Never Alone: Preserving Cultures through Games

The contemporary fantasy genre is overwhelmingly western and white. Most of the fantasy worlds admired in pop culture, such as the J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, contain lore primarily adapted from European legends. As a consequence of this, many of the races in these universes lack diversity – more than often, they are different variations of light-skinned beings, such as elves, humans, and dwarves. Fantasy races that derive from non-European tradition are often mysteriously depicted as exotic, foreign, and “tribal”. While they may have entertainment value, these works fail to encourage diversity in their industry and make it more difficult for diverse games to succeed. To change this, more support should be directed towards games that flourish in (and do not appropriate) non-European traditions and cultures, such as Never Alone – named Kisima Ingitchuna in the Iñupiat language.

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Kisima Ingitchuna was developed by the first indigenous-owned video game company in the United States: Upper One Games, founded by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, an organization dedicated to Alaska Natives. Their goal in creating this game was to keep the vibrant culture of the Iñupiat people alive through the story of Nuna and her arctic fox companion. In the game, the player navigates the two as they brave the harsh Arctic climate on a quest to save Nuna’s village. The end result is a beautiful, atmospheric puzzle game, but how successful was the team in creating a game that would preserve Iñupiat traditions? What strategies did they use, and how can other games incorporate similar strategies to accurately preserve culture?

Before Kisima Ingitchuna, Iñupiat stories were spoken, written, but never developed as a video game. The decision to develop the game was made in an effort to preserve the story under a more modern and relatable genre so that younger generations would find more interest in the traditions of their culture. However, migrating a narrative from one medium to another is a common struggle in game development. In this case, the game had to be entertaining and accessible for its players, but also educate them on the history of the Iñupiat people.

 

One member of the community is seen here playing a traditional drum in the game.
One member of the community is seen here playing a traditional drum in the game’s documentary.

It was also crucial that the game not appropriate the culture that it was trying to preserve. As Amy Freeden – the Executive Vice President and CFO of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council – commented, indigenous groups have “repeatedly seen [their] culture and stories appropriated and used without [their] permission or involvement”. The result of this is a cultural artifact that disintegrates a culture even further by promoting a racist representation of their traditions. To prevent this, the developers collaborated with a team of “nearly 40 Alaska Native elders, storytellers, and community members” to generate ideas while simultaneously checking the accuracy of the game. Sean Vesce, a creative director on the team, referred to this as “inclusive development” and described the process involved:

“It was more subtle, involving conversations with many different people, soliciting and gauging reactions to ideas, and finding creative solutions to meet both the community’s goals and our goals as game developers… When we encountered things that sounded great to us as game developers but didn’t resonate with our community partners, they would often present alternatives that ended up being much more interesting and often more challenging to incorporate.”

The result of this process shows: the game is incredibly respectful and inclusive of Alaska Native cultures and did not appropriate the culture, environment, or community.

When I played the game, I was most impressed by the inclusion of the Iñupiat language throughout the game. The narration was recorded in the Iñupiat language and immersed the player in a world inspired by the art of Alaska Natives. There was also a full documentary of the community members incorporated into the game that the player could unlock, which contributed even more educational value to the game. The controls of the game were difficult to operate at times, but considering the team used an inclusive development style that valued narrative over functionality, I think it benefits players more to forgive these problems and appreciate the several areas in which the game went right.

A screenshot from the game with Nuna and her arctic fox.
A screenshot from the game with Nuna and her arctic fox.

In conclusion, the team was extremely successful in creating a fantasy game that accurately depicted a culture’s traditional folklore, and they achieved this through an inclusive development process that actively involved community members of the culture. The game had some rough areas and room for improvement, but it serves as a great starting point for similar games. Their strategies should serve as a model for other development teams trying to achieve the same level of reflection of another culture – this may not always require inclusive development, but developers should frequently consider the impact of diversity in their games and consult outside sources to check the game’s correctness, including developers of games that take place in a fantasy universe.

  6 comments for “Never Alone: Preserving Cultures through Games

  1. aicee
    March 20, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    Thanks for giving me another game to play (: I’m really looking froward to it! It’s a really interesting topic, a game that considers culture and race. I’ve experienced many that do seem to appropriate racial stereotypes, but hadn’t thought about how this could be remedied. This seems to be an interesting way to convey history however, but, as I don’t know much about the game itself, I’m not aware if it incorporates any other outside races or multiracial interaction, which I think would be appropriate to help with the message of a necessity to maintain culture, but would, of course, be less useful to the initial point of preserving the culture of the Iñupiat people and language (which I’m also excited to hear more about).

  2. April 2, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    I think this is a really interesting way to preserve a culture’s history as well as spread awareness of it and educate people on it. I know video games aren’t usually what comes to mind when someone approaches preserving a culture, but I think it’s a very smart way to go about it and from your description it sounds like it’s doing so in a very respectful and accurate way. I wonder if this might be the future of dissolving conflict and garnering respect for different cultures by having those who are antagonist toward a certain culture play through a game that immerses them in that culture?

  3. lricciar
    April 2, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    I think this a great approach to not only the preservation of a culture, but also to the creation of video games itself. Video games have such an influence to young players, that by creating a culturally correct game one is not only teaching a player about a culture, but about how cultures should be represented in media. The big question for me though is that could this be done by AAA companies? Yes these companies have the resources to do this, but would they be willing to sacrifice the time and money to actually create a game that not only is fun to play, but accurate in the representation of the different cultures and populations the game represents? I personally think that as a company, they should take responsibility in how they represent people in their games. I would love to see big gaming companies take on these kinds of projects to help further cultural understanding, and also to help video games expand as a media. Video games can be so much more then just as game, as Never Alone clearly shows.

  4. ZoraofWater
    April 2, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    Interesting to hear of a game containing Alaskan culture and folklore. Seeing the title for this article, I was reminded by games like Okami that throw in Japanese folklore, mythology, and a bit of culture. Although very interesting and well done, it’s something that us US audience has seen a few times (not all of it, but some) much less the Japanese audience. Now you’ve gotten me interested in this game…and if I lose a few hours of sleep because of it, I shall blame you. Nevertheless, your article was interesting and hope that some more future games will go around this route.

  5. Kayleigh B
    April 3, 2015 at 10:29 am

    Spreading knowledge about a culture through the medium of video games sounds like a fantastic idea in regards to educating people in an entertaining way and creating a sub-genre of historical fiction games, but with more involvement of primary sources of information, people from the represented cultures, in the game development process. You have portrayed Never Alone as a game that has done this and I find the concept and background very interesting and I hope this combination of culture and gaming is picked up by other gaming companies as well, so that this type of game can gain more of a following. I may just play this game to see how successful the final product is at fulfilling the company’s goal as well as the Alaska Natives goal of teaching new generations about their culture.

  6. Ariel
    April 17, 2015 at 1:12 am

    This is an incredibly unique approach to preserving and spreading a marginalized group’s history that, in this day and age, I feel, has the potential to be incredibly effective. I have never heard of this game (though I will certainly be looking into it now), but the idea of a game being created with such love and care for the history and culture of an entire people is very compelling and, quite frankly, refreshing. Representation in the video game industry is still shockingly poor, with many games only featuring people of color as offensive stereotypes (such as in Between Two Souls, which features a group of cringe-inducing Navajo stereotypes, who are mystically wise, battle evil spirits using completely generic “Native American magic,” and need to be saved by a white person), rather than fleshed out people with well-written racial identities.

    Once more, with white faces filling so many prominent game series and white history influencing so much of our media, the idea of an entire game being dedicated solely to people of color is exciting, though, I fear that many production companies and developers would refuse to make anything similar for fear that it wouldn’t sell well. Overall, I am very enticed by the idea of this game, regardless of possibly flawed game controls, and love the fact that people came together to use video games for such a meaningful purpose

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