The next chapter of Indigenous representation in video games

Carl Petersen is a member of the Oohe Nunpa (or Two Kettles) band of Lakota — a tribe indigenous to the North American Great Plains — and a 21-year-old self-proclaimed “Gen-Z/Millennial.” But his childhood wasn’t the always-online one you might expect. His first dial-up connection was to Rapid City, South Dakota, a town 180 miles from his home near the city of Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation. After realizing that a month of “just checking his email” cost almost $2,000, Petersen’s dad canceled the service.

That isn’t to say that his life was devoid of the web — he’s an avid gamer, and has logged 6,000 hours in World of Warcraft, despite not having a good connection at home until he was 16. “I’d play on a 600-millisecond latency,” he says, then “lug my PC into town to download the newest patch.”

The towns on the Cheyenne River Reservation are a far cry from your typical American communities: Despite the reservation being nearly twice the size of Delaware, there are more than 100 miles between Eagle Butte and the closest Starbucks or McDonald’s. That isolation is typical of many reservations in the U.S. (and of reserves, their Canadian equivalents) — and the result of centuries of government policies that stripped Indigenous people of their cultural heritage and restricted many aspects of their lives.

Now a senior at Dakota State University, Petersen is developing a game of his own, Tipi Kaga (Tipi Builder), with the help of a $10,000 Dreamstarter grant. The grant is awarded annually to help young Indigenous Americans pursue dream projects, with Petersen’s being to “create video games to ensure the survival of the Lakota language.”

In practice, this means he’s using the grant to launch Northern Plains Games — a video game studio located on the Cheyenne River Reservation — with the intent to develop games made by, about, and for Indigenous people. Tipi Kaga is the studio’s first game, and is designed to teach conversational Lakota by having players build a traditional Lakota tipi in real time, with instructions spoken in Lakota.

Petersen learned Lakota in school, but like about 95% of the roughly 115,000 Lakota members in the U.S. today, he isn’t fluent — his last family member who spoke it fluently died 14 years before he was born. This is largely the result of the boarding and residential school systems that the governments of the U.S. and Canada, respectively, forced Indigenous youth to attend starting in the 1870s, in an attempt to assimilate them into white society.

In addition to the schools’ legacy of rampant physical and sexual abuse, they also stripped children of ties to their Indigenous heritage. Policies included giving children English names, requiring them to wear European-American clothes, cutting their long hair — which holds deep significance for many tribes — making them attend Christian churches, and giving corporal punishment to students who didn’t speak English (or French, in some Canadian schools).

The last one closed in 1996.

Petersen, like Meagan Byrne, Elizabeth LaPensée, Maize Longboat, and others, is part of a new generation of Indigenous video game creators using games to address this history and as a powerful educational tool.

Petersen believes video games are an ideal way to not only teach Lakota, but revitalize it. “In video games, you can put every medium you can think of on a screen in an interactive manner at the same time,” he says. He intends to immerse players in “the experience of being in a culture where that language is alive, and not just history.”

While Tipi Kaga is mostly geared toward those with some grasp of Lakota, Petersen wants to make sure that everyone can play — and benefit from — the game regardless of their level of knowledge, so that even without speaking the language, you can still be immersed in the “cultural feel” of it.

Once completed, the game will be shared with schools for students to play, and — unlike games that have educational elements with “a checkpoint where you have to do a couple of math problems before you keep playing again” — Petersen intends to integrate the educational components into the gameplay in a more holistic way, he says. The game is currently in the final stages of development with a tentative 2020 release date, and features voice acting by Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe elder Carl Buffalo, art from Yankton Dakota artist Meagan Zephier, and programming and level design by Moni Garr from the Akwesasne Indian Reservation No. 59. The choice to work with these particular creators was a deliberate one, because Petersen — alongside a contingent of his fellow Indigenous developers — has a broader goal: to improve opportunities for Indigenous people to tell their own stories through video games.

When Rivers Were Trails

In 1997 — seven years before WoW’s release, and a year before Petersen was born — Ultima Online went on sale, and it quickly became the first MMORPG to reach 100,000 subscribers. Growing up in Oregon with Anishinaabe, Métis, and settler-Irish heritage, Elizabeth LaPensée says she struggled to find characters she identified with, until she started playing as an Orc in the game’s Shadowclan player community.

“Ironically, playing as an Orc felt like the most accurate experience,” she says, “because we were constantly defending land against extreme odds.” She recalls a favorite moment: In a massive, player-coordinated event, she snuck into an enemy castle and, thanks to her poison-crafting skill, successfully assassinated the enemy king. That she’d succeed, she says, was so unexpected that “they spent the rest of the season trying to undo that storyline, which only occurred because they had so underestimated my character’s intelligence.”

Today, LaPensée is a designer, developer, and assistant professor at the Media & Information Department of Michigan State University. From her start running a text-based RPG community on AOL in exchange for free internet, through to getting into game modding by editing Super Mario Bros. and playing in BioWare’s Aurora toolset, she has sought out ways to create stories and characters of her own.

Since 2007, LaPensée has designed, written, and/or developed over a dozen video and board games, with an emphasis on Indigenous self-determination and reclamation of narratives. “Video games uniquely weave together design, code, art, and sound, making for an incredibly dynamic form of expression for Indigenous creatives that can engage players in many different ways,” she says, echoing Petersen’s belief that games can share experiences in ways no other medium can.

Her games range from Dialect, a card game about “language, and how it dies,” to Thunderbird Strike, a 2D side-scroller swapping the usual spaceship combat with “a thunderbird protecting Turtle Island” from “the snake” — an oil pipeline — “that threatens to swallow the lands and waters whole.” Her latest, When Rivers Were Trails, addresses her childhood desire to see more identifiable, recognizable characters in classic games. And what’s a more classic childhood game than the now nearly 50-year-old Oregon Trail series?

Like many millennials, LaPensée recalls schooldays spent fording rivers, hunting bison, and dying of dysentery, but she’s often wanted to design an Indigenous interpretation. Despite its status as an educational series, Oregon Trail has been criticized for its cartoonish and inaccurate depictions of Indigenous people, and for promoting westward expansion, in which settlers killed and dispossessed millions of Indigenous people.

Created in collaboration with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, When Rivers Were Trails follows an Anishinaabe person in the 1890s who is displaced from their traditional territory in Minnesota and heads west to California because of allotment acts, which claimed almost two-thirds of Indigenous land for settlers. The protagonist faces Indian agents, meets people from different nations, and hunts, fishes, and canoes while attempting to balance their well-being along the way.

Using cross-country travel mechanics to bring the player on an approximately 2,000-mile journey, the game also takes on the widespread misconception that all Indigenous people look the same, or that all tribes have the same styles of traditional clothing and hair (the war bonnet or headdress, for example, is only worn by leaders of a small handful of Plains tribes).

To incorporate so many different Indigenous cultures, LaPensée didn’t write everything herself. She used the premise as an opportunity to enlist over 20 Indigenous writers, including Carl Petersen, from tribes and nations located along the narrative’s route, to tell the stories of those tribes and nations themselves. Similarly, she ensured that Indigenous people were directly involved in the game’s design, which also features music by Michael Charette and Apsáalooke rapper Supaman, and art by Tongva illustrator Weshoyot Alvitre.

LaPensée’s goal isn’t just to facilitate Indigenous representation — she also wants to facilitate Indigenous self-determination. This means not just getting Indigenous people involved in games, but giving them meaningful control. Her commitment to direct and extensive Indigenous involvement in development stems in part from her experiences with companies who have brought her on board as a designer and intermediary between the studio and Indigenous creators, only to reveal that what they really want is an Indigenous rubber stamp. “I often have to defend Indigenous collaborators,” she says, “and feel like I’m fighting to get their voices respected by developers or institutions who just wanted to use all of us to do what they already planned to do before we were all involved.”

Hill Agency: BARK & byte

“What would an Indigenous sovereign nation look like?”

When building the cyberpunk world for her latest game, Hill Agency: BARK & byte, this was Meagan Byrne’s guiding question. In it, you play as Meeygun Hill, a P.I. working in “the slums of one of the last major cities in North America,” who is charged with solving the murder of a woman’s sister. It’s the first game out of Byrne’s studio, Achimo Games, which she co-founded with Maliseet animator Tara Miller.

Using the distant future, Byrne says, makes it easier to talk about contemporary issues, like “the deep divide in classes,” the draining of natural resources, and — in the vein of cyberpunk classic Neuromancer — “what happens when the 1 percenters get so removed from nature that it twists their thinking and behavior,” practically beyond human recognition. It also gives creators the room to explore potential futures, like a liberated Indigenous nation.

Rather than focus on a utopian future — one where, Byrne says, “It’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve just solved racism! And we’ve solved colonialism!’” — Byrne and co-creator Miller wanted to set Hill Agency in the moment right before that freedom, as an exploration of what an Indigenous sovereign nation would look like when it’s on the edge of — but hasn’t yet achieved — total freedom from colonial oppression.

Byrne is Âpihtawikosisân (Métis) from the Red River, and is descended from Swampy/James Bay/Moose Cree. A self-proclaimed “’90s kid” who frequented arcades and played a lot of Diablo, Byrne grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. She played video games, but didn’t consider a career as a developer until her 20s, when — after layoffs, underemployment, and unemployment, she read in Canada’s economic forecast that game designers and programmers were in demand.

She applied to the game design program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, and “just kind of took to it,” she says. As she “started building and working in games,” she realized she could tell a story and elicit an emotional reaction, and “was really surprised that the emotional reaction that I wanted people to have was the one they were having.”

So Byrne started using her stories to tell Indigenous ones. The lack of Indigenous representation and understanding of Indigenous culture was a constant obstacle, as she says:

“I had a character creation class, and I decided I was going to make a Cree hero and and Métis-Cree villain and I put it up in class. I was all proud of it.

“And the professor was like: ‘So, just some feedback … What makes them native?’

“And I was like, ‘… well, because I based her outfit sort of on, like, Fancy Shawl dancers, and the pattern on her smock was based on Christi Belcourt’s art …’ And I was trying to explain this and he’s like, “Mhm mhm mhm … Look, I might suggest, I find going with’ — I was like, dontsayitdontsayit’ — ‘buckskin, or something more … natural?’ And I was like, nooo! I was just like, ‘Sir, are you being accidentally racist at me?’”

Fighting this alienation and isolation, especially as it’s felt by Indigenous peoples, is part of why Byrne gravitates toward roles where she can help other (especially young) Indigenous people find and create communities and stories in digital spaces. She does this both as a member of the Indigenous Routes Collective and as the digital and interactive coordinator for ImagineNative. Both organizations work to combat poor representation of Indigenous people in media by helping Indigenous creators shape narratives directly. ImagineNative does this through a combination of public education initiatives, professional development, and the world’s largest Indigenous film festival, while Indigenous Routes Collective focuses on new media training for Indigenous youth and funding projects members couldn’t otherwise do.

Especially in more remote Canadian reserve communities, where kids have to travel far from home and face potentially deadly circumstances just to get a high school education, it’s hard to pursue a career like game development. Byrne says that communities can be very cautious about the careers young people pursue, and skeptical of something without many visible models of success. In addition, as Petersen experienced, communities also often have difficulty — and face high costs — getting internet access.

Given these barriers, Byrne’s work outside her own game development focuses on the importance of giving people — especially young people — a place to create that’s entirely their own, both by helping kids learn to create games without having to travel, and by providing opportunities to build digital spaces where they are empowered to tell their own stories.

Terra Nova artwork
Image: Maize Longboat, Ray Caplin, Mehrdad Dehdashti, and Beatrix Moersch

Terra Nova

Like Elizabeth LaPensée, Maize Longboat is a lifelong gamer who had trouble relating to characters until playing a fantasy MMO — in his case, World of Warcraft. Longboat describes the minotaur-esque Tauren race as “essentially the classic, stereotypical Plains Native American trope, but skinned as a cow race. They roam the Plains, have totem poles, and worship a god called the Earth Mother.” But, “trope-y” depictions aside, when he first came across the Taurens as an 11-year-old, he says, “I was really excited to play as them because I identified with some of the values that they were able to communicate. I just thought it was cool to play as an Indigenous person for once.”

But Longboat also points out that this reliance on cultural tropes in the game’s depiction of the Tauren — which isn’t an isolated incident for Blizzard — is the product of centuries of misinformation about Indigenous people that perpetuates damaging stereotypes that have been in Western media “for forever.” “Some colonizers came to North America and started writing about the people here to their interpretation,” he says, “and that’s just been continuous for over 500 years. And this is what we get 500 years later: the [Tauren] race in this video game. And I’d say it’s not a particularly good thing.”

Since then, Longboat, who is Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) from Six Nations of the Grand River (a reserve community in southern Ontario) on his father’s side, and French Canadian and Spanish on his mother’s, has seen some small improvements in games’ depictions of Indigenous peoples, but they’ve been rare. He says that while Ratonhnhaké:ton (or Connor) in Assassin’s Creed 3 is a more “authentic” depiction of an Indigenous person, the character “still relies on a ‘bloodthirsty savage’ trope.”

But while the general landscape tends to rely on these tropes and stereotypes, Longboat says that doesn’t mean that it’s completely devoid of well-done portrayals of Indigenous peoples. He was particularly impressed by the 2014 puzzle-platformer Never Alone / Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, which features the Iñupiat language, and for which the publisher, E-Line Media, collaborated and consulted heavily with Iñupiat people. “It was the first time I’ve actually heard real Indigenous languages being spoken in video games,” Longboat says. He was so impacted by the game that it inspired his masters thesis at Concordia University in Montreal: studying the process and practice, from development to production, of making video games as an Indigenous person.

To understand not just on-screen representations, but also the structures and systems that go into producing them, Longboat is studying video game development from an Indigenous perspective. For the practical component of his thesis, he made a game of his own.

Developed with technical director Mehrdad Dehdashti, Mi’kmaq artist and animator Ray Caplin, and sound designer Beatrix Moersch, and released in November 2019, Terra Nova is a two-player cooperative platformer exploring first contact between Indigenous and settler peoples in a distant future setting. You choose to play as either Terra, an Earth-born landkeeper, or Nova, a young star-born inventor. Both players explore their respective environments, unaware of one another’s existence until the moment that their worlds collide and the formal cooperative game begins.

First contact is one of the most common premises in science fiction. But for Indigenous people, the idea of an alien race mounting a brutal invasion that decimates their own population and way of life isn’t speculative fiction — it’s history. “You see it in things like War of the Worlds, where there’s this antagonistic population of aliens that come down [to Earth], and we don’t understand what they want, except that they want us to ‘be no more,’” Longboat says, which is “reflective of what colonial nations did to Indigenous nations.” He believes that the reason these “narratives of aliens coming from elsewhere and doing us harm” are so common is that they’re born out of a fear of “others doing unto us what we have done already to others.”

Even in actual historical narratives, says Longboat, “we usually only get one interpretation of the first contact — the ‘white male explorer’ figure who’s writing the historical record,” so “we don’t get to see the perspective of whoever they’re making contact with.” First contact is treated as something that happened to Indigenous people, who are viewed almost like nonplayer characters who only exist to further the protagonist’s quest to conquer a foreign land.

However, he says, “In a lot of ways, colonization couldn’t have happened without the generosity and facilitation of Indigenous people in the territory. How were they supposed to know what was to come next? That they were going to get sick from welcoming a new people?”

“Oftentimes,” Longboat adds, “Indigenous people are even coming from positions of power in relation to these explorers, who are aliens in a specific place with no idea how to live or survive off of the Indigenous flora and fauna or the land.”

Terra Nova’s story and gameplay mechanics are meant to give players “a first contact experience where they don’t really know what the outcome could be,” using science fiction to cut through the endless misconceptions, stereotypes, and distorted history tied to the concept of first contact in popular culture, and let players experience it in a new, more accurate way.

When Rivers Were Trails screenshot
Image: Elizabeth LaPensée and others

Next steps

For all four of the developers featured in this story, video games offer a chance to create autonomy and sovereignty in ways that Indigenous people haven’t seen or had in centuries. “I see these digital spaces,” says Byrne, “as one of the few things where Indigenous people can make something, where they can express themselves, and know that no one’s going to be able to go in and spray-paint all over this. And if they do, who cares, there’s another copy.”

Through the unique immersive interactivity it offers, gaming enables Indigenous people to share and reflect on their experiences in a culture that generally distorts or silences them. “In terms of communicating Indigenous scenarios,” Longboat says, “video games can be a great way for people to not embody Indigenous experience, but to experience Indigenous experiences — in a way that’s not appropriative.”

Byrne agrees. “The thing about game mechanics that I love,” she says, “is that you can explain or express something with a mechanic that you may not be able to articulate using words, or even sound or visuals. It’s very hard for somebody to pull apart a feeling the way they can pull apart a visual or a sentence — I think it bypasses that resistance to listening.” Still, she cautions, there’s too often a tendency for this work to turn into “pain tourism” — where real stories of suffering are billed as entertainment, and the reaction from consumers is one she sums up as, “Oh, it’s so sad! 10 out of 10.”

Each developer must choose their own way to approach this. LaPensée, for example, doesn’t mind if her games don’t always “compute” for non-Indigenous players, because, she says, “My audience first and foremost is Indigenous players.” And no matter if their games are explicitly educational, or implicitly so through what they depict, all four developers want to prioritize games and game creation that actively seeks to hire, educate, and/or fund other Indigenous developers and artists.

This is because they all believe that ultimately, on-screen representation is only as helpful as who puts it there. “To me, it’s less about content and more about who’s behind the wheel,” Byrne says. “In a lot of major studios, there’s a heavy reliance on quote-unquote cultural advisers, and very little active engagement from the ground up,” which means that it’s rare for studios to build real relationships with the Indigenous people being represented, or to seek out and enable Indigenous work rather than looking for Indigenous spokespeople to rubber-stamp projects that studios have already decided to pursue.

Byrne also says that non-Indigenous studios — especially larger ones — can help improve representation in the industry by actively looking for, funding, and supporting Indigenous projects and creatives, rather than deciding for themselves which stories to tell. “There are already Indigenous people out there doing great work,” she says. “Why not just put out a call saying, ‘Hey, we’re looking to support this sort of work under our banner — to take on a producer role or publisher role, and to help make the industry more accessible to you’?”

Too often, LaPensée says, studios bring Indigenous people onboard with the stated aim of improving representation, but fail because they don’t give them a meaningful say. She says the solution is to hire teams of Indigenous creatives — “not just one token per game” — and to “give Indigenous creatives space to inform design and also credit them, not just give them a consultant title.”

They’ve all thought about what they could pursue with bigger budgets and more AAA-type support. For Longboat, it’s a shooter that is true to Indigenous perspectives, and experiments with nonviolence without losing the fun, competitive elements. For Byrne, it’s the Métis-Cree RPG she designed characters for in school. LaPensée says she’d make a commercial game about “rougarou [a werewolf-esque mythical creature] in space,” where outer space-dwelling rougarou use “sonar weapons and teleportation to defend their territories from colonizing space settlers.” And Petersen wants to take the mission of Tipi Kaga — and his love of MMORPGs — even further, with an MMO where Indigenous people across the world can connect with each other through Indigenous storylines and worlds, and where chatrooms let players speak to each other in their native languages.

Indigenous gamers, creators, and characters have been under- or misrepresented since the early days of the industry. Calls for improved overall diversity in gaming are increasingly common from consumers and creators alike — and while some studios have started to respond to those calls, there remains a concern that those responses have, so far, been insufficient. But for studios and developers seeking meaningful Indigenous representation — both on-screen and behind it — developers like Longboat point out that the solution isn’t complicated: “Oftentimes,” he says, “the best way to do that is just to hand off the decision-making power to the folks whose story you’re trying to tell.”

[Ed. note: Many of the terms used to refer to Indigenous peoples — both in general as well as when discussing specific tribes and nations — were determined by settlers and colonists. There isn’t a consensus about the “correct” terminology, but because of the criticisms surrounding the terms “Indian” and “Native American” in particular, this article uses “Indigenous” as a general descriptor. References to the tribal affiliation of individuals in this piece use their preferred terminology wherever possible.]

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