Representation in Gaming: A Learning Experience
This is a tough topic to approach and I would like to do it as articulately and appropriately as possible. I work hard to be inclusive and accessible with ALL of our games. Have we made mistakes or missteps in regards to this in the past? Probably, but it is something we think about as early as possible when developing a game and we strive to make sure to put our best foot forward with every game we produce.
We were presented with a particularly difficult situation with our latest game, The Neverland Rescue. I am sure if you are familiar with the works that inspired our game, you must be aware of where this is going. In every form of media that has produced works inspired by JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, the depiction of the Natives of Neverland was nothing short of extremely racist. Whether it was animation, stage productions, movies, or the original novel itself, the natives are portrayed as horribly offensive stereotypes of Native Americans.
Although the core of the stories are extremely interesting to me, I knew that I wanted to find a way to embrace the good within the stories while removing anything that quite honestly should never have been included in the story in the first place.
My first approach was to include the Neverland Natives respectfully. I spoke to our illustrator Jacqui Davis and she did a lot of research to take care in her depiction of the characters and cultures we were representing. She really did an amazing job doing just that. I was happy with her artwork and we moved on to other pieces once complete.
However, as we progressed with other game pieces, I had to keep referring back to the novel for inspiration and guidance. The more and more I read through the book, the more I felt that even including the Neverland natives was a terrible idea. Although we had approached the topic in a way that we felt was respectful, the entire existence of these characters is a history full of bigotry and ignorance. As someone who is not of Native American descent I also knew that how I felt about this really did not matter. I needed to talk to Native Americans to see if our “respectful approach” was enough.
Thanks to a few friends in the community, I was connected with a friend of a Bebo’s who was of Native American descent and we sent quite a few emails back and forth touching on the original works, our approach, and really what was best in this situation.
Not surprisingly, her response was something I had never even thought of. Her response was not even in regards to the blatant racism in the novels. Her response was that even though we had treated the characters with care and respect, the whole problem was that the characters were treated almost like fictional characters, much like the mermaids and fairies of Neverland. Even treating them with respect in our art, we were still portraying Native Americans as fictional characters that do not exist.
This was a shocking revelation to me. It had never even crossed my mind and it made me feel terrible for even considering using the characters in our game. That night, I contacted Jacqui and asked her to whip together a new set of characters from the novels, not the Neverland Natives, to replace our current characters with. Jacqui was able to whip together the new art and the gameplay remained exactly the same. The new art is fantastic as well, so everything worked out really well in the end.
My biggest take home from this was that it did not matter that we wanted to change the perception of Native Americans from how they were always portrayed in the Peter Pan novels. The underlying problem was deeper and something I had not even considered. It is always better to talk to someone of a group you are portraying in your games because without having been there, having experienced it yourself, you will never have considered all there is in being of a culture you are not a part of!