Approaching race in video games can be difficult. It's not something that a lot of people enjoy thinking about; and many find comfort in pretending that race isn’t an issue in gaming. However, the reality is that video games have problems when it comes to racial diversity. Actually, let me rephrase that: Video game developers, the people who make the games, have problems when it comes to making their games racially diverse.
This isn’t something new, it’s a truth that’s been around for a long, long time. The industry as a whole has made steps toward a future where racial diversity in our video games might no longer be problematic, but there are still miles left to go before we’re remotely close to that point. And I’m not just talking about including different races in video games; even competently portraying minorities without relying on harmful and negative stereotypes is something with which the industry regularly struggles.
When it comes to race, many game developers are ill-equipped to deal with the issues of depicting minority groups. Even enormously talented and well-funded writing teams can have difficulty tackling racial issues in their games. Less skilled devs will rely on stereotypes as an easy way out of doing more work. I don’t think most negative portrayals of race in video games come from a place of malice or hatred. Instead, I think they come from a place of ignorance. And nothing demonstrates that ignorance and lack of thought better than Firewater Cowboy Chase.
Saddeningly, Firewater Cowboy Chase Exists
I brought up the topic of race in video games today for two reasons. First, it has been bouncing around in my head for a while. Second, I received a press release for Firewater Cowboy Chase this morning, a mobile game that perfectly exhibits the issues at play.
The game itself seems fairly innocuous. After all, it’s just another endless runner with a Wild West theme, right? However, if you pay much attention to that trailer you’ll realize that there are a lot more going on than a few minutes of endless running and microtransactions. The set up for the runner is that you, a cowboy, have stolen alcohol from a Native American tribe and they are chasing you down. Let’s just break down that awful premise.
You’ll notice a group of Native Americans chasing thieving cowboy in the trailer. They tail him while holding tomahawks and spears, clearly intending violence and possibly murder for stealing their alcohol. This plays into the bloodthirsty savage, one of the oldest stereotypes of Native American people. You can see it at play in the first works of American literature; when violent portrayals of Native Americans spawned popular works of both fiction and non-fiction called captivity narratives. The dawn of film also depicted indigenous people in a number of different stereotypical roles, including that of ruthless killer. The premise of Firewater Cowboy draws on centuries of disempowerment and misrepresentation to create the ever-looming threat nipping at the player’s heels.
Even the use of the word “Indian” in the trailer is a point of insensitivity. There has been an ongoing debate since the 1970s regarding the proper way to address the indigenous communities in North America and, at least as far as I can tell, the two most widely accepted are “Native American” and “indigenous peoples.” This might seem like a nitpick, but calling groups of people by their preferred wording is important. It is a sign of respect and this mobile game throws that completely out the window.
Arguably the worst part about Firewater Cowboy Chase’s setup is the reliance on the stereotype of Native Americans as alcoholics. For a good overview of the issue, âpihtawikosisân succinctly covers several different manifestations of the stereotype, the myths that people still believe, and its effects on the indigenous peoples of Canada. The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that, “more Native American people die of alcohol-related causes than do any other ethnic group in the United States.” Clearly, Firewater Cowboy Chase isn’t out to tackle issues like this, however in its disinterested state it unwittingly perpetuates a harmful stereotype that has been around for centuries. What else could you think about a game that implies a group of Native Americans would CHASE A MAN FOREVER BECAUSE HE STOLE THEIR BOOZE? When you look at it in that light, the scenario being painted says something pretty gross, doesn’t it?
I mean, really? Not one of the developers working for Double Smith looked at Firewater Cowboy Chase and thought those aspects might be problematic? I am almost positive that this game is the result of mindlessly creating a mobile app game. This was a game born out of laziness, taking shortcuts to call upon established stereotypes for the scenario without thinking about the implications of those stereotypes. A lot of video games exist in a similar space to Firewater Cowboy Chase, made by similar people who think that they are “just making a game” and don’t think about what their game might be saying. As creators, there is a responsibility there to think about what their work says to players. When dealing with race in video games, in any form of media really, there is an obligation to depict humanity. Opting to forgo that obligation in favor of hollow and damaging stereotypes is irresponsible and awful when you get down to the heart of it.
So, this is where we are as an industry. Firewater Cowboy Chase came out today. Think about that. A game with the central conceit of a man endlessly running away from a group of Native Americans who want to kill him for stealing their alcohol was a commercial release in 2015. And that is really just sad.
Feature originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 01/23/15