“a violence that continues to dehumanize and perpetuate racist ideas...”
December 9, 2018 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Red Dead Redemption 2's Redface Proves How Far Games Haven't Come [Paste Magazine] “It’s nearly the end of 2018, and I have to write an article about blackface and redface in Red Dead Redemption 2. That sucks. It sucks, because it means no one bothered to interrogate the casting. It sucks, because I know the pushback I’ll get for being the one to call out readily apparent racism in a game that opened to $725 million in sales. It sucks, because we’re still having to have conversations about why the perpetuation of racist stereotypes and the dehumanization of people of color is bad. It sucks, because didn’t we just do this with Uncharted: The Lost Legacy? And it sucks, because I hoped maybe we could do better than Charles, and as a Native woman who got her start pleading with games journalists and developers to do better, I wouldn’t need to keep writing these articles.”

• Red Dead Redemption 2 is a confection of cowboy clichés [Polygon]
“Because no matter how hard I look, I can’t find anything remotely real or interesting about any of these characters. Perhaps the most ridiculous are Native American father and son Rain Falls and Eagle Flies. Pop is a sad-eyed elder, weary with the world and willing to compromise. Junior is a hothead, eager to deal a bloody nose to his people’s oppressors. The first time we see these guys they are (you guessed it) sitting on horseback on a ridge, overlooking the traveling band of heroes. If you saw these two in a movie or a TV show, you’d likely roll your eyes. Critics would express incredulity at their shallowness. We’ve seen them again and again for more than a century, from Nanook of the North to Dances With Wolves. They are grotesque cigar-store statues wheeled out as sorry stand-ins for characters with real heart, real histories and real depths. The problem, I think, is that every character in this game exists in order to highlight some positive aspect of protagonist Arthur Morgan’s personality. With the Native Americans. he’s sympathetic, without being a do-gooder chump.”
• Indigenous peoples are decolonizing virtual worlds [High Country News]
“Video games have a malicious history of inaccurate portrayals of Indigenous characters. In the 1980s and ’90s, they were the human targets of shoot-’em-ups like Indian Attack, Cowboy Kid, and Hammer Boy, and the repetitive rape of a Native American woman was the main aim of Custer’s Revenge. GUN, released in 2005, required that gamers murder a set number of Native Americans in order to graduate through levels, and the “pan-Indian” stereotypes of mystic chief, ritualistic warrior, or Indian princess continue to dominate storylines. A 2010 academic paper that analyzed the race of characters in the 150 bestselling games in the United States in one year revealed that Native Americans were the most underrepresented segment of society and appeared only as secondary characters. “It’s a rather poisonous state of affairs that it’s possible for gamers to imagine flying through space at the speed of light with a three-headed alien but can’t imagine playing as a brown person,” says Jason Edward Lewis, who has been trying to boost Indigenous presence in virtual worlds since he co-founded the research group Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC) in 2005.”
• More Than Shamans and Savages: American Indians and Game Development [US|Gamer]
“In Custer's Revenge, the only goal is to repeatedly rape a captive Native woman while dodging arrows (presumably fired by other Natives). It’s easy to feel like the game is a relic of a bygone era of cultural insensitivity and that something like that wouldn’t be released today; but sadly, that’s not quite true. In 2008, a Brazilian team of students remade the quite literal rape simulator, this time with updated visuals. It’s still available to download, and there are Let’s Plays posted this year. For some, this is a joke. For some, it can be played off as a funny thing that they’ll never have to see or deal with directly. For Native women? Things are different. According to the Department of Justice, American Indians are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than any other race or ethnicity, with more than one in three Native women reporting rape during her lifetime. I’d be remiss to conflate a 32-year old game with crimes committed by people who almost certainly haven’t played it. What is does do, however, is show how common it is for natives to be treated as less than individuals.”
• New ways to portray Indigenous people in video games [Winnipeg Free Press]
“We were in Assiniboine Park when my daughter showed me Xatu. She was playing Pokémon Go, a popular game app in which you catch mystical, cartoonish creatures by finding geographical locations. Pictured on her smartphone’s screen was a green bird, looking like it had been ripped off a West Coast totem pole. The profile of the character said it had psychic powers of "future sight." Curious, I did some research. Xatu was written with a mix-mash of northern (Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tsimshian, Nuxalk, Tlingit, and Coast Salish) and southern Indigenous cultures (Mayan and Aztec). The Japanese name for the character, Natio, appears to be a play on "native." (Japan is where the Pokémon series was invented.) Why should Xatu have powers, you ask? To fight with other Pokémon, of course. In Xatu can be found virtually everything Indigenous peoples are in video games: a hodge-podge of stereotypes, rolled together into a violent character. Often, we’re the villains, but sometimes, we’re the victims, too.”
• Civilization video game paints an 'inaccurate and dangerous' picture of Poundmaker Cree Nation chief [CBC]
“A video game is shining a spotlight on an Indigenous leader from the 19th century — but members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan aren't sure the makers are playing fair. "When I first saw the video game… I thought that's pretty cool, Poundmaker is in a game," Milton Tootoosis, headman with the Poundmaker Cree Nation tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "But when I looked further into the matter it raised some questions." [...] "[This game] continues to promote some of these ideologies that are connected to concepts of colonialism and imperialism and that doctrine of discovery," he says, "which are totally contrary to the beliefs and values of Chief Poundmaker, and many other Indigenous leaders around the world for that matter." Due out next month, the game comes, he says, at a time when "cultural appropriation of Indigenous culture is a global challenge." Tootoosis also expressed misgivings about the visual representations of Chief Poundmaker. In the game, he appears well-dressed and healthy, but Tootoosis says this glosses over the hardships suffered by Indigenous people at the time.”
• Nintendo Apologizes for Racist Depiction of Native Americans in 'Super Smash Bros. Ultimate' [Motherboard]
“Fans of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate noticed something strange in recent tournament footage of Mr. Game and Watch. During certain attacks, the character donned a toothy grin, loincloth, feathered headdress, and torch—invoking a racist Native American stereotype. In one matchup, Mr. Game and Watch performs a special move that makes him look like a grinning, torch-wielding Indian taking a torch to King Dedede. The move is a reference to an old Game and Watch handheld called Fire Attack from 1982, where players took control of a cowboy with a mallet as he attempted to keep torch-carrying natives from setting fire to his fort. A re-release of Fire Attack as part of Game and Watch Collection 4 on the Gameboy Advanced removed the loincloths and feathers.”
• What We Talk About, When We Don’t Talk About Natives [Medium]
“In the past week leading up to the launch of Guerrilla Game’s Horizon: Zero Dawn, I’ve read several thousand words about it. And now on the eve of its launch, I’ve read several thousand more. Most of those words repeat, but none so glaringly as these: Tribal. Primitive. Braves. Savage. But in all those thousands of words, those dozens of instances of that particular list, no one calls them into question. Not a single review makes mention of the historical usage of those words, or the tropes reflected in Horizon that caused the writers to use them without hesitancy. And that’s a problem. You see, Natives are actually all around you. We may only make up 2–4% of the US population according to census data, but despite what mainstream media and popular misconception might have you believe — we’re still here.”
• The hidden history of Indigenous stereotypes in tabletop games [The Conversation]
“Looking only at the industry today, however, conceals a past that has contributed to the ways that stereotypes are passed between generations. n the 19th century, board game companies in the United States and Europe realized the potential of using Indigenous imagery to sell their merchandise to boys in particular. These early game-makers depicted Indigenous people as savage enemies or peaceful children. They borrowed these stereotypes from Wild West shows and dime novels. Indigenous imagery offered more than a marketing opportunity. It also offered a way to teach American children about their history and culture. The games introduced complex ideas like territorial annexation and assimilation while players were still too young to fully understand these ideas. The Game of United States History (circa 1903), for example, depicted the pre-contact residents of North America as “roving tribes of warlike Indians.” It contrasted these pre-contact depictions with Indigenous Americans who attended residential schools, wore European clothing and embraced “civilized occupations.””
• The Video Game That Attempts to Preserve Native Alaskan Culture [The New Yorker]
“The Iñupiat people, a tribe native to Alaska, did not have a written language for much of their history. Instead, for thousands of years, their culture was passed down orally, often in the form of stories that parents and grandparents would tell and entrust to their children. In recent years, those stories, and the lessons and values and history that they contain, have become harder to preserve, as the young people of the tribe, growing up in the modern world, have drifted further and further from traditional ways. This video, which originally appeared on “The New Yorker Presents” (Amazon Originals) and is based on a story by Simon Parkin, is about a recent experiment in transmitting Iñupiat culture through a new medium: a video game. The tribe worked with a New York-based company called E-Line to create a game based on an old Iñupiat tale called “Kunuuksaayuka,” in which an Iñupiat child travels across the wilderness to find the source of the bitter blizzards that have been hitting his village.” [YouTube][Never Alone Game Trailer]
• This Land is My Land takes a different view of the Wild West than Red Dead Redemption [Polygon]
“This Land is My Land — due out in the first half of next year — is an open-world game set in late 19th century frontier, but it’s played from the point of view of a Native American. By contrast, Red Dead Redemption 2’s protagonist is a white man. Promotional footage thus far released has shown little evidence of Native Americans, likely because RDR 2 is set in 1899, decades after the defeat of plains tribes by a combination of the United States military and by the influx of white settlers wielding advanced technologies. This Land is My Land is set at an earlier time, when Native American country was being overrun by white settlers. [...] “You represent them all,” he said in an email interview with Polygon. “The Chickasaw, Cherokee, Lakota, Cheyenne, Apaches, Navajo, Shawnee, Shoshone, Mohawk, Utes and all other tribes large and small. These last patches of your homeland seem insignificant for the settlers, but for you it is the center of the universe; the heart of everything.” He added: “We could not find any good games which would let us play as a Native American warrior, or as the Declaration of Independence called them, ‘merciless Indian savages’. So, we are making one.””
posted by Fizz (19 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
The thing I find really irritating is that this would have been so easy to avoid, and it would have made a better game.
posted by evilDoug at 11:08 AM on December 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

The 2006 video game "Prey" had as it's protagonist a native person who was depicted as a contemporary American rather than an over the top stereotype. That is the only incidence I can recall of that. In the 2017 remake they replaced that character.
posted by agentofselection at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2018 [13 favorites]

We could not find any good games which would let us play as a Native American warrior

AC3 is the closest I've found and even that is not the best it could be.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:23 AM on December 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

The 2006 video game "Prey" had as it's protagonist a native person who was depicted as a contemporary American rather than an over the top stereotype. That is the only incidence I can recall of that. In the 2017 remake they replaced that character.

They're two entirely unrelated games, though. One is not a remake of the other, they don't share any creative personnel or design elements AFAIK.

And even the 2006 edition of Prey can't be let off the hook. I distinctly remember that the main character collected a power-up that was a buckskin bag and peace-pipe to increase his "spirit power" or something.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 11:29 AM on December 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

The 2006 video game "Prey" had as it's protagonist a native person who was depicted as a contemporary American rather than an over the top stereotype. That is the only incidence I can recall of that.

inFamous: Second Son also had a contemporary Native lead as well.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:33 AM on December 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

I mean, it's not related to video-games but Kevin Hart has not had a good month. First he lost the Oscars due to homophobic tweets from his timeline in years past but the reason I bring him up is that he threw a birthday party for his child and the theme was 'Cowboys & Indians'.

It's a much larger cultural problem. I just pointed the lens at video-games. It's ugly.

posted by Fizz at 11:33 AM on December 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

And then (RE: Kevin Hart) everyone at my job (including the supervisor, who is married to a Saudi Arabian immigrant and who lived internationally for years) was all "Man, all this political correctness stuff goes too far. You can't even make jokes about blackface anymore!"
posted by Scattercat at 11:47 AM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

There's a bit more background to the Poundmaker Cree story in Civilization VI.

I was actually really enthralled by the music in the game. There are 4 versions of each civilization's music: moving from the ancient, to medieval, to industrial, to the modern era. I particularly like Australia and Indonesia, because I recognize the core theme, and watching it unfurl from a really basic rendition with a few instruments into a soaring, majestic full scale orchestra and choir by the end is just amazing. The Poundmaker Cree one was really good too. I wondered how they got the music and was pleasantly surprised that they actually got members of the Cree to perform it.

Some excerpts from another article.

When Clyde Tootoosis set out to resurrect the Poundmaker Singers, he sought permission from his uncle, who founded the group, in the traditional way: with a gift of tobacco. “Permission came with strict rules,” he recalls. “No drugs. No alcohol. And he told me, ‘Don’t make it about money.’ ” So, when the singers were approached to record music for the Chief Poundmaker character in an upcoming edition of the popular video game Civilization, he didn’t quibble over remuneration.

Tootoosis says Geoff Knorr, the composer hired to do the score, told him his budget was tight and he could only pay about $100 apiece. Tootoosis, who makes good money working in the Alberta oil patch, recalled his uncle’s advice and agreed to record the music in exchange for a catered meal, gas money and jackets inscribed with the logos of the Poundmaker Singers and the game. The cost of the jackets, said Knorr in a Facebook exchange, “fully depleted the budget for any monetary pay.” But Tootoosis was excited by the opportunity to share his music with such a vast audience. “I wasn’t looking for a handout,” he says.

Milton Tootoosis, a headman at Poundmaker Cree Nation and cousin of Clyde, says custom requires that “if you’re going to borrow from another culture you must get approval.” He is angry no one asked permission to use the image of Chief Poundmaker in the game or sought input about the narrative from his First Nation.
posted by xdvesper at 1:54 PM on December 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

They cast Noshir Dalal, a Japanese and Parsi actor, who claims his being “pretty damn ethnically ambiguous” as a selling point, and that his “look” covers a wide-range of ethnicities. I don’t really blame Dalal. Playing into this ambiguity is what white supremacy in the fiercely competitive space of acting demands of marginalized people.

That is some lazy, counterproductive bullshit. What would the author have him do?
posted by exogenous at 5:04 PM on December 9, 2018

That is some lazy, counterproductive bullshit. What would the author have him do?

Nothing. They specifically state they don't blame Dalal, because when you're a POC actor, you take whatever you can get because POC roles are so scarce.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:26 PM on December 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

This is problematic, and not something I had even thought about or considered while playing.

My personal issue with RDR2 is how meandering, vague, and empty it is. Empty both in the geospatial sense while you are navigating the landscape - sure, there's a lot of environment, but so what? - and empty in that it is weaksauce, narratively unsatisfying storytelling.

It is dozens of fetch/deliver quests stitched together by a nice engine and some decent acting, has the same shitty character movement and animation issues as GTA5, and is slow. "Slow" does not equal "expansive", it equals frustrating. RDR2 is a sluggish morass of brown graphics and grey storytelling and slow-motion actionand to round it all out, it's boring.

Online is an absolute flaming shitshow of griefing, more emptiness, and an extra helping of suck and fail.

I had fun with this game for probably 20 hours - so, I'm not complaining, because in that sense I certainly got my money's worth - but I haven't finished Chapter 4, already know how it ends (and don't care), and have had zero desire to pick it up again. I still have fond memories of the first and 100%-ed both that and the zombie DLC, so it isn't that I have a problem with cowboy games - perhaps I've just grown out of Rockstar stuff.

Hearing that their casting directors couldn't even be arsed to get native actors to play native characters is just the icing on the cake.

And despite everything that everyone has been saying about Fallout 76, I played that all damn weekend and fully intend to be playing it over the three weeks of my upcoming Christmas holidays. That is fun, and the handful of other players I've bumped in to were actually nice and helpful people!
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:50 PM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I dislike the terms "racial violence" and "white supremacy" being used to describe casting decisions and badly written characters. I only read the first article.
posted by mammal at 6:48 PM on December 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Games would also benefit from native people a lot higher up in the decision making tree than just actor. A native actor wouldn't have to work on fighting the racism alone if some of the script writers, narrative designers, VO directors, and artists were indigenous.
posted by subtle_squid at 6:57 PM on December 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I hope everyone plays Never Alone. It is fantastic
posted by subtle_squid at 6:58 PM on December 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

I dislike the terms "racial violence" and "white supremacy" being used to describe casting decisions and badly written characters.

You can dislike it if you wish, but that's what it is.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:05 PM on December 9, 2018 [33 favorites]

I bought Never Alone recently but only played a little bit before being distracted by something else—I’ll devote some of my holiday break to revisiting it.

I’d be curious to hear what Native writers think of the original Prey. The story had protagonist Tommy initially dismissive of his heritage, but opening himself up to its supernatural power to repel an alien invasion. On the one hand I can imagine being annoyed, thinking that Tommy was made Native American just for an excuse to incorporate supernatural powers into a sci-if first person shooter, but on the other hand the story is very much about colonialism and the destruction and exploitation of indigenous people.* Time to fire up the old search engine!

*One if the great moments of the game was when the aliens somehow figure out a way to invade the spirit realm to which Tommy occasionally travels to receive wisdom from his dead grandfather. It was a crazy, wonderful game.
posted by ejs at 7:30 PM on December 9, 2018

Perhaps "cultural violence" would be a more descriptive term. Nobody at Rockstar is trying to physically harm native people or anyone else, aside perhaps from the developers working 90+ hour weeks that are getting paid to make the games.

They are, however, like much other media, actively destroying other cultures and replacing them with a mishmash of weird stereotypes all of us absorb, papered over with a small bit of undergraduate level ideas to make it more "real." (For a definition of real that satisfies only those with the most superficial ideas)
posted by wierdo at 8:52 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

The first Polygon article is very accurate. One of the problems is that the game decided for you that Arthur is stupid. As a player, you know way, way before he does that Dutch and Micah are trouble, not leaders, yet to advance the main story you must choose to repeatedly join in on their lousy plans. The main plot made me feel exhausted by crime. I had the best time on my own, befriending horses, identifying animals, picking herbs, dressing up, exploring, fishing and hunting.

But they definitely wrote the game content to try to engage every type of player in the combat and crime system. You can't avoid the violent gangs. There's an honor system that seems to affect how people treat you, but it isn't robust enough to mechanically force you to behave. You can still do almost anything you want, then run from the police to another district, pay your bounty, and be free and clear. So there are some events that felt like bait, and I fell for them--in St. Denis there is a random event in which you encounter a policeman beating someone, and there is also a loud eugenicist offering pamphlets. Both cases were perfect opportunities to murder, run, and pay. And you don't lose honor for killing any KKK guys you meet in the woods, although they're often dumb enough to accidentally kill themselves.

I did find the plotline involving the Native Americans to be upsetting. Murder is your only tool, and it's useless because most of the time, the soldiers never stop spawning. In the stealth mission, you can instead kill all the soldiers and burn their camp, but the future cut scenes don't acknowledge it.

I thought the main story came close to being innovative, considering what happens to Arthur and the camp over time. Those things felt compelling to me, but they didn't pay off in a satisfying way. I thought that Arthur would decide to leave the camp and move south, where it's dry. Instead, the game will only let you play as someone else after the story is over, and you're given enough money that money is meaningless. You can suddenly buy all the upgrades you'd been working to earn. I didn't feel any motivation to play at that point. In that way, maybe it is clever... Maybe as a player, I should have chosen to not even talk to Dutch and advance the plot from early on, and then all those bad things wouldn't have happened.
posted by heatvision at 4:23 AM on December 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

> The 2006 video game "Prey" had as it's protagonist a native person who was depicted as a contemporary American rather than an over the top stereotype. That is the only incidence I can recall of that. In the 2017 remake they replaced that character.

They're two entirely unrelated games, though. One is not a remake of the other, they don't share any creative personnel or design elements AFAIK.

And even the 2006 edition of Prey can't be let off the hook. I distinctly remember that the main character collected a power-up that was a buckskin bag and peace-pipe to increase his "spirit power" or something.

There's more about Prey here: Native Americans in Video Games: Racism, Stereotypes, & The Digitized Indian (2011)
... Recently, however, a game titled Prey was released that attempts to explore its Native American characters at a deeper level. Like Turok, Prey casts a Native American as the protagonist. However, Cherokee tribe member Tommy Tawodi is very different from Tal’Set and Joshua Fireseed. Unlike those characters, Tommy ditches decorative feathers and war paint, puts on a shirt, and dresses in contemporary fashion. Prey makes it clear that Tommy and the other Cherokee are characters of the modern world — not members of a romanticized culture of the past. Perhaps most importantly, they are specifically identified as Cherokee; not just as members of a one-size-fits-all “Indian” culture that doesn’t credit the differences between the many distinct tribes and ethnic groups present in North America. Tommy is interesting compared to most Native American characters depicted in popular entertainment in that he wants to break away from the traditions of the Cherokee, dislikes life on the reservation, and is spiteful of those around him who are caught up in cultural customs and humdrum. The game begins in a rundown bar on a reservation. As Tommy walks out of the bathroom and players see lines of gambling machines, one worries that the game will just be another jumble of stereotypes, but Tommy’s dialogue soon establishes the setting as something intended to raise questions about Native American identity. Tommy has a thought-provoking conversation with some people in the bar, and the next thing you know, he and the other Cherokee are abducted by aliens and brought to a mysterious ship.

The plot sounds a bit ridiculous, but the atmosphere and storytelling are solid. As one might anticipate, Tommy’s “mystical Indian heritage” comes into play aboard the ship, as Tommy is able to use his previously unrealized spiritual powers to destroy foes with a magically enhanced bow and arrows, sense impending threats, see paths that others cannot, and so forth. These abilities reek of conventional “native mysticism”, but Tommy must ultimately accept the value of his people’s unique connection to their ancient beliefs and spirituality. Tommy’s spiritual abilities, while typical of the “mystical Indian” image, are integral to the innovative gameplay and not merely superficial inclusions, evading the trap of senseless stereotyping. The game’s story is closely tied to Tommy’s perception of himself as a Cherokee, ending with Tommy in a state of bliss about his Cherokee heritage. The personal journey during which Tommy gains confidence in his identity as a Cherokee is both unique and charming considering the typically flat portrayal of Native American characters in popular culture. Tommy’s voice actor, Michael Greyeyes, laments that Hollywood “typically relegates different indigenous cultures into either a single pan-Indian construct” (e.g. radical protester, anglicized casino businessmen) or “most commonly, as a historical figure — typically from a Plains culture”, and states that he was excited to voice Tommy because he breaks away from these stereotypes. Greyeyes excitement was well-founded, as Tommy is neither a typical Indian stock character nor an outdated “noble savage”. Prey takes a step away from typical Indian stereotypes by offering a complex character who is intriguing and dynamic. The game draws heavily on Cherokee myths and falls back on a few clichés, but ultimately offers a refreshing and positive Native American story for a mainstream audience. One can only hope that this trend will continue, and that Native American protagonists continue to break from traditional character roles and time-hardened stereotypes.
I played the demo when it came out, and while I was impressed with the gameplay (especially the game's use of variable gravity,) I was turned off by the “mystical Indian” aspect and never played the whole thing. This piece makes me think maybe I should have.
posted by homunculus at 11:11 AM on December 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

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