Every August the UN recognises International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.
Its aim is to spread the message on the protection and promotion of the rights of the world’s estimated 370-500 million indigenous people across over 90 countries.
Though they make up 5 percent of the global population, their representation across most industries is far lower than that.
In gaming – an industry larger than music and film combined – they account for as little as 0.5% of the workforce.
Doom Legend Romero On Indigenous Representation In Gaming
With such a small share of the voice, it comes as no surprise that indigenous people are underrepresented as characters within games. Worse, they are frequently portrayed in a highly stereotyped way – from brutal savages to oppressed victims.
Perhaps the most well-known game developer of indigenous heritage is the godfather of the Doom franchise, John Romero. He was born a Mexican and a Native American from the Yaqui tribe and has both Cherokee and Aztec ancestry too.
I sat down with him to talk about the current state of indigenous representation in video games, why it is important that these voices are heard, and how things can be improved.
“Usually there’s a negative representation with indigenous characters in games where they assume the role of being colonised. That’s the typical representation which is not helpful,” John tells me over video call from his home in Galway, Ireland.
“Additionally, there are not enough games that include indigenous avatars in their character selection. Any big developer that allows avatar creation, especially with the new Unreal 5 ability to have metahuman stuff to create anything – it makes it a lot easier to include more diverse options and indigenous characters. Technology is at the point where it is a lot easier to do it, so there really are no excuses.”
“Games are the number one media. When kids don’t see themselves being represented, or when they see themselves being represented in a negative way, that’s harmful.”
Much of the failure to represent indigenous characters stems from games studios not speaking to people from within the communities they are seeking to represent. Many big-budget AAA titles have been criticised for not bringing in indigenous voices to consult on games that feature indigenous characters.
“If you’re making a tactical shooter, you bring a military person in to give you all the information you need,” John says. “Likewise, if you have indigenous characters in the game, you should also have someone who is from the tribe who you are trying to represent to be there to consult and give you that insight. I can’t imagine not doing that. You would get it all wrong if you didn’t”.
In December last year, Romero Games released Empire of Sin. The title features both a Cree and a Navajo character – voiced by Cree and Navajo actors.
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“These characters speak only their native languages in the game. They’re not saying anything in English – and it’s important to have that,” John tells me.
For John, getting this right was crucial. It’s estimated that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages in the world – and 90 percent of these will be lost within the next century. Video games can help play a role in preserving these cultures.
“It’s not easy when you are making a game to make a decision like that, but it was really good that we weren’t forcing English on them. More of that needs to happen. Just because they aren’t speaking in English, it doesn’t mean you can’t understand them. You issue commands as a player, and they do what you need them to do.”
When it comes to finding work in the industry, the biggest barriers to entry for indigenous people are accessibility to education and technology. Though indigenous people make up 5 percent of the global population, they account for 15% of the world’s poorest people.
“The Navajo nation, for example, doesn’t even have access to the water rights on the land on which they live. So it’s not hard to think that children — and this is on many reservations — don’t have access to the same tools that others do,” John says.
John himself grew up in a poor household. He spent the first eight years of his life in a Mexican Barrio in Tucson Arizona. His father once held up a store at gunpoint for diapers – and three of his family members were shot and killed due to drinking and drugs.
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This upbringing played a formative part in John getting into the industry.
“I had no access to technology when I was growing up. It didn’t exist, anywhere,” John tells me. “We didn’t have money, and I didn’t have toys. Growing up in the desert, I would just pick up rocks and sticks and figure out what to do with them and just play around. I wasn’t reliant on others for my own creativity.”
“When I eventually saw a computer for the first time, my instinct was ‘How do I make stuff? If another man has thought up something, then why can’t I?’ So the second that I got on something that could create things, could create games, my first instinct was to actually start doing that,” John says.
Having role models is important too – and the lack of them makes it harder for children to see themselves in positions like John’s. When he still lived in the US, he spent time travelling to schools in minority communities to do talks around getting into the industry. He still does this from his home in Ireland, over video calls.
In 2015, John and his wife Brenda also helped organise a Natives in Game Development conference with indigenous designer, writer and artist Elizabeth LaPensée. The idea was to give a platform to Native American people in the games industry.
The one-day event in Santa Cruz, California, invited Indigenous developers to talk about their games and to present any ideas they were interested in.
“It was just a space to get people together, to talk and to get their design concepts across,” John says. “And anyone who was not indigenous was welcome to be there and to be influenced. It gave them an opportunity to come up with ways that they could spur on the reach of indigenous people in game development, or in games as characters telling stories. It ended up being really great.”
Without Indigenous voices in gaming, we may not have had iconic titles like the original Doom.
There are theories online that the game itself may have been directly inspired by a very specific Native American way of thinking.
Doom is a first-person shooter set across multiple dimensions and timelines. The idea of ‘dimensional space’ – or the alternate view of a landscape beyond its physicality, and a non-linear view of time – is a key part of Native American beliefs.
I presented these theories to John, to see if there was any truth in them - even at some subconscious level.
“It’s funny because I’d always think about the way we created Doom, but I didn’t realise that that was not how other people thought until I talked to my wife, Brenda, and she said: ‘You believe what?’” he chuckles as he tells me this.
“Yeah, stuff can exist out of time. Why would you place time all over this? We did a lot of work to come up with this abstract level design style that hadn’t existed before.”
John believes the parallels with this belief system run deeper than the look and feel of the game, but the way the players interact with it too.
“When you make a space that people are going to play through, every player’s run-through is a different story,” John says. “How many stories took place in Doom’s E1M1 over the past 25 plus years? Whether it's deathmatch or single-player, or anybody’s unique way of going through there, these 3D spaces let millions of people create their own stories in them for decades.
“I’ve always looked at it like the time doesn’t matter. Those stories are timeless and they take place in a space that can help you make a story. A story is not being told to you. So maybe this shared way of believing that indigenous people have was part of this concept.”
Whether or not this inspired Doom is open to interpretation – even for John himself. But one thing that is certain in his eyes is the need to ensure more indigenous voices are heard.
“I do think that there are far more indigenous creators than people realize. Some may not identify as native or with a specific tribe due to blood quantum (controversial laws that determine your relationship to your tribe based on how much ‘Indian Blood’ you have), but that does not change who we are and the rights to our heritage”.
“I never hid my identity, I am proud of it,” John says. “However, it’s only recently that people have identified me as a person of colour or an indigenous creator, and there’s a fair few who are surprised by that.”
“There’s more work that we have to do, and our voices are coming to the fore. My games will always have indigenous representation in them, and I know many other developers who feel the same way.”