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This article was published 16/7/2018 (751 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
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.
The most famous example of this is in Custer’s Revenge, a 1982 game produced for the Atari 2600, where players play the role of U.S. cavalry leader Gen. George Custer, avoiding arrows in pursuit of a Native maiden.
Custer wins by raping her. On screen.
This is a brutal example, of course, but conquering Indigenous peoples and nations is also found in games such as Mortal Kombat, and Civilization.
These give you the option to make Native peoples the conquerors, too. As if that’s better.
Gamers love -- as much as most of pop culture -- Indigenous representations. Indigenous peoples are the perfect toy to tell stories of land theft, war, and tragedy.
But this is not all the story.
I am only a part-time gamer. My daughter knows much more about the gaming world then I do. My students, too.
One of my students at the University of Manitoba, in fact, is getting a graduate degree studying Indigenous representations in video games.
They’re not all the same, says Naithan Lagace, a Métis master's student who hails from The Pas.
"Not all representations wear headdresses and throw tomahawks," says Lagace. "Some of them – especially those invented by Indigenous creators – help build identity and relationships."
Gamers love ‐ as much as most of pop culture ‐ Indigenous representations. Indigenous peoples are the perfect toy to tell stories of land theft, war, and tragedy.
Lagace has created a website which profiles "the multitude of different Indigenous representations within video games," and examines the impact they have.
Video games, Lagace says, reflect government and society’s practices and policies about land, identity, and history. These effect people’s real lives – from the way Indigenous Affairs administers to the over-incarceration of Indigenous youth in Canadian prisons.
The website highlights the problematic and repetitive ways Indigenous peoples are represented -- but one thing Lagace has noticed is increased complexity in the gaming industry.
Games such as Assassin’s Creed III repeat stereotypes but incorporate Indigenous languages and ceremonies that gamers can interact with positively. Others, such as Until Dawn, use political struggles Indigenous peoples are involved in (such as the environment) as storylines.
While inaccuracies and misrepresentations continue to be the norm, Indigenous peoples are getting increasingly involved in the gaming industry, whether it be working on games or inventing them.
"Done right," says Anishinaabe assistant professor and gaming theorist Elizabeth LaPensée, "video games have the potential to be self-determining spaces, where Indigenous peoples can express themselves on their own terms."
LaPensée is an award-winning video game designer. Her games help players understand Indigenous identities, learn cultural and political expressions, and gain Indigenous perspectives of history.
For instance, in her 2016 app Honour Water, players acquire the roots of traditional songs, and in her 2017 computer game Thunderbird Strike, gamers experience how to resist pipelines and revitalize a devastated landscape.
Taking the gaming world by storm is the breakthrough game Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) by Upper One Games.
Created with more than 40 Iñupiat elders and storytellers in Alaska, gamers play as a young Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox trying to solve the problem of an eternal blizzard. Along the way, players are exposed to Iñupiat language, perspectives, and politics.
Games such a Never Alone demystify Indigenous cultures, refuse stereotypes, and forge healthy relationships. They focus on the specificity of Indigenous cultures and communities while creating interesting, complex environments that are entertaining and exciting to interact with.
They certainly are not Xatu.
"Indigenous-made games with Indigenous themes are not yet widely mass-market products," says LaPénsee, "but they are gaining attention – and players – as access to technology, including mobile devices, expands."
She cites the ways Indigenous creators such as Yaqui and Cherokee coder John Romero developed franchises such as Doom – which shaped video games as they are known today.
Indigenous video games have arrived. More are on the way.
Now, with video game giant Ubisoft Entertainment SA opening offices in Winnipeg later this year, the question is whether games can be found with Indigenous storytellers from this place.
Who would like to play a game reliving the founding of Manitoba?
The stories that make up Lake Winnipeg?
The resistances to the Indian Act?
How to be a treaty person?
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
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