Self-Determination for the Future of Native Game Development

Indigenous game designers, coders, and artists will be in Santa Clara, California on Friday, May 22nd, to talk about the future of the native gaming industry.

Self-determination is the notion behind the Natives in Game Dev Gathering. Elizabeth LaPensée is an Anishinaabe, Métis, and Irish game designer. She says this is the first event of its kind and she’s excited about it.

“This event is really for us to be able to step up and speak from our own genuine perspectives without spending a breath on any negativity or any of the things we’re up against.”

Presentations range from incorporating native hip-hop into games, to using indigenous science teachings in game mechanics.

“We get to have these really robust, really exciting topics because we don’t have to just be talking about what’s out there already in commercial game industries,” says LaPensée.

Alaska will also be represented by Ishmael Hope, one of the lead writers for the groundbreaking 2014 game, “Never Alone: Kisima Ingitchuna.”

He asks: “How do we learn to reorient ourselves into honoring native perspectives?”

That question has been the driver behind a number of recent advances in native gaming.

Gloria O’Neill is the president and CEO of Cook Inlet Tribal Council, or CITC, which is behind Never Alone. She says a few years ago, her board of directors came to her looking for new ideas for a project and an investment that would follow the council’s mission.

“The board also said, be thoughtful of how we think of ourselves in the world, meaning, let’s look at our greatest asset,” says O’Neill. “And our greatest asset is people and our stories and the culture that we have had in the state of Alaska for so many years. And at the same time, be thoughtful about technology and push yourselves to be progressive.”

She says CITC sought partners with industry experience which resulted in collaboration with E-Line media and the creation of Upper One Games.

Since it was released, Never Alone has been lauded as a sophisticated, thoughtful, and intelligent game. It’s received international awards and O’Neill says, brought generations of Alaska Native families together to have fun, tell stories, and learn.

“We see that through Never Alone, that it’s inspiring for example, a whole new genre of video games, and that is telling stories that we’ve had in communities for thousands and thousands of years and using technology to bring those stories alive in today’s modern world,” says O’Neill.

LaPensée says Never Alone was a huge leap forward from older games, which rarely included native characters and when they did, were fraught with racist stereotypes. And it was the next step from smaller, self-published, indie games. It had a decent budget, professional designers, and the voices of elders. It showed it could be done.

“It’s not about taking from the culture. It actually really is inclusive game development. And how actually involving the people you are representing can influence the design and make it stand out and make it better. So, I think it’s an incredible example for inspiring youth, for inspiring other people who are working in film or other areas of media, to look at game development as something that is feasible for us.”

Ishmael Hope says by bringing his experiences from Never Alone to the conference, he hopes to open up honest conversations about where native game developers can go from this point on.

“We spend so much time focused on educating, trying to break down reified structures that disempower non-Western people,” says Hope. “That’s a constant theme. But in this case, working with the Natives in Game Development, it’s going to be neat to just kind of bond and talk about what’s exciting and what direction we want our art to go as a self-determined people.”

The goal, say both Hope and LaPensée, is for indigenous gamers, developers, and designers to recognize their own potential. Someday, they’d both like to see totally independent native game companies, publishing companies, studios and more. Independent from code to console, says LaPensée.

“I hope that future generations will look back at this moment and see this work and will still carry on the ways in a way that they can respect the position we’re in now and where they’re going to be then will be much more vast, is my hope,” LaPensée.

The gathering is co-sponsored by the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Games and Playable Media, the International Game Developers Association, and the Initiative for Indigenous Futures.