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.

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/92000406[/vimeo]

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