From Custer's Revenge to Red Dead Redemption: Changing the Language of Indigenous Representation in Video Games

In this lecture, Dr. Ashlee Bird emphasizes two types of language taking place in video games: mechanical, coded language, and visual, representational language. She discusses the importance of teaching the history of Indigenous representation in games and includes various examples from Custer’s Revenge (American Multiple Industries, 1982) to the Mortal Kombat (1992 - 2019) and Red Dead Redemption (2010 - 2018) series to apply and showcase how language is used to perpetuate harmful Indigenous narratives. She then contrasts these narratives by showing how language can also be used in ways that promote Indigenous futures, allowing games to be made with and for Indigenous peoples. 

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Key Terms:

Language in Games: Language does more than represent our reality; language shapes our understanding of our world, our place within it, and our relationship with other beings. Games operate in specific languages whereby playing the game shapes how the player views and relates to the characters in the game. Particularly, it can teach the player the perspectives of how the developers interact with or view certain identities, such as Indigenous identities.
Visual Representational Language: This is how the game visually represents Indigenous identity and culture through the character design, dialogue, or landscapes. For instance, if the player is entering an Indigenous village, is it specific to what culture it is showing, or does it show an amalgamation of multiple cultures? When an amalgamation is shown, the language communicates to the player that all Indigenous identities and cultures are interchangeable from each other. 
Mechanical Coded Language: This is how the game's actual mechanical code and gameplay represent how Indigenous cultures are viewed and treated. The code dictates how the player can, will, or should interact with the game’s world. An example of this is in the game The Marriage by Rod Humble. Without any dialogue or characters, by moving the pink and blue squares to touch each other and grow big or small, it communicates assumptions about traditional heterosexual relationships. This is highlighted in the coding of the game, which dictates that when the blue and pink square touch, or “kiss,” the pink square grows and the blue square decreases.  
Synthetic Indigenous identity: This concept is grounded in the idea that indigenous identity, ways of knowing, and culture can be created through games in ways that allow for these concepts to be embodied by the player. Thus, although games have a history of being used to depict harmful representations of Indigenous peoples, they can also be used in ways that challenge colonialist ideas and promote Indigenous futures.


Graphic of globe on top of two books

Historically, many video games have featured Indigenous peoples and their cultures. Whether intentionally or not, the code, visuals, and gameplay communicate how Indigenous people and culture should be viewed and treated. What happens inside the game shapes the player's perceptions of the identity outside of the game.

Dr. Bird seeks to understand these processes by combining knowledge from the disciplines of Native American studies, media studies, and games studies. This starts with analyzing how colonial practices and ideologies are replicated in games. With this knowledge, Indigenous creators can use mechanical coded and visual language to represent and teach their culture accurately and respectfully through video games. She emphasises that interactive media could enhance our understanding of Indigenous cultures, knowledge, and traditions in positive ways. When stories are created with and for Indigenous peoples, they foster a Synthetic Indigenous identity that can be taught and embedded in the players.

Language to Communicate Indigenous Narratives in Games

The following sections will highlight how Dr. Bird analyses the mechanical and visual languages of games to understand how they communicate Indigenous identity and culture. Using Dr. Bird’s examples and process, we summarize how she dissects the racist colonial methodologies and representations that are replicated in a game’s language. Then we will contrast this by highlighting how Dr. Bird identifies decolonial methods of game creation, which can cultivate Indigenous ways of knowing and present Indigenous cultures in a positive light.

Working through these examples, we encourage you to analyse other games to see how they communicate Indigenous cultures and identities 

Common Negative Indigenous Game Narratives

Visually, Indigenous characters, especially Indigenous women, are commonly portrayed more sexually then other characters in the game. Their character design structure may also emphasise the sexual interest of their body, in ways that makes them look like “Indian sex toys.” In the coded language of the game, the game may encourage and reward the player to see the Indigenous character through a hyper-sexualised lens through its gameplay. For instance, in Custer’s Revenge (American Multiple Industries, 1982), an Indigenous woman is strapped to a cactus, and the player controls a white male character “General Custer” to dodge arrows and rape this woman. The faster you make it across to rape her, the higher score you get. Thus, the only way to win the game is to embody the rapist and accept the sexualization of this Indigenous woman.

What does embodying these settler characters teach the player about how to treat Indigenous people outside of the game? What does it teach players about how to understand Indigenous people? How do visual and mechanical representation collude to create these perceptions?

Hyper violence is another common Indigenous game narrative, such as in Assassin's Creed III (Ubisoft, 2012) where their Indigenous characters are more violent than white ones. In short-form videos where the game makers animate their game characters accepting awards, they show Connor, the half-Indigenous character, accepting an award by massacring everyone around him. In contrast, the pirate characters accept the award without any violence. They consciously chose to portray this Indigenous person as extremely violent, and the white pirates as peaceful. More recent games like This Land is My Land (Game-Labs, 2021) have the player control Indigenous warriors to stalk and kill settlers. The player thus embodies Indigenous people defined by violence and death through the gameplay.

In other games with fighting/combat, are some characters that you can play more violent than others? Is this in related to those characters' particular identity? How are the ways that characters fight tied to their identities?

Some games amalgamate recognizable elements from different Indigenous cultures into an Indigenous person or landscape. In Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar, 2010), players must travel through a Navajo village, however, the surroundings have totem poles and tepees and other symbols that are not associated with Najavo culture. This teaches the player that all Indigenous cultures are the same and interchangeable, an extremely harmful concept.

Where else in media can we see language and visuals being used to treat all Indigenous cultures as one and the same? Do we see this with other cultures and ethnicities? How is our understanding of the past coloured by this construction of one homogenous Indigenous people, rather than the truth of a multitude of unique cultures and ways of life? 

Improvement Through Creating Games FOR and WITH Indigenous Peoples

Beyond recognizing the harm perpetuated in these negative narratives, we must ask how we can use language in games to better portray Indigenous identities. Dr. Bird highlights that this is possible, by ensuring that there is specificity to Indigenous peoples or nations portrayed, by making Indigenous knowledge central to the game, and by creating games with and for Indigenous peoples.

Some games are created with the intention of educating players about Indigenous knowledge, explicitly requiring the players to apply and embody Indigenous knowledge in order to play. For instance, Never Alone - Kisima Ingitchuna (Upper One Games, 2014), requires the player to recognise various types of snow to achieve the objective of the game. Recognizing different types of snow is core to Inuit cultures, thus the game helps the player embody and learn about the culture through play.

It’s also important to recognize that most games are made in colonial languages like English. This means that many Indigenous people have never had the opportunity to interact with a game that is in their native language. One of Dr. Bird’s earliest projects does exactly that. She created a ROM hack to recode the original Super Mario Bros game in her own language, Abenaki; changed the sprites for Mario, Bowser, and Goombas to correspond with characters from Abenaki stories; and changed power-ups to traditional Abenaki food staples.

Overall, interactive media has the power to use language in ways that allow for Indigenous participation. This participation is key in recognising and changing the way Indigenous peoples are portrayed in games.

Next time you play a game that features Indigenous cultures, think about who the intended players are. How does the visual and coded language communicate that by including or alienating different players? Does the game aim to embody a digital Indigenous Identity?

Dr. Ashlee Bird (She/Her)

Dr. Ashlee Bird

Dr. Ashlee Bird, Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre-Damn 

She is Western Abenaki and originally hails from the Champlain Valley of Vermont. Her work has been featured in the InDigital Space at the ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Festival in 2018 and 2019 respectively.