Māori culture shouldn’t be something that’s half-heartedly appropriated for some cool video game visuals. So why do developers keep doing it?
This year’s Xbox E3 Briefing kicked off with a new game reveal, Bleeding Edge – a multiplayer action game in which players fight in 4v4 battles – and some exciting news for New Zealand players: one of the characters is a Māori cyborg.
The trailer includes a montage of characters from around the globe, including Makutu – the man of the hour, presumably named for the te reo Māori word ‘mākutu’, meaning to inflict pain or death through magic or witchcraft (although the lack of a macron on the video game version renders it meaningless). In the flurry of excitement over E3, Makutu’s reveal was a blink and you’ll miss it moment. To a drowsily enraptured Kiwi audience on a Sunday morning though, it was the only thing that mattered. It’s no secret that New Zealanders squeal in glee at the mere mention of their homeland, so the presence of a Māori character was sure to set off paroxysms of excitement around the country.
But closer inspection revealed that Makutu wasn’t the Māori representation that I had been waiting for. Instead he represented an issue I’ve seen in video games for a long time. Makutu is a colossal, cybernetically enhanced, rugby playing Wellingtonian. If that sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. In place of his moko, Makutu is emblazoned with a circuit board design, and a mechanical gear carved from pounamu rests on his chest. Do you get it? It’s because it’s the future.
Bleeding Edge’s twist is that each character is cybernetically enhanced, giving them unique abilities on the battlefield. It presents a colourfully dystopian future in which cybernetic augmentation is commonplace. The pounamu and moko are stripped of their cultural meaning and instead used for cheap world-building. In short: Makutu’s Māori heritage is just another visual shortcut to convey the game’s theme.
It’s a shame to see such significant cultural symbols reduced to set-dressing, but it’s nothing new. A recent wave of Māori characters in popular games has brought a lot of exciting progress, and a lot of bafflingly ignorant decisions too. Earlier this year EA’s battle royale shooter Apex Legends featured Gibraltar, another Māori character. He was voiced by Branscombe Richmond, a Native American actor. Somebody should probably tell EA that Māori and Native Americans are not the same thing.
Game companies frequently struggle with casting for non-white characters. Uncharted 4’s Nadine Ross, a black woman, was played by Laura Bailey, a white actress. Similarly, Clementine from The Walking Dead is African-American, but in the video game version is played by Melissa Hutchison – another white actress.
There seems to be a belief that just because a voice actor isn’t seen cultural background isn’t an issue. Any voice actor will tell you that there’s more to the job than putting on a funny voice, so why do so many of these performances begin and end with fake accents? Even the most skilled actor couldn’t imitate a lifetime of culture. It’s important to say that this is definitely a casting issue and not the fault of the actors themselves. Voice actors aren’t very well treated, and even the most prolific voice actors can’t afford to back out of such massive roles.
The responsibility for casting Gibraltar in Apex Legends was on EA’s shoulders, and they screwed the pooch. As with Makutu, Gibraltar’s culture is frequently used as nothing more than a spectacle – a way to make his violence more exotic. One of Gibraltar’s finishing moves involves him smashing the enemy’s head into the ground as he performs a short haka. One of his unlockable skins also bears a striking resemblance to a Mongrel Mob uniform, although this has been contested. Using this imagery for nothing more than aesthetics is, at the very best, ignorant as hell.
Even if such characters aren’t explicitly offensive, these portrayals represent a wider issue with how smaller cultures are handled in entertainment. Gazing upon Makutu sparked a realisation that this isn’t for us – Kiwis aren’t the intended audience. There’s an expectation when adopting cultural imagery that those cultures won’t be the ones watching. The imagery exists to make the world more “exotic” for the presumed white American audience.
It’s clear that accuracy isn’t the goal. Take a moko, or a hei pounamu, and twist them to tell whatever story you feel like telling – who cares? Make it a cog, I guess. Your on-the-nose symbolism is more important than its cultural significance, anyway. Twilight made vampires sparkle, Bright made elves capitalists, you’ve gotta put your own spin on this stuff – make it yours.
The problem is that, well, Māori are real. You can’t selectively pick the stuff you think is neat and then change the rest. It’s disturbingly easy to treat real-life cultures as a fantasy pick ‘n’ mix, but Māori people aren’t elves or vampires. There’s no “fresh take” on indigenous culture.
I remember playing Far Cry 3 at the ripe age of 12 and being thrilled to hear the magic words ‘kia ora’ and ‘ka kite’ spoken by real life virtual people. But I also remember those same virtual people speaking Indonesian and Malay, two completely distinct languages, I remember the generic tribal tattoos plastered all over the menus, and I even remember bumping into a few cassowaries (demon birds that live in New Guinea).
The developers of Far Cry 3 couldn’t pick just one Asia-Pacific culture to appropriate, so they grabbed a handful. And that’s not how it works! It was the exact same ‘take what you like, leave the rest’ approach we see today with Bleeding Edge, only applied to a whole bunch of cultures at once. At least seven years later they have the decency to just fuck with one culture at a time. It’s discouraging to see this philosophy stick around for so long, even if it’s become slightly less terrible.
It’s not all bad, though. The most recent expansion to Civilization VI introduced a lovingly crafted Māori civilisation, led by Kupe, complete with a buildable marae. With enough care, and actual collaboration with Māori, they produced a result that everyone could be excited about. There’s so much potential here and, if anything, the recent effort to introduce Māori characters to gaming has been exciting to see. It’s at least clear that these companies want to have an authentic portrayal of a Māori person in their games. The problem is that most of them just end up half-assing it.
In this year alone the number of Māori characters I’ve played as in video games has doubled from one to two, which is an exciting sign of things to come. When game developers actually collaborate with the Māori community, the result is staggering. When treated properly, interactive mediums like gaming are the perfect place to engage with Māori culture. It’s a shame that so many games keep missing the mark, but the road to representation is paved with fuck ups. It’s our job to keep pointing them out.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.