I've always been a fan of X-COM. Games with perma-death always seem to get my attention, as Jagged Alliance and Fire Emblem filled up a vast amount of my gaming time as a kid. The newest X-COM was the first to be released during my adulthood, and like many adults I found myself lacking the time to actually play it. I dabbled here and there, but it wasn't until X-COM2 was announced that I decided to really give it some time.
X-COM: Enemy Unknown brought back almost everything I loved about the series, but added the ability to name characters. This managed to make the perma-death and unforgiving situations that are guaranteed to kill off at least a few units that much harder to deal with. It was an extra layer of possible sentimental connection that made each death more poignant.
Being the asshole I am, I decided to start naming each character after heroes I had. First came, Lautaro, then Patoruzu, followed by William Wallace, Harriet Tubman and John Horse. As I lost units like Wallace, I replaced them with people like Ambrosio Vilhalva, and Tecumseh. I found myself unconsciously using the units in similar ways they had accomplished greatness in their real lives.
Wallace served as a distraction during an escape, losing his life, but helping others to continue to fight. Tubman, with her high mobility, has been most useful in missions where the aliens are attempting to abduct humans. Horse was a driving force in being able to turn failure into success, almost single-handedly.
With each of these people doing basically what they did in history I started to really draw a parallel to the narrative that marginalized people have faced in the past. In XCOM, you play as the commander of an international special operations team charged with protecting the member nations from abduction, relocation and enslavement. Change the year and you've got a game about Shawnee leader Tecumseh.
In the early 1800s European settlers were doing what they loved to do; Pushing native people to barren land, attacking women and children, using germ warfare, and being some real pricks. Tecumseh of the Shawnee created a confederacy of nations to fight against the foreign invaders that were abducting, relocating and enslaving native people. Sound familiar?
In the recently announced sequel to XCOM, the story is built around the idea that XCOM is now a nation-less band of renegades. They act as rebels, freedom fighters, you might even call them terrorists. Again, this reminded me not only of the "terrorists" in South America who attack oil fields and situations like "The Oka Crisis" in Oka, Quebec.
As this settled in, a friend bought me Wolfenstein: The New Order. In it, the Nazis have won the war, they've created a dystopian future rife with pollution, have placed dissenters into prisons and exercise their power and privilege as a master race in all of their conquered territories. Boy, alternative history sure is wild huh? This isn't the only game to take the actual struggle many Natives face today, and co-opt it in the way Deus-Ex has co-opted Apartheid. Crysis, Homefront, Freedom Fighters, among many other popular series have used this same narrative but applied generally to the United States and by extension to light skinned (often blonde) heroes fighting for FREEDOM! This is also not specific to video games. Think of books, movies, comics, and even music about "rebels" standing up for what they believe in. Much of it has iconography and narrative concepts that harken back to Native struggles, not only in the distant path but present.
I've heard it said that we, as the disenfranchised children of this land, live in a post apocalyptic world. For us, the total destruction of infrastructure, communication, identity and self determination is very real. Each day, I wake up in a NYCHA apartment too small for a large family. The walls are breaking, bugs are breaking through them. The pipes burst routinely, bullets may hit my window, and strung out junkies might cut me for their next hit. Life truly ain't no crystal stair, and yet I have the opportunity and privilege to sit in front of a computer and take one step each day, to a different future.
Sometimes, when I look at all the white faces, or at the angry comments, or the hate groups I think about my cousins in the jungles of the Amazon, or on the beaches of the Caribbean, or the mountains of Mexico and Peru, and I cry. I think about the kids on the rez, about the kids on the roadsides in huts, about the kids who have nowhere to go, and I cry. I think about how they see no future, for themselves, they see no future for our people, they see no future for our nations and take their lives in a final act of desperation, and I cry. I think about the murder squads of weaponized whiteness that speak colonized languages who rape and murder leaders, who destroy generations of culture simply because they've been told since birth that it was the right thing to do, and I cry. I think of my own family, and the countless others torn apart as mothers and fathers find comfort in the hollow promises of addictive drugs and substance abuse, and I cry.
Being able to tell those stories, from the relative safety of my slum, is important to me. This narrative, is not simply a game, or a movie, or a book for us. We live through the stories, and focus on survival. For many of us, the stories themselves ARE survival, and being able to share them on our terms allows us a stepping stone to actually feeling like human beings again. When you take away a native person's voice, you aren't simply silencing them but contributing to the machine that has, and continues to, destroy the reality and space in which we reside.
The next time you write about a group of rebels fighting off foreign invaders, or use specifically "American" tribal concepts, think about what you are contributing to our world, and what those stories mean to the people you have taken them from.