The one thing I enjoy about role-playing games (RPGs)? Character creation, it’s my favorite part of the game. I can spend hours creating the perfect character, I can go back and forth deciding if I want to be an elf or human this time around, or if I want to be a noble or harness power as a mage. The struggle of making these choices are based on how I want to perceived by non-playable characters (NPCs). Do I want people to be scared of me? Do I want people to accept me? That’s why I struggle, specially as someone who has difficulties accepting my identity in the real world. I know no real consequence would come from me playing a dwarf, but can I be bothered to meander through the story with such heavy biases set in front of me? I normally play it safe first time round by playing a human noble and then experiment in later playthroughs when I know how the game ends. The safe path.
But unlike games, reality is a different story altogether. The safe path is something we hear as women all the time, “get home safe, stay in well-lit areas.” As a woman, I have struggled to find my tribe, there have been a number of pointed decisions, which I’ve made to be fully accepted by the general public as acting a certain way or being perceived in a certain way can fulfill our traditional notions of belonging. Perceptions are strong influencers, how people perceive you inevitably comes down to how they will treat you. Have a harsh working class accent, it is likely that people might not take your opinions seriously. Like RPG worlds, what race, class and gender you are reflect how you’re treated, especially in a game as nuanced as Dragon Age . There are plenty more ways to deal with people’s perceptions or influence/change opinions, but unlike the in-game world you inhibit in your free time, reality is much more complicated.
What tribe do I belong to? Am I part of the trendy middle class white elite, that spout the rhetoric about veganism and renewables while traveling to luxury villas in the summer? Am I part of the ethnic working class sect of society, who are blamed for the lost of jobs and inflation of house prices? This is not how I see things, but how race/class have been catergorised by political narratives. I identify as neither, because I am both without being either. When I play the female mage elf in Dragon Age, I know what I’m setting myself up for. I’ve chosen to play a knife-ear somewhat feared seductress. This is because race has a history within the social structure of Ferelden. Even if I don’t respond the racial bile or romance any of the NPCs, I will be perceived as such. But, I also have an identity that sculpted by the myriad of people who identify similarly (in game and real life) and an identity that I can discuss frankly with a number of NPCS without feeling anxious about how I express my views despite being a female mage elf. Discussing identity in real life is a trickier game, and much more based on who you associate with. Branding myself a feminist or/and a gamer can have a somewhat prickly response from certain people I don’t consider friends, and even some people who I consider family. The political narrative can steal these identities and use them to drive their policies, gaming makes you more violent, feminism is an agenda to destroy the family unit.
Tribal identities are formed on part on survival, when we lived as a nomadic tribes, we had roles which dictated what we did, and if the tribe survived or not. The human species had a tendency for striving towards homogeneity within the group and competition against outsiders. What we have now is neotribalism at least in predominately western and western influenced societies. French sociologist Michel Maffesoli was perhaps the first to use the term neotribalism in a scholarly context stating that as the culture and institutions of modernism declined, societies would embrace nostalgia and look to the organizational principles of the distant past for guidance . In the same way neotribalism is a form of survival when not belonging can be disastrous for mental and physical health.
James Paul Gee proposes three different aspect of gaming identity: the virtual identity (the Player Character or Supporting character), the real world identity (The player) and a projective identity (the player’s emotional boundaries to the Player Character) (Gee 2007). Personally, I always choose female characters, because my real world identity is female. I choose elves, because I’ve always felt a little different (projective identity). In a game like Dragon Age there are defining characteristics of membership for each identity. In real life you can be favoured for the physicality, but usually neotribes incorporate a diverse group of individuals in the in-group based on beliefs. I can play an elf in Thedas, but I can believe in the maker and reject the elven gods. Although it adds a layer of somewhat complexity to my character, Dragon Age is a game built on the past, and by virtue of its authority giving people genuine identities. Integration of the past in the formation of an identity allows you as a player to orient ourselves in time and space.
In reality, I orient myself based on my beliefs, like we all do. I actively choose not to respond to comments about race and/or self-identity. In someway playing games which involve making decisions some times based on your identity in game can reawaken how we perceive ourselves in our current world. How we are perceived for our social, economic and political connections has become increasingly individualised. With such conflicting views, tribalism is one of the processes that shape identities. While many born before the surge of technology, see gaming as a form of alienation, it can also form the core principles of our identity and as we form friendships in-game and in real life. Games can help us navigate the difficult sphere of sociality. What happens when a man deprived of struggle plays a female elf, who in DA: Origins is held captive and almost raped by someone outside her race? Does this allow for a form of empathy to develop? Does help him develop a better understanding of Everyday (Intersectional) Sexism?
It’s hard to focus on identities in gaming, without delving into the problematic nature of inequality. Projective identity is used as reasoning for successful franchises, which include mostly good-looking strong white male characters. However, understanding identity through the lens of a character you wouldn’t necessarily identify with helps build emotional connections between the Player and the PC. Our in-game identity can be projective, it can also be derivative. But what it is – is an identity. One that can strengthen our tribal connections (in game and in real life) as we orient our PC’S narrative and space in relation to a past, a present and his/her/their future.
There aren’t many things I get excited about apart from an exceptionally well made cup of tea and a chance to go on a holiday. So when it comes to gaming, it takes a special kind of game for me check on Steam if it’s on preorder. And let’s be honest if you follow me, these games mainly focus on archaeology or anything Bioware (#since2003). But, I was blown away with what I saw from This Land is My Land trailer.
The game is s an open-world set in late 19th century frontier, you play from the point of view of a Native American during a time when “America” was being overrun by white settlers. The game is being created by Ukrainian outfit Game-Labs, best known for the PC strategy Ultimate General series, set in the American Civil War.
The truth is I’ve always wanted to play an indigenous character who fought the colonizinng force of Western Europe. It was story rarely seen in Hollywood without a white male savior thrown in the mix (think Dances with Wolves, The Last of Mohicans, The Revenant etc). The video game industry is no better, there have been few games with native protagonists with the Indie game Never Alone,the only one springing to mind. While AAA games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider incorporate indigenous tribes, it still focuses on the privileged white hero saving the day. No hate, I love Lara Croft. And the issue becomes ever more glaring when you realise only 0.09% of video game characters are Native American. Whoa.
Speaking to Polygon, the game’s development lead Denis Khachatran, says the protagonist represents an amalgam of western tribes. “You represent them all,” he said. “The Chickasaw, Cherokee, Lakota, Cheyenne, Apaches, Navajo, Shawnee, Shoshone, Mohawk, Utes and all other tribes large and small. And this is where the problem lies, popular culture and movies perpetuate an homogenized Native America and ignore the incredible diversity of Native groups across North America.
The homogenizing cultures perpetuates issues of identity and stereotypes of Native people. Without consulting Native tribes and the general lack of contemporary representation of Native Americans in the media it’s no surprise Native Americans find it difficult to see themselves fitting in to contemporary American culture.
The homogenization of Native Americans effectively reduces them from proud people to salable curiosities. As Steven Heller states, “By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become so commonplace in American advertising that it was taken for granted, and criticism was minimal if at all.”
While in some ways its commendable for a European game studio to incorporate the Native Americans’ historical fight against European colonization, the issue still remains that popular media is the only exposure some people have to certain members of other groups. And when game developers decide to homogenize multiple cultural groups inaccurate or stereotypical representations are bound to be conveyed.
Video games like This Land is My Land have the opportunity to present Native Americans cultures to those not familiar with a group who often themselves feel invisible in the mass media. Consulting with Native American tribes also shows that we are moving away from borderline colonial discourse that has plagued mainstream media since the dawn of its creation. The issue isn’t only about under-representation, but the quality of representations on offer, not allowing people to see the unique, diverse, and contemporary people they actually are.