Oregon Trail to Assassin’s Creed: Right and wrong Native American portrayals in video games

C.A. Printup

#NativeNerd guest writer: This list of Native Americans or First Nations characters in video games ranges from historically and culturally accurate to ‘savagely’ stereotypical

Editor’s note: By #NativeNerd Vincent Schilling:

Since the dawn of PC and console gaming, Native American representation in video games has been varied, ranging from bad and outdated stereotypical characters called warriors, shamans, or bloodthirsty savages, to games that have used actual Native voice actors, speaking their own languages, and cultural representatives being involved the development.

Indian Country Today’s C.A. Printup compiled a list of ten games that show some of the worst representations of Native characters in gaming and some not-so-horrible, culturally accurate and even respectful depictions of Natives.

Printup’s assessments of right or wrong are loosely based on public outcry, whether or not Native’s were involved in development, the level of stereotypes and/or cultural appropriation and are not necessarily shown in order from best to worst.

We are not giving those games listed as “Got it Right” a comprehensive green light on all Native content included in the game. While some of the video games did do a better job of consulting with Native people, tribal historians or using Native actors, not all content within the games are culturally sound. This article is made as a reference, and Indian Country Today’s C.A. Printup did a great job of compiling the list of 10.

I am C.A. Printup and appreciate being able to contribute to this guest column on Native Nerd. In my list of video games I researched, I was more easily able to find negative stereotypes in video games than positive representations.

This said, while some games were better than others, and some were downright horrible, I decided to rate them on a scale of one to ten stars. One star being horrible, stereotypical and culturally appropriating, while ten stars are culturally respectful and historically accurate.

The list of five right, five wrong Native Americans in video games are as follows:

Got it Wrong
Civilization VI
3.3 stars - For offensive stereotypes, lack of consultation and inappropriate regalia

Cree leader Chief Poundmaker, portrayed in Civilization VI by Firaxis / 2K Games was sharply criticized by Cree elder Milton Tootoosis - screen capture

Civilization VI is a turn-based strategy game where players can choose from many different world leaders, each with special abilities. Players win the game by conquering the world. During gameplay, players can encounter “barbarians” that they must defeat for special boosts in the game.

When Civilization VI creators announced Cree leader, Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, aka Chief Poundmaker, in the games expansion pass titled Rise and Fall, there was sharp criticism from Milton Tootoosis, a Cree Nation headman who said the game perpetuated the myth that First Nations had similar colonial values of conquering other peoples to access their land.

Tootoosis said, “That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view.”

According to multiple media sources, including VICE, the publisher of 2K Games, “did not seek the permission of the First Nations or consult the elders in regards in the use their namesake as a character.”

Got it Right
Assassin's Creed III
8.5 stars - For having a Mohawk consultant on call and for refusing to trademark culturally sensitive names

Assassins Creed without subtitles
Connor Kenway, Ratonhnhaké:ton, as portrayed in Assassin's Creed III by Ubisoft - screen capture

Video game developers created Native characters with little to no input in video games like Civilization VI. But developers did seek input in the creation of Native characters to be more culturally accurate with Assassin's Creed lll. Assassin’s Creed III is an open sandbox action-adventure game where you play as Connor Kenway, a half-British, half-Mohawk character also known as Ratonhnhaké:ton, who is caught up in the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars.

Ubisoft has shown themselves to be historically accurate by using cultural experts in their Assassin’s Creed games. In an interview with Time Magazine, Alex Hutchinson, Assassin’s Creed III‘s creative director, said, “There are people from all over the world on our team, but we’re very aware that we’re still pretty much a bunch of early middle-aged white guys. We didn’t want to make mistakes, even well-intentioned mistakes.” According to the Time article, the team said they realized they were running into too many stereotypes, faux pas, and factual errors, so they hired a Mohawk cultural consultant, Thomas Deer of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, to be on call at all times.

According to the piece, “When the team asked about including ceremonial masks in the game, Deer warned them that any visual depiction of the sacred masks is considered offensive. He advised them on which types of clothing and jewelry to use and which types of spiritual music were off-limits. Even Connor’s name had to be cleared for use–in Mohawk culture, each name had to be culturally unique–and Ubisoft’s lawyers agreed not to trademark it.”

Got It Wrong
Oregon Trail
1.1 stars - For refusing to acknowledge the stereotypes in previous incarnations while actively promoting more stereotypes

Oregon Trail
Settlers run into a Native American on the Oregon Trail / MECC screen capture

Oregon Trail is a classic game, still used in elementary schools, to help teach students about the Oregon Trail and its role in westward expansion. The game is well-known to the Gen-Z generation for the “you have died of dysentery” death screen memes on social media.

Oregon Trail’s developers have insisted for years that these raiders who attacked were not Native Americans, but even recent versions of the game on the iPhone have been called out by Indian Country Today for their stereotypical portrayal of Natives.

Got It Right
Never Alone
9.9 stars - Made in collaboration with Iñupiat and Indigenous developers

Nuna and her Arctic fox / Upper One Games

Never Alone, also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, is a puzzle platform game where players can take control of the main player Nuna and her Arctic Fox to solve levels. It was developed by the “first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in US history,” Upper One Games.

Never Alone is one of a kind on this list as it was developed in collaboration with Iñupiat people. According to the games’ site, “Nearly 40 Alaska Native elders, storytellers and community members contributed to the development of the game.” Players will meet “legendary characters from Iñupiaq stories - all narrated by a master storyteller in the spoken Iñupiaq language.”

Got It Wrong
Mortal Kombat
2.5 stars - Developers do not listen to criticism and have rebooted the character multiple times without input from Natives

Mortal Kombat2
Nightwolf in promotional material for Mortal Kombat/ Electronic Arts

Mortal Kombat is a fighter franchise known for its gruesome deaths in a two-player weaponized battle. Mortal Kombat also gave us the character Nightwolf, a Native American character from the contrived tribe Makota. According to a Geek.com character guide, Nightwolf uses a “menagerie of spirit animal powers” giving into the mystical Native trope.

Nightwolf contributes to the savage Native trope with his fatality. As the Geek.com article states, “If you’re going to make me play as an Indigenous stereotype, the least you can do is let me get some revenge against the colonizing white man. Fortunately, Nightwolf’s fatality doesn’t disappoint in this regard. He chops open your face and rips off the front half of your body, jaw first, so your entrails spill all over the battlefield. Then, with graceful form, he throws an axe dead-center into your heart.”

The game developers’ attempts at a reboot of Nightwolf has led him to be more stereotypically savage and the creative team has not taken any criticism from the Native community in redesigning or retiring the character.

Got It Right
Killer Instinct
6.5 stars - Listened to criticism and outcry but still could use a lot of work

Thunder Killer Instinct
Thunder’s redesign following backlash/ Xbox Game Studios

Killer Instinct is another fighter game that is known for having a set of mechanics that set it apart from other fighter games such as combo breaker and instinct mode.

Thunder is a character in Killer Instinct that has received quite a bit of criticism over the years. When developers announced that they wished to reboot the franchise, including Thunder, they demonstrably realized they needed to be more culturally-sensitive. According to a 2015 Venture Beat article.

In a later article by Kotaku, developers admitted that they still did not get the “costume” right. Microsoft consulted with Josiah Blackeagle Pinkham and Thomas tátlo Gregory, representatives of the Pacific Northwest Nez Percé tribe, the tribe Thunder belongs to. All changes made to the character can be seen in this video.

Got It Wrong … and almost right
Red Dead Redemption series
4.5 stars - Cast some Native actors for most roles but gave in to the myth that Natives in the west were only ever hostile to settlers

Native character Enepay as listed on Fandom.com / Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption series is set in the wild west and is an open-sandbox action-adventure game. There is quite a bit of gameplay where the player must murder Natives who are generally depicted as hostile. On the Wikia for the game, there are only three Native characters that are listed as not hostile.

Further controversy came to light with Red Dead 2 when one of the characters, Charles Smith, who has a Black father and Native mother, was not portrayed by an AfroNative and was instead portrayed by an actor of Japanese and Parsi descent. This was met with criticism as Red Dead 2 had famed Native actors like Graham Greene, Jeremiah Bitsui, Tatanka Means, Loren Anthony and David Midthunder on staff to voice other characters.

Got It Right
9.0 stars - Features a Native culture south of the USA border and donates profits

A screengrab from Mulaka/ Lienzo

Mulaka is a 3-D platformer based on the Indigenous culture of the Tarahumara. According to the Gamepedia page, players embark on a “journey as Sukurúame, a shaman of the Indigenous Tarahumara culture, and draw upon the powers of demigods to fight creatures based on the region's mythology as you seek to fight back the corruption encroaching on the land.”

Mulaka developers worked closely with Tarahumara in order to make it as authentic as possible including using their music and language for the game as well as their myths and legends. According to RockPaperShotGun.com, a portion of the profits from the game will be donated to preserving the Tarahumara Sierra as well.

Got It Wrong
Brave: A Warrior’s Tale
1.2 stars - Pan-Indianism and stereotypes galore

Brave without subtitles
Brave telling his life tale to Courage / South Peak Interactive

Brave: A Warrior’s Tale is a game where you play as a Native named Brave. The tribe is given no name and the game gives into many pan-Indian stereotypes as the player tries to collect 48 secret totems. The main characters are named Brave and Courage. The gameplay is so nondescript, unimaginative, and inaccurate that reviews only give it one word, “bad.”

Not only is this game filled with stereotypes, but the gameplay is so messy there are scarce few reviews giving it more than 2 out of 5 stars. What else do players expect when developers restrict gameplay to sticks, longbows, and tomahawks?

Got It Right
The Raven and the Light
8.5 stars - Highlights a portion of forgotten Canadian history and doesn’t sugar coat it

Raven and the Light 2
Opening sequence/ Mark Basedow

The Raven and the Light is unlike others on the list as it is a first-person horror game. During the game, the player explores a fictional residential school “Mother Mary’s Residential School for Indian Students.” While the player goes through picking up documents, you learn the story of Sixty-Four. It is brutal.

The game has been downloaded about 2,000 times and has about two articles online, one by Kill Screen and another by The Atlantic. The game's goal is to educate non-Natives about Canada’s not so distant dark history and both articles say that they reach that goal.

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#NativeNerd column in Indian Country Today - today's special guest C.A. Printup

Follow freelance writer C.A. Printup (Tuscarora Haud) on Twitter - @DontWriteDown or on Twitch - @DontWriteDown