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.

Summer Campers Have Fun Exploring Biogeochemistry

Last week, we wrote about the new Mission Earth Scout One science camp that one our graduate students, Isabel Carrera Zamanillo, launched this August. The camp offers underrepresented middle and high school students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a variety of scientific disciplines, and to help out with the different subjects, Isabel recruited several folks from SEFS to serve as guest scientists for a day. Among the volunteers was SEFS doctoral student Catherine Kuhn, who is part of Professor David Butman’s Landscape Biogeochemistry Lab, and she took her turn leading instruction for the campers on Monday, August 8.

Students practice field sampling for methane and carbon dioxide along Ravenna Creek.

Students practice field sampling for methane and carbon dioxide along Ravenna Creek.

Catherine and her research assistant, SEFS undergrad Rachel Yonemura, taught a lesson about the freshwater carbon cycle and introduced students to the idea of how greenhouse gases can be emitted from lakes, rivers and streams. The lesson also included a section on carbon mapping and different tools that can be used to visualize geospatial data.

Rachel followed up by applying some of the new concepts to urban stream chemistry in Ravenna Creek, which is one of Rachel’s study sites for her senior capstone research. So later that afternoon, the students then practiced field sampling for methane and carbon dioxide at an access site where Ravenna Creek meets the Montlake Slough.

Catherine says the students did an outstanding job collecting field samples, and the Landscape Biogeochemistry Lab team had a great time working with the young scientists in the making.

Photos © Catherine Kuhn.

2016_08_Space Camp2

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.

Brockman Tree Tour Going Mobile!

For the past two quarters, a pair of undergrads in the University of Washington Information School (iSchool)—Omar Rojas and Jamy Southafeng—have been working on developing a mobile app for the Frank Brockman Memorial Campus Tree Tour.

Started in 1980, the Brockman Tree Tour guides visitors to explore 80 of the hundreds of tree species on the University of Washington campus. Most information from the tour is available online—though not in a mobile-friendly format—so most people still follow it through an old black-and-white booklet, with each tree marked as a number on the campus map (we also have a printed insert that updates some of the trees that have died or been removed). It’s long been a popular way to stroll through and experience campus, but the use of paper maps has largely declined in favor of real-time mapping and navigational services on mobile phones.

With this new app, users will be able to locate trees around them nowhere where they start the tour.

With this new app, users will be able to locate trees around them no matter where they start the tour.

Wanting to make the tour more modern and accessible, we’ve circulated the idea of adapting it for a mobile app for a few years. Yet we hadn’t been able to get the project running until Professor Emeritus Al Wagar picked up the baton about a year ago and started organizing a more concerted effort. He eventually rallied more interest and connected with SEFS doctoral student Isabel Carrera Zamanillo, who also works with students in the iSchool. She then helped recruit Omar and Jamy to design the app for their senior capstone project, and they set to work this past winter.

They’ve since put in countless hours storyboarding, sketching out wireframes, coding and testing their concept, and they’re now in the final stages of development. Designed to be used on Android phones, their app will enable users to set up customized tours and use GPS navigation through Google Maps to locate trees—and pull up images and info—from anywhere on campus. All you will have to do is launch the app on your phone wherever you’re standing, and you will see icons for trees on the tour around you. It’s going to create a far more fun, interactive and versatile experience, making it much easier, as well, to enjoy parts of the tour for short breaks between classes or during lunch.

As Omar and Jamy tweak the final details and functionality, you can check out their one-minute promotional video to get excited about their work! You’re also invited to the iSchool Capstone Night, which is coming up at the HUB on May 26. Omar and Jamy will be presenting their app, and two other iSchool students are working on projects with the Vogt Lab (please RSVP if you’d like to attend).