Yoel Villahermosa Serrano

Yoel Villahermosa Serrano is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in the study of video games with a focus on games produced in Spain. He recently published “El videojuego queer en el aula: una alternativa pedagógica española a la heteronormatividad” (Hispania, 2023), where he writes about the use of video games in Spanish classrooms to raise awareness about nonheteronormative sexualities and genders.

Contact informnation:
yoel at utexas.edu

Imagining Latin America: Indigeneity, Erasure and Tropicalist Neocolonialism in Shadow of the Tomb Raider

by Yoel Villahermosa Serrano


In this article, I use Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Eidos Montreal, 2018) as a case study to address the neocolonial imaginary of Latin America in video games. Specifically, this article examines the utilization of Indigenous spokespersons as “mouthpieces” for legitimizing colonial violence and the theft of cultural history. In addition, I will study the use of “white savior” archetypes to weaponize the imaginary of Indigenous landscapes. These are both common, understudied themes within video game design and are aspects of video games that are part of a larger history of attracting white, European and North American audiences -- the primary consumers of video games according to current statistics. Ultimately, I argue that these depictions, which are done uncritically and do not engage with scholarship derived from Women and Gender Studies, History and Cultural Studies and Critical Race Studies, use these marketable and “exotic” tropes about Latin America in a very problematic way. The implementation of these tropes has a long history spanning at least five centuries (c. 1492) and began with the “discovery” of the Americas. These tropes are damaging to how gamers view Latin America and they erase nuance regarding Latin American countries, languages, cultures and landscapes. While I focus on one case study, this video game represents many mainstream video games and series (like the series Tomb Raider (1996-2018), Uncharted (2008-2017), Hitman (2000-2021), Just Cause (2006-2018), The Sims (2000-2014), Max Payne (2001-2012) and others). The consequence of these prejudicial tropes is that when players in un-targeted markets play these games -- such as those in Latin American, Asian and Africa -- they are forced to participate in a subtle form of internalized colonization that erases their communities, languages and cultures.

Keywords: Video Game Studies, Latin America, Neocolonialism, Tomb Raider, Tropical Imagery, Indigeneity



In 2018 the Canadian studio Eidos Montreal (subsidiary of Square Enix Europe) [1] published Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the last part of a famous reboot for the video game industry. With an estimated cost ranging from $110 to $135 million and a development team of over 500 workers (Dring, 2018), Shadow of the Tomb Raider was one of the most anticipated triple-A titles [2] of that year. In the final episode of the series, the protagonist, Lara Croft, travels to Mesoamerica and South America in search of the legendary kingdom of Paititi. The main objective of the game is to find an artifact needed to stop a Mayan apocalypse that Lara herself has unleashed. It is a catastrophe that threatens to cause the destruction of the Americas as well as the death of millions of innocent people.

The adventure begins when Lara reaches a virgin, unnamed territory with little sign of human life. It is a landscape full of dangers -- booby traps and animals -- that prevent her from advancing. Little by little she must conquer every inch of land until she discovers the remains of a temple of an unknown, ancient civilization. After infiltrating this Indigenous historic and cultural site and overcoming numerous adversities, Lara reaches the coveted treasure and escapes while everything crumbles. This opening indicates that, within the context of mainstream games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Latin America continues to be a virgin land where dangers and gold abound. Latin America is figured as an exotic and paradisiacal place where the Western [3] foreigner is tempted, challenged and ultimately named hero after the conquest and the plundering.

In order to describe the problematic depictions of Latin America within the video game industry, I have divided this article into three sections. The first section addresses the major methodological considerations of this article and the spaces and logics in which these video games are developed. Rather than presenting a realistic representation of Latin America, these video games show an imagined and idealized vision of a tropical paradise populated by the archaeological remains of past civilizations. Theorists like David Arnold, Nancy Stepan, Néstor García Canclini and Jesús Martín-Barbero speak of Latin America as an attractive, unexplored and virgin territory formed through domination, hegemony and hybridization. These imagined territories have a common history of depiction in both early modern literature and modern cinema, with Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones series as the example par excellence. Raiders of the Lost Ark the first in the series, is a film that strongly impacted the direction of Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Takahashi, 2018).

The second part of this article discusses how Indigenous characters in Tomb Raider are weaponized as rhetorical mouthpieces to rationalize colonial violence in the depiction of Latin America. Examining characters like Jonah -- Lara's devoted companion in Shadow of the Tomb Raider -- uncovers how game developers employ Indigenous figures as mere "decorative touches" to legitimize the protagonist's central position as a white authority figure within the game. In the third section of this article, I will delve into the ways in which these Western video game characters, prominently exemplified by Lara Croft, exert control and dominance over the Indigenous communities, as well as the flora and fauna, that inhabit these landscapes.

Ultimately, I argue for a serious intervention in video game design, as this research highlights an area regarding Indigeneity, erasure and neocolonialism in images of Latin America that game studies as a discipline often neglects. This matter has been touched upon by a reduce group of scholars, which includes Frederick Luis Aldama, Daniel Chávez, Gonzalo Frasca, Shoshana Magnet, Eduardo Marisca and Phillip Penix-Tadsen. However, while they briefly touch on this issue, my article further develops their research on Latin America and video games. It synthesizes their findings to specifically address racism within video games centered around Latin America, and explores the intersection of white saviorism and white feminism.

Video game designers ultimately perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Latin America that are violent, untrue and un-nuanced. They rely on centuries-old stereotypes (exoticism, tropicality, cannibalism, etc.) due to their marketability for Western players. Latin American countries -- with their own complex geographies, cultures and peoples -- and Latin American players deserve more thoughtful and cognizant games that do not force them to perform internalized colonization by inhabiting positions like the white protagonist of the game analyzed in this article. While this article focuses on one case study, the points made here can extend to other video games that also imagine and reinvent the Global South (Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania) [4] according to white, Western expectations.

Methodologies of Conquest: Images of the Tropics, Logics of Hegemony and Territorial Appropriation

Historian David Arnold coined the term "tropicality" to refer to the discursive and scenic construction of places such as Latin America (2006, p. 13). The vision of the tropics as distant and seductive places is part of the collective imagination of modern tourists. However, this "tropicality" comes from and has remained practically unchanged since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if not earlier. During this period, several factors made the tropics acquire an importance they had not had before for the West, and over time Latin America went from being culturally irrelevant for Europeans -- it was neither regarded as a cradle of civilization, nor of musical nor literary artistry -- to becoming an essential component of a constructed, European self-hood (2006, pp. 13-14).

The first of these factors was the political situation of the time. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, imperialist powers such as England, France, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands expanded the power they exercised over their colonies with the premise of finding more resources to exploit and the need to establish new strategic bases in their colonized territories (Stepan, 2001, p. 31). This led to an increase in the number of ships and European visitors and settlers arriving in these places; this aggressive colonization in turn fomented further interest in visiting these regions by European tourists, botanists, anthropologists and other scholars.

The second factor is related to wealthy people interested in travel, who were attracted to the idea of “exploring” new lands and their resources. Among them were traders interested in exporting the exotic image of tropics and its objects to private collectors in Europe. Naturalists, ethnographers and geologists also arrived in these new territories, seduced by the idea of studying and disseminating the peculiarities of the peoples they found there (Stepan, 2001, p. 32). The presence of these groups of foreigners in the colonies triggered a cultural explosion across European cities. In major Western metropolises, citizens who could not visit the tropics were able to satisfy their curiosity by visiting parks and gardens with authentic “samples” imported from those regions, or by reading books that offered descriptions of what it would be like to experience such places.

One of the seminal works representing the logics of Europeans in this period was that of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). From his work derive some of the main tropes associated with Latin America still in use today, including descriptions of an overabundant, fertile and vegetation-rich tropics. The Prussian naturalist is also credited with describing life in tropical nature as verdant and intense, especially compared to Europe: "Nature in these climates appears more active, more fruitful, more prodigal of life" (1966, p. 157). With respect to Latin America, Humboldt wrote that it was a "vast continent where everything was gigantic, the mountains, the rivers, the mass of vegetation" (p. 216), compared to nature, the human being was insignificant (Figure 1).

Figure 1. This image is from the title page of Alexander von Humboldt’s English language text Travels and Researches (1838). The metal engraving depicts the geological formations at Santa María Regla in Mexico. As the original title suggests, the European emphasis was on the gaze: “observing” or studying and making records of the “peuples indigènes de l'Amérique” (Ibid.).

In spite of this idealism regarding the Americas, eventually the need to discover became the need to return home. The idea that the tropics were a boundless, lively place full of abundance, mystery and fertility joined with other characteristics that were not so attractive to foreign eyes. These early encounters with Indigenous peoples and landscapes had consequences. The lush vegetation gave way to an image of excess and feverishness. Fertility became a sexual disease. The once envy-inducing climate became too heavy and humid -- even malarial
-- and the novel nature and exotic fauna were seen as uncanny and deadly (Stepan, 2001, p. 48). In a similar way, the little representation accorded to the natives of these lands devolved from depictions of naive and uncultured beings -- although true inhabitants and protectors of nature -- to that of sick and dangerous degenerates and swindlers who posed a threat to the naive European tourist-colonists (p. 65).

All these characteristics, added to those formed in the previous centuries, encapsulate the prevailing representation of many if not all tropical regions in the modern era and continue to impact the ways in which peoples of the Americas are viewed as suspicious and primitive, with little “higher” cultural products to recommend them. Thus, Latin America for the outsider is a mixture of positive features (abundance, fertility, lush vegetation, exoticism, curiosity, joie de vivre, enormity) and negative characteristics such as strangeness, disease, ignorance, danger and death.

These elements and their widespread presence also appear in the literature of that era, with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) serving as one of the most prominent examples. The novel not only featured tropes and settings inspired by Latin America but also served as a source of inspiration for subsequent authors like Robert Louis Stevenson with his work Treasure Island (1883). The transition of these ideas into cinema in the twentieth century first became evident in European silent films such as Treasure of the Aztecs (1921). However, it was in American adventure film serials -- an episodic motion picture format popular during the first half of the twentieth century -- where these tropical tropes truly took shape in this particular aesthetic form. Catchy American titles include The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1922) and The Pirate of Panama (1929).

Film serials laid the foundation for the emergence of drama and adventure films in the 1940s. Movies like Law of the Tropics (1941), Tarzan and the Amazons (1945) and Jungle Flight (1947) further solidified this trend of an exotic, mysterious and dangerous Latin America that a Western explorer must face. As subsequent decades unfolded, films such as Appointment in Honduras (1953), Secret of the Incas (1954), Jivaro (1954), Seven Cities of Gold (1955), Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956), Macumba Love (1960), Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) and Bananas (1971) continued to exemplify this fusion of adventure and exploration. The high number of films reveal just how popular this genre was with audiences. The pinnacle of this cinematic movement arrived in 1981 with Steven Spielberg's film Raiders of the Lost Ark, which not only showcased the enduring influence of these themes but was also a box office hit (Prince, 2002, p. 42). Even in the present century, the legacy of Indiana Jones and his adventures in Latin America continues with films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023), demonstrating the series’ lasting impact.

The influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark extended beyond the realm of cinema and found its way into pop culture’s newest medium: video games. North American developers such as Atari, Datamost and Ultrasoft, recognizing the success of the film, embraced a vision of Latin America inspired by the same characteristics and tropes that defined Indiana Jones' adventures. They released titles like Aztec (1982), The Mask of the Sun (1982) and a video game version of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) within a year of Spielberg’s film. A subsequent wave of games followed in the years after, including Expedition Amazon (1983), Amazon (1984), The Seven Cities of Gold (1984), Contra (1987, US version), Gold of the Americas: The Conquest of the New World (1989), Rick Dangerous (1989), Gold of the Aztecs (1990), Chichen Itzá (1992), Inca (1992) and Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure (1994). While these titles had some exploration from a main character directed by the player, they lacked a protagonist with the swashbuckling charm and background story of Indiana Jones.

This hollow characterization changed in 1996 with the creation of Lara Croft and Tomb Raider. Core Design’s Tomb Raider not only continued the utilization of clichés about Latin America found in literature and cinema -- abundance, lush vegetation, exoticism, enormity, disease, danger, death -- but also introduced a protagonist with a rich backstory and narrative importance on par with Indiana Jones. Lara Croft herself was originally designed to even carry a whip, just like Indiana Jones. With the advent of 3D modeling, the game offered a new level of complex exploration and movement. From that point onward, a succession of games in a similar vein emerged, producing the most recent wave of adventure-type video games based in Latin America. Noteworthy examples include Hitman: Code 47 (2000), Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm (2004), Tomb Raider: Legend (2006), Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007), Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (2007), Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011), Uncharted: Golden Abyss (2011), Max Payne 3 (2012) and Just Cause 4 (2018).

Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018) is the most recent and currently the last videogame in the Tomb Raider saga. Like its predecessors and sources of information, this game depicts Latin America and its peoples with an unengaged and superficial reference to prior source material. White explorers -- in this case Lara Croft -- adventure into the jungle to find lost treasure while searching caves and tombs, avoiding booby traps, fighting wild animals and eliminating enemies. Altogether, this game reflects standard tropes regarding European domination and hegemony.

Lara Croft, standing in for and controlled by the player, continues to occupy this European position of hegemony and authority like Indiana Jones before her. As the player moves through the game, he or she can “discover” and “collect” artifacts, items the game implies players are entitled to take given Lara Croft’s positionality and high academic degree. This vicarious “claim” to artifacts is part of the logics of hegemony. Lara’s dominant role as a collector can be related to the idea of "decollection" proposed by García Canclini (1989). As he explains, "the formation of specialized collections of cultured art and folklore was, in modern Europe and later in Latin America, a device for categorizing symbolic goods into separate groups and hierarchizing them according to Western beliefs and values” (p. 282). Thus, those people who belonged to a higher class and had the academic acumen for this type of work were entitled to books, paintings and sculptures, even if they did not physically have them in their homes.

Therefore, figures that make up the elite, such as Lara Croft or the characters in The Sims 4 (Maxis, 2014), feel entitled to “reclaim” and categorize Indigenous artifacts that, in theory, belong to such figures thanks to their privileged positionality. Moreover, video games using this lens justify such behavior by making the relics generally “lost,” or found with inhabitants of that territory who represent inferior groups and who, according to the definition of "decollection," would not know what to do with them or how to assign the proper value to them. As Indiana Jones himself famously yelled about an artifact, “It belongs in a museum!” (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989). White saviors in the form of Lara Croft, and thus the player, appear to take custody of the artifacts in order to protect and preserve them in museums and private collections because they are able to care for, understand, and label the artifacts in ways that their original Indigenous owners allegedly cannot.

In the case of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, once the protagonist picks up any object hidden within the game it is saved in the artifact inventory, a part of the game menu. Preserved in this menu, relics are available for the player to examine (a feature of the Western gaze), triggering a brief description of its history and origin, which Lara herself reads to the user. On this occasion, Croft uses her archaeological and historical knowledge to address the player directly. This behavior of collecting and “explaining” Indigenous objects extends to other video games. For example, in The Sims 4: Jungle Adventure (Maxis, 2018 [2014]) the artifacts found by the character are also saved in the inventory with blurbs explaining their origins and function.

However, The Sims 4 allows for a novelty: the cultural relics that each sim obtains can be taken to their virtual home and displayed wherever the player prefers, whether in a glass cabinet in the living room, in the bathroom, or next to the trash can (Figure 2). While the potential locations -- the bathroom and next to the trashcan -- are obviously insulting and show something of the value Europeans assign to extracted objects, the glass cabinet has a longer history. “Curio” collecting, or storing objects of “curiosity” in specialized cabinets and decontextualizing them from their original milieu, became a popular tourist behavior over the centuries after Latin America was “discovered.” Trapped in glass cases, these objects could then be studied at the leisure of the European. Scholar Daniel Dooghan emphasizes this idea and links it to video games, claiming that the representation of physical and cultural violence, connected to territorial appropriation, must be portrayed as a “pleasurable challenge” for the game to be enjoyable and attract players (2016, p. 5) (my emphasis). In this case, that pleasure and enjoyment can be introduced through game mechanics such as the “hunt” for and “collection” of these items.

Figure 2. Display of the artifacts found in “Selvadorada” (lit. “gilded jungle”) in The Sims 4: Jungle Adventure (Maxis, 2018 [2014]).

In the case of Shadow of the Tomb Raider and The Sims 4, the domination of the subjugated culture through the spoliation of its cultural goods reaches the point where these objects lose their historical value. These "anthropological objects'' -- defined by Pierre Lévy (1998) as "placeholder[s] for the entirety of the culture that it would purport to represent'' (p. 162) -- are abstracted from their original context and relocated to places where their meaning changes radically. This is what Lev Manovich (2001) calls "transcoding." That is, cultural objects are disembedded and deterritorialized and then reembedded and reterritorialized in a space with a new meaning (p. 45). With their appropriation, these relics are decontextualized, but remain frozen in time, reduced to spaces such as an in-game inventory, not unlike a curio cabinet. This process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization of cultural objects occurs in other video games like the original Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996), Tomb Raider 2 (Core Design, 1997), Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (Naughty Dog, 2007) and Uncharted: Golden Abyss (SIE Bend Studio, 2011).

The theme of the foreign explorer arriving in an unknown region and resorting to looting as a way of asserting his or her dominant presence is not new. However, in the case of Latin America, this idea is irremediably tied to its history as a land "discovered" and colonized by explorers. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft travels to Latin America to find the relic needed to stop the end of the world, which she herself accidentally unleashed. Specifically, she heads to the legendary territory of “Paititi,” a mythical, Spanish colonial legend derived from Incan oral histories (Magisch-Airola and de Beer, 2001, p. 103).

This cultural representation of Paititi is based on "a highly abstracted portrayal of stereotypes from the region's countries, constructed from the outside for the outside," or in this case by colonial settlers for other Europeans (Marisca, 2014, p. 167) (my emphasis). The continuity of exotic scenarios like this has not ceased, with new video games holding very little regard for Latin American narratives. Additionally, there are very few video games produced about Latin America that challenge this mold, and, extended even further, there are very few video games that accurately represent the Global South over all. The spaces and the individuals who inhabit Western video games "are often depicted stereotypically, or are present only tangentially through the material remnants of their culture" (King and Krywinska, 2006, p. 174). Lara Croft’s performance of colonization and dominance through the “reclaiming” of Indigenous spaces and artifacts is but one aspect of this game and other games like it. In the next section of this article, I will highlight another significant aspect of this very colonial narrative: the exploitation of Indigenous spokespersons as "mouthpieces" to justify colonial violence and the appropriation of cultural history.

Speaking for Jonah: The Legitimization of Colonial Violence and Weaponized Indigeneity

Western hegemonic perspectives and tropicalist imagery also play out in the form of co-opting Lara’s sidekick as a decorative touch. Namely, the character serves as an Indigenous mouthpiece to legitimize Lara’s position as a white figure of authority. The video game opens with Lara descending into a cave, trapped in a crevice between two immense stone walls. She is dirty, bruised and bloody. In her struggle to regain mobility, she breaks free from the rock that pins her. At that point, the camera angle changes to indicate that the player must take control of the character getting Lara out of the rift. After entering the cave, Lara finds what is hiding inside the cavern: a huge room surrounded by walls engraved with Mayan hieroglyphic writing. A small pyramid in the middle of the room is inscribed with Mayan text, and the pyramid is crowned with a large crystal that illuminates the space (Figure 3).

Figure 3. View inside the Mayan pyramid (Eidos Montreal, 2018).

Approaching the pyramid triggers a cut-scene where Jonah, Lara’s faithful companion, enters the room and asks her what the inscriptions mean. While he is Lara’s assistant and companion, he seemingly knows nothing about the space. Lara explains that it is a riddle, though unfortunately the structure is damaged and its message incomplete. Absorbed by the features of the room, Lara inadvertently steps on a trap and activates a bomb that begins to destroy the temple. Everything collapses quickly. Jonah grabs Lara and both manage to escape before being trapped. Once outside, the camera shows where they are: a jungle near a small town in Mexico. Then the screen fades to black, ending this first chapter of the game. Through this first scene, and throughout the whole adventure, Lara is always accompanied by Jonah; it is always clear that Lara is the dominant figure given that the player occupies her perspective. Jonah, in contrast, serves as a foil with whom she can argue and explain archeological concepts. He is her ignorant counterpart -- less knowledgeable and informed about the ruins that they explore -- and the “muscle” she needs to get through certain scenes.

Jonah Maiava is another feature of the video game industry’s imagining of “exotic” locations like Latin America. According to his biography, Jonah was born in New Zealand and raised in Hawaii. He can be identified as Indigenous due to his Polynesian (possibly Maori) origins. He is depicted wearing tribal tattoos on his right arm and a Maori hook -- representing the god Maui -- on a necklace. Although he has a storyline of his own, Jonah is superficially weaponized in the game to frame Lara as a benevolent white force. Jonah is used as an “Indigenous” mouthpiece that on the surface is intended to represent the subaltern or Other. According to Antonio Gramsci, the term "subaltern" serves to characterize and recognize marginalized populations, who find themselves excluded from the social, political and geographical power structures. This exclusion aims to deny their agency and suppress their voices within colonial politics (1971, p. 205). Including a character like Jonah as a representative of Indigeneity in each scene (though from a geographically quite distant part of the earth), the game uses his very presence in order to “permit” or authorize Lara’s colonial behaviors and the extraction of Indigenous objects. The logic is clear: since Jonah participates in and tacitly agrees with the extraction of relics and other temple goods, Lara’s behavior is somehow acceptable. He does not contradict her; rather, he is complicit and designed to be so.

Jonah is clearly placed by the developers, like other companions in the adventurer's saga [5], as a "decorative touch or a means to an end for the first-world protagonist" (Penix-Tadsen, 2016, p. 190). The game needs the player to understand the plot and Jonah is there to play that role and receive her explanations about each object or temple they encounter. After entering the early booby-trapped room, Jonah continuously asks Lara about the meaning of the Mayan engravings. Lara answers him with overly technical terminology and, in response to the perplexity and incomprehension of her companion, she is forced to modify and simplify her explanation (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Jonah asking Lara for clarification (Eidos Montreal, 2018).

This only emphasizes the idea that her companion exists to be intellectually and morally beneath Lara. Throughout the game, he asks repeatedly for clarification, such as “What is this?” or “Where are we going?” In other words, his function in the narrative is to be "educated" by her and at the same time he acts as an intermediary so that the player also becomes a recipient in the protagonist's explanation. Instead of acting as a subaltern character created to “correct social history’s traditional bias for the perspective of the elite classes’’ (Chaturvedi, 2012, ix), Jonah moves and acts according to Lara’s will, giving her the space to explain and justify her actions. He represents an Indigenous voice that can never articulate itself, except as it relates to Lara and her actions. As postcolonial video game critic Souvik Mukherjee argues, “none of the subaltern video game characters have a fixed sense of selfhood” (2017, p.15). Jonah never gets the chance to speak about himself or his background, Lara persistently eclipses his selfhood. Gayatri Spivak likewise argues, “the subaltern has no history and cannot speak” (1988, 38). Even when offered the chance to speak, it is in the terms of the game’s design and with Lara’s tacit acceptance. Lara's position with respect to Jonah is none other than a position of superiority and domination. However, this relationship between dominator and dominated is not totally destructive; in fact, it is mutually constitutive.

Lara cannot exist as a dominator and authority figure unless she has someone to dominate, and Jonah cannot be a subaltern unless there is someone dominating him. And so, while their relationship in the game poses as a productive and generative friendship at times, this relationship actually perpetuates an unequal power dynamic. Although the game seems to bring Lara and Jonah together in conflict at key moments to create tension between them, the result always keeps the plot moving forward in a “positive” way for both of them. For instance, the escape from the Mayan temple brings joy to both of them. Specifically, Lara celebrates the fact they were able to capture on camera some of the inscriptions of the pyramid. Jonah is content because their survival marks the beginning of a new adventure. Lara and Jonah do not repel each other, they do not hinder each other's survival, but complement each other as they pull through together. The plot of the game itself argues for and ultimately reifies this relationship of dominator and dominated as they defeat their enemies as a team.

In this sense, I connect these two characters to what García-Canclini describes in his analysis of hybrid cultures and imagined globalization. They form part of “a set of processes of homogenization and, at the same time, of articulated fractioning of the world, which rearranges differences and inequalities without suppressing them” (García-Canclini, 1999, pp. 48-49). In other words, Lara, in her dominant position as a representative of Western hegemony, always gets something positive from Jonah and Jonah, in turn, is framed as if he receives something positive in return. Martín Barbero (1993) describes this type of dynamic as mutually beneficial in appearance, but constantly negotiated: "One class exercises hegemony to the extent that the dominating class has interests which the subaltern classes recognize as being in some degree in their interests too. [...] [H]egemony is not a stable state but [...] a ‘lived process’” (p. 74). In the same vein, Homi Bhabha asserts that “the colonial subject and colonizer both relate to each other as a mix -- a hybrid” (1994, p. 17). Jonah and Lara, working together, can survive encounters against enemies that might otherwise kill them were they adventuring alone. This superficial, mutually constitutive dichotomy, however, masks the fact that Jonah serves as a hollow foil for Lara and masks the fact that his superficial presence in the game as an Indigenous man legitimizes Lara’s actions.

Jonah, however, is not just a confused and ignorant interlocutor, allowing the player to learn more about the context of the game through his befuddled questions. As I mentioned briefly, he is an Indigenous man of Polynesian descent, and his presence in the scenes as Lara’s subservient caretaker and sometimes-student legitimizes her position as an “authority” within the game. Jonah’s role as her sidekick-assistant and mouthpiece to represent all Indigenous peoples, grants her the power to destroy lost ruins, raid tombs and steal the cultural objects and heritage of the Indigenous communities in the area. This rhetorical move of tokenizing an Indigenous person to justify white, Western behavior during scenes of appropriation authorizes colonial violence.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not the only game that includes sidekicks as a decorative touch and as an Indigenous mouthpiece; it is a constant within the video game industry. Video games like Mafia (Illusion Softworks, 2002) with Joe Barbaro, Tomb Raider: Legend (Crystal Dynamics, 2006) with Zip and Crash Bandicoot (Naughty Dog, 1996) with Aku-Aku, among others, use Indigenous characters to maintain a positive social and cultural image. However, these figures of Indigeneity are hollowed out characters with little depth that prop up the main, white character and their problematic behaviors. In the next section, I will discuss how these Western video game characters, with Lara Croft as a prime example, subject the indigenous communities, flora and fauna within these landscapes to their control and dominance.

Encountering Indigenous Landscapes: Legitimacy and White Feminism

The depictions of Lara’s encounters with the exaggerated, tropical landscapes of Latin America are informed by the stereotypes surrounding images of Latin America from von Humboldt and others, as I have previously shown. This landscape is lush, dangerous and exotic. The player, through Lara, must overcome these dangers by proving herself to be resourceful and “stronger” than the threats that she faces. After Lara and Jonah leave Mexico, they travel to Peru to continue their adventure to save Latin America. However, the plane in which they are traveling crashes during a storm and Lara Croft wakes up after the accident in the middle of the Peruvian jungle with no trace of Jonah or Miguel, the pilot. The only signal that shows her the way is an emergency flare she sees in the distance. In her search, Lara ends up lost in the gloom of the tropical jungle and is confronted by a jaguar (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Lara facing the jaguar. This is an example of how tropical images of the Americas are used to cater to the tastes of Western audiences (Eidos Montreal, 2018).

This fight against the jaguar showcases many of the tropes associated with the images of Latin America as a dangerous and exotic landscape. The vegetation is stereotypically abundant and fertile and the background behind the pacing jaguar is overwhelmingly green. Additionally, the jaguar embodies the exoticism that fascinated the naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a species indigenous to Latin America, its inclusion in media is often deployed to further the colonial myth that Latin America is treacherous or “untamed,” as the jaguar is considered one of the most legal animals on the planet [6]. This small scene can be read as a reductive microcosm that depicts all Latin America in a single, conflictual moment.

The confrontation between the jaguar and Lara is, at its heart, a power struggle. On the one hand, the jaguar, a stereotypical image used to symbolize the dangers of the Americas, also occupies a privileged, sacred place -- and often a central role -- in Native American cosmology, especially in Mayan and Aztec cultures. In these civilizations, the jaguar recalls the way of life of sacred hunter-ancestors and connects to the underworld in which such hunter-ancestors are buried, to the earth from which plants grow, to the sun and the water that nourish plants, to the sexual energy of fertility and to the mysteries of the night and an isolated forest life. It is a symbol of the most important elements in the life of Pre-Columbian society, a symbol of might and strength on all levels (Benson, 1998, pp. 71-72). In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the jaguar’s ties to Indigenous mythologies in the Americas points to its position as a representative of the Indigenous Other [7].

On the other hand, Lara is the Western conqueror; the one chosen to dominate the hostile territory in which she finds herself. The struggle between these two sides is resolved from the beginning of the conflict, not only because Lara is designed for the dominating side (the West), but also because Lara needs to win for the plot to advance (although the game obviously needs to offer constant pleasurable challenges). Lara’s victory over the jaguar, in the end, not only poses her as “stronger” than her aggressor, but also as “superior” to this highly respected symbol of Indigeneity. By defeating the jaguar, Lara demonstrates her Western superiority over Latin America as a stereotyped and generalized jungle landscape.

To carry this victory with her, Lara apparently skins the jaguar and wears its fur as she travels through the jungle and enters various ruins (Figure 6). She styles the fur and collars it like a qipao, pointing to further valences of orientalism (see endnote 7) within the gaming industry; this “exotic” style, borrowed from Manchu ethnic clothing, is intended to be sexualized according to Western practices and behaviors regarding orientalism.

Figure 6. This image shows Lara Croft's vest, which she makes after defeating the Jaguar. This vest in the inventory is called “Vest of the Empress Jaguar” (Eidos Montreal, 2018).

Later, her costumes include the “Three Fangs Tunic,” made from an anaconda that she presumably kills, as well as “Ozcollo’s Tunic,” which the game describes as “the pelt of the legendary jaguar Ozcollo, animal totem and first champion of the Jaguar Path.” These “totemic” representations of Indigeneity and the European appropriation of them -- as well as the “death” of this symbolic jaguar totem and the wearing of its skin -- also play out in the inclusion of the “Robes of Puka Huk” (Figure 7), which are the “[r]obes of the renowned herbalist Puka Huk, rumored to be able to step between worlds.” Not only does Lara dress in clothing that is depicted as “Indigenous,” she is also capable -- as though she were Indigenous herself -- of using the power of these robes to her advantage, healing more swiftly and maximizing her abilities to gain sustenance from animals. This concept mimics the costumes of Pre-Columbian civilizations who used garments and accessories as “status symbols [that] conferred on the wearer a mystical power deriving from ritual as well as from sympathetic magic and even transformation” (Benson, 1998, p. 57) through the assuming of their attributes.

Figure 7. The “Robes of Puka Huk” show Lara’s clear appropriation of Indigenous culture and clothing and her representative “entitlement” to wear this tribal clothing through her achievements in the jungle. These “tribal” robes, of course, should also not be regarded as representative of actual Indigenous fashion in the Peruvian Amazon; instead, they cater to Western players' expectations regarding Latin American exoticism (Eidos Montreal, 2018).

Lara’s domination of Latin America through her triumphs against its overwhelming jungles and man-eating animals (in particular the jaguar and the anaconda) also appears in the form of her defeat of one of the greatest Western fears: the Indigenous cannibal. Western anxieties regarding rumors of cannibals in the Americas are well-known and well-studied, the rumors themselves having circulated since Columbus’s first voyage [8]. Shadow of the Tomb Raider participates in this anxiety as well, particularly through the inclusion of two cannibal tribes, the Yaaxil and the Cult of Kukulkan, who are in conflict. Eventually, the Yaaxil, led by a priestess called Crimson Fire (Figure 8), ally with Lara against the Cult of Kukulkan, which is led by the main antagonist Pedro Dominguez, who also goes by the name “Amaru” [9]. Lara, in scenes designed to inspire horror, at first does not discriminate between the two cannibal groups and attacks them both. It is only later that she finds herself allied with the monstrous, uncanny Yaaxil, whose leader has surgically removed her upper lip to expose her metal-tipped teeth and has painted her face blood red.

Figure 8. Crimson Fire, the leader of the cannibal Yaaxil and Lara Croft’s eventual ally, highlights how video game producers weaponized the Western imaginary of Indigenous peoples as cannibals to create a figure that is frightening and exotic for players (Eidos Montreal, 2018).

When the player does interact with Indigenous communities that are not immediately hostile, such as the inhabitants of Paititi, the relationship is conflicted, material, superficial and instrumental. Lara’s interactions with them are merely meant to perform a sense of community and space for the player (people do actually inhabit this forest and city), while also pushing along the basic mechanisms of the plot. According to García Canclini (1989), such depictions and perceptions of Latin America are "like a mask, [a] simulacrum concocted by the elites and by the state apparatus. [...] They pretended to form elite cultures, leaving out enormous indigenous populations" (p. 20). In a nationalist vein, these projected images erase internal community differences, project an image of a single monolithic culture and language and mimic European ideals of “whiteness” and “civilization” through the erasure of the Indigenous communities that live there as well.

The same happened during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, since the books and illustrations that sought to present Latin America to Europeans omitted significant details -- often the people themselves -- in favor of the landscape and its ecologies. While we do not see explicit erasure in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the bodies and presence of the helpless Paititians are used as tools to populate the landscape for players and legitimize Lara Croft’s behaviors as a “white savior” who is there to intervene and protect Paititians from the Cult of Kukulkan and the apocalypse.

This strategy of portraying Indigenous peoples as “landscape” can also be seen in other games. For example, in The Sims 4: Jungle Adventure, the only native inhabitants are those who sell the tools for the adventure at hand (Figure 9) or those who serve drinks to the tourist-player within the security and safety of the hotel.

Figure 9. Native of “Selvadorada” selling items to the visitors in The Sims 4: Jungle Adventure (Maxis, 2018 [2014]).

As this shows, these territories and their people are described from the point of view of the outsider; a certain part of the western video game industry, that has taken little to no care to provide nuance or to complicate these roles. In other words, Latin America is constructed not by its inhabitants but by those who look at it from a distance, specifically by those elites who dominate the region. Daniel Chávez (2010) coined this notion as "hegemonic tropicalization" defined as certain discursive mechanisms are established to attribute to a particular space, region, group or nation a series of predetermined characteristics, images and values to produce deformed and stereotypical representations (p. 165). Latin America and the cultural products that represent it become a toy in the hands of part of the Western video game industry, which creates and perpetuates products based on the tropes mentioned above.

Conclusion: The Shifting Consumer Base of Video Games and Players in Latin America

These tropicalist representations of Latin America are not without consequences. Latin America's relationship with video games has never been as privileged or as relevant as it is today, both in terms of engagement and financial interest. However, this relationship has always been relegated to the background by the rest of the markets, especially the North American one (Penix-Tadsen 2016). Since the beginning of the 2000s, video games in Latin America have become an essential part of the culture. Latin America is, currently, one of the regions where the video game market has grown the most [10]. The representation of its territories, cultures and population by part of the Western video game industry perpetuates these harmful stereotypes about the region, stereotypes Latin American gamers must then consume if they want to play.

This is exemplified by the case of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where an imagined and idealized vision of Latin America is presented, but not for a target audience from Latin America. As this article has shown, the video game uses Indigenous spokespersons -- portrayed in Shadow of the Tomb Raider by Jonah -- as “mouthpieces” for legitimizing colonial violence and the theft of cultural history. They also depict a white “savior,” Lara Croft, as the main character and the game concludes with her overall domination of an imaginary, Indigenous landscape where both the peoples and animals are either conquered or erased. Latin America is not only reduced to a formless concept of Indigeneity, erasing current national borders or disparate cultural interests, but also in many cases to namelessness and background imagery for Lara to walk past.

Rich Briggs, the senior brand director of Shadow of Tomb Raider, described how his team carried out a meticulous and careful representation of Latin American territories and cultures. In an interview, he mentioned that they “worked with [a] historian and a cultural consultation group to make sure that we were portraying these cultures as respectfully as possible” (Takahashi, 2018). This argumentation for detail, respectability and legitimacy is underpinned by its opposite within the games’ action, as I have shown. Between Jonah’s role as a subservient Other, the presence of in-game exotic cannibals and a white woman posing as a savior figure, the game’s posturing as a respectful portrayal of Latin America is insidious. Players become Lara Croft, the conqueror of an invented Latin America. Her justification for the plundering of relics and the confrontation and domination of the native people becomes our justification as we inhabit her space and participate in her world. Those gamers who live in Latin America are forced to participate in a subtle form of self-colonization that erases their communities, languages and cultures when they participate in this industry and play these games. They must stand in Lara Croft’s shoes and colonize as she colonizes.

To conclude, this neocolonial exploitation of Latin America within the video game industry perpetuates stereotypes about Latin America that rely on centuries-old generalizations. Video game designers must create games that work to reimagine and rearticulate -- or even destabilize -- Western views of this territory if they want to be truly ethical or “respectful” as Rich Briggs claims. At the same time, video game companies must make space for Latin American citizens’ presence and participation in the process of video game design as this market grows, which would complicate but further legitimize the ways that video games are sold and marketed to Latin American players. These reparative acts and the need for further study on the topics of inclusion and neocolonial depictions of Latin America can be extended to include depictions of the broader Global South and its audiences, which is are very under-represented within video game studies research in general. Furthermore, there is great potential in studying any departure from the tropes studied in this article -- or any attempt to offer visions from the point of view of the dominated as opposed to the dominator -- and how they are received by both the industry and consumers.



[1] Eidos Montreal is the Canadian subsidiary of Square Enix Europe (formerly Domark Limited and Eidos Interactive Limited). Square Enix Europe acts as the European subsidiary of Japanese video game company Square Enix. This relationship exemplifies the dominance of North American, Japanese and European markets in the broader, global video game industry.

[2] The term triple-A (or “AAA”) is utilized to classify video games created and released by mid-sized or prominent publishers. AAA games usually boast larger budgets for development and marketing compared to other game tiers.

[3] To clarify, when I refer to the "West," I am referring to the social and cultural milieu of North America and Europe. This reference to the "West" also necessarily, within the context of the gaming industry, includes Japan as a social, economic, political and colonial power.

[4] Examples include, among many others: Tomb Raider II (China and Tibet), Tomb Raider III (India), Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (Egypt), Tomb Raider: Legend (Ghana, Kazakhstan, Bolivia, Perú), Rise of Tomb Raider (Siberia), Just Cause (“San Esperito,” somewhere in South America), Just Cause 2, (“Panau,” unknown place in South East Asia), Battlefield 3 (Irak, Iran, Azerbaijan) or Spec Ops: The Line (Dubai).

[5] Among other characters: the Luso-Japanese Samantha Nishimura, the Afro-American Zip or the Atlantean Jacqueline Natla.

[6] From an etymological perspective, “jaguar” derives from a word meaning “the wild beast that can kill its prey in a single bound” (Perry, 1970, p. 28; Rabinowitz, 1986, p. 31).

[7] As argued by cultural critic Edward Said, Orientalism is a style of thought and knowledge production that emerged during the colonial era (late eighteenth century, according to the author), in which Western societies constructed and actively distorted an exoticized image of the East (Orient, Other, or in the case of this article the Americas since these regions were subjugated by the West). This construction was driven by the West's desire to assert dominance and control over the Orient, positioning it as inferior and perpetually in need of Western intervention and guidance (1978, pp. 2-6).

[8] For more information on the image of the Indigenous cannibal, see: Lestringant, F. (1997); de Almeida, M. C. F. (2002); Jáuregui, C. A. (2008); and Nunes, Z. (2008).

[9] The name “Amaru” is also important and has a long history related to Indigeneity in the Americas. In Andean mythology, “Amaru” is the name of a two-headed snake that lives underground, often at the bottoms of rivers or lakes. “Amaru” is also tied, of course, to Túpac Amaru, the last king of the Inca Empire before it fell to the Spanish.

[10] In 2019, Newzoo’s Global Games Market Report registered revenues of over US$5 billion (4 percent of the world total), which implies a 24 percent increase since 2016. For the coming years, growth prospects remain promising (Wijman, 2018).



I would like to express my thanks to the anonymous Game Studies reviewers who offered rich and constructive feedback and Dr. Jorge Pérez for his consistent guidance. I’d also like to thank Dr. Marlena Cravens for her invaluable insights regarding early travel literature and images depicting the Americas.



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