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Horizon Zero Dawn designer responds to appropriation criticisms

Four terms from the game have come under fire

In a narrative image for Horizon Zero Dawn, the hero Aloy is instructed how to aim and fire her bow. Guerrilla Games

Horizon Zero Dawn recently received criticism for its portrayal of different tribes represented in the game and four words used to describe those people: savages, braves, primal and tribes.

On Feb. 28, a Native American writer called out the game in a Medium essay for the descriptive words that historically have a degrading connotation attached. In her essay, Dia Lacina calls out the fact that terms like savages, primal and braves can “reinforce racist and colonialist ideas about indigenous people.” Lacina also calls out reviewers for not picking up on it in their critique of the game and its appropriation of Native culture.

“Video games have been appropriating from Natives both blatantly and obliquely for decades,” Lacina wrote. “And as much as we’d like to hope — it’s probably not going to stop anytime soon.”

Waypoint spoke to Guerrilla Games narrative designer John Gonzales about the essay. Gonzales said he and his team took the descriptive words into consideration and it wasn’t their intention to insult or offend. He added that when the team was studying tribal cultures, they looked into a variety of cultural and historic groups. It’s why, Gonzales added, people often compare main character Aloy to a Viking than someone of Native descent.

Gonzales said the team tried to stay clear of offensive terms, but that it was impossible to plan for every player.

“That said, with the kind of culture of the internet that we have right now, it's impossible to predict what it is that may offend,” Gonzales said. “Certainly we were not intentionally being insensitive, or to offend in any manner.”

On Twitter, Lacina said the response from developer Guerrilla Games was along the lines of what she expected, but was disappointed by the lack of ownership from the studio. Other critics added their own thoughts on Gonzales’ response, calling it a good example of a situation that could have benefited from additional research or conversation with members of different groups.

Gonzales said their team did research offensive and otherwise inappropriate terminology, and pointed to brave as an example of a word they decided to move forward with. Gonzales said they weren’t referring to the culture itself or the people who belong to it as braves, but the adjective associated with a class of warriors.

“It was a term that [we felt] was not derogatory, as we came across some terms that were definitely slurs against Native Americans and other groups throughout history,” Gonzales said. “And so, our decision was based on 'brave' not being a 'hot button' term.”

The controversy surrounding the term “braves” isn’t new — as many Major League Baseball fans will know. Up until 1989, the Atlanta Braves used the image of a Native American head as its logo. It was dropped following outcry from members of the Native American community and critics. As a result, the team took on a simple “A” as its main logo, but kept the name Braves.

In 2012, the team almost brought back the logo, but faced scorn from fans and critics. In an article for The Gazette, Sam Aden specifically brought up the racist connotations the logo and team name have when placed together, pointing out that it reiterates a negative view of a minority group in America.

“That the Atlanta Braves nearly adopted a logo that ignores the history of subjugation that native people have endured and ignores the fact that real American Indian people continue to live in the United States is unfortunate,” Aden wrote.

On Twitter, Lacina wrote that hopefully the conversation surrounding Gonzales’ response will lead to studios thinking twice about certain language.

Horizon Zero Dawn is currently available on PlayStation 4.