Kateryna Barnes is a graduate student in the Digital Humanities program at the University of Alberta. Her dual settler-Haudenosaunee identity means she can sew moccasins, grow medicines, and make borsch.
Sila is the weather. It is also the atmosphere. Sila has a soul in the same way we do as people in the same way animals do. (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa – Cultural Insight: Sila has a Soul)
Kisima Inŋitchuŋa (Never Alone) is a side-scrolling, cooperative adventure-puzzle game set in the Iñupiaq landscape amidst a blizzard. Players are placed into the northern setting as a young girl, Nuna, and an arctic fox. The duo embark on an adventure to solve the mystery of the destruction of Nuna’s village. The design of the game, as well as how players interact with it, demonstrates a fundamentally different understanding of, and relationship to, the natural world than most mainstream AAA games. The land is both a challenge to overcome, as well as a support system. Blizzard winds hinder movement, but they can also aid the characters cross large chasms. Bears may try to eat Nuna, but her trusty arctic fox companion helps players solve puzzles.
In this way, it demonstrates a non-Western, decolonial perspective about land; the digital landscape becomes a pedagogy of relationality with the environment or land through an Indigenous lens as opposed to a Western, colonial perspective which sees nature as a threat to be harnessed. Or, more eloquently put by video game scholar and AbTEC founder Jason Edward Lewis (Cherokee-Hawaiian-Samoan), “critical technology studies have long made the point that technology designers and developers design much more than mere functionality. Rather, they design the epistemological protocols through which culture operates” (61). In the case of Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, to succeed in the game, players learn to develop respectful relations with the main “antagonist” of the game––nature (or Sila). Players learn about the natural world and learn how it can support them in their quest to discover the source of the deadly blizzard. While Sila and the land are often antagonistic, they can also be allies.
Relationality in a Digital Landscape
Once all the ice is melted
The once-covered ice area will heat up 81 times faster
There will be no stopping it
A new steady state of high heat tolerant might mean
Hopefully, rapidly evolve
But human civilisation as we know it will no longer exist
‘Cause Gaia likes it cold (Tagaq)
In an interview, Papaschase Cree scholar Dwayne Donald defines relationality as “understanding yourself as part of a network of relations” (Adams). He takes this idea further in his landmark essay “Indigenous Métissage: a decolonizing research sensibility,” writing that,
human beings are seen as intimately enmeshed in webs of relationships with each other and with the other entities that inhabit the world. We depend on these relationships for our survival. This insight finds expression through philosophical emphasis on the need to honour and repeatedly renew our relations with those entities that give and sustain life. (4)
This idea of relationality is contrary to a Cartesian colonial perspective that sees the natural world and humanity as separate and assumes that the natural is to be harnessed or overcome by humanity. Instead, relationality embraces the difference between the natural and human, recognizing that humanity’s survival is dependent on the natural and, not unlike the aforementioned Tanya Tagaq lyrics, suggests that non-respectful relations will lead to devastation for humanity.
The main theme of Kisima Inŋitchuŋa is made clear through its English name, which is based on a direct translation from Iñupiat: never alone, or “I am never alone”. Nuna may be the only human actant in the vast majority of the game, but she’s never solo. She has her steady and dependable companion, Fox. Fox’s dependability continues after their death and they are reimagined as a spirit that can continue to connect Nuna with both the natural and spiritual world, which are considered one-and-the-same in Iñupiaq culture. Spirits, the Aurora Borealis, and other animals are constant presences throughout the game, and engaging with these beings in respectful relations brings game play success. There is no fighting against nature––it always wins. The bear will kill you. The Aurora Borealis will snatch you.
As one of the game’s Cultural Insights informs players:
We are taught that there is no hierarchy. It’s not everything else [gestures downward] and humans on top and they are separate from everything. We’re taught that everything is equal and that all the animals have a human form or can be seen in a human form. And so they have just as much or more intelligence, in fact have a lot to teach people. (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa – Cultural Insight: Animal Spirits)
Indeed, playing alongside these hazards as opposed to against them brings game play progress and success. Players dodge and duck around the Aurora while platforming. Nuna and Fox work together to find a creative solution to escaping the bear’s lair. Players learn that the blizzard winds can knock over Nuna and Fox, or help propel them forward. These gameplay elements impact players’ understanding of the space and relationship to the game environment.
These respectful relations that Kisima Inŋitchuŋa embeds into the game play are a common theme amongst many Indigenous ways of knowing. These relations are not just amongst the humans, or even the commonly accepted “living” creatures, rather they can be applied to the virtual as well. Kanien’kehaka cultural theorist and artist Jackson 2bears explains that,
for us this applies, not only to obviously living things like animals and plants, but equally to seemingly inanimate things like mountains, rivers, and human-made artifacts — such is the way we often understand technology, as something alive and filled with spirit, something with which we are interconnected in what Little Bear called a ‘circle of relations,’ and something that is a part of a universe of ‘active entities with which people engage.’ (14)
In other words, circles of relations are not dissimilar in virtual or natural environments. An understanding of one is reflected in the other, even if the medium is not the same.
Survivance of Indigenous Worldviews in Games as Pedagogy
It was like TV, you know? And the storyteller told it so clearly that it was just as powerful as any of the greatest movie blockbusters you’ve ever seen. There was a reason behind the stories that we were told because they held traditional knowledge They held things that we might need to know in life. (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa – Cultural Insight: It would be really nice to hear a story)
Kisima Inŋitchuŋa takes the traditional practice of storytelling as a pedagogical praxis and reinvents it as a side-scrolling platformer available on many gaming systems. The game engine (and notably, the presence of the Cultural Insight videos) encourages learning from storytelling and from the elders and knowledge-keepers, a practice traditional to the Iñupiat and many other Indigenous peoples. Put another way, games researcher Jason Hawreliak explains that meaning can be communicated through procedural modes, or “expression through interactive, rule-based systems enacted by a player” (82). If players learn by interactive action, the rules become an important component of both game play and pedagogy. In the game, the knowledge might be insight to aid in a practical context, such as learning that hunting with a bola is more effective as it’s quieter than a gun; it is also more easily reusable with no reloading required—it just needs a strong, steady arm. The wisdom in the stories might be more general, such as how to live as a good community member or in relation with the natural world. Storytelling is a medium of cultural transmission and a critical part of Iñupiat culture, and video games have the potential to be a facet of this practice. Games scholar Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabe-Métis) explains that “Indigenous digital games uniquely enact survivance by passing on teachings, telling our stories, and expressing our ways of knowing through varying weavings of code, design, art, music, and audio” (i). More simply, traditional knowledge survives and thrives when it is learned and practiced.
Representation of Indigenous worldviews and practices through traditional pedagogy is a critical part of the survivance described by LaPensée. Artist and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) describes this imperative as “a mirroring or a reenactment process where we understand Nishnaabeg epistemology to be concerned with embodied knowledge animated, collective, and lived out in a way in which our reality, nationhood, and existence are continually reborn through both time and space” (161). The value of this practice as survivance cannot be understated in terms of the impact on the learner. In contrast, Simpson describes how undervalued she was made to feel in a Western education system, writing:
My experience of education from kindergarten to graduate school was one of coping with someone else’s agenda, curriculum, and pedagogy, someone who was not interested in my well-being as a girl, my connection to my homeland, my language or history, or my Nishnaabeg intelligence. (149)
Kisima Inŋitchuŋa instead stands against this reality by enacting traditional pedagogical praxis in a modern context and technology.
Beyond pedagogy as survivance, scholar Katherine Meloche explains that Kisima Inŋitchuŋa demonstrates the resiliency of the Iñupiat as a people and a culture as it is an adaptation of traditional gaming practices. She refers to the game as a “digital qargi”, explaining that “[i]t is not a direct adaptation or remediation of a particular traditional game, but a continuance of values and relationships to people and to place that is performed through play” (2). Meloche posits that the game’s structure, as opposed to the game play tasks, are what makes Kisima Inŋitchuŋa a digital simulacrum of the qargi; specifically, she points to the main relationship dynamic––Nuna and Fox. She explains that “[w]hen two players engage in co-op mode to play Nuna and Fox together, they are invited to make community by playing the game and learning in the same space, thereby evoking the social dynamics of a qargi“ (7). As such, this game structure mimics the collaborative and communal aspect of the qargi learning space and the lessons therein. By acknowledging and acting under the premise that one is “never alone”, the importance of community takes center stage. In this way, Simpson’s call for “learning spaces where we do not have to address state learning objectives, curriculum, credentialism, and careerism, where our only concern for recognition comes from within“ finds a new platform (172). Nuna and Fox risk their lives multiple times in the game to learn more about the cause of the blizzard that destroyed her village and stop it. Community as a value and a pedagogical space are alive in this digital qargi and it is emblematic of survivance.
The blizzard man is the physical embodiment of an element of nature. There’s a person that needs to go up and take away the adze that’s chipping away at the snow. In that community, the person least expected is the one who stands up and makes a difference. Humility is something we value, and where that comes from is the idea that you are not the biggest thing in the world. When you live in an extreme environment like where the Iñupiat reside, you are at the whim of the environment, of the climate, of the animals. You are not the biggest force in the world. (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa – Cultural Insight: Kunuuksaayuka)
In Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, the culture and values of the Iñupiaq people are on display and central to game play success. Unlike many AAA games, game designers with cultural knowledge transposed a non-Western understanding of the natural world into a digital simulacrum, along with specific lessons central to survivance and thrivance in that environment. To survive and thrive, players must acquiesce to constraints of the world and accompanying worldview, and by doing so they learn a significant amount about the Iñupiat, their knowledge, their perspective, and their lives. The digital land is pedagogy, from an Indigenous worldview; the procedural rhetoric dictates the terms of success and the game’s meanings. The practice is relationality and the end result is sacred ecology. If the premise is that computational systems, including video games, reflect society’s structures and systems, then representing Indigenous worldviews in video games becomes a critical point in decolonizing the technological.
Nuna doesn’t bring harm to the Blizzard Man to save her village; instead, she steals his adze and then leads him to her home so he can see why she must destroy his tool. Nuna and Fox don’t kill the polar bear when they are attacked in the den; in the end, the polar bear becomes an aid in the final escape. Lessons about relationality with more-than-human relations permeate the story and the game play actions. By reimagining traditional ways of knowing and being, and transpositioning them into the medium of video games, Kisima Inŋitchuŋa enacts survivance and contributes to a continuation of native stories and native life.
Note: This essay has focused on the representation of Indigenous ways of knowing and being in Never Alone. Although discussion about the development studio E-Line Media, the game’s production process, and related discourse is important, it was unfortunately outside the scope of this paper.
2bears, Jackson. “My Post-Indian Technological Autobiography.” Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways In New Media Art, edited by Steve Loft and Kerry Swanson, University of Calgary Press, 2014.
Adams, Catherine, director. Dwayne Donald – Indigenous Metissage. Faculty of Education, University of Alberta, bit.ly/2D44cK1.
Donald, Dwayne. “Indigenous Métissage: a decolonizing research sensibility.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 25, no. 5, 2011, pp. 533-555.
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Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Tagaq, Tanya. “Cold.” Retribution. Six Shooter Records, 2016.
Webster, Donald H, and Wilfried Zibell. Inupiat Eskimo Dictionary. Alaska Rural School Project Department of Education University of Alaska College, Alaska, 1970.