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A twist on a classic video game gives Native Americans better representation


A generation of kids grew up playing an early educational video game called The Oregon Trail. It's about pioneers on the trail west. They remember it mostly for the moment their party died of dysentery. Well, now there's a different spin on the wagon trail game that focuses on more accurately representing Native Americans they meet along the way, and it includes playable Native characters. The Northwest News Network's Anna King has more.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: Jazz Halfmoon, now 38, remembers playing Oregon Trail as a reward for doing well in class.

JAZZ HALFMOON: And it was on the old - super old computer. The green screen was, like, the only color.

KING: Halfmoon grew up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in northeast Oregon.

HALFMOON: I remember being like, oh, like, the Indians killed off, you know, somebody in your wagon train, you know? And it's like, well, we're Indians, you know, like...

KING: The company, Gameloft tackled the redesign of Oregon Trail. Its target audience - the now-40-year-olds and their kids and more Native American players. Lead designer Jarrad Trudgen had to root out historical inaccuracies and cliches about Native American culture.

JARRAD TRUDGEN: Well, as a white, middle-class Australian, I don't think I can really speak to that.

KING: So he brought in some Indigenous historians. They listened to early test music for the game and said, back off the drums and flutes and don't use broken, stilted English. Trudgen got it.

TRUDGEN: It's like a trope to try and make Native American people seem primitive when actually there's a lot of bilingual or polylingual Native Americans at that time.

KING: The team of historians came up with more appropriate character names and advocated for new roles for Native Americans, not just guides or trappers. University of Nebraska historian Margaret Huettl has Lac Courte Oreilles tribal ancestors. She researched old photos and drawings for accurate depictions of different tribes' clothing and style.

MARGARET HUETTL: Initially, all of the Native people had braids, and I think we suggested maybe they don't all have to have braids.

KING: One major teaching moment for Trudgen - bows and arrows. He definitely wanted them. Huettl explained that if you were a Native American trapper at the time, you were more likely to have a rifle. So bows and arrows are an outdated stereotype.

David Lewis teaches anthropology and ethnic studies at Oregon State University, and he's a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, territories where many settlers ended up.

DAVID LEWIS: They were excited initially for all the new products, the guns and the metals and the fabrics and things like that.

KING: But the real Oregon Trail wasn't a positive story for Native Americans. The settlers kept coming.

LEWIS: By and large, the experience of Native people was one of continual loss for really the first 70 or 80 years.

KING: It's hard to put all that into a video game, but historian Margaret Huettl says the designers were serious about getting it right.

HUETTL: It was clear that they were listening to us and taking what we had to say seriously.

KING: Yes, the flutes are mostly gone, too, but they did leave one old moment in the new version. You can still die of dysentery.

For NPR News, I'm Anna King.


Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.