by Margaret-Anne Murphy
Visual sovereignty can be described as claiming the digital colonial landscape while “reimagining the screen to incorporate Aboriginal cultural protocols, languages and aesthetics on-screen as well as off-screen” (Dowell, 2013, p.1). Indigenous artists, filmmakers and producers have been implementing visual sovereignty in recent years, asserting their rightful place in the white-dominated realms of television, video games, internet and other modes of the digital world. An example of this is Upper One’s video game Never Alone which engages in the tactics of visual sovereignty through Indigenous storytelling, language, art, and gameplay. The game also incorporates a female lead character, Nuna, who works reciprocally with her pet fox. The fact that Nuna is the lead character should not go unnoticed as gender plays a key role in Indigenous visual sovereignty in Never Alone; not only does it challenge the male-dominated misogynistic world of gaming, but it also reimagines past Indigenous cultures and nations in which females and children were highly revered and respected.
Never Alone is a video game that was created by Upper One Games in what is now known as Alaska. It is based on a traditional Inupiaq story called “Kunuuksaayuka” which was recorded by Robert Nasruk Cleveland in his collection Stories of the Black River People. The story is centered around a young boy searching for the cause of an unyielding blizzard, but the producers, Cook Inlet Tribal Council and E-Line Media, decided to change the main character to a girl during the creation process (Lyons, 2014). E-Line Media creative director Sean Vesce states that the game “ended up with the Iñupiaq girl over a male character, primarily because [they] felt the girl hero has been underrepresented in video games and to have a girl character that was powerful and could overcome something as harsh as that environment was something that [they] felt would add to the canon of games. Many of [the producers] actually have daughters, so the idea of creating something that would inspire them…was important” (Lyons, 2014). The underrepresentation of female characters in the media and video game world has been prevalent for decades, as a result of patriarchy and sexism in settler society.
Historically, gender in many pre-contact Indigenous communities and nations was fluid and there was a sense of equality and respect between genders (Brayboy, 2016). Since the beginning of colonization, female Indigenous bodies have been subject to the dictates of colonial patriarchy and repression. For example, colonial policies in residential schools enforced the gender binary by segregating boys and girls and implementing gendered skills and trades, such as domestic labor for girls and mechanics for boys (Lomawaima, 1993). This ideology of a gender binary became normalized by settler society, which has perpetuated patriarchal and colonial violence on Indigenous communities, specifically women, to this day (Dhillon, J., & Allooloo, S., 2015). Not only does this violence occur in the real world, but it also continues in the digital realm.
In general, the digital realm of video gaming is a male-dominated space. Only 22% of people working in the video game industry are female who are typically minimally involved in the creation of the video games (De Clercq, 2016). Lize De Clercq states on her website that “when dividing job descriptions by gender, male workers heavily dominate most of the core content creation roles and women make up only 5% of the programming in the video game industry.” Also, the percentage of female characters in video games has remained around 15% since the early 1990s (Gittleson, 2014). Female characters are often represented in hyper-sexual and feminized ways with little agency and minimized roles (Zobel de Alaya, 2014). It is rare to see a video game with a female lead or a strong female character, as the “majority of games persistently serve to marginalize and inferiorize those associated with the feminine or with non-violent masculinities and position them as ‘other’ to hegemonic male characters” (Harvey, 2015, p.31). These misconstrued hyper-sexual images of women as ‘damsels in distress’ instil problematic notions of femininity and masculinity, as well as ideologies of sexism (Harvey, 2015, p.51). Zobel de Ayala (2014) proclaims that in the video game industry, there is a false assumption that female-led video games will not generate a profit. But, as the number of female gamers continues to rise (De Clercq, 2016), it has become clear that “by lifting the ‘damsel in distress’ heuristic from female video game characters and designing female characters that are as capable and badass as are present in real life, women could easily take the role of the hero – and could absolutely sell video games” (Zobel de Ayala, 2014).
Never Alone is one of these video games. It has sold many copies worldwide and continues to make significant profits for the Upper One Games and Inupiaq community, while providing a role model for girls and young women. The female representation in the game aims to integrate “cultural traditions, political status, and collective identities through aesthetic and cinematic means” (Dowell, 2013, p.2). Inuit women have traditionally held important roles in their communities and have historically experienced respect and equality from their male counterparts (Billson & Mancini, 2007). By strengthening values that uphold respect for females, Never Alone fosters an environment of youth and female autonomy and empowerment.
Creating the strong, independent, non-sexualized character of Nuna is “not only a political act but is also a cultural process” (Dowell, 2013, p.4). Nuna wears gender-neutral clothing typical of the Inupiaq culture; in the video game, there is a cultural insight video entitled “Caribou Clothing was the Best” in which Inupiaq elders share memories of the caribou skin clothing that they used to wear. Nuna wears a jacket made out of caribou skin and other animal fur, visually strengthening Inupiaq reciprocity and cultural ties to the land and animals. Nuna also interacts with the landscape in autonomous and self-sufficient ways; she is not afraid to be without an adult and continuously challenges herself by persevering through difficult obstacles. She also does not conform to the hyper-feminine roles common in mainstream video games. The strong female character of Nuna speaks “back to the legacy of misrepresentation in dominant media [which] is an act of cultural autonomy that reclaims the screen to tell Aboriginal stories from Aboriginal perspectives” (Dowell, 2013, p.2). Dominant media has historically misrepresented women and Indigenous peoples, and this can be traced to the prevalence of media producers as male and white; therefore, ideologies of patriarchy and racism have permeated mass media. Never Alone challenges these ideologies by specifically placing the young Indigenous girl in the role of the hero.
Colonialism has not only forced Indigenous peoples to adopt the gender binary, but it also has misrepresented Indigenous females through powerful social ideologies of patriarchy, racism and sexism. Having the female lead character of Nuna resists these violent ideologies present in society and the video game world: “By seizing and reconfiguring the means of production, Aboriginal filmmakers [and video game producers] overturn unequal power dynamics to claim their right to self-determination” (Dowell, 2013, p.5). The community and creators behind Never Alone are doing just that: challenging unequal colonial and gendered power dynamics while asserting Inupiaq self-representation.
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Brayboy, D. (2016, January 23). Two spirits, one heart, five genders. Retrieved from https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/opinions/two-spirits-one-heart-five-genders/
De Clercq, L. (2016, February 28). Why are there so few female game developers? Retrieved from http://www.unite-it.eu/profiles/blogs/why-are-so-few-women-developing-video-games
Dhillon, J., & Allooloo, S. (2015, December 14). Violence against indigenous women is woven into Canada’s history. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/14/violence-indigenous-woman-canada-history-inquiry-racism
Dowell, K. (2013). Sovereign screens: Aboriginal media on the Canadian west coast. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Gittleson, K. (2014, June 13). Why does sexism persist in the video games industry? Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-27824701
Harvey, A. (2015). Gender, age, and digital games in the domestic context. New York: Routledge.
Lomawaima, K. T. (1993). Domesticity in the federal Indian schools: the power of authority over mind and body. American Ethnologist,20(2), 227-240. doi:10.1525/ae.1993.20.2.02a00010
Lyons, M. (2014, May 20). The first U.S. Indigenous video-game company explains how their game Never Alone crosses cultural boundaries. Retrieved from http://business.financialpost.com/fp-tech-desk/post-arcade/the-first-u-s-indigenous-video-game-company-explains-how-their-game-never-alone-crosses-cultural-boundaries
Upper One Games. (2014). Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna).
Zobel de Ayala, E. (2014, March 6). Damsels in distress: Female representation in video games. Retrieved from https://www.hastac.org/blogs/ezobel/2014/03/06/damsels-distress-female-representation-video-games