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This week, Native News Online staff reporter Neely Bardwell sat down with Stacey Parshall Jensen (Mandan and Hidatsa), a cultural consultant for The Sims 4, a life simulation video game, and their new Horse Ranch Expansion Pack

Jensen is a multidisciplinary scholar with a Master of Liberal Studies and Interdisciplinary Child Social Policy Family and Community Services from the University of Minnesota, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing from Hamline University, and an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. She uses these different degrees to focus on her passion for storytelling and social justice. 

She is biracial, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations in North Dakota and Black. She has previously worked at a domestic abuse shelter and as an advisor to students at the University of Minnesota. She decided to change career paths after her work as an advisor. Jenson is also a co-owner of Through The Wilderness, LLC, a film production company dedicated to untold stories and “New Takes On Old Tales”.

Now, Jensen runs her own consulting business as a sensitivity reader, diversity editor, and cultural consultant. 

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What were your responsibilities on the Sims 4 project?

I would review anything that had to do with Indigenous culture design in any way throughout the development of the game. So that means I reviewed hairstyles, skin tone, clothing, decor for the houses, the items, the landscape, and of course, the ponies. 

One of the things that we talked about that was really important is that we didn't want to appropriate just one tribe, but we also didn't want to make it so vague, so it's not really quite Indigenous or something. We did have to narrow it down to a region of the country, and we chose the southwest because it's kind of easier to do that versus the tribes in the Eastern or Northeastern part of the country or South Florida. 

So there was a lot of researching and reviewing of everything. “What would the houses look like? What are the backstories once the characters were becoming developed? What are the relationships in the families?” Basically, any possible thing that has to do with Indigenous culture I was asked to review, and then we'd have various meetings along the way, so we've got some different input in the fold. 

It was so much fun to see it begin to develop as the world became clearer and the characters got names and full houses, and I myself I'm a huge fan of New Mexico. I love the Southwest, and I love all the decor, and that is something that I'm drawn to. It was really fun for me because I got to look at Diné printed blankets and so on. I think it's probably been about a year that I've worked with them on developing that. 

What was the experience like working with the Sims4 team? 

Everybody had the same goal. I have worked with and had done other projects for electronic art, and this was them asking, “Can you review these things first?” and then sliding into it and more and more becoming part of the working team. 

What I encountered was a group of really smart, artistic, caring, generous people. Everybody wanted to get this right. I felt like anytime I had to say, “no, this doesn't work, and this is why,” it was always received extremely well.

I remember specifically the details of the cooking. I remember as they were looking at the things you can make and wanting to make a fry bread animation, but there are limitations, of course, to the design for just the Sims world. So there were questions of “what are their actions?”, you know, because you wouldn't flip it like you do a pizza, and it's hard. The way I make my fry bread, there will be a big can of Crisco, and I use a fork to turn it over. So I would say, “well, this is how I am, this is how I make it, it’s how I was taught”, but there are so many different ways.

I was never, ever met with any type of resistance, any type of negativity at all. I actually got really, really lucky because it's a really great company. I've had other clients where there's been some pushback, even though they come to me first. I try to make everybody from the very beginning feel comfortable because there's a degree of vulnerability that happens when you have to reach out and say, “Yeah, I might be doing something kind of racist. I don't want to, and I don't know exactly, you know, so can you help me?”

So the first thing I tell them is that everybody has hidden or unconscious biases; we just do. And everybody falls for stereotypes because that's the world that we live in, and it takes some very specific, focused investigation to change that.

I'm happy to be of service. I always felt like that was reciprocated. I felt like it was valued and respected. I don't edit. I don't cut something and say, “it has to be this. It's out.” When it comes to inclusion reads and sensitivity reads and reviews, it's always a suggestion because I'd leave it up to the author and the artist and their vision and leave it up to them to make that decision on what they're going to do. 

Were there any roadblocks that occurred due to cultural differences or misunderstandings?

No roadblocks, but there were certainly things where I'm thinking about the hairstyles, and they drew pictures, they found pictures on the internet themselves. When we're looking at these, some of them are definitely not what an Indigenous person from that region would have, but my input was always received with utmost understanding and respect.

It's always refreshing to get a request for a gig from The Sims 4 because I knew I wasn't going to be gut punched in any way, which sometimes comes along with the job. Sometimes I’ve encountered some really horrific stereotypes and stuff in other jobs. That never happened here.

What are you the most excited about in the Pack release?

I love the Southwest and the South. I think it's gonna be really fun to create the world and decorate the houses in the living spaces and stuff. I really love that and to me, it would be a lot of fun. And then the horses, I mean, I just love horses. They're so beautiful. They're so powerful. Our strong spiritual connection to horses is a draw for me to the horses, and I feel like this since the team presented them in a very respectful way. I could be wrong, but I feel like we began with life on this ranch, and then it kind of morphed into more into the horses, which I thought was just really wonderful. So I think that's going to be something that's going to be exciting and unique for everybody.

What inspired you to work on this project? 

The Sims 4, their players, the number of people that they reach, the number of people who really love playing Sims, there are so many people are into it, and to know that there's a specific group of designers and storytellers who want to be respectful to the Indigenous people in this area and include them, I thought that's great. I love that. That's wonderful. 

As we know, there are so many games and TV shows and books and stuff that either don't care, or they're on the scale from ignorance to purposely creating harmful and hateful, derogatory, disrespectful content–racist, discriminatory content. So there's so much work that still has to be done. 

So the idea of working with this company that is so dedicated to getting this right, I was like, “yes, thank you”, you know. I don't have a gaming background at all, so it wasn't necessarily a world of development that I thought I'd be working in. So that was also intriguing for my own knowledge. This company is really dedicated to doing something important, and they're willing to do the work, so I'm happy to be a service.

As a cultural consultant, what do you wish to see more of in future projects? 

I can't help but think about progress in like ten steps because, like I said, I'm so aware of how much needs to be done out there. I feel like it'd be really unrealistic of me to say that there's always inclusion and there's no disrespect, and everybody's different cultures are celebrated, and women are portrayed a certain way and brown folk are portrayed, but certainly, I think we have a long, long way to go before we get there. 

So the most immediate thing that I would like to see would probably just be awareness because there seems to be this place of ignorance where a lot of times, people just don't get it because they don't know. I understand why they don't know. It's from where they're from, the region, how they were raised, education, and there's a huge fear. People with power are removing what little is already in the history books, and they want to completely eliminate certain things and certain people from our general discourse from our society. I think that if people were aware of what's happening and just how harmful it is, society might be a little bit better. 

When I grew up, I didn't see anybody in books or on TV who looked like me or who was black and Indigenous. I didn't know anybody else aside from my siblings who were the same. It was really hard. It was really hard for my identity. And so, when I became a mom, I definitely made a point of searching out groups where there would be children who look like my daughter. I reached out to try to find a place for us as an Indigenous community. I wanted to know what that meant, and I wanted to raise her that way. 

But I'm up against so much out there. I just think that if everyone had a basic kind of awareness without the fear because I believe it's fear that drives the hatred, fear that drives the racism, fear of something different, fear of their own lack of self-worth. 

I decided a while ago that I was not going to help people figure out what their problem with me was. I wasn't going to do that. I am, however, reversing the roles. If you want to come to me and are open to help, we can work on this together. That's just my own approach. I think that goes back to beginning with being aware, being curious, and that will definitely influence the kind of content–film, TV, television games, plays, ads, email, commercials–everything that we take in, it will definitely influence all of that. If we can be given that place of just being aware of our beautiful differences.

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About The Author
Neely Bardwell
Author: Neely BardwellEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Neely Bardwell (descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian) is a staff reporter for Native News Online. Bardwell is also a student at Michigan State University where she is majoring in policy and minoring in Native American studies.