When looking back at issues of culture, race and ethnicity in video games, it doesn’t take much looking to uncover some cringe-worthy examples of inaccuracy and insensitivity. In such a young medium with an inescapable “immaturity” stigma, to not acknowledge these problems would be drastically costly to the industry. The question is, have developers realised this problem, and paid more attention to their accuracy in these areas?
Some notorious titles obviously pop out when thinking about historically woeful representations in video games. Depictions of Native Americans in particular are recognizably stereotyped. The vast majority of portrayals of the ethnicity are directly linked to ideas of shamanistic magic. Characters like Mumbo Jumbo and Humba Wumba from Rareware’s “Banjo-Kazooie” series are early examples of this all-too-common phenomenon. The characters perform shamanistic rituals to aid the player, reside in wigwams, and speak in broken “Hulk Speak” third person English.
Keeping in the trend of representations of indigenous peoples, let’s take a look at Maori portrayals in video games. In general, Maori characters seem to be lumped into the group “Polynesian”, in which developers take their favourite parts from various Pacific cultures and mash them into a character. Ta Moko seems to be a prominent part of Maori culture featured in these multi-ethnic representations. A personal favourite of mine can be found in the character of Sinamoi, the player’s guide in Techland’s zombie RPG Dead Island. Sinamoi wears a fairly recognizably Maori-inspired tattoo on his face and speaks with an extremely exaggerated Australian accent, all while maintaining a fairly nondescript complexion and claiming to be “Polynesian.”
Another example of this can be seen in the otherwise culturally-sound Civilization V. The “Polynesia” Civilization is led by King Kamehameha, a famous Hawaiian royal. However, the Civilization also allows the creation of Moai, otherwise known as Easter Island statues, and the training of Maori Warrior units. The game seems to imply that these cultures worked together as one civilization, despite the fact that Easter Island is thousands of miles from either Hawaii or New Zealand.
Despite some of the more shocking examples, some games do get it right. Ubisofts FarCry 3 did an interesting job, in that they portrayed cultures realistically in a fictional environment. The setting of the game, Rook Islands, is a fictional “paradise” of an island, in which many different non-fictional races settled and for a time lived in peace. The Maori characters in this game are extraordinarily well portrayed, with photo-realistic ta moko, recognizable kiwi accents (a first in a video game, surely) and even legitimate Maori language, as you occasionally hear a friendly “ka kite” or “kia ora” from your Maori companions.
Likewise, Civilization V on the whole shows a remarkable sense of respect for the forty-three individual civilizations available to the player. When meeting another leader, that leader will speak in his or her native tongue. For instance, meeting Alexander the Great will prompt him to discuss issues with him in Greek, while Boudicca will talk her native Welsh. Even languages long dead, such as the Mayan Yucatec, are carefully approximated with the help of linguistic experts.
Do you think that the industry is getting better at this area? Are the days of Custer’s Revenge” truly past?