(Re)Coding Survivance: Sovereign Video Games Special Issue

First Person Podcast Episode 37

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The following is a transcription of the podcast above. Enjoy!

betsy:

Welcome to a special edition of First Person Podcast. This month for Episode 37 we’re introducing a special issue on Indigenous and Sovereign Games, called “(Re)coding Survivance,” edited by Michelle Lee Brown. First Person Scholar wants to take this opportunity to showcase a conversation between four amazing Indigenous game designers, developers, and scholars. It was truly an honor to hear these talented women share their stories about game design, Indigenous futurism, survivance, and so much more. But without further ado, I’ll let our guests introduce themselves.

Michelle:

Ongi etorri hemen zudetenoi- ikusten zaituztenak eta ikusten ez zaitustenak. Kaixo, my name is Michelle Lee Brown. I’m the guest editor for this special issue and one of the participants in this podcast.

Beth:

Aanii. Waaban-anang indizhnikaaz. Gekek indoodem. Baawaating indojibaa. My name is Beth LaPensée, I am Anishinaabe, Metis, and Irish, and a designer, artist and writer of games.

Maru:

Kia ora, ko Maru Nihoniho taku ingoa. Maru is my name. I’m a games designer and developer. I have a small games design studio based in Auckland, New Zealand, and very happy to join you all today.

Meagan:

Tansi! Meagan Byrne nitisinihkaasun. Âpihtawikosisân, Hamilton, Ontario nuchin. Hi I am Meagan Byrne, I am a Métis game designer and game events person. And I’m from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada.

Michelle:

First of all, hi everyone. The little introduction I gave is a welcome to those that are seen and unseen, which I think is really interesting and appropriate thinking about the podcast, the mediation of us all interacting through it, transcription, and then people who will either hear and listen to it. I would love to throw it over to Beth after this to talk about survivance. The title of this special issue, the first part of it is (Re)coding Survivance.

Michelle:

I think a little bit of contextualization, (re)coding is a term and approach I came up with. It’s based on Mishuana Goeman’s (Re)mapping from Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping our Nations. She used it as a term, (re)mapping, and that (re) is in parenthesis there. And I think that’s really important for me. The best way I can describe it, because I’m really into Indigenous futures too, is those parenthesis are sort of like a portal. In Goeman’s case, she was looking at Native women, the way that they breathed renewed understandings of place and space into the practices that they were doing.

Michelle:

And even though they may seem “new,” even the modern formats carried some traditional and relational aspects to them. So I took the (re) from (re)mapping and thought about coding, to think about the ways that human beings, we operate by stories. If we think of them as the operating source code, the way we move through the world, then (re)coding offers ways to alter that, shift that, or build on that. Now I toss it over to Beth because the way she talks about survivance, I’m not even going to try to touch that. It’s amazing.

Beth:

Gerald Vizenor is an Anishinaabe scholar and writer, and survivance is spoken about in what he refers to as these trickster changes. He’s constantly redefining the term throughout his scholarship, and it’s very playful, much in the way that games are. One definition is, survival plus endurance, then means survivance. And the thinking is not to put us in relation to colonization, but to understand truly that colonization is still an ongoing process, but that we never lost. So that’s what’s really important about this, is that there was no finality of it. There was no complete loss, that in fact this is an ongoing point of survivance that we are continuing on and acting in relation to one another in regards to sovereignty.

Beth:

The term started largely from his importance and focus on having oral stories count legally within court systems, especially in regards to land rights. And so, how this ties into games then is this approach to game development being a form of survivance that we have always had forms of technology, as Loretta talks about, as Leroy Little Bear who is Blackfoot talks about as well. And it is not to put us in against technology. Indigenous people have always had and created and worked alongside technology, and games are an extension of that. If we look at very much so even the expansion of game space to begin with largely into a first person view, was thanks to code by John Romero, who is himself Indigenous. So what I would like to do is pass this along to Meagan in terms of her work, and what she’s done with survivance.

Meagan:

Just hardball it at me.

Beth:

I know you’ve used it. Maybe used isn’t even the word. It’s like-

Michelle:

Engaged. Activated.

Beth:

Yeah.

Meagan:

Yeah, which is funny because I think I was doing it before I knew what that term was. And I think actually prior to hearing that term, I had heard through, my boyfriend’s a philosopher, and he was talking about… I can’t remember what the other term was. I think it was an American philosopher was talking about a similar concept of, “We need to move beyond resilience.” And that resilience actually should be thought of more as a holding pattern, and actually moving past and moving through, and becoming stronger. That’s kind of how I use my games that I make, was actually dealing with my own personal traumas.

Meagan:

I guess one of the things I always think very heavily on, and this is because of what happened to me when I was very young, where being white-passing and coming from a family that was removed from their culture and their people, was I often had to answer a lot of questions from people who were from reserves or from communities. It was very odd, especially because I was young. I often felt like I was on trial. I remember going through that not having any context of what was actually going on, and just being like, “I never want to do that to anybody.” So I’m always very careful. Maybe when I was younger this might have been actually not very helpful for me, was that my response to that trauma was to not ask for help, was to try and do everything on my own. And games were a kind of way of that.

Meagan:

And it was interesting, at around the time I was working on my very first piece, Wanisinowin | Lost, I was actually starting to reach out to my local school Indigenous student community. And there I met this wonderful woman, Paula Lang from Six Nations, Mohawk Turtle Clan. She was really that person that I realized I really needed. And then she was the one who taught me a lot of language around the trauma that I had suffered, and that I didn’t understand the idea of lateral violence. I did not understand this idea of moving beyond resilience, and what later I realized was actually termed survivance. And so I was like, “Yes.”

Meagan:

And so, she kind of came into my life right at a time when I really needed it. And then I actually ended up incorporating that relationship into that game in the form of Deer, who holds a light. And so, there’s actually two other characters other than the main character in the game. There’s Moose, which is dark and creates a shadow of doubt, so you can’t see your platforms. And then there’s Deer. And one of the things is, the way I designed the game was that you could navigate this space without utilizing Deer, but you would get to a point where you could not get any further. And that was very much a literal representation in a platform of how I literally had gotten to a point where I’m like, “I cannot go any further.”

Meagan:

Paula said something really great. She’s like, “You cannot go to community on your own. There is no coming to community alone. Nobody does that. You don’t just show up. It’s a process that involves other people. You have to involve other people.” And I think that was part of where I was like, “Okay, now this is how I can see us enacting survivance.” What did I call it? It’s stitching muscle. So I kind of used the metaphor of, imagine what a lot of us had gone through as somebody severing a limb. And so, in science, it is possible to stitch a limb back together if it’s done in the right amount of time. But that’s not to say that it’s easy. It’s not to say that it’s not incredibly delicate and incredible fraught work, and that there’s no guarantee at the end of all the work that you’ll get the limb back.

Meagan:

And that’s how I look at my work, look at my own coming back to community as, I may do all this work, and I may never really be able to reclaim what was taken from us. And I think part of survivance is being okay, and loving the work unto itself, and that it’s not the reward that makes you want to do the work. And also the idea of, I don’t do this just for me, I do this for the next, and the next, and the ones that I’m never going to meet. That was something that was always brought up when I was a kid like, “You don’t do anything for yourself. You do it for the ones you’re never going to meet.” And I was like, “Okay.” (pause) And I don’t know who to lob this [question] to, because I’m very new at this group except for Beth.

Beth:

Okay, so Maru’s work is survivance to the max. When I visited with her there at her studio, you have to put your fingerprint in a scanner to get into the building where she’s at. The level at which Māori people are at is beyond imagination, and I really look to those communities and to Maru’s work. And maybe Maru this would be a good opportunity for you to talk about the kind of work that you’re doing, because it is so phenomenal, and it shows that it is possible for an Indigenous woman to run a company, like a full-fledged company from a building and a space, and to hold space within on Indigenous lands in an urban setting, but also be reaching out to community while doing it.

Maru:

Thank you, thank you for that Beth. Wow. I’m just sitting here thinking on a Discord call with all you cool ladies. Oh my gosh. And I’m thinking and thinking to myself, “Where do I start?” It’s always a tricky one with me, because I get asked the question first, “How did you get into gaming?” That’s one whole big story in itself. And it’s, “What motivates you, and how did you get from where you started to where you are today?” I’m going to really try and encapsulate that, and cover the bases of everything in there. I would say that the motivation and the driver for me in what I do as a game designer and development, is for, I guess in a survivance point of view, to make our mark, to make our place in the world.

Maru:

And there’s a couple of worlds here I’m talking about. There’s the technology world, there’s the Te Ao Māori world, there’s the gaming world itself. And so, I had to think back, and sit back and think to myself, “How on Earth am I going to do this?” Because I knew I wanted to do it. I knew right from the beginning, right when I decided that I’m going to make games, and then add a layer on top of that, I’m going to make games that tell stories which are around Kaupapa Māori or Te Ao Māori. They cover things in the Māori world, whether it’s through language, or through tikanga which is protocols. It just incorporates the culture in one form or another.

Maru:

One of the issues for me was, I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, which has very low Māori population. I grew up feeling very much like an outsider. One of the primary schools I went to, I was probably 1% Māori. The rest were non-Māori in the school. I had an obviously Māori name that nobody could say properly. I was quite disconnected from my culture while I was in Christchurch growing up in those years. I was made to feel that I didn’t fit. It was through comments like, “Have you spelled your name wrong? Should it be Mary?” And I’m like, “No, it’s actually a U at the end of my name, not supposed to be a Y.” Comments like that through to, “What are you doing at this school? You just don’t fit in here.” And those things build on you, and then you’re not connected to your culture as well, and it just makes everything really difficult, and you do feel like you don’t belong.

Maru:

A little bit later I went to another primary school which was the flip, most of the children were Māori, and I was like, “I’m right at home here. I’m not being asked, my name isn’t being butchered. I feel like I fit in, and this is awesome.” I got to learn a bit of Māori language, Te Reo. I got to do kapa haka, and I was in my happy place. It was great, until the day we moved back into the city. And then it started all over again. I just had to constantly walk between two worlds, and one world I didn’t want to be in. However, that did build a good level of resilience, I would say. It was I guess being so young, at the time being able to have a foot in both worlds, even though one of those worlds was where I really didn’t want to be.

Maru:

And later in life, to more recent times, I found that came in very handy, helpful, because then I started walking between another two worlds, which is the world that I’m in now, and the gaming world, the business world I should say. And because I had I guess in my mind, in the back of my mind learned how to cope with different situations, I had understood what it meant to feel out of place and not fit in, I had already set myself up to, “Oh well, this is what I’m going to do. You like it or not. You’re telling me it’s impossible, and I can’t do this, and gaming is really hard. But you know what? I’m going to do it, and I’m just going to keep moving forward and telling my story.”

Maru:

So when I actually did start Metia Interactive, I already had a really good idea about the stories that I wanted to tell, and they were about our place in the world. How do we fit in? They were about embracing Māori culture. Because I was on a learning journey as well in terms of my own culture and my own language. It was so important for me to reconnect. And so, gaming helped me do that. I was able to say, “Wow, this is a Māori story.” I’ll take one of the games we did a couple of years ago, or a few years ago now, called Māori Pa Wars. The reaction from our young people, from tamariki and rangatahi once we had made that game was amazing. They were just like, “We love this game.”

Maru:

And all we did was build a tower defense game, but with Māori characters, and Māori gods, and it had Te Reo as well. And the community just found that really inspiring, and they loved it, which really encouraged me to do more, and to go further, and to push those boundaries a bit more. However, one story I worked on for a very, very long time was called Guardian Maia, and that character or that story almost parallels my journey, but with a fancy environment and setting wrapped around it. It’s an Indigenous woman, Māori woman who is on a journey to meet an objective, faces a whole lot of stuff along the way. There’s the discrimination, there’s the, “You can’t do that,” there’s all that kind of stuff that I went through, and to a degree still go through. And wrapped around this amazing story which is full of Māori cultural elements. We honor our Atua that we put into the game.

Maru:

There is Māori weaponry, and all sorts of stuff that is totally, totally Māori. And I had a comment once to say, “Your game is pretty racist.” And I’m like, “What?”

 

Beth:

(laughs)

 

Meagan:

Sorry, what?

 

betsy:

WAT

 

Michelle:

What?

 

Maru:

Yes, a comment on that on one of my games, and I couldn’t believe it. That person was saying, “You should put Europeans in there.” I was just like, okay, I didn’t even know what to say to that. I think I replied, “Kia pai to ra,” which means, “Have a nice day.”

 

(Laughter)

Maru:

That’s all I could say. I just was like, wow, this person obviously missed the whole point of what the game is, what it represents, what it means, who is the main character. It’s a pretty big giveaway that story is in Te Ao Māori, it is based in the future, although you don’t know that until you get to the end of the story. It’s a big story about resilience, and survivance, just your place in the world, which is so important. Where are you in the world, and where are you going? Once you have rather than fitting into someone else’s place in the world, we make our own. And gaming for me, I love playing games, even though I don’t play them so much these days because I’m so busy making them. But I do, I call it research time. I’ve got to play this game for research, so I do get my chance every so often. But the gaming thing was when I was growing up, back to those times in Christchurch when I was feeling quite lonely, and indifferent, and not fitting in, I would play games. I would go down to the local takeaway shop where there were the spacies, or the arcade machines, and just make my 20-cent piece last as long as I could, because it was fun and it took me away from my environment.

Maru:

Just like when you read a book, you go into that world, and you feel it, and your mind opens up and you start imagining this world that you’re reading. With gaming, it was like okay, you can see it, you can play with it, you can interact with it, you’re in control. And that was the really huge appeal to me. I guess I just really want to tell stories, and I love stories. I’m very much a sci-fi fan. I love futurisms, and Guardian has been a really good story for us to play with, what a future look like. And of course, we went the dystopian track.

Michelle:

That’s like a generative dystopia, it’s like a post-apocalypse… Yeah.

Maru:

Yeah, there we go. We went down. But we might just flip that around at some point, maybe Episode Three or Four, the purpose may be that Maia brings a tikanga Māori, or Te Ao Māori view to the world, and then the world sort of regenerates to how we see ourselves as the guardians of the planet, and the waterways, and the environment, and all that which is so important now. So I touch on in that story quite a few of those issues, even though it may not be obvious or being told through a storyteller within the story itself, and just through character interactions that give hints to why the world is at where it is. Yeah, that’s my little story. I hope I nutshelled that really well.

Meagan:

Yeah, thank you for sharing that. Miigwetch!

Maru:

That’s a big story to tell, and sometimes I don’t know where to start. And then sometimes I don’t know when to finish, so I thought, I’d better stop.

Beth:

Everyone has that problem. “I can keep talking now?!?”

Michelle:

What you brought up about the whole reverse racism. Ugh, I’m sorry, I get a headache when I say that phrase. But that idea of that reverse racism is really interesting, because one of the things that games do so beautifully are layers of meaning and access. For some people within community, there will be things that are nodded to visually, orally, all sorts of ways, that it’s not for them. And sometimes playing the game, you don’t have access to every level immediately, and some levels aren’t going to be for you no matter how many times you replay them.

Michelle:

For me, that’s so beautiful and fascinating, and it’s games as a way to enter into these larger relational networks in ways that different positionalities can start to understand or interact with. But there’s a lot of game culture including game studies. I’m thinking of GDC and everything that represents. That’s like, “I need to have instant access, and this needs to be in discreet universalized bits that we can plug in here.” It’s the hero’s journey, but set here in space, or it’s “Native.” And I think one of the things these games that you all present, and some of the games that the people writing about an issue is, they counter this beautifully.

Beth:

Can you give us insight into a few of the games that are brought up in the issue, since it’s not something that we have gotten a chance to see yet at this moment?

Michelle:

Yes. MoniGarr wrote about a VRP she did, which we also had displayed at the NYSA [New York School of Art] Game Room, where I met Maru, and Beth and I were organizers on that. It’s in the Mohawk language. She’s from Akwesasne. And you are a bee or an insect, and you’re moving through flowers, and you’ll hear the colors in a particular dialect. What I found really fascinating about that particular writing is, she was talking about the research she was doing to see if it would help people with language learning, and acquisition, and retention. And then she noted different tensions between different dialect pronunciations, and things within her own community.

Michelle:

But when we initially approached her to submit, she’s not an academic, and I was sort of like, “That’s why we want you to be a part of this issue, because you’re doing it, you’re making it.” But the way that she thinks about them is so wonderful, and reflexive, and iterative. So I’m really happy that was a part of it. And then, Joshua Wood, he is Nahua and he has a game that he’s writing about too that’s talking about resilience and survivance, called The Burden on our Back. Sorry, that’s singular. And he talked about how it’s conveying Nahua survivance in particular through this platform that he designed.

Beth:

Interesting. That’s really great. Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how all of that work grows. I think across all of our work, there seems to be themes of Indigenous futurisms, understanding that as being past, present and future, looking ahead to the next generations while also looking to those who came before us. And so, I think of certainly Guardian Maia has a very clear story in that sense, but it’s nuanced. You find out about that future component of it later on. And then Meagan’s Hill Agency very much cyberpunk noir detective mystery, which is then mashing up genres. And then in the work that I do, there’s a lot of the sense of time slippage, of looking at mechanics, at teleportation for example as a way in which you are moving between spaces in non-linear ways.

Beth:

And so, it’s integrated in story, but also in design. And so, I’m curious about all of you, and maybe jumping back to Meagan then in this instance, speaking to how Indigenous futurisms takes place in your work. And then something that I do want to wrap back around to is this idea of language from MoniGarr’s work [in the special issue]. But also I know that Meagan is doing more with language in Hill Agency as well, and then Maru is. And I know Michelle, you were working with language as well, and I think that that’s a really strong component between us.

Meagan:

Yeah. Oh man, the languages thing. Like when they were saying about Moni[Garr’s VR game] and people were like, “That’s not my dialect.” I’m like, ugh I feel that so hard.

Beth:

And how much is futurisms tied into this hope for language? To understand language as living. And I think that games are a really incredible space where language can be understood as living, because it has to be active.

Meagan:

Yeah. So when I initially started the project I actually did try really hard to find, I guess, a language holder to be there and guide us and make sure we were using language correctly. And I literally couldn’t find anybody. And it wasn’t a money thing. There was nobody who had time. There is a lot of Cree speakers, but I was looking for someone specifically for Swampy or Moose Cree, and for that there’s not a ton of them that have time. So that wasn’t going to happen and even though most of our team is Métis or Swampy Cree, none of them speak the language beyond my own limited amount. I mean (laughs) it’s easier for me to talk shit about somebody [in Cree] than it is for me to have an actual conversation. (laughs)

Michelle:

It Isn’t a Cree thing, I’m sensing a theme

Meagan:

(laughing) Yeah

Beth:

(laughing) When you’re called racist for representing languages as they actually are.

 

(laughter)

Meagan:

So I was like, “What are we going to do?” I was actually pretty upset when I first realized that we weren’t going to have that hand to hold us. I was like, “We’re going to get yelled at.” We’re all really young, relatively speaking, and new to games. We’re like, “Oh God, everyone’s going to be mad, and we’re going to say things wrong.” I already get shit for my accent for when I do speak Cree. They’re basically like, “Where did you learn?” And I was like, “It’s my Southern accent, thank you very much.” I was like, “You know what? Screw it. Let’s lean into this. Let’s lean in hard.”

Meagan:

I was like, “Okay, let’s imagine tomorrow,” as awful as it was, I was like, “Let’s imagine tomorrow it’s just us. It’s the team. We’re all that’s left of the Cree, as likely as that is to never happen.” We’re like, “What do we do?” And they’re like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “What do we do? All the language we have is what we can find.” And we’re like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, let’s start thinking about how we would write, and how we would talk.” Because this thing is set 700 years from now. So we’re like, “Okay yeah, we’re this group, we’re dedicated to maintaining the language. What would that look like?”

Meagan:

So we leaned hard into, our grammar is probably going to be terrible. We’re definitely going to have people being like, “I have no idea what you’re trying to say.” I’m like, “It’s future.” But I was also thinking a lot about William Gibson and Neuromancer, how it’s a wall that you walk into of language. I’m like, okay, I understood every single word there, but I do not know what you’re saying. And I was like, well if he can do it with his mother tongue, I can do it with my supposed to be mother tongue. So why not? Why not lean into it? I think sometimes we stop ourselves from playing with language because there is that fear that, are we going to do damage? Are we going to make things worse? Are we allowed?

Meagan:

Also, somebody was like, “If you want the correct answer, you have to put the wrong answer out on the internet first.” So I’ll put this thing out, and then a bunch of you will be like, “I can speak Cree. I can help you in your next game.” Like, “That would be great.”

Beth:

Yeah, it’s really interesting. I always work with particular elders because they don’t necessarily always agree then. And so, one approach is to work with a particular community of elders, or a particular elder, just because then it’s in reference to them and their writing style, or their cadence that they pass on. And the way that I was raised was not dialect-oriented. My mom would just remember and recall, because she’s a walking lexicon. She brings all of the language from all of these different places, and they’re sort of like camps in Anishinaabemowin.

Beth:

So it’d be considered the Johnston camp, where he very strongly feels that you just bring it in as it is said or written by the person who you learned that from or heard that from. And so, all of the dialects get mixed. But of course my family is from a trade area, so that makes sense. And I think there’s this ability then with games to adjust it from game to game, that you can say, “Okay, this is a game based in Minnesota.” This is working with speakers in Minnesota, or this is a game that is based with specifically in Baawaating. And so, what does that look like as a difference? That’s the kind of way that language has been played through.

Beth:

It’s so mindblowing where Māori are at with language. Maru, if you could speak to that a bit. Mostly I just get excited about it. When I was visiting there, it’s so phenomenal how there is this ability to be playful with language, and create, to be generative, and to not be afraid of that. That it is possible to so embrace the language as living now not as something that needs to be seen as dying, or something that is in desperate need of being revived, or archived, but that it is actually in active use. So I was curious how that works with your work then?

Maru:

Yeah, it’s so good now. It really is. It’s got a lot better, meaning in terms of the embracement of New Zealand in general to look at learning, to know Māori, which is really encouraging. And so, a wee while ago when I was growing up, there was really nothing there, well not in mainstream schools anyway. There was not a drop of Māori language spoken. And in more recent years, we have Māori language commissions now, we have schools, even government departments that are teaching their staff and their children Māori.

Maru:

It may be simple, but it’s a really good start. And it’s really motivating, because I’m like, “People are learning Māori. I’d better hurry up. I’d better get myself in there, otherwise I’m going to be left behind.” I might be telling really cool stories and using tikanga, Kaupapa, Te Ao Māori, but I still am not fluent in my own language. It really is motivating to get me started. I’ve been on my language journey, and it’s been amazing. It’s really confirmed to me the feelings that I had. I might not [inaudible 00:34:43] the language, but I always had that feeling of, I know I am here and I belong. For me to be on my language journey, it just confirms all of that, and it’s such a good space. It’s such a good place to be.

Maru:

But we’ve also had in terms of gaming, the Māori language is living. We’ve got a lot of different dialects here as well, depending on your tribe, where you’re from, or even your subtribe within your tribe there could be different dialects I’d say. But now we have a new layer on top, like for example, obviously pre-colonization we didn’t have computers. Nobody did. It’s about being creative with the language. What is the Māori word for computer? And so, we look at, what is a computer? It is an electric brain. Our word for computer is “rorohiko” which means electric brain. So we have a lot of words that have been, what was that item or that thing, and what does it do? And then the Māori words for it, they name it, are born. So it’s living, it’s evolving.

Maru:

And we had to look at some new concepts in the language for one of the games that we made, which is called Takaro and it teaches coding concepts to anybody that wants to learn what coding concepts are. And there are terms within that game, like loop. Okay, what’s the Māori word for loop in this context? And so, we had to go through this. We worked with a Māori translator here. We looked at what the concepts are or were. And then those were translated for us, but explained. This is the word for that term. And so, it’s not just about learning the language as it is, but it’s also learning the language of what might come, what’s to be.

Maru:

And also, we have in our culture these concepts, like there’s “Kaitiakitanga” which is guardianship. And “Tino Rangatiratanga” which is your self-determination. But within those words themselves, there are deeper meanings. And one of those that we looked at in really big detail was “mana.” And because we were using that concept inside the Guardian Maia story, in the general sense it means prestige. You’re in a power, you’re bordering on your charisma how people see you or might perceive you, which is all based on how or who you are, and how you do things.

Maru:

So that became a very interesting challenge for us inside the story is, how do we tell mana in a way that reflects the story, reflects what it actually means, and do it as right as possible? How can we do that? It was very tricky. We didn’t want it to be like, “Maia has killed 50 forest trolls. Yay, her mana is really high.” Because that’s not what mana is about. It would be better if Maia avoided the situation and found another way that 50 forest trolls weren’t after her in the first place.

Beth:

What an idea.

Maru:

And then maybe her mana would be even higher if she was able to find a way to negotiate with the forest trolls and say, “Hey, I’m not here to attack your village or anything like that. I’m just passing through, and let’s just get some neutral understanding here, and I’ll be on my way.” This interaction, it’s because the story is really about choice and consequence, and the effects of your choices, and how people or other characters in the story look at you.

Maru:

And so, that’s mana. That’s about what you do, understanding that your consequences have a reaction or an action, and that you may be perceived differently by people in this world based on the choices you have made. So it has been a really challenging but absolutely wonderful journey. And it’s still a journey, I’m still very much on that path at this moment to look at our culture, and our language, and think about how we can honor our past, even though the story is in the future. I just wanted to say too, ours is 700 years in the future too. There’s something about this 700 years thing.

Beth:

Interesting. Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s a whole other paper for future.

Michelle:

There we go.

Beth:

Whole article on looking at Indigenous futurisms games that take place 700 years in the future. That’s like a whole paper now!

Maru:

Yeah, I just wanted to add one more thing, especially about realms. Because I guess like all Indigenous culture, we have our ancestors who are to be honored. They were there. We wouldn’t be here without them. And when I talk about ancestors and Atua in the story, that is about, who are they, and what can we learn from them? What is the education part about what they were teaching us in terms of being guardians of our environment, and of each other, and all that. And so, when we dug deeper into that, it was amazing to be able to really connect on that level.

Maru:

Like say, hey, from thousands of years ago, the concepts and the ideas that they had about honoring each other on this Earth, but not just on Earth, but where our other ancestors are, like the ones that have passed. It sort of brings everything back to this point where it’s like, oh my gosh, this is some amazing stuff. It’s like one of our characters in the game, she is the Great Mother of the Night. So basically, when Maia has been killed or she dies in the story, she goes to Hine-nui-te-pō. And Hine-nui-te-pō can send her back. She’s like the portal.

Maru:

But in saying that, Maia comes to Hine-nui-te-pō in her world, and then she’s given the choice, which water pool do you want to jump back through? And that’ll just set the player to a time they choose where they wish to restart. But looking at that a bit deeper, we learned, did our research that women were portal openers in many different cultures, or Indigenous cultures. Women are the one that can bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. And so, those concepts and ideas really fit well with the way we wanted to tell the story.

Maru:

So it was really quite amazing how you’re able to not just research and read, but really understand where those ideas and concepts and stories from not the Guardian story, but other stories, have been told, and how amazing that those stories are. Because when I hear stories like that about our Atua, our gods, and Māui being a trickster himself and being very curious and out there. That’s inspiration as well. Yeah, I think as Māori, as Indigenous, we’ve just got so much there that can be told, should be told, but by us. Because it’s one thing I always say, is that if we don’t tell it as an Indigenous voice, then someone will tell it for us and it won’t be the same.

Beth:

That reminds me a lot of Michelle’s work that she’s doing in terms of looking at eels as ancestors. Michelle, can you tell us more about that?

Michelle:

Yeah.

Meagan:

And there’s language too.

Michelle:

There is, there is. It’s funny Maru, when you were talking, I have on the bottom of one of my emails, it’s “Gaua gogapenam ama” which loosely translates one way to, “Night or darkness is the mother of thought.” But it also is the spark of understanding, or intelligence if you will, or cognition beyond yourself. And for me, that’s the impetus of this game, is you’re in deep water, and you have to go through. It’s almost as if you’re entering this eel elder’s classroom. You’re in their environment, and you have to observe certain protocols to get them to interact with you. And if you do it properly, it might give you certain teachings based on the hemisphere, the time of year, what the moon phase is, things like that, whether you’ve literally turned clockwise or counterclockwise, because those matter to us as well.

Michelle:

So I’m Euskaldun, I say that hesitantly because I’m not a speaker so I am Basque and English. We have seven provinces, so I’m like yay, 700, seven is an important number to us. But four of the provinces were colonized by Spain and three by France. And they’re called Iparralde is the French colonized side, currently but not always. Hegoalde is the Spanish-controlled side. And those colonial languages have also influenced how Basque is spoken in the different provinces. The three French provinces are often looked down on. I see the difference between the two as very much being survivance and resurgence a little bit, like survivance in the hybridity that’s embraced on the French side, which is where my family is from right on the coast.

Michelle:

So for me, that hybridity and that idea of being on the coast and in the deep water kind of came together, and I’m working on an eel project, and the recorded sound I really, really want to be in our particular dialect. And what I thought at first, because the people I’m working with who are the speakers and the cultural consultants are mostly on the Hegoalde side, so the Spanish-controlled side. But they’re actually really supportive. And it was a learning tool for me to remind myself, these own internalized prejudices about how people might see you or perceive what you’re doing, I have to let go of some of those as well and just be open about the project, because it centers eels and eel relations, which are really important to us.

Michelle:

I say it’s the core way of understanding who we are. It translates to, I’m a carrier of the language. That’s what it means. It’s not a blood quantum sort of thing, it’s are you a speaker? And I’m not a speaker yet, but I hope this game will help myself, it’ll help others reconnect and learn that way a little bit more, because you also have to do the work of the translation. And I’m creating a website that’s going to seed beginning translations and discussions, because I’d love to support people talking about different dialects and different interpretations depending on the provinces they’re in, or if they’re in the diaspora, and how that will shape it as well. I’m sorry, I was trying to squeeze all that into two minutes. If I left something out, someone let me know.

Maru:

Wow, amazing.

Beth:

Can you talk a little bit about the mechanics in that, Michelle? Because I’m so technical, so I’m the one who will bring it to that, like “Tell me about the design!”

Michelle:

The eel will approach, you’re in deep water, and you can interact with some of the other creatures around you. You can hear their name in Euskara. You can interact with them a little bit. But at first all you know, unless you can speak Basque fluently, is just to say their name over and over, and eventually they look at you like, “Are you going to say anything else to me? Okay.” And so they sort of leave. And then, this eel comes up to you, and you start to interact with it.

Michelle:

And when you look on your arm, you have these different symbols. And so, the eel will come down and touch one, and then something on the eel will correspond and light up in the same way. And then they’ll spin clockwise or counterclockwise. And so the person wearing the VR headset has to literally turn the same way as the symbol is spinning. And those have different meanings as well. So you’ll get particular teachings, and then you have to ask permission to end the session.

Michelle:

This took a long time to figure out, because what I didn’t want to happen is, if this is an elder, you can’t just take off the headset and be like, “Cool, I learned enough for today. I’ll come back later when I want to,” or, “I’m just going to play for 20 hours straight and get all the information.” You can’t. It happens. I suppose you could technically try to hack the code. But for most players, you have to play it over at least four seasons to get the teachings. And even then, you wouldn’t necessarily get every single teaching that’s possible for the eel to give you at a particular time. So you have to ask to end the session, and the way you do it… Sorry, I keep gesturing like everyone can see me. (laughter)

Michelle:

You raise your hand up and drop it down with the controller in your hand. And the eel can say no. Because if you’ve done a counterclockwise teaching, it may not be appropriate for you then to take off the headset and walk out in the world without doing something to bring that back in and recenter you. So if you decide to leave anyway, even if the eel has said, “No, you can’t yet, we can’t end yet,” the eel won’t come back the next time, and you have to work to rebuild your relationship with the eel over again. Likewise, there are certain points where it may not be appropriate to have a teaching.

Michelle:

So the eel may interact with you a little bit, but if you try to engage the eel, or bring your hand up, or try to force a teaching to happen, or the teaching sequence, again, it will leave. And so, you’re building a relationship, and there are simplified if then sequences that indicate if you’re respecting that relationship and that it is an elder or not. And I’m a big believer in, I don’t want to say second changes, but rebuilding and doing the work of recognizing you made a mistake, and then coming back to it again. And that’s what I also wanted to code in in that game, is that you can rebuild after you’ve learned. Because I make mistakes and blunder a lot, so I wanted to allow the player to learn as they’ve made a mistake, and then do the work of rebuilding after that.

Meagan:

Oh my God, I love that. I love that so much. I love the consequence. I was like, “Then what happens?” You’re like, “And then he goes away, and you have to rebuild.” So good. Indigenous mechanics. Yay!

 

betsy:

That is extremely cool, and I really like that it’s asking you to think about that relationship and that building, but also the story building in a different way than you would see in a lot of AAA games that are not using these same kinds of Indigenous mechanics. The way that you were describing the interactions with the eel as an elder, and the way that you’re required to engage with this elder, it’s asking you to do so in a way that is really turning on its head the way that a lot of players are going to be used to interacting with a game. They’re very used to being in control of it in every way, and turn it off when you want, turn it on when you want, do 20 hours.

 

betsy:

And it’s building a relationship element really connects with a lot of things that S Rose O’Leary is talking about with regenerative narratives [in the special issue]. Regenenarratives, which is a very cool way of saying that. And just building stories, and building outcomes that are growing on, adapting to, changing and responding to. And actually, she uses the analogy of a river to discuss how this works. So I think the connection with water that we were talking about with the eel too is really interesting.

Beth:

Yeah, it ties into the latest game I finished up is When Rivers were Trails, which has over 30 Indigenous writers, which was absolutely phenomenal. It was quite an experience working with that many writers on a game, and all of them were able to then work with the elders or language speakers, and they’re either from the community they’re representing or they live there and they’re working with community members. They are all Indigenous themselves. And there’s a lot of humor in that game, which I think ties also into what Rose talks about in her article.

Beth:

This idea of also having hidden honor system, that your actions do have consequences within the system. It actually changes which version of the story you are told. Are you given the version of the story that’s resistance, or are you given the version that comes from a perspective of assimilation? And so, the actual way history is written throughout the game as you transfer yourself from map to map is based on this hidden honor system. And you have to gain that honor through reciprocity, gifting. Sometimes you are expected to gift without receiving anything in return necessarily, or maybe it’s for teachings, or maybe it’s to support community members from other nations that you’re coming across along the way.

Beth:

And it’s not overt. And I think that there’s this expectation that people have just based on previous colonial design that there ought to be an honor bar, or there ought to be a, I get to turn this on and off whenever I want and say at particular points. And what we are in fact doing is then changing those expectations so that people have to slow down with the systems that they’re interacting with and really think about what’s reciprocity with this?

betsy:

That is an extremely good approach to this, especially since often we approach games as things that we can manipulate and control entirely. Being able to step away from that and to engage with it in a more honest way, I think it’s definitely something I wish we would see in more kinds of gaming.

Beth:

And you can see the trends with Maru’s Guardian Maia, it happens there as well where the expectation is, well I should just be able to destroy. And in fact, you’re given another way, that there is another path. And I’ve seen it in Meagan’s work as well where it’s this self-determination and self-exploration that’s happening. And with Hill Agency, there’s a lot of interesting work that’s going to be happening with the language there, that can tie on beyond the game play. I think that that’s something that speaks to all of this work, what’s included in the issue, and then everything we’ve spoken about here is this bringing together games that extend very much into our own communities outside of the game space as well. It’s like a huge component of the work that we’re doing.

betsy:

That’s also something that Rose was talking about in her piece is, “Teach by doing the wrong thing,” or unsettling the expectations, kind of playing that trickster role again, but with the game itself, kind of doing that to you.

Meagan:

I mean, in my piece, you know, that Indigenous video games as immutable sacred spaces. What I’m really looking at is this kinda… (pauses) I swear I was super sick this one year at imagineNATIVE [Media Festival] and I think I had taken a lot of cough syrup and I was desperately trying to talk with Casey Koyczan, who is a [Tlicho] Dené musician and VR artist. And I was like I’d been a fan of his forever and I had no idea that my friends were friends with him. So when I found out that not only that my friends knew him but that I could actually get him to come to imagineNATIVE, I was like: I’m going to try and not be a weird fangirl and corner him and that’s exactly what I ended up doing but doped up on cold meds. (laughs) Because he has these pieces that are just. They are so beautiful and when we were talking about that idea of accessibility to who it’s supposed to be accessible to. All his pieces are based in Dené traditional stories

Meagan:

And when we were talking about that idea of accessibility to who it’s supposed to be accessible to, all his pieces are based in Dene traditional stories. And there is nothing there to tell you what’s going on. So if you’re just there, you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful, it’s so comforting,” or scary, depending on what’s going on. But people who were Dene or from the area who knew these stories were connecting on a totally different level. And I was like, “Casey, we have to talk about this.” And I was like, “Do you think that maybe, I don’t know, video games or some kind of place where we can control? It’s like a secret rock that no one can fuck with.” And he was like, “What?”

Michelle:

MoniGarr would have been like, “Yeah!”

Meagan:

Yeah! I’m like, “Yeah, it’s like you put that rock in that space, and now that space is sacred, but also it’s protected because code can’t be changed unless someone hacks it. But then you still have the…” He was just smiling and nodding, being very polite. I appreciate Casey so much. I think he said he was really enjoying it, and he didn’t understand what I was saying. But then, it sort of got better, didn’t need cold medication anymore. And I was like, “No wait, I really think I’m onto something here.” And it was so weird, because initially in my head, I had attributed the idea to him. So I had called him up and been like, “Hey, that thing you were talking about.” He was like, “No, that was you.” (laughter) He’s like, “I just stood there and listened to you have a conversation with yourself. Entertaining, but…” And I was like, “Okay. So I can write about it, right?” He’s like, “Yes.”

Michelle:

And the forthcoming article…

Meagan:

Yeah, forthcoming article. But I really was like, “Hey, this is a way we haven’t really been looking at these spaces. And I think Moni[Garr]’s pieces too are really indicative of this idea, and Beth’s, or I guess When Rivers were Trails, which isn’t just Beth’s…

Beth:

Right. There are a lot of people involved in that.

Meagan:

Yeah, so many people. But I was like, this is for once, we have spaces that are totally under our control. Well not for once, but for once since colonization started. These are spaces that remain under our control. We can manipulate them how we feel fit, even if you’re… You can dig in deeper in the fact that we’re dealing with source code that’s not Indigenous. But I think for what it is in the moment, video games offer these immutable spaces that we can feel free to have conversations that are almost private, and yet public. And I very much looked at a lot of the sacred sites that had these drawings and stuff. Not being from that community, I’m not going to have any idea about the significance or what it even means, however I can still see it.

Meagan:

And it was a way of talking across people so that only you two are having a conversation. And then, I was even thinking back to my own early pieces where I was having a conversation originally with my younger self about not feeling like I belong. And interestingly enough, it connected quite deeply. We had a group of women in from one of the universities nearby in Toronto. I don’t know if you guys know, but it was ’80s or ’90s, there was a huge mass adoption of Chinese girl babies into Canada. So it’s the opposite of what happened with the mass adoption out of Indigenous children out of Canada.

Meagan:

And so, you had this influx, and they played it, and one girl turned to me and she’s like, “How did you know?” And I was like, “What?” And she’s like, “That’s exactly how I feel, because I am so obviously not white, or I’m so obviously Chinese,” she said, and that her parents would send her to the Mandarin classes, send her to go dancing, stuff like this. But she went back once, and she was like, “This is not… Where do I belong? I can’t come back here. There’s no one to come back to. I don’t talk properly. I can’t fit in.” The only thing that she thought was Chinese about herself was just her face. And so, that was a very hard thing for her to deal.

Meagan:

Yeah, there was a whole bunch of them, and they all said they felt the same way. And I was like, oh damn, yeah. We’re not the only ones that went through this. I think that’s when I started picking up on that, power of games to be this safe space that we can play with, and play in, and put sacred things in it that are only for us and others like us. And whether that be with the experience, or your community, or your language, and then you can kind of put it out there in the world so anybody can access it. But the ones that are really accessing it fully are the ones that are supposed to. Yeah, I really like that idea.

betsy:

Yeah, I think it’s super important to be able to do that and have that kind of space, and that kind of voice, is something that is just desperately needed in gaming, period. And it’s very cool to get to hear all of these interesting, fascinating, beautiful ways that Indigenous thinking and survivance is woven into different pieces of the work that y’all are doing. It’s really beautiful.

Beth:

Thank you for having us, and for the opportunity for all of us to get to hang out, which is hard internationally. We’re across the world here, getting together.

betsy:

I for one want to petition for the four of you to just regularly talk about cool things and cool games. This has been amazing.

 

Editors’ Notes: Michelle and betsy would like to thank Dr. Joseba Zulaika, who helped Michelle with the opening lines of this podcast that recognizes all present with us. Miigwech.

Michelle’s website has more about her work and here’s a link to her very cool Indigenous Protocols and AI paper!

Please check out Maru and Metia Interactive’s games here!

You can see Beth’s games and art projects here!

And Meagan’s work can be found here and more info about the upcoming Hill Agency here!

Banner Image: “The Women, They Hold the Ground” by Elizabeth LaPensée 2015. Reposted with permission.

This special issue episode was funded in part by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, The Games Institute at the University of Waterloo, and the Refiguring Innovation and Games Grant.

 

 

 

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