It’s hard to think of a Native American protagonist in a video game without Google. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any, but there definitely aren’t as many as there should be. Problems with the inclusion of Native Americans in video games are nothing new, as they date back a few decades.
“Oregon Trail” was originally released in 1971 as a text-based game. It allowed players to experience the life of a pioneer traveling the Oregon Trail in 19th-century America. In 1985, an updated version was released. This is the version that most people are familiar with, as everyone who played it usually had their game end due to their party dying from dysentery. One of the controversial aspects of the game was its depiction of Native Americans or lack thereof.
The game features Native Americans but does a poor job of accurately depicting them. According to Indian Country Today, “Oregon Trail” presented a whitewashed version of colonial America. It doesn’t dive into exactly why white settlers wanted to settle in Native American regions and ignored the attempts to steal their land. This became a problem with the “Oregon Trail” games, as one version, “Oregon Trail: American Settler,” featured stereotypical Native Americans wearing war bonnets and wielding tomahawks.
Thankfully it seems that Gameloft might finally fix the series’ problem of depicting Native Americans with the recent release of “Oregon Trail” for Apple Arcade. Unlike previous games in the series, this version has input from Native American scholars to be as historically accurate as possible. The previous versions of “Oregon Trail” may have been tone-deaf and glossed over the consequences of the colonial era, but its controversy is nothing compared to “Custer’s Revenge.”
“Custer’s Revenge” was released in September 1982 for the Atari 2600 and is considered the worst game ever made. Why? Because the entire goal was to rape a Native American woman. I’m not exaggerating. That was all the game was about, which makes their developer’s decision to preview the game for women’s and Native Americans’ groups strange.
Because of the game’s horrific subject matter, it was marked with a label that said: “NOT FOR SALE TO MINORS.” Ironically, by April 1982, no one could buy the game, as it was removed from store shelves after its developer Mystique faced several lawsuits over banning it from being sold. It felt like game developers of the ’70s and ’80s had no idea how to properly depict Native Americans without being offensive. By the 1990s, it felt like they had finally gotten it right. Well, almost right.
In 1997, gamers worldwide were introduced to the dino-slaying hunter Turok in “Turok Dinosaur Hunter” for the Nintendo 64. The game was an adaptation of a comic series that followed a Native American named Tal’Set who is given the mantle of Turok. Turoks are supposed to protect the barrier between Earth and the Lost Land, a realm filled with dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.
“Turok Dinosaur Hunter” was a huge hit in the ’90s and is one of the first major games to feature a Native American and not be entirely offensive. The only stereotypical aspect of the game is the fact that Turok is a Native American hunter who uses a bow and arrow. This would remain unchanged in future installments of “Turok.” On the other hand, the series goes out of its way to acknowledge the tribe a character identifies with, such as the Kiowa tribe.
When gaming entered the new millennium in 2000, Native American representation started to get even better. Tommy Tawodi from “Prey,” which was released in 2006, is one of the best examples of this. “Prey” is a first-person shooter game about aliens kidnapping Tommy and his family while invading earth. When Tommy dies in-game, he can be resurrected, thanks to his Cherokee heritage.
Unlike most games, “Prey’s” development team actually took the advice of his voice actor Michael Greyeyes, an Indigenous voice actor from Canada. Tommy ended up being considered one of the best-written Native American characters in video games as a result of Greyeyes’ advice to the developers.
By the 2010s more characters were being written as well as Tommy was. “Assassin’s Creed 3” follows Connor Kenway, also known as Ratonhnhaké:ton, on his path to save his people as he became an assassin. Like “Prey,” Connor’s voice actor, Noah Watts, is also indigenous and took the time to learn Mohawk language to prepare for the role.
Infamous “Second Son” follows a young Native American named Delsin Rowe, who discovers that he has superpowers. Delsin is not voiced by an indigenous actor, but the game features a faithful recreation of an Indian reservation and avoids stereotypes like bows and arrows and tomahawks.
“Red Dead Redemption” is a series that has struggled with depicting Native Americans. Usually, most are depicted as hostile savages, and Native Americans are never consulted for the games. “Red Dead Redemption 2” features a character named Charles Smith, who is Black and Native American, but is voiced by a Japanese and Parsi actor. This was surprising to find out, as he does sound like a Native American, but I guess that’s why it’s called voice acting.
Native American depiction seems to be one step forward, two steps back. For every “Prey,” there seems to be another “Red Dead Redemption 2.” The key to overcoming these stereotypes and issues is for developers to simply hire Indigenous and Native American consultants. This way, stereotypes are avoided, and games can feature accurate depictions of Native Americans and their culture.
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