Indigenous creatives are blazing trails in the gaming industry

Indigenous creatives are blazing trails in the gaming industry

IndigiPopXan Indigenous pop culture festival, is sort of like Comic-Con, only some of the cosplayers wear pucker-toe moccasins and there’s a glow-stickball tournament on the schedule.

But most of the games showcased at this year’s festival, held in Oklahoma City, require a lot less athleticism. Like Nasithe latest creation of Cherokee game developer Connor Alexander.

“These are all 12-sided dice. You’ve got nine white dice and three black dice,” Alexander explained as we played a round at his booth. “The black die, it represents the Crow. Sort of a mischief maker in the game. If you roll a 12 on the black die, you bust and you don’t score anything.”

The goal is to roll “sets” of identical numbers or “runs” of sequential ones. Each time a player rolls again in hopes of improving their score, another black die is added into the mix to raise the stakes.

“There’s a lot of games in Indigenous cultures that involve chance and pushing your luck,” Alexander said, like handgame and hubbub. “This is sort of my nod to those.”

Naasii is also a game within another of Alexander’s games, called Coyote & Crow. That one’s a tabletop role-playing game, or RPG — think Dungeons & Dragons.

“But instead of a Eurocentric fantasy focused on dragons and goblins, it is centered around an alternate history and future where colonization never occurred in the Americas,” Alexander said. “I think there’s a lot of room for Indigenous futurisms in our media.”

He’d had the idea for Coyote & Crow for years, but finally crowdfunded it in 2021, when sales of games were soaring and there was an uptick in stories told by and for Native people in American pop culture. The success of TV shows like FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” which was recently renewed for a third season, and movies like “Prey,” which had the most successful debut of any movie on Hulu, have showed that mainstream audiences are hungry for this kind of content and opened doors for Indigenous creatives in other fields, like gaming.

Crowdfunding “was an enormous success. We originally had planned on maybe generating about $25,000 from our Kickstarterand instead it was over a million,” Alexander said. “We reached a lot of people we didn’t think we could reach.”

The game has generated enough buzz in the RPG world that Alexander now has a few more games in production. He hopes Coyote & Crow’s success will chip away at a stubborn myth in the industry, that mainstream audiences just won’t buy into authentically told Indigenous stories.

Meagan Byrne, who is Métis, has had to contend with that myth in the video game industry while pitching ideas written for Indigenous audiences.

“When people come to me and they’re like, ‘No one wants this,’ my thing is, ‘How do you know that?’” Byrne said.

Her independent studio, called Achimostawinan Games (“Tell us a story” in Cree), recently released Hill Agency, which Byrne describes as a “cybernoir Indigenous mystery interactive novel” whose Native characters aren’t defined by their relationship to colonization or genocide.

The hard-nosed detective at the center of the game works in a thriving Indigenous metropolis in a postapocalyptic future, investigating the case of a murdered girl. Byrne hopes the sci-fi setting and tone of the game help Native players process the heavy theme of violence against women.

“I very much hear what a lot of Indigenous women have been saying about, like, ‘I am tired of being [portrayed as] an iron matriarch. I am tired of people praising me for how hard I can take the hit,’” Byrne said. “So we go cheesy [in Hill Agency]. The dialogue is cheese. The music, as beautiful as it is, really lays into that kind of noir aesthetic.”

Hill Agency needs to sell 40,000 units for Achimostawinan Games to break even, which Byrne expects will take a couple of years. But where others in the industry might see a major marketing challenge, Byrne sees opportunity.

“Even taking out the whole capitalist equation, this is a grossly underserved market that deserves to have content made for them,” Byrne said.

The crowd at IndigiPopX is evidence of that. Some people traveled thousands of miles to be in a place where their Indigeneity and their love of nerdy pop culture didn’t feel at odds.

“It’s just refreshing knowing that we’re finally being seen and heard,” said Tommia Wright, who’s Snoqualmie and made the trip all the way from Washington state.

She said she was mostly there to geek out over comic books, but was feeling interested in gaming for the first time after discovering a few that imagine a hopeful future for Native people.

“It’s about time, it’s about darn time,” she said. “So actually, I might consider picking up one of the RPG or tabletop games and give it a go.”

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