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.