By Aidan Gordley (’24)
Nigerian novelist and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did justice to the art of storytelling when she wrote, “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a culture. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Recently a new method of storytelling has emerged as particularly powerful: the video game. Flaunting the potency of storytelling that people have used for centuries, video games have enabled developers and players to experience and interact with stories in unprecedented ways.
Unfortunately the video game industry, like other forms of media in their early stages of availability, caters to white males, who design, produce, and write the vast majority of video game titles. Creative sovereignty is defined as the ability to tell one’s own story and control one’s portrayal. Since most video games come from this singular perspective, groups outside of white men rarely have the chance to tell their own stories, especially not to mainstream audiences. They rarely have creative sovereignty. Michelle Raheja, a professor at UC Riverside of Seneca descent, elaborates on this concept, writing that “sovereignty is a creative act of self-representation that has the potential to both undermine stereotypes of indigenous peoples and to strengthen what Robert Warrior has called the ‘intellectual health’ of communities in the wake of genocide and colonialism” (1). Sovereignty is a powerful tool as it carries the entirety of a group’s culture and traditions. When a group’s sovereignty is violated, serious problems with its representation arise, and the public absorbs dangerous misinformation and stereotypes.
There are countless examples of games that portray minority groups inaccurately and without the due respect required to give them a proportionate voice in the video game industry. This distinct lack of sovereignty has repercussions in broader society, as many video games appeal to impressionable young children across cultures. David Leonard, a professor at Washington State University, communicates this direct societal threat in his article, “Not a Hater, Just Keepin’ It Real: The Importance of Race and Gender-Based Game Studies.” Citing statistics from Children Now to display the inequity of the video game industry at large, he concludes his article by stating, chillingly, “Because the refusal to engage critically such ‘kid stuff’ has dire consequences, whether with domestic policy debates—more police, more prisons, less welfare—or foreign policy decisions—more bombs, more soldiers, less diplomacy. Video games teach, inform, and control […]” (2). Leonard argues the importance of studying how games portray minority groups and how those depictions dictate current perceptions of minorities.
Therefore, it is imperative that the video game industry be more inclusive and respectful of alternative perspectives and misrepresented groups. Telling the stories of Native Americans through video games is especially important to Indigenous peoples, as storytelling is a staple of many different Indigenous traditions. Professor of Indigenous education Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in her description of her Indigenous project on storytelling, specifies, “Intrinsic in storytelling is a focus on dialogue and conversations amongst ourselves as indigenous peoples, to ourselves and for ourselves. Such approaches fit well with the oral traditions which are still a reality in day-to-day indigenous lives” (3). Since storytelling, for example, is such a significant aspect of Indigenous culture, Indigenous people must have complete control over their own stories which includes their representation in video games.
Frequently, infractions made against the storytelling sovereignties of minority groups are subtle and almost undetectable at first glance. Mark Basedow’s The Raven and the Light exists as one instance where a video game deprived a minority group (in this case, the indigenous Canadian culture) of the chance to tell its own story. The Raven and the Light is an example of uninformed, problematic game design in that it violates the creative sovereignty of Native Americans, perpetuating incorrect stereotypes and oversimplifying Indigenous struggles.
The game struggles to accurately portray Indigenous culture, history, and humanity. With the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools in the twentieth century as its primary subject, the game uses the abuse of Native American children as a means to enter the horror genre. As Kieran Delamont puts it in his article for The Atlantic, “the purpose of The Raven and the Light is to introduce [the] history [of Canadian residential schools]. And it does this with a story that is both fictional and not. Its invented details (characters and places) might not be real, but the horror of the experience is. To wit, it uses fictional horror to teach its players about the experience of a real-life terror” (4). The issue, however, is that there is no direct inclusion of Indigenous characters in the game. The game merely introduces the horrors of Canadian residential schools’ treatment of Indigenous youth as a new method to scare players. Using an unconventional setting and story, Basedow achieves this uniqueness and elicits the scares he wants without having to accurately tell the stories of the Indigenous people that were affected.
This “real-life terror” is told by a game designer with no personal relationship to any of the game’s settings, events, or culture to which it alludes. To make matters worse, the story makes no effort to establish a meaningful player-character relationship. Because there is no depth to any of the characters in the game, The Raven and the Light skips over the potential to create characters that represent the history that Basedow is trying to shed light on. Equally as egregious, there is no context or explanation of the insertion of the story of “The Raven the Light,” a mythological tale originating from the Northwest Coastal Indigenous Peoples. On top of the lack of clarification of the game’s title, there is no evidence that Basedow consulted any Indigenous representatives at all for their input on his game design. He never asked permission to tell this story or use the Indigenous myth of the Raven to produce his horror game.
These fouls against the Native American groups that Basedow is trying to represent are disappointing, but he is not alone in committing them. Professors Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang discuss other examples of well-intentioned, yet harmful efforts to “decolonize” and explain how they work against their agenda. Talking about instances where, like Basedow, creators fell short in their preparation and diligence in ensuring that their works properly portray minority groups. They mention that the effort to include minorities is helpful and beneficial, “yet, this kind of inclusion is a form of enclosure, dangerous in how it domesticates decolonization. It is also a foreclosure, limiting in how it recapitulates dominant theories of social change” (5). Here, Tuck and Yang make the argument that decolonization is a collaborative process, and when creators scratch the surface of an issue, like the mistreatment of Indigenous students in Canadian residential schools, they actively deprive minority groups of their sovereignty by taking away their chance to highlight their perspectives.
Basedow’s version of Indigenous history, including misinformation about the specific Indigenous cultures he wants to showcase, limits the scope of “decolonization” that Tuck and Yang define in their article. Players of The Raven and the Light receive no window into the vast repercussions of the erasure of Indigenous culture that the game includes. In the form of letters, journal entries, and school records, players of the game get to read up on the hardships faced by a Native American girl, Sixty-Four, who had her identity stripped from her by Reverend Caldwell, the game’s primary antagonist figure. These written encounters of the character affected by the school administrators’ abuse and torture do little to accurately display the horrors of the real abuse suffered by Indigenous children in residential schools in Canada. Additionally, players can skip these written accounts of abuse entirely and still complete the game, which gives players no incentive to learn about the characters or resolve the conflict detailed in the sources.
If Mark Basedow truly wanted to spread awareness of the horrors of Canadian residential schools, he would have made the effort to at least hear the perspectives of Indigenous people who experienced (or had family members or knew people who experienced) this level of abuse in this setting. Efforts such as these are far more effective and impactful than solo, non-collaborative projects by non-indigenous creators:
“There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonization. The too-easy adoption of decolonizing discourse (making decolonization a metaphor) is just one part of that history, and it taps into pre-existing tropes that get in the way of more meaningful potential alliances” (5).
Lacking any sort of cultural consistency or relevance to Indigenous people who could possibly relate to the content of the game, The Raven and the Light is an example of a non-indigenous creator who did not take the task of spreading awareness or education seriously.
As a result of the shallowness of the exploration of this history, there is no incisive aspect of the game that helps to significantly push back on the stereotypes of Native Americans used in video games and in general. In their article about how race has been portrayed in video games, film professors Anna Everett and S. Craig Watkins argue that the “[…] dialogue about race and video games has been marginal at best. In addition to the issues addressed above, we want to identify some other ways in which race matters in the video game world. Specifically, we consider video games in the context of a rapidly evolving digital media environment” (6). The Raven and the Light capitalizes on this blatant absence of legitimate dialogue about race depiction in video games. The game contributes to the perpetuation of the harmful stereotypes that Everett and Watkins discuss in their article. For example, the game includes a portion toward the finale where the unnamed protagonist must provide “a pure heart” to “see his most inner self reflected back.” Using the graphic image of a beating human heart, the game utilizes the common, over-saturated, and stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous people being brutal warriors. Just because Basedow selected a relatively unknown, unexplored portion of Indigenous American history does not mean that he is immune from criticism of his choices in depicting Indigenous personalities and traits.
While it does focus on a historical topic that warrants more discussion and emphasis, The Raven and the Light falls catastrophically short when it comes to Native American and Indigenous representation. To fix this glaring issue, Basedow should first look to include marginalized groups in the development process. His main offense against Indigenous people was his choice to forego discussion and collaboration entirely. In this way, Basedow is doing what Tuck and Yang warn directly against – making a home in a place inhabited by native peoples. They write in their article, “In order for the settlers to make a place their home, they must destroy and disappear the Indigenous peoples that live there. Indigenous peoples are those who have creation stories, not colonization stories, about how we/they came to be in a particular place – indeed how we/they came to be a place” (5). In taking the history of Canadian residential schools as the topic for his game, Basedow is inhabiting Native “territory.” When he chose not to take the time to ask for approval and consult Native American voices, Basedow destroyed Indigineous sovereignty. To combat this effect, Basedow should have included Indigenous perspectives in the design process of the game. More specifically, he could have adopted a strategy utilized by E-Line Media and Upper One Games in their game that incorporates Native Alaskan culture, Never Alone. Consulting Native Alaskan storytellers and elders for input at all stages of the development process, the creators of Never Alone made it a priority to accurately teach players about little-known elements of Native Alaskan culture. The incorporation of mini-documentaries throughout the story allowed players to learn how elements of Alaskan culture they encountered in the game impacted members of this group. In the case of Raven and the Light, Basedow could have included other forms of media to tell true stories of victims of abuse in Canadian residential schools. In this way, Basedow would have been restoring some of the sovereignty he stole from Native American groups.
As a member of the dominant demographic, it is problematic that Basedow alone is telling the story of a minority group: “It should be terrifying that an entire art form can be dominated by a single perspective, that a small and privileged group has a monopoly on the creation of art” (7). The fact that The Raven and the Light bears the responsibility of educating its players on the dark history of Canadian residential schools is terrifying, but not in the way that Basedow intended. Storytelling and creative sovereignty should be given back to the groups from which it was stolen. The process of doing so will depend on all groups’ collaboration and education. Decolonization of the video game industry can and should be done together.
- Raheja, Michelle. “Reading Nanook’s Smile: Visual Sovereignty, Indigenous Revisions of Ethnography, and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner),” American Quarterly 59 no. 4 (2007): pp. 1159-1185.
- Leonard, David J. “Not a Hater, Just Keepin’ It Real: The Importance of Race and Gender-Based Game Studies,” Games and Culture 1 no. 1 (2006): pp. 83-88.
- Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People (London: Bloomsbury Academic 1999).
- Delamont, Kieran. “The Difficult History of Indigenous People in Video Games,” The Atlantic, 2 June 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/the-difficult-history-of-video-games-and-indigenous-people/485276/.
- Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40.
- Everett, Anna and S. Craig Watkins. “The Power of Play: The Portrayal and Performance of Race in Video Games,” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Pp. 141-166.
- Anthropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form (New York: Seven Stories Press 2012).
Aidan Gordley is an American Studies and History major. His essay was originally written for Professor Ashlee Bird’s American Studies course ‘Decolonizing Gaming: Critical Engagement Through Design and Play.’