Indigenous Video Games

Lesson Plan from “Global Indigenous Media” Syllabus

Jackie Land

Quick Description

This lesson introduces students to the development of Indigenous video games. The lesson asks students to make informed inferences about a particular video game that represents some of the issues and potentials of this emerging site of production for Indigenous artists. It could be used in courses related to Indigenous media, Indigenous politics, minority media, video games, media and commodification, and globalization. Students will gain experience with video game analysis and apply what they have learned in previous weeks to understand a new medium.

Learning Objective(s)

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Apply their understanding of Indigenous media, common political and cultural goals of Indigenous media production, and trends in representation and narrative
  • Examine a work from an emerging area of Indigenous media
  • Analyze and evaluate where games converge and diverge with other forms of Indigenous media

These objectives support the overall objectives of the course to survey key foundational films and texts in Indigenous media studies, teach skills for analytical reading and discussion, and apply readings and discussion to analyze and interpret media productions.

Course Plan

In my Indigenous Global Media course, this lesson occurs toward the end of the semester at week twelve, which covers Indigenous animation and gaming. Students will already be familiar with many forms of Indigenous media at this point, offering an opportunity to put a video game in conversation with other productions we have discussed previously. In addition, because it is paired with a lesson the previous class period on animation, this session can build on the politics of children’s media, cultural preservation, strategic traditionalism, and visual sovereignty. Although this course is designed to include weekly screenings, this lesson would include media observation during class time. The lesson will ask students to practice close analysis and interpretation of media, which will start preparing them to write the final paper at the end of the course.

Related Reading

Students will be assigned to read the following:

Click image for book review
Click image for book review

These readings will prepare students to think critically about games and their relationship to Indigenous media. The Lewis chapter will also be important as a recap to the lesson as it posits a clear political vision for the practice of Indigenous video game development. By comparing this vision to the game we analyze in class, we can begin to ask questions about what Indigenous media should look like and how it is defined.

Student-Centered Activity

The student-centered activity involves examining and analyzing a video game, Never Alone (2014). It is the first game produced by the Indigenous-owned video game company Upper One Games, a subsidiary of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a nonprofit based in Anchorage Alaska that serves Alaska Native and American Indian peoples. CITC partnered with E-Line Media to produce the game in hopes of generating a new source of revenue to promote sustainability and improve funding for their services. This activity will ask students to complete a game prediction, giving them an opportunity to make informed guesses about what they expect to happen in the game and what issues that we have discussed previously in the course are of relevance here. A mini-lecture (10-20 minutes) will be given at the start of class that introduces students to key terminology and concepts for game analysis and briefly contextualize the production of Never Alone, its commercial success, and overall reception. Part of this mini-lecture will be based on a blogpost by game developer Ryan Oliver about the cost of Never Alone for Inuit communities in Nunavut (available at: http://pinnguaq.com/blog-all/91 ), reminding us to keep questions of the digital divide and the tension between local needs and the politics of globalized Indigenous media in mind.

After the mini-lecture, we will watch the prelude to Never Alone. A volunteer will play through part of the first chapter (a good time to pause is during the polar bear chase when the fox arrives – the game pauses for a few seconds to teach you how to switch between characters). The class will be divided into small groups of 2-3 and will be asked to answer several questions. After 15-20 minutes for them answer the questions, another volunteer will play the game for about 10 minutes. We will discuss how each group answered the questions and whether or not their predictions changed as the game continued. In the remaining time, the class will focus on the Lewis chapter and put his call for radical game development in conversation with what we have examined and observed in Never Alone as a way to reflect on the broader field of Indigenous games.

Materials Needed

  • A laptop with a copy of Never Alone (2014), Upper One Games (available for download on Steam and Amazon, $14.99 USD)
  • A projector
  • Questions, either displayed on the projector or as a handout

Set-Up

The mini-lecture will set up the activity, preparing students for the particular task of game analysis that they will be asked to complete during the activity by reviewing key terms and concepts from the guidelines they were asked to read. The mini-lecture should also contextualize Never Alone in a way that emphasizes key themes we have discussed previously such as the digital divide, production constraints, commodification of Indigenous content, and self-representation. This will prime students to make connections between the game and other productions and topics, and prepare to make predictions based on what they already know.

Directions for Students

Before watching the prelude for Never Alone, tell students that they will watch the opening and play a few minutes in order to make predictions. After finding a good stopping place in the game, divide students into small groups and ask them to answer questions (either on a handout or projected on the board). Students will have 15-20 minutes to answer the questions and should be sure to explain how they predicted the answer, either based on something specific they saw during the brief viewing or based on a concept/topic related to another media production we have discussed. Another volunteer will play the game for about 10 minutes (this will give students time to play through some of the puzzles/chapters, and to view some of the unlockable cultural insights, which are short documentary segments about Alaska Native peoples). At the end, they will be asked to share what they predicted and discuss what key aspects influenced our predictions.

Students will be asked to predict the following:

  • Based on other Indigenous media productions we have looked at and what you have just seen, what do you expect were the developers’ goals in making Never Alone?
  • What kind of information do you think will be presented in the “cultural insights”?
  • Why do you think the developers decided to make a platform puzzle game?
  • How do you expect the representation of the Arctic and Inupiat to compare to other depictions that are part of the Arctic imaginary?
  • How do you expect the game to balance cultural specificity and authenticity with appeals global Indigenous identity and politics?

Recap

Following the activity, discussion of the Lewis chapter should lead to broader questions about the potential for games to be used to empower communities, especially youth, through involvement with media production and about areas where we can expect to see continued negotiation between corporate interests in cultural storytelling and media activists who employ media as a way to respond to hegemonic forces and formulate spaces for visual sovereignty. Other take-home points include an understanding of the differences in games that make them a powerful option for Indigenous media-makers that is increasingly important as a way to engage young people in the community and reach a global audience. Fundamentally, the activity and reading should help students understand that the hardware and software of games as ideological systems.

Lesson Plan DOWNLOAD

Comments are closed.