On Horizon Zero Dawn, Cultural Appropriation, and Game Design

First, read this, because the writer’s perspective is better-informed than mine and elaborates the issues here in a way I’m neither capable of nor interested in trying.

Horizon Zero Dawn is, firstly, a beautiful game. It’s got a ton going for it. And as with anything at the top of the heap, it has done a couple of really shitty things to get there.

One of those shitty things is the appropriation of elements of Native American culture, though, as Dia Lacina characterizes it at least, it’s apparently more complicated than that. I will freely admit that I am one of those folks who’s uneasy with the term appropriation, because I find it hard to differentiate between that and working beyond one’s own background, which is a proud and necessary feat for every artist at some point.

Nonetheless, having this called out is a good thing to my mind. It highlights both the casual way in which these creators have taken elements of a culture (and more on that in a moment) and the problematic nature of the elements they’ve chosen.

For me, it also highlights the fact that you need to pay attention when you’re writing or designing anything.If your story is about the fall of modern civilization and the survival of the species largely thanks to traditional skills, your story should include the story of how those skills were disseminated. That’s a huge opportunity to drive your narrative and, I think, to judo-flip appropriation completely.

Let’s say, for example, that Guerilla Games had involved someone who has a better grasp on Native American culture to help craft the game world and backstory. Ideally, that would be a person or group of people who are of Native American background themselves, and who studies not just their own people’s culture but the many other cultures that continue to exist under the broad and at-times-useless umbrella of “Native American”.

What if Aloy’s culture was formed by a group of people who took refuge on reserve land? Perhaps the generally lower level of technology outside of large urban areas helped here. Perhaps the preservation of traditional skills was important. Perhaps stronger family and community institutions allowed people to work together more broadly.

A story involving an influx of people onto the meagre allotment of Native American lands would be problematic in its own ways, but at least in that version of the story the folks being taken advantage of are also at the centre of what happens next. In this turbulent historical moment, the story of folks who have been abused throughout history taking in refugees, despite what it might cost them, painting them as heroes, might be a very good story to tell.

I haven’t played through the full game yet. Maybe some of that is in there. I doubt it, based on what I’ve read, but I leave the door ajar just in case. But as a designer and writer, I’m certainly more aware at this moment of my responsibility to justify all of the choices I make. It’s not even about appropriation or offense or political correctness, it’s about making the best version of a thing. It seems obvious that in this case there was a missed opportunity to do something that was more than just technically excellent, that had meaning beyond the boundaries of its play time.

I am hopeful that I can take that lesson to heart.