"It was life changing," he says. "My grandmother hasn't had an easy life, but she never really talks about disappointments. This was one of the rare times I've seen her mad at someone. When I tell this story at a native community, the reaction is exactly the same each time: people nodding their heads in the audience because this type of thing is so common."
Videogames haven't portrayed Native Americans with much depth or respect for their culture. Dillon says Nightwolf from Mortal Kombat 3 was the lone native character she remembers from childhood. She's given talks at conferences and written papers about the representation of natives in videogames and says many games just recycle tired stereotypes involving magic or savagery. Games like the WarChiefs expansion for Age of Empires III reflect Eurocentric values with their emphasis on resource gathering and territorial conquest, she contends, and don't take into account that native characters would have different motivations. "What we need are characters with individuality to identify with and be proud of, with game mechanics that are capable of reflecting aboriginal thinking."
For Dillon the main issue is representation: "If our stories or histories are going to be used, they should be imagined and shared by us, so that people can experience them to the fullest." After meeting Pocketwatch Games founder Andy Schatz at the Independent Games Festival, Dillon was hired to help write the company's Venture Arctic game, which incorporates Inuit and Haida content. Dillon, whose favorite games include the Oddworld series, Portal, BioShock and Psychonauts, has also created native-inspired mods for Neverwinter Nights and written for a game based on Mayan culture.
Two comic books authored by Dillon won a contest at online publisher Zeros2Heroes sponsored by Canada's Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. One is an aboriginal take on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland featuring a gamer girl as its protagonist and the other, called "How the West Was Lost," fuses aboriginal myth with steampunk. Dillon says she hopes to create more such cultural mixtures in her writing and game design, delving more into her love for steampunk (she wears a bowler hat and long suede coats in real life) and genres like cyberpunk. "As long as the storytelling comes from aboriginal people, it will be to the heart," she says. "As native people, we are naturally hybrid."
While Dillon's work in videogames and comics brings traditional stories into the future, Thornton's RezWorld uses game technology to keep the past alive. Both of them want to ensure that natives - and native kids especially - have a chance to experience the richness of their cultures. As digital technology develops into a more important part of those cultures, videogames are becoming a new resource for Native Americans in their efforts to preserve and protect their unique customs, stories and identities, and to share them with the rest of the world.
Chris LaVigne wrote this article from his home, located on the traditional territory of Cowichan Tribes of Vancouver Island. He also writes for Snackbar Games and Maisonneuve.