Indigenous Representations in Video Games

Whilst Indigenous cultures have been featured in many video games, they have often contained many inaccurate and insensitive depictions of Indigenous culture and identity. Video games show many examples of Native Americans being stereotyped with many portrayals linked to the ideas of shamans or magic. The ‘Banjo Kazooie’ (Rareware, 1998) series shows

Humba Wumba, Banjo Tooie, Rare 2000
Humba Wumba, Banjo Tooie, Rare 2000

characters depicting Native American culture named Mumbo Jumbo and Humba Wumba. Humba Wumba speaks broken English and remains inside her wigwam unless called upon by the main character to undertake shamanistic rituals to assist them to achieve goals.

When discussing the misappropriation of Māori symbols and culture in video games, Māori academic Dr Dean Mahuta speaks of the need for Indigenous people to collaborate in game development to ensure ethics and cultural sensitivities are taken into account. He calls upon Indigenous peoples to ‘get involved with the creation process’ and to ‘take the next step beyond protest… be active participants’ Mahuta, D. (2012). Where game developers have collaborated with members of the culture in the creation of video games, they are able to gain results that allow such games to be accepted and promoted within that culture.

Prey (3D Realms, 2006) is a successful commercial game that has sold over one million copies. The main character in the game is an Native American

"Tommy" character design, 'Prey', 3D Realms 2006
“Tommy” character design, ‘Prey’, 3D Realms 2006

named Domasi Tawodi, or “Tommy”. During development of the game, the developers took an interest in the myths and stories of Cherokee culture and decided that in order to utilise this in games development, the main character should himself be a Native American. Tommy was voiced by Michael Greyeyes, who is Native American. During the process, Greyeyes was able to work with the developers to ensure that he was able to participate in, and was happy with the character and depictions of Native American Culture. He stated that he was “impressed with the way [3D Realms] conceived of and wrote Tommy… Hollywood typically relegates our different indigenous cultures either into a single pan-Indian construct of some kind… or, most commonly as a historical figure, typically from a Plains culture… The writers [at 3D Realms] were always open to my comments – which I freely offered – and took my notes seriously, in nearly all instances changing dialogue or thematic content.” – Michael Greyeyes

Never Alone/Kisima Inŋitchuŋa
The 2014 puzzle-platformer Never Alone/Kisima Inŋitchuŋa (Upper One games 2014) describes itself as a ‘world game’. The game was created in a collaborative process between the Iñupiat people of Alaska and game developers. Amy Fredeen, CFO and executive vice president of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council speaks of a traumatic history experienced by the Iñupiat people where children were sent to boarding schools and were taught not to speak their language. They were raised to feel ashamed of their cultural

Never Alone Cover Art, Upper One Games 2014
Never Alone Cover Art, Upper One Games 2014

identity and this has also proven detrimental to their children. “Despair, drugs and alcohol. These types of challenges are what many indigenous cultures face when the face rapid transitions”. The Tribal Council decided they wanted to engage their youth, and show these children their culture was something to be proud of in such a way that ‘the whole world thinks is cool’. They decided to do this through the creation of a video game and approached game developers for assistance. Both the Tribal Council and the developers agree that from the very start of the project, it was very important to work closely with the Iñupiat community, in order to ‘create a game that reflected their culture in a way that was meaningful and accurate’, referring to this process as Inclusive development (Donlan C, 2014). Traditional Iñupiat stories were used in the game’s narrative, and as the project developed, there were regular meetings and discussions between the developers, Iñupiat community members, cultural advisers and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council regarding all aspects of the game’s design and content. “The last thing we wanted was this game to be kind of a cultural appropriation. We didn’t want this to be an outsider’s view of what the Inupiaq culture was. We wanted it to come from the people themselves,” Bryant, H. (2014). Although this was a long process, the result was a successful video game that as well as preserves and promotes culture, has also been a commercial success, selling thousands of copies on 5 platforms and has been nominated for many awards.

Love Punks
In the Aboriginal community of Roebourne, Western Australia, The Yijala Yala

Love Punks Game, Big hArt 2012.
Love Punks Game, Big hArt 2012.

Project by Big hArt and Stu Campbell discovered that the Aboriginal youth had a strong interest in video games and worked collaboratively with the community to develop a video game, interactive story and other media. The team discussed ideas with the community and the interactive media was created in collaboration with the local children who were large participants in the creation of the Love Punks (Big hArt) video game, cutting over 2000 frames themselves. The content of the media was based on traditional Aboriginal stories and required constant feedback and collaboration from community members and elders. ‘whenever we talk about Minkala for example, this ancient mythological god, we had to consult with elders int eh community to get permission to actually talk about Minkala, even to use the name Minkala in this public space and that consultation process had to go on with every bit of culture that we tried to transfer to the medium’. Big hArt and the Yijala Yala project hope that the media that has been created will not only engage Aboriginal children and their families, but will help promote and preserve Indigenous culture, and “break down barriers between indigenous communities and the rest of the world” (Matheson, J. 2015).