry, but also in indie games. Cultural representation (of any culture) is going to depend on that culture being actively involved in the making of games.

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