Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk)
Sep 28, 2023
In the 1990s, an Indigenous man by the name of John Romero would help change gaming culture forever. In the decades since, Native game designers have brought Indigenous worldviews and expressions of self-determination to these digital spaces, and, in doing so, set new standards for the industry.
Romero, an avid PC game coder who is Yaqui, Cherokee, and Mexican, co-created DOOM, a first-person shooter video game with networked multiplayer gameplay. DOOM set a precedent not just for the creation of a three-dimensional gaming world, but for bringing players across the world to play together.
Though Romero’s themes were not Indigenous early in his career, others who came after him widened first-person storytelling in digital spaces to include Native perspectives. Among them are game designer Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée and the artist and developer Skawennati.
Growing out of a gaming tradition that has been mostly white and mostly male, “we wanted to make sure that Indigenous people were present in cyberspace,” Skawennati says.
Turning the gaming industry upside down
In the 1980s, video arcades were filled with Pac-Man, Asteroids, Donkey Kong, and Tetris. Though there was a wide range of games, they were two-dimensional. In 1993, Romero and his colleagues offered the first three-dimensional game to be seen on a screen, and their efforts completely revolutionized the industry.
Born in 1967 and raised near the Pascua Yaqui Reservation in Arizona, John Romero grew up with the earliest text-based computer games. Because video games cost a quarter to play and money was not always easy to come by, Romero jumped at the chance to play for free at a local college’s computer science building. Sitting at one of 25 computer terminals hooked up to a mainframe that filled an entire room next door, Romero enjoyed early PC text games and realized he could program similar ones using BASIC, an early computer programming language.
In 1991, Romero co-founded id Software LLC. Because Romero lived and breathed computer language and coding, he was obsessed with creating something outside the norm. After working on a way to walk through doorways, flip a switch to open passages and fight fireball-throwing demons while on an elevator, Romero knew it was a pivotal moment in the industry.
While DOOM fostered community among its players, its legacy is complicated; the first-person-shooting perspective it pioneered has long been blamed for high-profile real-life mass shootings whose perpetrators' violence came under public scrutiny. While some politicians and public officials have criticized such games as the cause of mass violence, countless studies have proved otherwise. (For more on this topic, read Time magazine’s “No, Video Games Don’t Cause Mass Shootings. But The Conversation Shouldn’t End There” by Simon Parkin.)
Romero also sees the source of this type of mass violence coming from elsewhere: “Blaming video games for this issue would be an oversimplification of a deeply rooted societal problem.”
According to Romero, the Game Developers Conference has begun to feature panels and sessions focused on Indigenous game development, and organizations like Indigicade and the Indigenous Game Developers Network now exist to support, promote, and connect Indigenous game developers from around the world.
There has been an increase in dialogue and awareness about colonialist narratives in mainstream games.
John Romero (Yaqui, Cherokee, and Mexican)
Recently, game jams have been organized specifically for Indigenous creators, which not only “celebrate our unique stories but also help build community and development skills,” Romero says.
“There has been an increase in dialogue and awareness about colonialist narratives in mainstream games,” explains Romero. “As a result, many game developers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, have started exploring ways to either subvert or challenge these narratives or to avoid them entirely.”
Bringing Indigenous worldviews to gaming culture
As the gaming industry began to feel pressure to be more inclusive, Indigenous game developers continued to step forward and bring their worldviews with them.
Of Irish, Anishinaabe, and Métis descent, Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée uses game design to focus on Indigenous cultures and issues. When Rivers Were Trails, a point-and-click adventure game depicting an Anishinaabe person's journey from the tribe’s traditional territory in Minnesota during the 1890s, brings Native politics to gaming culture.
LaPensée developed When Rivers Were Trails for youth with the goal of bringing Indigenous cultures to classrooms. The game was such a success that the Oregon Trail game developers took notice and consulted with tribes to make their game—which was previously stereotypical and insulting to Native communities—more culturally sensitive.
Indigenous-led studios are showing up on the scene with games that are creative, engaging, and layered with meaning.
Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée (Irish, Anishinaabe, and Métis)
In 2017, LaPensée, a former associate professor at Michigan State University, released Thunderbird Strike to embrace Indigenous expression in a video game and generate awareness of the pollution and oil spills in the Great Lakes region. Like Romero, LaPensée says, she is driven by her passion for creating, though competition can be tough.
“It can be a rough industry to be in because of the competitiveness, reliance on the investment market, and how it perceives games and player expectations,” LaPensée explains. “However, it can also be incredibly rewarding to see someone play a game you've worked on because of how they put themselves into that experience.”
As the Narrative Director for the game development company Twin Suns, LaPensée says the landscape for Indigenous developers is growing.
“Indigenous-led studios are showing up on the scene with games that are creative, engaging, and layered with meaning,” she says.
Of LaPensée’s favorites: Meagan Byrne's studio Achimostawinan Games recently released Hill Agency, an Indigenous Futurism detective mystery; Umurangi Generation, a photography game, made it to Switch; and Neofeud is recognized as a standout cyberpunk game, with art, design, code, and writing all done by one person—Christian Miller.
“Today, we see community-involved games being developed all over,” LaPensée explains.
Creating Indigenous worlds in virtual reality
An Indigenous virtual world has been the mindset of Mohawk artist Skawennati, who creates online worlds filled with traditionally influenced regalia, language, and stories.
In Second Life—and online multiplayer platform where users create avatars to interact with others in a virtual world—exists Skawennati’s AbTeC Island, complete with a Mohawk longhouse, a sacred fire, and even virtual crops of corn stalks, beans and squash, also known as the three sisters in Haudenosaunee culture.
Skawennati‘s virtual-reality videos explore historical events affecting Indigenous peoples, including the death of the Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the Dakota Uprising of 1862, and the 1990 Oka Crisis.
Skawennati, who is Kahnawake Mohawk, is the co-founder and co-director of the website and related projects known as Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, or AbTeC, whose goal, through artwork, writing, lectures, workshops, residencies, and exhibitions, “is to ensure Indigenous presence in web pages, online environments, video games, and virtual worlds that comprise cyberspace.”
AbTeC’s origins began with an online project in 1997 called CyberPowWow, a chat space for Indigenous artists and their work. “I'm an artist, first and foremost,” Skawennati says. “When I can, I try to imagine Indigenous people in the future.”
According to Skawennati, CyberPowWow was based on cutting-edge software at the time called the Palace, the first graphical chat software that allowed people to chat on computer terminals.
“I just thought it was a great way for us to communicate, and I thought it could be an artist's community center online so that we could just go and talk with one another,” Skawannati says.
Skawennati has more recently created a series of Machinima projects (the use of computer graphics edited and compiled to create animated films) in the “Time Traveller” and “Arctic Island” series.
When I can, I try to imagine Indigenous people in the future.
Skawennati (Kahnawake Mohawk)
In these online worlds, Skawennati combines Indigenous traditions with digital technology, like a sci-fi retelling of the Haudenosaunee Confederation story—the creation story—and a story called “The Peacemaker Returns.” Another series called “Time Traveller” depicts a young Mohawk man who lives in the future and uses glasses to visit important events in the past.
According to AbTeC, even on the Internet, “Native people need a self-determined place to call home.”
Finding community in a digital world
I decided to visit Skawennati’s AbTeC Island in Second Life as part of my research for this article. I had signed up about five years ago, made an avatar, and admittedly forgotten about it until recently.
I entered AbTeC Island and came upon the traditional Mohawk longhouse, sacred fire, and the crops of corn, beans, and squash. As I entered the virtual longhouse, I realized that this was the first time I had stood inside a traditional longhouse in my own lifetime. My own grandmother had been forced into residential school, and when she became older and had children of her own, she relocated to California. As a Mohawk, I grew up on Compton Boulevard, far outside of my community. The possibility of stepping into a longhouse as a young person was not a reality.
As I listened to the crackle of the fire, I was overcome with emotion: A virtual world helped me connect even more strongly with my ancestors. It was a wonderful experience, and even though the world was virtual, I felt at home.