Indigenous Digital Expression
Week 6: Storytelling
Day 1: Ongoing Stories
Games can be a space for retelling and reimagining historical, traditional, family, and personal stories. Otsì:!! Rise of the Kanien’kehá:ka Legends (2009) is a computer game developed in the Unreal game engine by students in Owisokon Lahache’s art class at the Kahnawake Survival School during the 2008–2009 school year as part of the Skins 1.0 workshop conducted by Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace. It is a robust representation of several stories from the Kahnawake Mohawk community that resulted in a game narrative about an Iroquois hunter on a mission to stop the Flying Head from destroying his village. The village includes longhouses modeled after traditional Iroquois structures. Figures from other Mohawk stories, including the Hoof Lady and the Monkey Dog, interrupt the journey alongside new figures imagined by youth such as the Tree People. Each of these figures tells its own story; some assist him, some hold him back. The journey ends at the hunter’s village, which the Flying Head is attacking. The hunter must fight him off by using the information he gathered from characters along the way (LaPensée & Lewis 2011). Youth later expanded this concept into two games: Skahiòn:hati: Legend of the Stone Giant (2011) and Skahiòn:hati: Rise of the Kanien’kehá:ka Legends (2012). In these games, youth chose to uniquely fuse together traditional stories that were not previously interconnected. In doing so, they wove new interactive stories with dimensional representations of community spaces including longhouses that can be revisited much like traditional storytelling is returned to, recalled, and retold, now available in this generation in the form of games that can be replayed.
Day 2: Embedded Stories
Family stories are just as meaningful as traditional stories and can carry aspects that transfer strongly to games, such as figures that can become characters or journeys that can become levels of goals and progression. Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) (2014) is a puzzle-platformer that was developed for computers and consoles as a collaboration between the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska and ally game company, E-Line Media. It retells a family story about a young Iñupiaq woman, Nuna, and her fox sidekick venturing together to save her village. The game shares many stories and teachings, thanks to making in-game rewards made from short film clips with storyteller Ishmael Angaluuk Hope and other community members who were interviewed during the research phase of development. This involvement is especially important when developing games with Indigenous stories, since, as shown in Never Alone, figures such as the mischievous Little People are real and not simply “myths.” As Anishinaabekwe, I recognize Little People as memegwesiwag, also known as water spirits. From my Auntie I have come to understand that Little People are simply hard for us to see because they move very fast, much like how hummingbird wings appear blurry to the human eye when they are flying. This realness is represented in not only Never Alone’s gameplay but also the way in which the developers respected feedback from the communities involved. Although Never Alone’s development, including art and design, was completed in-studio by non-Indigenous team members, the key designer and artist made a genuine effort to be reciprocal in the collaboration by staying with the community for extended periods and taking care to integrate carving and other traditions into the game design. Never Alone has since inspired many other Indigenous people to look at games more closely for their potential to express stories, teachings, and language.
Week 7: Characters
Day 1: Busting Stereotypes + Self-Determined Beauty
Games that represent Indigenous cultures as a relic of the past, and that participate in the “literature of dominance” that Vizenor classes among “treacherous conditions in any discourse on tribal consciousness” (1994: 175), dominate the options available to game players. The “mystic savage” appears in several games (LaPensée 2006, LaPensée 2007), such as in the Real Time Strategy (RTS) game, No Man’s Land (2003), which includes units of “Prairie Indian Medicine Men” who can “cast mighty magic spells.” In the RTS game, Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs (2006), players increase their units’ speed, damage, and skills by having villager units perform mystical dances in a pit. The very fact that characters dance to increase skills is a problematic stereotype that is then compounded by physical dance moves that echo stereotypes seen in films. Digital games can thus perpetuate old stereotypes both in terms of representation as well as mechanics that take the form of actions.
At the same time, digital games have the potential to ameliorate the literature of dominance in their unique ability to engage Indigenous methods of self-determination and representation. For example, Otsì:!! Rise of the Kanien'kehá:ka Legends (2008–09)—developed by youth in the Skins 1.0 Workshop—is a first-person shooter that adapts traditional Kahnawake Mohawk stories such as the Flying Head. In the multi-level game, the player takes the role of the hunter , and sees the world from his eyes. The gameplay begins outside of a village that has been razed to the ground. The sole survivor tells him about the Flying Head and its attack on the village, and warns the player that it is now heading towards the hunter’s village. The hunter has to then fight his way across the land with the help and hindrance of figures from other Kahnawake Mohawk stories (LaPensée & Lewis 2011). Video games can thus do more than simply avoid stereotypical images perpetuated in romanticized Western icons of the nineteenth-century “American frontier.” They hold the potential for authentic self-representation in ways that engage the imagination in relation to Indigenous worldviews.
Day 2: Workshop
We will share concerns and issues for stereotypes alongside alternatives and discuss the possibilities of representing these issues and alternatives through digital expression.
Assignment: Proposal - 5%
At this point, you need to choose either the Designer Track or Researcher Track. If you decide on prototyping a digital media work, identify the tentative title of the work, the platform, and the genre. If you decide on research, identify whether you are working on a presentation, a poster, or an article. Graduate students should have a particular presentation or publication venue in mind and work within those guidelines.
Week 8: Colonization
Day 1: Invasion
* No Class - Game Developers Conference
Invaders (2015), which I developed in Unity3D with art by Steven Paul Judd and music by Trevino Brings Plenty, playfully confronts the definition of what it means to be an invader. The game is inspired by Steven Paul Judd’s original artwork, which juxtaposes a historical photo of warriors shooting arrows into the sky with the 8-bit art of the classic arcade game, Space Invaders. The game asks, “Who are the aliens?” The player shoots arrows at waves of alien invaders and inevitably dies. The goal is to reach a new high score for how many aliens you destroy and how many waves you survive. Lives are depicted in the images of other warriors rather than a number or heart system, making the loss of a life more visceral and also challenging players to consider the genuine losses experienced by Indigenous communities during colonization, which Invaders portrays as an invasion. By using Space Invaders as a touchstone, the game manages to reach both Indigenous and non-Indigenous players with its messages, recognizing, too, that each player is responsible for their own interpretation.
Blood Quantum (forthcoming), by Diegueno game artist and designer, Renee Nejo, addresses the ongoing eradication of Indigenous identity due to the blood quantum system, which defines Indigineity based on a measurement of blood as articulated by the government of one’s tribal affiliation. Due to family choices prior to the artist/designer’s birth, she technically has more “quantum” than her own identification card states (Nejo 2014). Blood quantum can be impacted if, for example, a parent or grandparent chose not to register with a tribe, if they were removed, or if a tribe was disbanded. While Blood Quantum deals with a very intense issue, it does so cleverly through a Real Time Strategy with two sides: gray droplets and blue droplets. The player is responsible for a community of blue droplets, who are invaded by the gray droplets, who steal away the next generation of blue droplets. The player must continue creating more generations of blue droplets while also attempting to recover any stolen droplets. However, any blue droplet near a gray droplet gradually turns gray. Additionally, a new generation of blue droplets transition to gray droplets if they have been taken. Droplets are recoverable and will return to the player’s community as long as they are a certain percentage of blue, which is represented visually in the game. Although Blood Quantum’s aesthetic is cute and friendly, the gameplay itself is dark in tone, resonating truths about contemporary Indigenous identity addressed further in other works.
Day 2: Workshop
* No Class - Game Developers Conference
We will share concerns and issues about colonization alongside alternatives and discuss the possibilities of representing these issues and alternatives through digital expression.
Assignment: Outline - 5%
Those of you in the Designer Track should write out a design document specifying more details such as the core interactivity of your work and how you plan to prototype the work (what materials do you need? who will you test the work with outside of class?) while those of you in the Researcher Track should write out a list of references you will need to look more closely at as you move forward.
Week 9: Identity
Day 1: Lost Generations
* No Class - Spring Break
As seen in Blood Quantum, questions of place and belonging echo through generations influenced by relocation and urbanization. Megan Byrne is a Métis/Cree game designer who developed Wanisinowin in the Indigenous Routes Collective and Dames Making Games collaborative workshop, Indigicade. Wanisinowin is puzzle-platformer where the player is a young girl living in the spirit world who learns that, unlike anyone else there, she is actually human. She is given a chance to go with her aunt to the human world. To do this, the player must navigate their way through a dark world without literally losing their light, or their way. The developer was raised in a city away from her cultural lands and attributes this upbringing to a loss of cultural awareness that she is currently rectifying (Toronto Game Devs 2015). Through Wanisinowin, she is attempting to resolve the question, “Do I belong?” The game hopes to position players to either resolve their own doubt or at least experience empathy for people who are raised with disconnection and uncertainty.
Day 2: Project Presentations
* No Class - Spring Break
If it weren't Spring Break, everyone would share their ideas of what they hope to work on as their project for the course and we will provide helpful feedback to one another. Enjoy the break though!
Week 10: #NoPipelines
Day 1: Thunderbird Strike
In Thunderbird Strike (forthcoming), you are challenged to stop the black snake from swallowing Turtle Island whole using your thunderbird gifts: searing lightning strikes, swooping attacks, and ripping talons that activate rumbling thunder and torrential rains. In the first level, you strike lightning down at mining company buildings and giant mining trucks. The intention of the game is to create awareness about issues regarding pipelines and boost moral with communities who are currently facing these very genuine threats to the land, waters, and all life.
Day 2: Workshop Session
We will share environmental issues alongside alternatives and discuss the possibilities of representing these issues and alternatives through digital expression.
Assignment: First Version - 10%
Those of you in the Designer Track should have a very light prototype while those of you in the Researcher Track should have an outline.