What’s in a Game?

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

This spring, a team of five graduate students at the University of Washington Information School, or iSchool, took the first steps in developing a video game designed to preserve the language and culture of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington. Their goal is to harness the power of digital media for social good, engaging tribal youth as stewards in preserving their traditions and history—all while playing a game.

The project, “Digital Captíkʷɬ/Storytelling,” came together last year through a diverse collaboration including Professors Dan and Kristiina Vogt at SEFS, members of the Colville, graduate students at SEFS (especially Isabel Carrera Zamanillo), Dr. Nancy Maryboy, president and founder of the Indigenous Education Institute, and Phil Fawcett, program coordinator for iSchool capstones. The key piece on the technical side of building the game, though, involved recruiting five master’s students from the iSchool to tackle the first phase of development for their capstone project: Rajat Sethi, Allen Snider, Ian Durra, Akshay Singh and Elton Sequeira.

The Project
“Most games designed to reflect indigenous people reflect the values of the game developers and not necessarily the people whose story is being told,” says Kristiina, who helped co-author a book with Dan in 2013, The River of Life: Sustainable Practices of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples. For this game, though, the students and project partners took the opposite approach.

“In a matter of a few months, these students were able to take a Colville story and turn it into a game you could play on your cell phone,” says Kristiina.

The Colville consist of 12 individual tribes with traditional territories that at one time extended across the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia, Idaho and Oregon. To build a game that draws from their authentic indigenous stories, language and history, Kristiina and Dan engaged Colville language experts and fluent speakers, tribal elders, musicians, artists and other cultural contributors. As a result, the Colville provided all content for the game’s story and actively participated in the process by reviewing, providing feedback and consultation, and ultimately giving final approval of the concept.

“We are trying to teach the language to people of all ages of our population,” says Rodney Cawston, director of the Colville language program and one of the project partners. “Our stories teach us a lot about our culture, and electronics seemed like a great way to connect with youth. It’s a pretty exciting process.”

Rodney collected and sent the students several stories to consider, and they narrowed it to one chapter of a story as an achievable scope. The team wanted to develop a game—eventually available as an app on smartphones—that would be relatively easy to play, fit into the adventure genre with linear storytelling and interactive puzzles, and that had an elegant design and color palette. The students even had tribal musicians, artists and native tribal language speakers collaborating and advising them (with the future goal of continuing these collaborations, and to have Colville youth build additional games from stories they write).

“I’m looking at a lot of other games, and almost none of them partners with tribes like this from the beginning,” says Nancy Maryboy, who is also an affiliate faculty member with SEFS. “That’s really significant, and why this project is noteworthy. They’re letting the tribe take the lead with their stories. Their own music. Their own art. It will really have the Colville look.”

The Capstone Team
The initial phase of game development this spring involved building a prototype to demonstrate, as a proof of concept, that a traditional story could be transcribed into a game that captures the attention of tribal youth ages 9 to 15. The iSchool students, who graduated this June, each brought a particular skillset and interest to that task—and all were drawn to the potential value of the game to the Colville community.

The project team (left to right): Rajat Sethi, Akshay Singh, Allen Snider, Ian Durra and Elton Sequeira.

“When we first interacted with these students, we found partners who were equally excited about collaborating with a tribe and taking on the challenge of transcribing a tribal story to build the first prototype language game,” says Kristiina. “The student group was an amazing mix of technological skills and genuine interest to mix language learning into a game, contribute something back to society and learn more about Native American communities.”

That was very much the case with Rajat, who has a background in computer science and back-end development. He graduated with a master’s of science and information technology, and the capstone was the cornerstone of his degree. “I wanted to do something with social value and give back to the community,” he says. “What’s really important is that the game feels and reflects their culture and language, and that it really belongs to them.”

Allen, who came from a liberal arts background in classics and linguistics, brought a slightly different yet complementary perspective to the team. “It’s really exciting for a convergence of interests,” he says. “I studied linguistic concepts, techniques for teaching and pedagogy, and this project has been really engaging. I had wanted to do some kind of language-learning capstone, so it fit beautifully.”

Like Allen, Ian came from a liberal arts background, and he describes himself as a “hybrid player” with interests in comparative literature and computer science. His focus was helping as a go-between, translating Colville language concepts into the game platform. “We turned the story into a quest with an adventure,” he says. “You have a choice of three animals, and you’re then guided by other animals along the way, like a fish that teaches you the word for how to swim, and you have to choose the correct verb to get across the river. Not everything is language. We have Colville landscapes, music—it’s an immersive experience, and you learn as much about the culture as you do about the language.”

Creating that balance between a game that is entertaining and educational was one of the core tensions of the project. They want players to go into a state of flow, and to play repeatedly, reinforcing words and themes in the game while keeping players engaged. “It’s been a huge, complex project,” says Rajat, “really challenging technically, creatively and managerially.”

At the same time, that challenge is a big part of what attracted the students. “When I first heard about this project, I knew it would be difficult,” says Akshay, who moved to the United States from India in 2015 to start his graduate program. “But it will make me feel really happy and satisfied with the work, which is really important to me.”

The story they translated is called smiʔnáp sxʷuys, or Bullfrog Travels – Story 1. (It is the property of the CCT Language Program and Okanogan Language Program.)

Throughout the project, the students had to draw on and learn a wide range of skills, including data visualization, user interface design, systems and application software development, web application development and also game development, which was not initially a strength of anyone on the team. “We didn’t have much game-development experience, so we were learning and implementing at the same time,” says Elton, who worked for three years as a software developer before joining the iSchool.

The Delivery
Juggling a steep learning curve and sensitivity to the stories and stakeholders with the Colville, the students knew they wouldn’t be able to deliver a final product by the end of the quarter. Yet they carefully navigated and delivered on some of their most complex challenges, including developing a game concept that captures an authentic Colville experience. “This game is still a prototype,” says Kristiina, “but it successfully retained the perspectives of the Colville through an iterative process with Colville artists and language experts.”

The project has also set the stage for future collaborations between SEFS and the iSchool. “In the last few years, many of the SEFS capstone students who have worked with me wanted to do research on some aspect of environmental sustainability,” says Dan Vogt. “During that same time period, I’ve had the chance to know and work with some iSchool capstone students. I knew if we could get a group of iSchool capstone students working with a group of SEFS students, we could really get some fantastic products. So in the near future I’m hoping to see some potential synergy from the merger of the technologies of iSchool with the environmental resource expertise from SEFS.”

To that end, this team has provided an impressive technology foundation and springboard for the next capstone students to pick up and keep developing (check out a one-minute promotional video for more visuals of what they produced). In fact, they won an award at the iSchool capstone night for the incredible progress they made—progress that has the potential to spark similar projects elsewhere.

A bigger long-term objective with this game, after all, is to create a model that other tribes can use to build games for their own communities. “These students are building a digital presentation of tribal culture and language, more permanent than oral tradition,” says Phil, who guided the students throughout the process as their capstone advisor. “We want to nail the process down so we can propagate it for other tribes.”

That’s a noble goal, and these five students might have found a way to make the process fun—all while training tribal youth to preserve their cultures for generations to come!

Members of the project team (clockwise from top left): Dan Vogt, Ian Durra, Akshay Singh, Allen Snider, Elton Sequeira, Phil Fawcett, Rodney Cawston, Michele Seymour, Nancy Maryboy and Kristiina Vogt.

SEFS Student Leads Mission One Science Camp

This August, SEFS doctoral candidate Isabel Carrera Zamanillo is leading the first-ever Mission Earth Scout One science camp, which will guide more than 35 middle and high school students through four weeks of hands-on STEM activities and exploration.

The idea for the camp came from her time living in Chicago a few years ago, when she created an outreach project called Jugando con la Ciencia (“Playing with Science”) at the Evanston Public Library. Every weekend, the program would invite Hispanic scientists to the library to talk about their work and research with kids and their parents. Isabel, who grew up in Mexico City, also helped with science outreach in the Latino community through the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, and she had been looking for a similar opportunity in Seattle.

On their first day of the Mission Earth One camp, students ... at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

On their first day of camp on August 1, 2016, the students were out observing birds at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

So when she was offered a chance to help organize the first summer camp for the Northwestern Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline (which is supported by the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium), she accepted and got approval this past May to host the camp in August. She then began reaching out to underrepresented communities to recruit students who haven’t had as much exposure to science. Mission Earth has an emphasis on bilingual students, as well, and Isabel’s outreach attracted participants from a wide range of backgrounds, including Latino, African, Bosnian and Asian Indian, among others.

“My idea was to create a theme that will combine physics, math, chemistry, engineering, biology and environmental sciences,” she says, so she settled on climate change as the unifying subject.

The students will now get to spend the month learning about climate change through a variety of fun hands-on experiments and field trips. They’ll visits campus labs and the UW Farm, go on excursions to Whidbey Island to look at glaciers, and Tacoma to look at a wastewater treatment plant and learn about biosolids. They’ll start the camp by focusing on understanding nature, interacting with soils and plants—touching, feeling and sensing—and learning the principles of an ecosystem. From there they’ll move on to technology and more abstract concepts, building to the final week, which will feature drones and rockets, remote sensing and GIS. Through everything, the students will get a chance to work closely with scientists and see how science connects to their daily lives.

In addition to Isabel as the main instructor, several other members of SEFS are participating as guest scientists and leading one-day sessions, including Professors Dan and Kristiina Vogt, Sally Brown and Renata Bura; Research Associate Azra Suko and Paper Science Center Manager Kurt Haunreiter; and graduate students Shawn Behling, Catherine Kuhn and Jessica Hernandez. All of them are volunteering their time and materials, which helps remove financial obstacles for students attending the camp. The cost per student, in fact, is only $5 per week, with grant funding covering the rest.

The day camp runs from August 1 to 26, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s going to be an exciting month of discovery for these students, and keep an eye out on August 18 when they’ll be visiting SEFS!

Photo © Isabel Carrera Zamanillo.

Grad Student Spotlight: Korena Mafune

Korena Mafune, who earned her master’s last spring working with Professors Dan and Kristiina Vogt, has continued on at SEFS this year with her doctoral studies. Her project involves researching plant-fungal relationships in Washington’s temperate old-growth rain forests, with a specific focus on canopy soils and host tree fungal interactions. Her main goal is to learn which fungal species are associating with the host plant’s adventitious roots in canopy soils, and also to collect any fruiting mushrooms.

Korena Mafune 'hanging out' in the canopy.

Korena Mafune ‘hanging out’ in the canopy.

“The temperate old-growth rain forests we work in are rare and unique,” she says. “If we disregard the interactions going on in the canopies, we have an incomplete understanding of how these ecosystems function.”

The results from her master’s thesis laid a strong foundation for additional exploration, and Korena just received two grants to support her doctoral research—one for $9,300 from the Daniel E. Stuntz Memorial Foundation, and the other for $1,900 from the Puget Sound Mycological Society.

“With the support of these grants, we are ready to hit the ground running!”

Nice work, Korena, and good luck!

Photo © Korena Mafune.

Thesis Defense: Maria Sandercock!

Maria Sandercock

Sandercock stream sampling with her helper Josie.

As part of a delightful deluge of defenses today, the first of three comes at 1 p.m. in Anderson 107 when Maria Sandercock gives the public portion of her Master’s Defense, “The Role of Patterns of Urban Development on Stream Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity Scores.”

Sandercock’s committee includes SEFS Professors Daniel Vogt and Susan Bolton, along with Marina Alberti.

Come out and support Sandercock, and get excited for an afternoon of graduate student excellence!

Photo © Maria Sandercock.

Thesis Defense: Lauren Grand!

Lauren Grand

One of the red-legged frogs Grand found in the field.

This coming Tuesday, May 28, fresh off the holiday weekend, you should leap at the chance to hear Lauren Grand give the public defense of her Master’s Thesis, “Identification of Habitat Controls on Amphibian Populations: The Northern Red-Legged Frog in the Pacific Northwest.”

Join Grand, her committee chair Kristiina Vogt, and committee members Daniel Vogt and Marc Hayes to discuss Rana auroa‘s population controls and habitat needs in an urbanizing landscape.

Her talk begins at 8:30 a.m. in Anderson 22. Refreshments will be served, so come with a hungry tummy!

Photo © Lauren Grand.

Thesis Defense: Colton Miller!

Colton Miller

Miller and one of his Douglas-fir seedlings.

This Thursday, May 23, at 10 a.m. in Winkenwerder 107, Colton Miller will be defending his Master’s Thesis: “Reforesting Surface Coal-Mined Land Using Douglas-fir Seedlings in Washington State.”

Land productivity can be substantially degraded by surface mining, which introduces such problems as erosion, landslides, floods and loss of habitat. Previous research has focused on methods for improving tree seedling establishment on surface mines in the Appalachian region. Miller’s research investigated modified treatments for improving seedling performance in the Pacific Northwest. He also quantified the response of seedling foliar nutrients to post-planting fertilization.

While you let these thoughts take root, go ahead and mark your calendar and come out and join Miller’s committee chair Darlene Zabowski and other committee members Rob Harrison, Eric Turnblom and Dan Vogt!

Refreshments will be served!

Photo © Colton Miller.

Thesis Defense: Erika Knight!

Next week on Thursday, May 9, round up your friends and colleagues to come support Erika Knight as she defends her Master’s Thesis! Her talk begins at 1 p.m. in Anderson 22, so join us in commemorating her years of work and research at SEFS.

Treatment Plot

One of Knight’s treatment plots at the Fall River Long-term Soil Productivity study site in western Washington.

Increasing demand for timber, as well as current interest in the use of woody biomass for energy and chemical production, may result in higher quantities of organic matter removed from plantation forests than currently occurs during harvesting. Knight’s thesis focuses on the potential of two practices that can increase the yield of woody biomass from a harvest site to change soil carbon and nitrogen storage:

1. Application of herbicides to control competing vegetation and improve crop tree growth; and
2. Removal of branches and foliage (slash) in addition to the bole during harvest.

She conducted her research in a 12-year-old Douglas-fir plantation at the Fall River Long-term Soil Productivity site in western Washington. She is part of Professor Rob Harrison’s soils lab, and her other committee members are Professors Darlene Zabowski and Dan Vogt.

Photo © Erika Knight.