Colonialism Bytes: A Review of “Idle No More: Blockade”

Here at Ad Astra, our focus is on comics. Hey, it’s in the name. But we are into political comics because we think they’re a great way to connect people with issues they might not otherwise have the time or the energy to learn about. We often have joking conversations around the office about what a social justice video game might look like. If we had the talent and resources to create one, we definitely would!

Without any formal training as a game designer, Chelsea Vowel has leveraged a simple set of game-­making tools to create a promising effort at social justice video games!

pipelines are the new buffaloIt is simplistic, lacking in skill progression, ridden with bugs and built using software that produces Super Nintendo era graphics. As a video game, the “Idle No More: Blockade” leaves much to be desired. But that’s not really the point, is it? “Idle No More” takes you on a journey to learn about indigenous culture, challenge racist European myths and fight to defend traditional land rights! Your aim as the player is to prevent the construction of the Enkoch Pipeline over your sun dance field by rallying land defenders to confront the company on site. In a medium where overt social justice objectives are rarer than uncooked sirloin, this is a welcome prelude to possibility.

be careful settlersFraming the battles as confrontations with racist settlers was an inspired stroke. The player is confronted by white people complaining about “free houses”, “drunk Indians” and “blocking economic development.” The last boss is an RCMP officer who asserts the death of indigenous nationhood and insists the treaties extinguished their titles. All the enemies are represented as monsters from traditional Cree stories, helping to connect cultural memory to contemporary struggle. But the able player responds with statistics, history lessons and a good measure of sass. If you don’t have to fight the hipster girl asking about wearing a headdress to a Coachella festival, you kind of wish you could.

racist ice demon

This is the value of “Idle No More” as a game. By making you an indigenous protagonist struggling to defend your land rights, the game encourages players to identify with the struggles of indigenous people. The first time I died in “combat” while educating an ignorant settler, I paused and reflected on how exhausting such confrontations must be. Seeking allies and finding ignorance, appropriation and patronizing cluelessness, I grew increasing frustrated. I was particularly annoyed by a “book of aboriginal law”, left with the elders by Enkoch representatives. You can take the book, but [SPOILER ALERT] using it on enemies only heals them! Which makes perfect sense when you think about it.

racist shit demonOne of the most striking features of “Idle No More” is its emotional range. “I laughed, I cried” is the old cliché. In twenty minutes, the game had me doing both. I was all crystal tears, I don’t mind saying, at the prospect of a pipeline going through the sun dance field. And damned if I didn’t crack up when the character looked at a book shelf and exclaimed “Tom Flanagan? Yuck.” There is a whole vocabulary of non­-verbal expressions associated with the oppressed: the raised eyebrow, the ‘side-­eye’, the rolling eyes or the apathetic shrug. In between moments that are genuinely funny and those that are painfully sad, there is at once a piercing earnestness and a wry humour.

amaaaazing headdress“Idle No More” is not much of a video game, but it’s a hell of a story. It seeks to demonstrate the diversity and complexity of indigenous communities, their contributions to humanity and their determination in the face of an ongoing campaign of genocide. In a game peppered with indigenous language, culture and politics, the player grows to identify with a people whose very humanity has been eroded by the narrative of our civilization. In other words, it might just help people shed some prejudice. So why not make video games that teach radical and oppressed history and culture more interesting than Big Macs and MTV? We look forward to seeing this budding art form grow.

colonial acknowledgementsYou can download the Idle No More video game and play it for yourself HERE.

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2 thoughts on “Colonialism Bytes: A Review of “Idle No More: Blockade””

  1. tânisi! Love, love, love this review! I definitely approached this experiment as a medium to tell a story. Tackled the learning curve and got this out in 2 days, just to see if it would work. To the despair of my video-game loving family, I am the only one of us who actually hates video games so if I end up doing this again in the future, I’ll stick to story elements and get a proper gamer working on the gaming details 😀 Also I’m old so I dug the cheesy graphics.

    I loved that you caught the irony of the Aboriginal law book. I thought it was too subtle, but I kept giggling about it anyway. The most interesting thing about this project was realizing just how completely open this medium is for social justice exploration and even cultural transmission. Next experiment will be using something like this as an Indigenous language learning/practice tool!

    ay-ay for checking it out!

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