Michelle Chang, Ratonhnhaké:ton “Connor” Kenway, Talon and Nightwolf.

Indigenous Representation in Video Games

Hello and welcome back to My Geekology! I’m Ash and today we are going to take a look at some iconic video game characters! National Native American Heritage Month is here, and with Thanksgiving nearing we wanted to look at some important characters noted to be of Indigenous descent. We hope you enjoy! See you on the other side!

Seeing Yourself

Assassin’s Creed III Trailer
Assassin’s Creed III Trailer

One of the most important moments in my life as a gamer was when I saw a commercial for Assassin’s Creed III roughly 10 years ago. The trailer showed a snowy forest, a man jumping up and forcibly dismounting a British soldier from a horse, and a myriad of action sequences to the tune of “Coming Home” by P. Diddy and Skylar Grey. It took moments for me to register that this was an actual video game. Then I heard, that line, “He comes from the Mohawk Tribe, but he is destined to lead us to freedom” and I had to have it.

Something happens when you get to be yourself in something. It is one of the appeals of role-playing games. These games give our imagination, which can be fluid and fantastical, a place to live and breathe. Ray Bradbury in the book Zen in the Art of Writing is quoted as “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” By being anything and anyone in these games, in a way, you are never more yourself.

These are the types of games I tended to veer toward until I saw this game. There was an Indigenous person, like me, and they were not a side character. I am Anishinaabe. Specifically, I am Metis Ojibwe. The idea of someone Indigenous being an important cog in the complex story of the Assassin’s Creed games was impossibly cool to me. 

A Disclaimer

In John Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, he writes, “All representations of a thing are inherently abstract. It’s very clever.” It is important to remember that characters, especially in the case of Indigenous characters in video games, inhabit ideas more than they portray any one culture or group. Not all Indigenous peoples think the same, have the same customs or share physical characteristics. Before colonization, these peoples were often separate nations with their own ways of life. So, grouping them together and summarizing them can be problematic and lead to stereotyping. However, there has to be a beginning to being represented in a multi-billion dollar industry. There have to be moments where Indigenous people saw themselves for the first time. Consequently, these portrayals can be tough, however, the first steps of any journey always are.

the Fault in Our Star by John Green.

Choose Your Fighter

Ancestors, give me strength!

-Nightwolf

Throughout gaming history, Indigenous characters were confined almost exclusively to fighting games like in the Tekken and Mortal Kombat franchises. Michelle Chang and Nightwolf were the iconic Indigenous characters from these franchises that millions and millions of gamers interacted with. This legacy has created a myriad of complex positives and negatives regarding the continuation of stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, however, it is not that simple. Let me explain.

Nightwolf

Nightwolf in Mortal Kombat.
Nightwolf

When I play Mortal Kombat with my wife I play as Nightwolf (my wife is a Jade main). I recognize the character is problematic. It is not unusual for a video game to ask the player to manipulate a stereotype-ridden representation of themselves in order to play as someone with who they connect. However, it is the character that is like me in the game (Native North American). Kotal Kohn is an alien essentially but is intended to recall Mesoamerican civilizations, I do not view that in the same lens as Nightwolf.

I recognize that he is a character from another time that has developed popularity, so in a way, Nightwolf is very much an entity that is apart from the Indigenous people he is meant to emulate. He is himself, with his own aesthetic, and animations.

The most prominent issue that has arisen with the character (that is not solely on the character, but he does proliferate the problem) is that he portrays a specific brand of brutality. The tomahawk weaponry combined with an absurdist portrayal of violence has carried on a false connection between these practices and all the Indigenous peoples. Evidence of the phenomenon is seen at every Atlanta Braves home game. The fans “chop” with their arms to celebrate their team playing better than their opponent.

Michelle Chang

Michelle Chang in Tekken.
Michelle Chang

Michelle Chang is a character in Tekken (1994) and Tekken: Tag Tournament 2 (2012). She is more well-known as being the mother of the often-appearing Julia Chang. She represents a very specific population that I myself belong to, Indigenous people with mixed ancestry. I am Metis (French and Indigenous), and Michelle is Japanese and Indigenous. That is a wonderful step in representing diverse communities.

The problem with Michelle is very specific. She exemplifies the ideas people carry with them about Indigenous beliefs. She can manipulate spirits as a part of her attack system. This type of belief is not as harmful as some others, but it does not represent a comprehensive understanding of any one belief system, it chooses to paint a broader picture of Indigenous belief and worldview. However, much like Nightwolf, she was the option. However, the door is open to Indigenous characters now, and we can hope the first step won’t be the last step.

For Freedom

Connor killing a British solider.

Sometimes standing against evil is more important than defeating it

-Ratonhnhaké:ton “Connor” Kenway

Video game companies have found a consistent way to include Indigenous stories in their narrative. According to the United Services Organization, “Native Americans serve in the United States Armed Forces at five times the national average.” This has opened the door for Indigenous characters to be consistently included in military stories.

An understandable question comes to mind. Why? Why would Indigenous people serve a country that oppressed them? Kevin Gover (museum director for the National Museum of the American Indian) answered this question in Smithsonian Magazine with “This is a deep patriotism, a belief that, despite all that has happened, the United States can be better, and we want to be a part of that.

Ratonhnhaké:ton “Connor” Kenway

Screen grab of Connor Kenway.
Connor Kenway on right

Connor Kenway is a character very close to my heart. Indian Country Today gave the character 8.5/10 on their representation accuracy ranking. They gave Ubisoft credit for “having a Mohawk consultant on call and for refusing to trademark culturally sensitive names.” His portrayal in the game illustrates multiple complexities present in being an Indigenous person with mixed ancestry in the landscape of The American Revolution. He very much lives in two worlds and tries to balance them. This is very relatable as someone who is a part of a Tribe and understands what reservation life can be like. It is very much like there are multiple Americas. In addition to this, the care of including accurate language is absolutely phenomenal.

Talon

Talon in CoD.
Talon

Talon is an operator in the Call of Duty franchise. My brother utilizes the character when he plays online. The character very much represents Indigenous people in service today. He is First Nation and a member of the Canadian Special Forces.

The road that started with spirit powers and tomahawk brutalities can end with our ability to see ourselves as we are in a story Indigenous people belong in. That is the journey. That’s pretty special to me.

Thank you for coming on this journey as we explored Indigenous representation in video games! We hope you had fun, and we’ll see you here next time at My Geekology!

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