The Current

Civilization video game paints an 'inaccurate and dangerous' picture of Poundmaker Cree Nation chief

The depiction of Chief Poundmaker amounts to cultural appropriation and is dangerous and inaccurate, say members of a Saskatchewan First Nation.
Chief Poundmaker as portrayed in the Civilization video game. (Youtube)

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A video game is shining a spotlight on an Indigenous leader from the 19th century — but members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan aren't sure the makers are playing fair.

"When I first saw the video game… I thought that's pretty cool, Poundmaker is in a game," Milton Tootoosis, headman with the Poundmaker Cree Nation tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"But when I looked further into the matter it raised some questions."

The leader in question is Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, also known as Chief Poundmaker, a founder of a Treaty 6 nation near Cut Knife, Saskatchewan.

In the Civilization series of games, players take on the identities of famous historical leaders like Chief Poundmaker, growing their nations from small city states into vast empires. By playing politics, and engaging in trade, science and warfare, the aim is to best your opponents and conquer the world.

That imperialist agenda alone is enough to give Tootoosis pause for thought.

"[This game] continues to promote some of these ideologies that are connected to concepts of colonialism and imperialism and that doctrine of discovery," he says, "which are totally contrary to the beliefs and values of Chief Poundmaker, and many other Indigenous leaders around the world for that matter."

Due out next month, the game comes, he says, at a time when "cultural appropriation of Indigenous culture is a global challenge."

Tootoosis also expressed misgivings about the visual representations of Chief Poundmaker. In the game, he appears well-dressed and healthy, but Tootoosis says this glosses over the hardships suffered by Indigenous people at the time.

"The daunting images we have are of him in the latter stages of his life… being very gaunt, very thin, wearing tattered clothing.

"It depicts the very difficult time in our shared history."

He stood for peace, good order, good governance.- Milton Tootoosis

The Current approached 2k Games, the makers of Civilization, but did not receive a response. Tootoosis says the company did not consult with the Poundmaker Cree Nation, and they were not given the chance to give consent, but says they would have cooperated in a consultation.

"We would have connected them to our elders, our storykeepers, our traditional knowledge keepers — we would have had a dialogue," he says.

"We have community members who are not new to the world of media and show business. In this case, live gaming, we would have asked for a copy of the narrative and made sure we went through it before we had given any consent."

The portrayal comes in the midst of a campaign to exonerate Chief Poundmaker from an 1885 treason conviction. Tootoosis says that he's excited at news, revealed by The Current, that the government may be ready to clear Chief Poundmaker's record.

"He stood for peace, good order, good governance," Tootoosis says.

"He really practiced this value and ancient law we have in our culture, and I believe it's across all Indigenous cultures. In our language we call it manatsewin.

"Manatsewin speaks about respect: respect for yourself as a human being. Respect for your your family, your band, your tribe but also respect for the land the air and the water."

Choose your character

It's not the first time that video-game representations of minorities have courted controversy.

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In a 1982 X-rated game called Custer's Revenge, the titular 32-bit George Custer had to dodge arrows and cacti to reach the finale, where the reward was to seemingly rape a Native American woman.

This CBC TV report from 1982, above, from the CBC Archives details the public uproar and boycott campaign that eventually had the game pulled from the shelves.

In 2008, a remake of the game appeared online, prompting anger from Indigenous activists.

A 2013 reboot of Killer Instinct included Thunder, a Native American character. Even though the team behind the game consulted members of the Nez Percé tribe, they didn't get the details of Native American warrior Thunder's costume quite right. The above video, from the makers of the game, shows how they went back to the drawing board to find a portrayal that gave young Native American players something that "reinforces their self-esteem in a positive way."
Gandhi in the original Civilization game (Youtube)

Sometimes it's not ignorance or prejudice that results in a poor portrayal of another culture — just bad code!

In the first Civilization game, Gandhi was programmed to have the lowest aggression level possible — a score of 1 — to reflect his pacifist politics. What game designers didn't remember was that when players adopted democracy as their main form of government, their aggression level dropped two points. The game couldn't compute Gandhi's aggression dropping to -1, so it looped him back to the maximum level of 255.

Accordingly, as the game reached modern times, Gandhi — yes Gandhi — started dropping nuclear weapons on players left, right and centre.

The glitch became such an in-joke that later versions of the game kept Gandhi's tendency to unleash fire and fury, albeit in a toned-down capacity.

Listen to the full segment, including a conversation with Blaine Favel about the campaign to exonerate Chief Poundmaker, near the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Idella Sturino.