Sunday March 06, 2016

Indigenous game designer challenges stereotypes

Indigenous women in video games have a long and stereotypical history. 1:38

Listen 12:31

Being a woman in the gaming industry is a challenge. When you're an indigenous woman, there's an extra level of stereotype and accepted violence that has to be challenged.

When it comes to challenging sexist stereotypes, Elizabeth LaPensée is on the front lines in the gaming industry. She worked with Daniel Starkey, a Chickashsha Nation game journalist, to get the 2008 remake of the game Custer's Revenge — that was still available for download — removed from the web in 2014.

Custer's revenge

A screenshot of Custer's Revenge (

"The whole goal of the game is for you to go from one side of the screen to the other to rape an 'Indian princess' … who's pre-tied up at the other side of the screen," explained LaPensée. "And you win ... just by basically gaining points by raping her."  

The Anishinaabe/Métis game designer grew up playing video games. But it wasn't until Diablo was released in 1996 that she saw herself somewhat reflected in a video game.

"There was a woman character with a bow. And from that point on I thought, 'Yes! Okay, this is something I can grasp onto,'" she said.

Invaders game cover

Invaders video game by Elizabeth LaPensée with art by Steven Paul Judd (Submitted)

Male characters she grew up with included Native American space marine Turok, and Nightwolf from the Mortal Kombat games.

"There's a part of you that is just so excited a native character is being represented at all," said LaPensée. "But at the same time, there is always this mix of stereotypes."

She said she wishes it could be done better with a more accurate, intelligent reflection of what indigenous people are really like. But LaPensée isn't waiting around for a gaming company to come knocking at her door to offer her a job.

LaPensée decided to get her PhD so she can apply for funding to create games and release them for free.

She added that at some point during mainstream game design, marketing departments get to weigh in on whether the product is going to sell.

She cites the game DarkWatch, where the original lead character was an indigenous woman named Tala.

Tala character from Dark Watch

The Tala character from Darkwatch. (Supplied)

"But it was the marketing team who said, 'This isn't going to sell,'" LaPensée said.

Instead, they made Tala a side character — replacing her with a white male player character. The marketing team also decided to promote the game by making Tala the first video game character to appear fully nude in Playboy magazine. 

Despite the stereotypes and overt sexualization of female characters,  LaPensée said there are now games starting to appear that dispel those negative views.

A game called Never Alone, which was developed by E-Line Media with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, features a strong indigenous female character. It is available for the Wii system and won best debut at the British Academy Games Awards in 2015.

LaPensée has also created positive game play with games like Invaders, Ninagamomin ji-nanaandawi'iwe (We Sing for Healing), and Max's Adventures.