Custer’s Revenge hit retail shelves during the advent of console videogames in the 1980’s. In the Atari 2600 videogame, the player takes the role of a pixilated, naked General George Armstrong Custer, the historic military officer who devastated American Indian communities prior to his death in a battle at Little Big Horn in 1876. The object of the game is to dodge Indian arrows as you make your way to the other side of the screen, where an Indian woman is already tied to a pole. The game ends in one of two ways. You either lose by getting shot by arrows, or you rape the Indian woman and win.
Despite its boxy graphics, Custer’s Revenge was graphic and delivered clear messages of racism and sexism. Protestors gathered in an effort to have Custer’s Revenge permanently removed from retail shelves. “Kristen Reilly, a leading member of Women Against Pornography, organized the protesters, with help from the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the American Indian Community House” (Gonzalez). When the boycott and protests started, organizations targeted Atari 2600. However, Atari 2600 was not in control of games developed for their console at that point in time. Mystique was the developer responsible for the content. As Tom Moriarty reported in the October 1983 issue of Videogaming and Computergaming Illustrated, “Atari filed a lawsuit against AMI/Mystique for ‘wrongful association’ of Custer’s Revenge to the Atari 2600” (Gonzalez).
As described on ClassicGaming.com’s history of Custer’s Revenge, a group of Atari programmers who felt they were not properly credited for their work left the company and started Activision. “Activision opened the door for other companies to develop games for the Atari 2600. Prior to Activision’s formation, Atari developed all the games themselves. But after the foundation (and success) of Activision, other companies started to join the fray. Atari didn’t plan for this kind of occurrence, had no way of preventing games from being released, and had no licensing system. Hundreds of companies churned out games of vastly varying quality” (Fragmaster).
GUN Comes Under Fire
Ironically, Activision now faces a boycott for reasons very similar to those facing Atari. Neversoft Entertainment developed the game GUN with screenwriter Randall Jahnson and published it through Activision to the platforms Xbox 360, Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, and PC. Although Activision can argue that they are detached from the development process in the same way that Atari was for Mystique’s X-rated products, Activision certainly played an active role as a publisher in the distribution of GUN.
GUN puts the player in a raw, violent Wild West setting. In the second opening scene labeled with the date “1542,” Indians, presumably from the Apache tribe, are portrayed with monstrous, animalistic expressions as they slaughter missionary travelers. A defenseless missionary with a large cross falls in submission, and the Indians ruthlessly murder him. The scene ends with blood splattering over the large cross.
The game begins in 1880 as the player takes on the role of Colton White, who is traveling the Missouri river with his father Ned. Suspiciously, Colton wears a recognizably Indian choker. During a raid by “white men turned savages” on the Morning Star steamboat, Ned confesses to Colton that he is not Colton’s father, and Colton must leave Ned behind to survive. Colton is later told that everyone on the steamboat was scalped by the “bloody savages.”
The first training session prior to the steamboat attack involves primarily killing wolves and an angry grizzly bear, and the second focuses on shooting at wild elk and buffalo. At the end of the second training session, Colton White is ambushed by white men for wearing an “Alhambra token,” which Colton later uses to get information from Jenny at the Dodge City Alhambra Saloon. All the while, even though Colton kills white men to defend Jenny, the emphasis remains on the “fugitive band of Apaches on a rampage” between Dodge City and Empire City.
Colton is sent to clear the bridge of the Apaches who are trying to destroy it, because it has been built on their land. The man handling the development of the bridge makes other racist comments—“even the Irish won’t work” and the “China men” are stalled in work. When Colton kills Apaches, they die more dramatically than do white men. Their screams are louder. Few use guns, and most use arrows or tomahawks. Colton uses a Scalping Knife to scalp them for graphic effects as there is no benefit to scalping enemies other than experiencing the violence itself. A series of massacres of the Apache people follows as Colton escorts Jenny to Empire City.
Colton travels to Hoodoo’s casino to fight against the Indian “resistance.” The game direction turns when Hoodoo turns on Colton and puts him in jail. When Colton saves Indians on a train, it “cancels a karmic debt.” Later on, Colton helps an Indian who is cruelly beaten on a steamboat, but for his own benefit. If he saves the Indian’s brothers, the Indians help Colton escape. Colton then protects an Indian village. The Blackfeet lead Colton to an attack on Hollister’s Fort.
Side quests involve killing sacred white animals for an Indian hunter for $5 to $20 each. Eventually, the content routes back to the second opening scene of the game. Part of the initial cross is found by killing the Reverend Reeds. The second half of the cross must be found through Many Wounds. Soapy, whom Colton earlier saved from hanging, helps Colton as well. “I’ve seen the other half of this cross. The Apache Chief has it. If I can put the pieces together, then I can beat Magruder at his own game.” Magruder has been searching for Quivira, a Lost City. During the process of getting the second part of the cross and finding Magruder, it turns out that Colton is also Indian, which supposedly makes his past acts of violence acceptable.
Although the violence is historically accurate, the content glorifies the experience of slaughtering Indians and attempts to make it permissible by having a main character with hidden indigenous heritage.
In reaction to the content of GUN, the Association for American Indian Development has started a boycott against Activision. They have requested that certain explicit violence and stereotyping be removed from the game. Ultimately, the Association for American Indian Development simply wants to see the content corrected in respect of the Apache people.This comprise is more accepting than the boycott on Custer’s Revenge, which called for the game to be removed from all retail outlets. Ironically, years later, it is available through many web sites for free.
Advertisements gloss over the monstrous or violent depictions of the Apache in GUN. Screenshots are carefully selected. GUN received a great deal of marketing through television and the typical videogame venues—game magazines and game web sites. However, it was also given additional marketing that few games receive.
An Alternate Reality Game (ARG) was created to market GUN. ARGs are cross media games, primarily used to advertise upcoming videogames. The GUN ARG featured a Wild West themed poker web site with strange phone calls related to the story of Colton’s gun in the 21st Century. Players choose avatars to represent themselves in the poker web site, only one of which looked remotely American Indian—a woman wearing Western clothing. The ARG failed to take the opportunity to represent the current conditions of the Apache and Blackfeet and instead relied on the simplicity of the ongoing story of the gun. However, this culpability does not fall on the writers and designers in the ARG, but again on Activision, which should have been responsible for providing game content information.
American Indian content can be used successfully in videogames. Red Dead Revolver, developed by Rockstar Games, also casts a half-breed as its main character but uses fictional tribe names, represents American Indians as more than one-sided, and portrays other races working collaboratively. Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath by Electronic Arts offers a creative analogy of the American Indian colonization experience. The overtones are made clear during a final serene scene at the end featuring a quote from Chief Standing Bear.
Even though the historical period portrayed in GUN was fraught with racism, Activision’s decision to publish a racially stereotyped videogame represents a serious misstep in social responsibility. Like Custer’s Revenge, GUN provokes wonder. In this case, the industry has unfortunately bought into the popular misconception that games are frivolous because they are made for fun.