Elizabeth LaPensée, a doctor in Interactive Arts and Technology from Simon Fraser University, delivers games focused on acts of survivance – survival and endurance – to recognize the living and ongoing stories of Indigenous people.
LaPensée is a designer, writer, researcher and artist with Anishinaabe, Métis and Irish roots whose focus is Indigenous game development. Her dissertation, which looks at the social impact game Survivance (2011), encompasses many of the reasons why it is important that games are developed for, by and with Indigenous people and the values that have shaped the nature of her many creative freelance and research projects.
“Indigenous game development can be important for passing on teachings, representing people in meaningful ways and, in my own work, sharing game mechanics that are uniquely Indigenous,” says LaPensée.
Responsiveness and active development are the cornerstones of Indigenous approaches to creating, which complements the iterative game development cycle of prototyping, listening to feedback and revising accordingly, explains LaPensée. By involving Indigenous individuals and communities in the game development process, and encouraging self-expression, empowerment can be fostered.
“Social impact games encourage social change through gameplay,” writes LaPensée in her dissertation.
The crux of storytelling
Increasingly so, game developers are establishing themselves as powerful storytellers. For members of underrepresented or stereotyped communities, social impact games offer a chance at reciprocal learning, ownership over self-representation and empowerment.
“They effectively become game writers,” says LaPensée, referring to community members with whom she collaborated in a 2014 project called Connected to the Land: Gathering Native Foods. “Their history and ways of knowing informed the user interface that represents the seasonal relationship of gathering foods, while also layering in themes of loss and resiliency in the land.”
In the social impact game Survivance, a reciprocal relationship is established between the storytellers and listeners. As elders or guides deliver personal, traditional or historical stories to the listeners, players are challenged to experience the quests on their own, and then share these experiences with those close to them and eventually larger communities. It is a kind of sharing that has otherwise almost gone away.
“Players who have gone through this game, generally have been put on a path of healing, and have reported back experiencing seeing self-expression as a way of healing from historical trauma and intergenerational trauma,” says LaPensée.
Not only does gameplay challenge players to become storytellers, they are also shown how traditional stories are relevant and important in their lives and Indigenous communities today. The key idea is to return to oneself.
“For example, [a player] found that she went back to quests as well as her own acts of survivance and found deeper insights from her ancestors about historical trauma caused by the process of colonization,” recalls LaPensée.
The impact of games
Social impact game development has arguably brought a greater self-awareness to many Indigenous players and a chance for insight for players who are not part of Indigenous communities. For LaPensée, her career in game development grew from the same place of self-expression and storytelling that are so ingrained in her culture.
“As [someone who is] both Anishinaabe and Métis, as well as Irish, who grew up with the teachings from my mother and aunties, Indigenous game development is my focus because it comes from me simply expressing myself in games,” says
For a community that is often left out of the conversation for how it is represented in mass media, including the gaming medium, social impact games that focus on empowerment and storytelling are hugely important. Through her efforts, LaPensée hopes to make a change for future generations.
“Our goal is to encourage First Nations youth to be more than consumers of digital media; rather, we wish to show them how they themselves can be creators who can approach games with a critical perspective and from within their own cultural context,” writes LaPensée.