Warning: This story contains distressing details.
After eating dinner one night at his home just outside city limits in Thunder Bay, Ont., Chris Riley fired up his computer, looking to unwind from the day with a video game.
His choice for the night was Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, the latest instalment in the video game series that’s been around since the 1990s.
“You start off in the Stone Age and work your way up to modern times, building an empire by founding cities and doing everything from trade agreements to cultural wars with other nations to try and take over the world,” said Riley, who has Ojibway and Cree heritage.
It’s a game Riley says usually helps him escape daily life and relieve stress.
But on this particular evening, a random encounter between two historical figures snapped him back to reality and the national conversation about the ongoing legacy of Indian residential schools, in light of the recent detection of burial sites on the grounds where these institutions once stood.
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Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate
Civilization VI is part of a genre that some call 4X: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate.
Gamers can choose to play as one of 50 different civilizations, from the Byzantines to the Dutch to the Vietnamese.
In 2018, the game added Chief Poundmaker of the Cree Nation. It was a controversial decision, with the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan quickly accusing publisher 2K Games of cultural appropriation and not consulting the First Nation about the representation of its historic chief.
One year later, Canada was added to the game in an expansion.
In this instance, Riley was playing as Chief Poundmaker when he had a random interaction with Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s prime minister from 1896 to 1911.
“In a dialogue, sort of triggered by different relations between our nations, [Laurier] said that he intended to save us whether we liked it or not,” recounted Riley.
He captured a screen shot of a second interaction that happened shortly afterwards, where Laurier says, “Even after all we have done, I still worry that there are some souls that do not want to be saved.”
Riley was shocked.
“That kind of brought back the memories of the residential school system for me,” he said. “I never went to residential school — I was a Sixties Scoop kid — but … to be saved and civilized was one of the foundational tenets of the residential school, which is what led to the thousands of unmarked graves that we’re finding now.”
‘Bitter historical truths’
The language and representation of Laurier’s thoughts are accurate, according to Justin Carpenter, a PhD candidate with the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
As prime minister, Laurier oversaw the expansion of the residential school system, and his government tried to suppress a report from 1907 that documented the high incidence of deaths among Indigenous children in residential schools in Western Canada.
The question, Carpenter says, is if and how this history is used in video games.
“It’s very hotly contested in our society today, whether we should depict these kinds of bitter historical truths in our entertainment products and whether we should be playing with them in that way.”The video game industry in Canada generated an estimated $3.6 billion in revenue last year, and it’s believed it generates $180 billion in revenue worldwide.
Take-Two Interactive, which owns 2K Games and a collection of games that includes NBA 2K and Grand Theft Auto, is one of the world’s largest video game publishing companies.
That makes video games an increasingly important platform to address and discuss Canada’s history and legacy, Carpenter said, but it has to be done critically.
Consultation an important step
There’s harm to Indigenous people if history continues to be simplified or romanticized, according to Naithan Lagace, an instructor of Indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg and author of a graduate thesis about Indigenous representation in video games.
“It’s impactful in that older players and even younger players that have intergenerational trauma dealing with residential schools or day schools are reminded of this romanticized Canada,” Lagace told CBC News. “Not only do they have to see it on the news or within their communities … but they’re also seeing it within games that are often used to escape hardships.”
Lagace worries that as large game publishers push to be more representative and reach wider audiences, complex histories can be reduced to single lines of dialogue.
To address tokenistic representation, Lagace said, game designers need to consult with Indigenous Peoples.
“People are interested in consulting with [designers], but when you see these oversimplifications, that creates this hesitancy of Indigenous consultants to want to work with the studios,” he added.
Company’s response ‘shocking’
After the two interactions while playing Civilization VI, Riley sent a complaint to 2K Games, calling Laurier’s dialogue “very questionable content” and encouraging the company to edit the content “to be a little less pro-genocide.”
Four days later, Riley received a response.
“Thank you for taking the time to contact 2K Support, especially about our epic world domination series Civilization! Also, thank you for reaching out to us, for being so forthcoming and willing to share your feedback with us about this in-game content you find questionable.”
The note went on to encourage Riley to bring it up in an online forum.
In response to a question about the letter, Riley said: “It was rather shocking, especially given the new revelations we’ve been having that have been entering public consciousness recently.”
2K Games did not respond to questions from CBC News.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC’s new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.