Native American culture is often imitated in MMORPGs. I can name several MMOs that feature races or cultures that are obviously inspired by Native cultures. Unfortunately, this often means that players are met only with tepees, totem poles and other classic Hollywood imagery inside these games, and never does any MMO get down to the realities of native life.
I can’t say that I blame the designers for skirting reality. But, toying with entire real-life culture can often be seen as offensive, especially when the proper homework is not done. Heck, before I began to write this article I worried about covering some aspect of one of the cultures without knowing my stuff. Luckily, I read a lot and have been fascinated by Native American culture ever since I was excused from my 4th grade class to take a photo for my Cherokee roll card. Fortunately for me, many of the kids in the Eastern Oklahoma grade school I attended had some degree of Native American blood in them. I didn’t feel strange or different while doing things for my tribe. In fact, I felt privileged. I still do.
During my reading sessions, I have found out that Hollywood and popular media has cast North America’s Native cultures into stereotypes that, to this day, stick as fact in most people’s heads. It’s embarrassing when I – to this day – learn the truth behind some stereotype.
So, would an MMO that is set inside the time before outsider men and women came to the shores of North America – possibly hundreds of years before – be able to avoid such stereotypes? Could a single title, even one with the grand scope that only an MMO can offer, be able to convey just how grand the early-American cultures were?
Probably not, but I would love it if someone attempted to make such a game.
Probably Osage (Native American). Women's Sash, late 19th-early 20th century. Commercial wool yarn, glass beads, 61 1/2 x 6 1/2 in. (156.2 x 16.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1911, Museum Collection Fund, 11.694.9017. Creative Commons-BY
There are other options, like creating a game that hinted at or blended cultures into one sort of generic, playable culture, but I would fear that such a blending would just contribute to the bland noise that is often seen as “Native culture” in popular media. We’ve already seen the “Native American-like” races in many MMOs, and I would want to avoid that in this, my dream MMO. It would be very important that players were offered the variations that came with real early North America without resorting to an all-in-one offering.
What does that mean?
It would mean educating players (as much as possible) about at least some of the vast number of unique tribes, customs, methods and techniques honed by these people. This is no simple task; early settlers often mistook Native Americans as “primitive” people, which had many results. This arrogance helped settlers lose battles against tribes and helped grow new prejudices. Many thought (and stull think, unfortunately) that all tribes are the same tribe, or that all Native Americans shared the same customs, didn’t know how to form strategy in battle, how to heal their wounded, how to love, lose, eat, sleep, create or gather food… the list of mistakes goes on and on.
In my dream game, players could experiment with, say, 5 or 6 different real-life tribes. They could learn something about each of them, or pick a favorite. Some cultures valued warrior culture, some were traders and healers, some roamed more than others, but all had depth that can now normally only be explored through research. It would be great to allow a 17 year-old gamer a place to play with a culture she never knew about, one that existed during a very real time of adventure, cruelty, death and in the grand landscape of early North America.
One of the great myths about many Native American tribes was that they all used chiefs; male leaders who wore massive headdresses and were the speakers of all of their people. Often this was not nearly the truth, (the “chief” concept is really European in origin) and players could discover that fact by being able to strike out on their own, or by forming smaller parties or groups of crafters or hunters.
Some tribes had influential members (for example, “Head Men”) who would often police or command others, make decisions during war or would be drafted later by white men from Washington (because they were mistakenly thought to be “chiefs”) to make decisions that not only affected their particular tribe, but sometimes Native people in general. More often than not these “chiefs” would shrug, “touch the pen” (sign a treaty) and take the White’s gifts back to their people.
Imagine if a player could learn to influence others and become a pseudo-leader. Many MMOs naturally encourage these sort of positions, especially in tight-knit groups like raiding or PvP guilds. Everyone reading this has probably met more than one player who was respected and listened to, but who did not necessarily call the shots.
Players from different tribes could have wars with others, and there could even be language variations and the need for translators, players who could literally pick up the languages of the others. The key would be to create a game that examined such a topic without resorting to silliness or over-generalizations.
Crafting could be a complex but worthwhile and necessary activity, unlike MMOs that make crafting a second-hand activity and busywork.
Take tanning a hide, for example.
First, you pin the hides to the ground taut and scrape off the flesh. Then, you rub in a mixture of brains and liver until you penetrated the pores. Dry it in the sun for several days, wash it off in a nearby stream, tie it off again and scrape off any leftover bits. Apply more jellied brains. Then, get a partner and draw the hide back and forth across a small tree until it is soft enough for folding. In the end, you’ll have a buffalo robe that could save your virtual life during winter.
Of course, life was very hard back in those days. Torture was not only common, but sometimes expected. Cruelty was widely-known. But, as MMOs are good at letting players walk in the shoes of another, the game could allow players to play, for example, the woman warriors who, although uncommon, made a difference in battle all the same. Many tribes had no issues with men who wanted to “live as women” and many practiced giving to the poorest of the poor and never leaving behind someone who needed help. It was a startling time of juxtapositions; cruelty and love, loyalty and hate, death and rebirth, prejudice and acceptance, and players could experience a small section of that lifestyle through a game.
Yes, yes, I know. Playing a game pales in comparison with actually investing real-life time and energy into learning about and possibly talking to those who still practice Native American cultures. In fact, I agree completely. But, if you look at the stereotypes that are still on display in movies, music and games, you’ll see that popular culture (like video games) has much more of a chance of educating younger people than almost anything else. A sad truth, but still a truth.
What do you think? Would you want to play a Native American MMO?