I grew up in what some might call the tail end of the golden age of the arcade. Back before netplay was commonplace and home consoles had the power to deliver the latest gaming experience, the arcade was the place to go. It was the noisy, flashy, stim-filled place to see where the future of video games was going, and talk to people that shared your interests. I know I spent hours chatting over the latest rumors you heard from this guy who had an uncle that totally worked at Nintendo.
The centerpiece of this ecosystem, the metaphorical waterhole that everyone gathered around in my experience was the fighting game. The actual game might have changed depending on the year and location from things like Street Fighter, to Mortal Kombat, to Tekken, but it was a constant. And no matter the game there was a sense of community as you watched that one kid pull off that one special move you didn’t even know existed.
But growing up as a Native American there was something that always bothered me. As a kid, I didn’t always have the words to express it but it was there nonetheless, constant toxic background radiation. But now I’m an adult with more words at my disposal, and fighting games are experiencing a mainstream resurgence, so it’s time to talk.
Fighting games have an issue with racism
Now, on the whole I don’t think this comes from an intentionally malicious place, but rather cultural ignorance or neglect. Often in an attempt to make this global diverse cast they paint these characters in broad and sometimes very harmful strokes in an attempt to make them recognizable. Nativeness is in fighting games, and to some extent, video games as a whole is often defined as the same unspecific aesthetic full of face paint, eagle feathers, and a sour scowl. Nativeness in video games is not allowed to be happy, laugh, or eager. No nation is ever named for nativeness in video games, just a vague desert-y place somewhere in southwest. Luckily they have spirit-themed powers to help them combat their advisories.
While there is a wider conversation there, there is a certain thread that bother me as a Native man. These are the archetypes of the “Noble Savage” and “Mystic Shaman”. Now other First Nations readers may recognize this as part of of what we call the “unholy trinity of bad Native rep” alongside the gag-worthy “Native princess”.
You’ve probably seen the noble savage. You know it’s him by his scowling glare of stoicism, often staring into the middle distance of a canyon of some kind. He’s rough and rude, but has a code of honor that’s never really defined. He’s usually good with animals and sometimes armed with flint weapons straight out of a museum. He talks about time in terms of “many moons” like we don’t have calendars, and lacks the ability to use contractions.
It’s a harsh profile. Casting us simultaneously as this fetishized symbol of warrior strength and crude, brutish primitives that are stuck in the past. It’s reductive, turning us into a props and mascots instead of modern members of communities and still-living cultures with likes, interests and talents of our own. A good example of this sort of character T.Hawk from Street Fighter or, to a lesser extent, Wolf from Virtua Fighter, though every character in this article shows some aspects of this.
T.Hawk is a special kind of character, to the point he could pretty much serve as an example of what you should absolutely not do in your games representation of Native Americans. Some of you might write this off as “Well, Capcom is a Japanese company” as if like Capcom lack Western localization teams or hasn’t been selling to a Western market for decades. Nevertheless, T. Hawk’s voice actors are still spouting such gems as “Your scream sounds like a pathetic war cry!” and “It has been many moons since I’ve had this much fun.” Even if Capcom, an internationally established video game company, doesn’t get the finer points of Western culture, or that they treat everyone with that amount of carelessness, It doesn’t remove their responsibility or excuse poor or harmful portrayals. Media doesn’t exist in a bubble and still affects those it portrays no matter its origin.
Gathering research for this article, the more I saw of T.Hawk, his weird use of feathers as an accessory with no meaning, and his ultra combo where he sits cross-legged on his opponent’s back and gives the Hollywood Indian “How”, the more I kept thinking about all those stories of Western developers having to program in an additional finger to their mascot character platformers as to not offend a Japanese audience with implications of Yakuza activity. Just ask the developers of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee or Psychonauts.
Western media is not blameless in this either, in fact I’d postulate that most of this bad rep is a reflection and regurgitation of Western media, including games. Take Mortal Kombat and its character of Nightwolf, who is kind of a mixed bag. On the positive side of things, Nightwolf has an actual named and non-fictional nation he belongs to, the Apache (though I will note that they refer to themselves as Ndee and Apache means”enemy” in Zuni). He’s canonically a historian, implying a college education when showing Native American character possessed of a higher education is appallingly rare in any medium. He even got to be the smart guy of the team in the cartoon Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm. His dialog and win screens do include acknowledgements of colonialism instead of neatly shooing it away from the Native experience, even if it is very clearly written from a white perspective.
There is a lot of emphasis on him winning back his lands if he wins the tournament, which is a weird trend I keep noticing in the stories of these characters. Part of me is all for an ultimate expression of Native sovereignty, but there is a narrative tendency to treat Native lands as a prize to be won instead of their loss being a result of a campaign of genocide and imperialism.
But at the same time Nightwolf is more or less the perfect example of the Mystic Shaman archetype. It’s an archetype that occupies the same place as the wise black man in giving spiritual advice to typically white folks that need guidance. Most of the time this involves a lot of talk about spirit animals and vague undefined and non secular rambling about nature, gods and fate. It trivialises and exotifies Native beliefs and spirituality, which are, contrary to popular belief, living religions. Not to mention these portrayals tend to lack research and present nebulous spiritualities that are a hodgepodge of various cultures and plain fabrications they’ve pulled out of nowhere.
Nowhere is the more apparent than in Mortal Kombat Annihilation, a movie where Nightwolf’s motivation appears to be to prance and menace like a character from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. I suppose he’s also there to administer some sort of spiritual mojo trip so Liu Kang can discover his spirit animal, sorry, “animality” before disappearing for the rest of the film.
Around the PS2-era they tried to add some legitimacy by making him a kind of sin-eater, which is an idea you see in religions and folklore of a figure that absorbs the sins and faults of others on their behalf. It is certainly a more specific role and has a history in the region, though I can not speak with certainty about Ndee beliefs as they are not my nation. I suspect, due to my experience as a Tsalagi man, it’s severely misused, particularly as you usually see it tied to funerary rights, but at least they seemed to put some effort into trying.
Come the 2011 reboot they just gave up and actually came back with worse representation than they had in the 90’s, which is certainly a feat. His ending in Mortal Kombat (2011) has Nightwolf defeating Shao Kahn with the aid of his spirit animal, a concept not really as omnipresent in Native spirituality as pop culture seems to think it is. This spirit guide is lost, corrupted by the villain Shao Khan, and eventually re-summoned by elders on behalf of Nightwolf. Of course this leads to Nightwolf, in the most Mortal Kombat fashion possible, being corrupted by Shao Khan and turning into a werewolf that proceeds to transform the planet into subservient werewolves. It’s a long way away from, yet weirdly reminiscent, of his trilogy ending where he becomes a leader of the free world.
And I get it. Mortal Kombat has and always will have its roots in exploitation, but I stress that developers should at least be aware of who and what you’re actually exploiting lest you run into the same issues as the late era blaxploitation and kung fu films the game took its influences from. I guess I should be thankful that at least they didn’t call it a skinwalker or something and that it’s not the canon ending.
Currently in the Mortal Kombat timeline Nightwolf has been relegated to an undead jobber. For those of you not familiar with wrestling, a jobber is a guy they bring out to lose to other guys to make them look big and strong. Think Worf on Star Trek.
It you want a better way to do this, you should look towards Thunder from Killer Instinct. 90’s Thunder was pure bad and embodied a lot of the negative stuff discussed in this essay, complete with stone-headed axes and a mohawk made of feathers. But Rare realized in the reboot of this franchise that there is better way of going about this. They ditched the vague and offensive exploitation Indian look for one that not only invoked and took after a specific named nation (Nez Perce), but did so under the guidance of a paid cultural consultant from the Nez Perce. Which, in my opinion, is the least you could do when you’re working with any culture you’re not familiar with. They also had the character of Thunder speak Niimi’puutimt, the traditional language of the Nez Perce, which is a nice touch and super important given its critically endangered status.
There is still a bit of an issue with relying on the problematic archetypes I’ve talked about and a lot of iffy uses of Native spirituality, but this is certainly better than most of what’s out there. Personally, I think there is a big issue with Native stories in media in their inability to tell stories that picture Native characters after the Old West, at least outside of Native-made media. It adds to this narrative that we’re dead or a part of the past that doesn’t matter anymore.
If you’re going to take anything from this essay I hope it would be the following: Know what you’re writing or representing, or find someone who does and listen to them. If you’re making a Native character in your fighting game and you wish to make them a stoic warrior or wise shaman of some kind, are you doing it because it’s what the character needs or because they’re Native? Native characters are just as capable of holding up any number of popular fighting game tropes. Are you letting them be characters people can love and relate to, or are you upholding false narratives told by people from the outside of the cultural conversation?
P.S. Maybe make a woman or two?
Gar Atkins (though friends call him Sahoni) is a Bisexual Eastern Band Cherokee writer in Arkansas. Besides writing his hobbies include tabletop game design, art, pop culture hording, and as a amateur folklorist. If you enjoyed this article, let him know by buying him a coffee at ko-fi.com/sahoni or follow him on twitter @sahoni_stuff.