A short time ago we saw Assassin’s Creed 3 for the first time, revealing a dramatically different Revolutionary War setting and a Native American protagonist. It’s well and truly awesome to see the new guy flipping through the trees while efficiently dispatching redcoats with a tomahawk shaped like the Assassin insignia — but given gaming’s track record of depicting Native Americans, I can’t help feeling just a hint of trepidation. When Native characters show up at all, more often than not they’re cliches at best and deliriously offensive caricatures at worst. It’s tomahawks, feathers, fringed jackets, spirit animals, vision quests, and totem poles as far as the eye can see. There’ve been a few good depictions in there, though — here are some of the worst and best on record.
Fighting games in particular seem hellbent on cramming as many of these cliches as possible into a single character. Enter Street Fighter IV’s T. Hawk, a face-painted, fringe-jacketed, arm-circlet and feather-headband-wearing brave wielding “Thunderfoot magic.” Of course, Street Fighter is basically a parade of cultural stereotypes, from the Yoga-ninja Indian to the obese, sumo-wrestling Japanese guy and flag-waving American with ridiculous hair, but that doesn’t make Mr. Hawk here any less absurd.
Other genres games are far from innocent here. The Tauren in World of Warcraft take a grab-bag approach to Native culture, smacking together a plains tribal aesthetic with totem poles and NPCs that actually say “How!” when you click them. It’s not the most offensive — the Tauren are portrayed as a noble people and fierce warriors — but how would you like it if your culture was represented by the cow people?
Meanwhile, Gun was briefly notorious for including natives as simple cannon-fodder enemies that you’d kill by the dozen without so much as a backward glance at the moral event horizon. This one was nasty enough to spark some real-world outrage — the Association for American Indian Development spoke up to call for a boycott.
And then you’ve got an endless parade of minor, throwaway characters like Raven Speaker from Champions Online, who talks like he has a concussion and refuses to wear anything warmer than a loincloth and ribbons while hanging out in a blizzard.
Most of these are relatively harmless, and the developers who created them almost certainly meant no offense. The portrayal of Native Americans as one-dimensional cliches doesn’t necessarily ruin a game, but it does make me cringe a bit as I play.