Digitizing Indigenous Storytelling in Never Alone: Games, Ritual, and Understanding

Tanya Zuk

NOTE: This paper was selected by the program committee as a Meaningful Play 2016 Top Paper. It has been submitted to the Meaningful Play 2016 Special Issue of the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations (IJGCMS). Due to the copyright requirements of the journal, only the abstract is available in the conference proceedings.

Extended Abstract

"Never Alone: Kisima Inŋitchuŋa" leverages “embodied storytelling” to incorporate players into the Iñupiaq’s ritual of storytelling through gameplay, thus leveraging the connection between ritual and game (Gee, 2003, 81). Using a variety of traditional and culturally specific elements in the world building and game design Never Alone presents a fully contextualized experience for gamers. The use of the Iñupiaq language for narration, animating the tradition of scrimshaw art, and the choice of folktale presented within the narrative of the game integrates the player into a modernized Iñupiaq ritual of storytelling. Never Alone fosters cultural learning through gameplay, which includes identification of the player with a female Native American character named Nuna, tribal mythology and art, and specific cultural values, such as intergenerational exchange, resilience, and interdependence. Embedded through the game’s mechanics, aesthetics, and rewards system are the values of the Iñupiat, enabling ritual learning through game play.

This study utilizes three distinct educational models for its analysis. James Paul Gee developed a robust set of “rules” for how games unintentionally teach a variety of skills, values, and knowledge in his work "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy" (2003). The second educational model, “Native Thought Education,” is student-centered and developed by Maenette Nee-Benham and Joanne Cooper as an educational approach designed by and for indigenous peoples. A group of educators developed this model at an international conference and published in "Indigenous Educational Models for Contemporary Practice" (2000). Finally, Mary Flannagan and Helen Nissenbaum developed "Values at Play in Digital Games" (2014), specifically focused on the deliberate use of games to instill ethical and cultural values in players. Through the intersection of these three methodological approaches, we can better understand how minority cultures can leverage games as a method of ritual education.