“How do I play these” (with your thumbs, asshole): Attending to the Indigenous structure of video games within the contexts of digitālis nullius

I want to write about what it means to play and interpret Indigenous video games, particularly, for me, as a non-Indigenous gamer and new media scholar.

For me, the process of writing about Indigenous games begins with thinking about the relationship between gaming, code, and settler colonialism, as well as the ways in which I am complicit in what I call digitālis nullius, the erasure of Indigenous presence from technological spaces. As I hope to make evident as I progress through this blog post, code, narratology, and game mechanics are not abstract from larger conversations about settler colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty.

Towards this very point, Jodi Byrd argues that videogames matter to Indigenous studies because the “precepts underscoring the very code upon which they are built have been developed in relation to the ongoing colonization of indigenous peoples and contribute to current modes of subjectivity, violence, and dominance that overcode speaking truth to power” (Byrd 2018). The Byrd essay I am quoting from here, one of her many in-depth analyses of settler colonialism and video games, looks specifically at the ways in which video games made by non-Indigenous designers reproduce and amplify processes of assimilation and displacement

For instance, in her reading of the 2013 release from Irrational Games, Bioshock Infinite, Byrd amplifies the frontier analogies of settler games that work to further erase Indigenous peoples from their traditional territories – even on, or particularly on, digital platforms. In the sense that games like Bioshock Infinite enact terra nullius, Byrd argues, “the Indian vanishes into the code” (Byrd 2018) and the larger structures of settler colonial violence are not only left untouched in the game play, but they are built directly into a new generation of world building.[1]

Videogames such as BioShock Infinite tell one story about Indigenous presence in videogames and Byrd helps to illustrate how omnipresent that narrative is in gaming. So how and where, within the medium, do Indigenous developers find the space to assert Indigenous sovereignty in the face of colonial erasure? How are Indigenous videogames affirming self-determination, not only in representation, but in storytelling, gameplay, and the adaptation of community stories? What does it mean to code Indigenous presence into videogames? Elizabeth LaPensée asks similar questions of herself when designing her own games, gesturing to some of the many considerations Indigenous developers must consider in the practice of adapting community stories into digital platforms:

How [can] I follow storytelling protocol to honour stories that are only to be told when snow is on the ground if they were reimagined in games that can be accessed in any season? Is it even right to make an Indigenous character that non-Indigenous people can then embody? How do I truly represent Indigenous ways of knowing in gameplay when using game engines that aren’t coded from an Indigenous worldview? Is this technology inherently in conflict with tradition? (LaPensée 2016)

These are some of the questions that I am also invested in in this essay, which come out of my own relationship, as a white, cis, straight man, to Indigenous videogames such as Never Alone, a game I have spent a fair amount of time with, as a player, teacher, and researcher. Indeed, I borrow the title of an earlier post on Never Alone from Helen Hoy’s 2001 monograph, How Should I Read These: Native Women’s Writers in Canada, which itself builds out of Eden Robinson’s short story “Queen of the North.”

In what follows, I’ll walk though both Robinson’s and Hoy’s analysis to illustrate how I am iterating on their processes as an entry point to my own analysis of Never Alone. The intent here is to draw new connections between scholarship in Indigenous literatures (which is well established) to burgeoning research in Indigenous new media and video games. While there are obvious distinctions between games and literature, beginning with “self-awareness and an ability to situate self within the research” (Kovach 2017) locates game analysis within the structures of Indigenous studies and increases awareness of the power differentials that arise out of the relationships between games and gamers. 

“Queen of the North,” part of Robinson’s debut short story collection, Traplines, is instrumental in considering the power dynamics that arise out of settler/Indigenous cultural relationships. Robinson’s story follows a character named Karaoke, a young Haisla woman, grappling with a budding romance and the legacies of violence inflicted by Canada’s residential school system. At the mid-point of the narrative, Karaoke is selling fry bread at an Indigenous fundraising event in Vancouver, when a white man with the bland, unassuming name of Arnold (a name which is particularly insipid when held up against “Karaoke”), approaches her. Hoy reads the uncomfortable nature of this encounter, which is deeply entangled in the white, male gaze, as an allegory for the ways in which Indigenous identity is consumed and catalogued by non-Indigenous people in Canada. The question that Arnold poses to Karaoke, “how should I eat these?” (referring to the fry bread she is selling) is, according to Hoy, indicative of the settler desire to consume, and therefore take ownership over Indigenous knowledge and culture. David Garneau provides further definition to this particular mode of colonial extraction in an essay published years after How Should I Read These

The colonial gaze is characterized not only by scopophilia, a drive to look, but also by an urge to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit. The attitude assumes that everything should be accessible to those with the means and will to access them. (Garneau 2016) 

For Hoy, Karaoke’s encounter with Arnold illustrates the colonizer’s desire to contain otherness within a series of “knowable characteristics that can be studied, known, and managed accordingly by the colonizer” (Hoy 2001). In demanding what might, at face value, appear as benign information, Hoy argues that Arnold puts Karaoke in the unwanted position of educator and cultural tour guide, emotional labour that she neither wants, nor is prepared to give during an exceptionally difficult time in her life. 

Of course, the cataloguing that Hoy notes, even when broken down into the act of eating fry bread, is a way of reifying otherness, and, as such, Arnold badly misses the point of what should be a simple financial exchange. Indeed, Karaoke’s silent riposte to Arnold’s question, “with your mouth, asshole” (Robinson 2000), gestures to the frustration with which Indigenous cultural producers respond to what Gaytrai Spivak, identifies as “the self-consolidating other” (Spivak 1988), that is an identity bounded by stereotypes and racial fetishization, which always already seeks to make Indigenous knowledge legible within the frameworks of colonial epistemologies. 

The phrase “how should I read these?,” building from “how should I eat these,” speaks to the cultural othering and epistemic violence with which non-Indigenous writers approach Indigenous texts, knowingly or not. Hoy’s quest to both to understand her own relationship to Indigenous literatures while chipping away at the (often invisible) colonial lenses that frame her own reading practices represent the very stakes of her monograph. In this sense, the phrase “how should I read these,” is a gesture toward the fraught and often difficult ways in which Hoy understands herself as a non-Indigenous scholar of Indigenous literatures, particularly within a discipline that, while paying lip service to diversity, does very little to address the structural issues Indigenous peoples face in the academy, publishing (and gaming) industries every day:

Given the imperviousness of the academy to Native presences and paradigms, then, the position of the non-Native scholar studying Native literature – my position – becomes a fraught and suspect one. The position is replete with opportunities for romanticizing, cultural ignorance, colonization – and, ironically, simultaneous professional advancement. (Hoy 2001)

What Hoy points to here is the risk implicit to outsider readings of Indigenous literature that impose colonial analytic frameworks (thus perpetuating harmful stereotypes) and that fail to consider the socio-political frameworks that shape and pressure the literary content. In this sense, How Should I Read These is thoughtful investigation into what it means to read with Indigenous authors, against Western literary theory, and towards decolonization, interpreted here as the dismantling of structural violence as it occurs within literature departments and other professional organizations. Or as Daniel Justice puts in Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Hoy’s work is concerned with what it means to be a good relation as a settler critic or scholar (Justice 2018). 

Keavy Martin echoes the concerns that Hoy lays out. For Martin, Indigenous literary scholars (and Indigenous game scholars, I would add) need to rigorously consider how “our methods—our way of thinking about and reading texts—converse with Indigenous traditions and contemporary concerns” (Martin 2012). In other words, how does the work we are doing, as interpreters of text contribute to larger issues of decolonization, including, most importantly, the return of land and the dismantling of white supremacy?

For Hoy and Martin, an ethical methodology begins with the ability to critically interrogate one’s positionality and to work in relation with Indigenous authors and Indigenous epistemologies. It also means being open to alternative modes of inquiry and unfamiliar ways of knowing, as graciously offered by Indigenous authors, scholars, and community members. In short, being a good relation means reading (and playing) Indigenous texts with careful attention to the methodologies, theories, and strategies one uses as reading and playing tools. It also means approaching Indigenous literature with grace and humility: “methodological – or epistemological – humility and caution recognize presumed limitations to the outsider’s understanding and the importance of not undermining the insider’s perspective in the process of communicating and learning across difference” (Hoy 2001). 

In homage to Hoy, who has been instrumental in helping me to think through my relation to the Indigenous books and games that I love and write about, I have used the phrase “How do I Play These” in earlier work as a means to position myself, as a settler scholar of Indigenous literatures and new media, in relationship to Indigenous video games, such as Never Alone. While Hoy helps to guide my analysis here, I also offer her work here as an invitation to other settler readers and gamers to critically consider their own consumption of Indigenous games, or games that claim to represent Indigeneity, but do so without consultation with Indigenous peoples.[1]

Asking “how do I play these” (with your thumbs, asshole), is therefore a call to undo the deeply colonial, male gaze that is still all too often the lens through which videogame analysis is shaped and to think not just about the content of Indigenous games, but also the structures and contexts that frame and shape those games (often quite literally) from the ground up. While, on the one hand, it is exciting to see Indigenous games included in academic discussions of technology and new media (Schrier 2019, Finley and Raton 2018), inclusion itself can be a distraction from the larger socio-political issues that frame and influence Indigenous cultural development. Just being “inclusive” is not enough.

Dylan Robinson writes that “inclusionary efforts bolster an intransient system of presentation guided by an interest in — and often a fixation upon — Indigenous content, but not Indigenous structure” (Robinson 2020). By “structure,” Robinson is here referring to the ongoing impacts of colonialism, racism, and white supremacy, as well as the Indigenous epistemologies that are often overshadowed by deficit models framing Indigenous knowledge as unsophisticated. Much as it does in music, which is Robinson’s field of study, the indifference to structure in gaming leads to interpretive violence through which gamers and game scholars privilege their own ways of knowing in their interactions with and analysis of Indigenous videogames.

Asking “how do I play these” therefore means being attentive, not just to mechanics or narratology, but to the larger socio-political concerns that are intertwined with a game’s development and reception within settler colonialism. It also means being willing and prepared to read a game from within the traditions and contexts of the community that created it while unsettling the analytic tools used to unpack and understand games and our interactions with them.    


[1] Vincent Schilling (#NativeNerd) documents some of those appropriating games in Indian Country Today. They include: Civilization VI, Oregon Trail, Mortal Kombat, Red Dead Redemption, and Brave: A Warrior’s Tale (Schilling 2019). 


[1] Terra nullius, or “nobody’s land,” is the principle deployed in international law to justify settler presence on Indigenous territories. It is a practice of erasure, of Indigenous peoples, but also of the laws and governance systems that existed, and continue to exist, on stolen Indigenous land. 

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