The Difficult History of Indigenous People in Video Games

2015’s The Raven and the Light illuminates one of the darkest stories of Canada’s native population.

Mark Basedow

The Raven and the Light starts with a car crash. It ends with an almost dream-like ascent to a state of transcendence, narrated by the myth the title describes—a Northwest folk tale. Everything in between thrusts the player into a world that for some will be foreign, but for North America’s indigenous population, is and has long been painfully real.

Your character in this horror game (mostly unseen and unheard throughout) explores a fictional residential school called Mother Mary’s Residential School for Indian Students. Inside, you dodge monsters and creatures while picking up documents (letters, diary entries, and records—also fictional) that tell the story of a former residential-school student—referred to as Sixty-Four—who was raped by Reverend Caldwell (the clerical patriarch of the school). That student is later revealed to be your mother.

Not many video games would dare venture into a subject as touchy as Canada’s dark history of residential schooling and the damage that it inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of indigenous students. They were forcibly taken from their families, enrolled in remote schools, and banned from expressing their language or culture in any way. Many of these students were also physically and sexually abused. The Canadian residential schooling system was historically designed to extinguish indigenous culture and assimilate an entire race into a distinct vision of English Canadian whiteness. It existed in Canada for much of the 19th century and nearly the entirety of the 20th. With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015, the history of residential schooling is only now beginning to be understood in terms of its human cost.

The purpose of The Raven and the Light is to introduce this history. 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.

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It’s a defining experience of 21st century living to go down a digital rabbit hole and emerge differently on the other side. Case in point: About three years ago, Mark Basedow, a young, wiry first-time game maker from Ringwood, New Jersey, was in search of a setting for a horror game. “I wanted to do something with some meaning to it,” he told me. After all, an explosion of independent game makers over the past decade has created more noise to cut through. “I was thinking of a cold area, and I typed into Google: ‘Canada’s dark past,’” he said. What Basedow stumbled upon was Canada’s history of residential schools—something that the entire nation is still, in a way, stumbling through.

A lack of awareness about the history of residential schooling has allowed Basedow to break new ground with The Raven and the Light—quite possibly the only video game to approach the subject of residential schooling, and one of only a few games that casts an indigenous person as its protagonist. It’s a simple fact that, for indigenous people, video games have not been especially welcoming. Their various histories—histories that contain some of the worst atrocities inflicted upon groups of people ever—almost never make it on screen, and when they do it’s not in any meaningful way (think 1982’s Custer’s Revenge, which only worsens each year in how offensive it is to Native Americans).

In western games like Red Dead Revolver (2004), and Gun (2005), killing “Indians” is rewarded, and indigenous characters are portrayed as savage, primitive enemies. In countless other games, indigenous characters are only ever portrayed as warriors or North American quasi-necromancers. (It goes without saying, of course, that this is both a damaging and wildly inaccurate way of coming to know the histories and lives of indigenous peoples.) The Raven and the Light, in its small way, attempts to bring more attention to the true, and often unpleasant, aspects of indigenous history.

While the game has some elements that you might expect from horror—at one point you have to escape a rapidly freezing room, in another you dodge hungry wolves—these seem like secondary challenges. The Raven and the Light throws players into a virtual environment that isn’t necessarily challenging technically, but rather demanding in a social sense.

History, while important, can be a hard sell; the qualities that tend to excite historians aren’t often dynamic or sexy enough for the general population. But video games offer new possibilities for how history—especially difficult history—might be taught. It’s worked before, particularly with war: Games often succeed in placing players in the shoes of a soldier, pilot, and so on. But for archetypal figures like soldiers, who are generally valorized, and who aren’t generally subject to the kinds of systemic prejudice that affect indigenous people, very little is at stake. Soldiers are celebrated as honorable, the history is told through action set-pieces, and not much is typically gleaned about people or culture.

With difficult histories however, like the residential schools in The Raven and the Light, video games offer “a very effective way of [communicating] things about the culture to younger generations,” said Tehoniehtathe Delisle, a young indigenous individual from Quebec, who was enrolled in the Skins Workshop at Concordia University, a program started in 2011 and designed to integrate indigenous individuals and culture into video games by training them as developers. “They really listen to it. If they’re playing video games it’s like they’re actually active in the story—it’s like they’re the character, and they’re actually playing through this, and listening, and actually hearing these stories,” Delisle said.

In the past few years, indigenous communities have begun to consider the possibilities that video games offer as a channel through which to tell stories and relate their culture to the world. Earlier this year, a University of Sao Paolo anthropologist created Huni Kuin, a game that explored the history of the Huni Kuin, an Amazonian tribe who live in western Brazil and Peru. Other games have been used in more direct efforts of cultural preservation. In 2013, RezWorld, an interactive game used to teach indigenous languages, was released (now branded as Talking Games). In its first iteration, it was designed to teach Cherokee, but has since been adapted to teach a vast array of languages.

According to Statistics Canada, indigenous populations are the fastest growing demographic in the country—meaning that there are a tremendous number of young indigenous individuals who are embracing digital media in a way that no generation before them was able to. “We’re in the digital age, and we need to create our own things,” said Owisokon Lahache, a staff member at the Skins workshop, in a video made by the program. “Video games are becoming as important as any other mass media,” said Jason Edward Lewis, a co-director of the Skins program and an associate professor of computation arts at Concordia University, in the same video.* “The more opportunities we make for ourselves as a people to tell our stories and to represent ourselves, the more powerful we’ll be,” Lewis said.

Telling indigenous stories through digital media presents a new challenge for communities who have, in the past, had a greater degree of control over the way stories are told. “There are definitely people out there—native people—who don’t think that non-native people should be hearing native stories,” Skawennati, an artist and co-founder along with Lewis of Concordia University’s Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace network, told me.** “We treat it very carefully—there are definitely stories that are not supposed to be told.” Young indigenous game makers, however, are more interested in telling their stories to a wide audience, rather than a selective one. “We say: This is going to be your story, and you can tell it as widely or as tightly as you want,” Skawennati said. “The idea is that more video games made by native people, with more native characters, [offer] a richer picture of who we are.”

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Broadly speaking, things are getting better. Delisle brings up Assassin’s Creed III as an example of how indigenous cultures can be represented well. “They did a lot of research, and they had a lot of our language in the game,” Delisle said. “I think that got to a lot of the youth all over the place.” In the game, the main character, Ratonhnhaké:ton—a half-English, half-Mohawk assassin—gets caught up in the American Revolution after his village is invaded. In addition to the positive and researched portrayal of Ratonhnhaké:ton, the game explored a lesser-known perspective of a well-worn conflict through the use of indigenous characters and settings.

Programs like Skins aim to provide a platform for indigenous game makers to inject their characters, their voices, their experiences—in short, themselves—into video games, a subject that native experts such as the game designer and artist Elizabeth LaPensée have researched extensively.*** The Skins program, which LaPensée designed curriculum for, is growing and is beginning to reach out to indigenous groups across Canada in hopes of improving representation and, perhaps more importantly, to help young indigenous individuals gain the skills needed to make inroads into the actual development of games.

It seems that indigenous game makers are realizing that video games are a legitimate medium through which to communicate their cultures—and there are more resources and tools available that encourage and allow them to enter the game development industry. “Getting our culture out there is one of our biggest concerns right now,” says Delisle. “Legends are different throughout different nations. They change over time, and people tell them in different ways.” But all this may not be enough.

The Raven and the Light, like many smaller games, had a limited reach. It was downloaded about 2000 times, and enjoyed a handful of mixed reviews on YouTube. But then it seemed to be forgotten, becoming yet another artifact of the Internet. Its reach, though, doesn’t diminish the effect of Basedow’s bigger point. Residential schools were, by just about every metric imaginable, awful. But to those who didn’t experience them, or who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about their history, they can seem distant. Putting players within their walls, to confront a fictional story intertwined with historical fact, and imploring them to learn more, makes it possible for the game to bring a dark chapter of history a little closer to the light.

This post appears courtesy of Kill Screen.

* This article has been updated to clarify that quotes from Jason Edward Lewis and Owisokon Lahache came from a video, not personal interviews, and to reflect Lewis’s full title.

** This article has been updated to properly identify Skawennati.

*** This article has been updated to reference the research of Elizabeth LaPensée.