Video Game Culture: How an Alaskan Tribe is Using the Future to Save its Past

By Leon Hurley on at

Kisima Innitchuna, or Never Alone in English, isn’t a game about Alaska native culture, it’s made from the stuff: funded by a tribal council and crafted by a developer who lived in the community to better understand it.

It’s a move that’s seen the Cook Inlet Tribal Council behind Never Alone make a full-time move into game development. Committee members have taken up posts within publisher E-Line to develop this and, ultimately, a new range of what it’s calling, “world games”.

But first a little background. The seeds of Never Alone began when the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which helps Alaska Native and American Indians in the area, began to look into ways of becoming more self-sufficient, rather than rely on federal funding.

That task fell to Gloria O'Neill, the president and CEO of the council and now an executive chair at E-line Media. According to her, the search for ways to raise money involved “everything from traditional real estate to funeral homes”, none of which sat well with the ideals of the group. That led to technology being considered, while at the same time thinking about the youth within in the community who, as the song states, are the future. “So this idea of video games came to be”, says Gloria.

Research led to the council contacting Alan Gershenfeld, former Activision boss and the co-founder and president of E-line Media. He knew exactly what he thought of the idea at first: “I went up to Alaska and really did try to talk them out of it”.

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“I’ve been in the business for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of companies come and go”, he explains. “We were like, ‘do you really want to take your hard-earned dollars and put it in such a risky, complex business.’” The council did, but not without a lot of research and, as the project progressed, a huge amount of work between the two groups.

What developed over the course of several years wasn’t a business deal but a partnership that saw the two groups co-exist and bond, sharing time together to learn about each other – a tribal council entering the world of the video game industry and E-line Media getting to know the culture of the Alaska community.

“We had to learn about each other’s cultures, we had to learn how to create together”

“What we did was created this process called inclusive development”, says Gloria. “Where we mixed the video gaming experts and paired them with elders, storytellers, writers [and] young people”. So the team and members of the local tribes spent time together, not just learning the surface of the culture but absorbing it’s deeper meanings and what it meant to its people. “We had to learn about each other’s cultures, we had to learn how to create together”, explains Alan.

That led to respected octogenarian storyteller Mini Gray (being shown the game, below), and her version of Kunuuksaayuka, an old tale of a never-ending blizzard that threatens the world of the Iñupiaq people. The only change the team made to this ancient story was to replace the male lead with a young girl called Nuna, deciding that good female characters were just as poorly represented as culturally relevant games.

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Ishmael Hope, another respected storyteller and one of the writers of Never Alone, picks up the story: “we’re taught that everything is animated and alive, and Nuna [with a fox by her side], needs to find the source of that blizzard. And by going through [the storm] they find a man chipping away at ice and causing [it] to happen. So they need to stop it.”

This particular story was chosen, says Ishmael , because it “was both a beautiful story that reflects the world of the elders, but that is also playable”. E-Line president Alan supports the choice: “we hit on the themes of interdependency, resiliency and survival, intergenerational wisdom and that manifests itself in the core game mechanics”.

That idea of ‘interdependency’ is behind the co-op aspects, with Nuna and her fox sidekick having to work together to progress. That forms the backbone of a game fleshed out with “many themes and motifs from the culture”. In addition E-line shot hours of footage, interviewing elders and other members of the community, which can be unlocked, adding to the world and further explaining the culture.

One of the harder aspects to overcome were built-in preconceptions regarding how other cultures often view each other. “The challenge with these sort of processes is that you come out of a certain tradition, even if you’re not aware of it", says Ishmael. “Your brain is hardwired to a certain kind of expectation of how things should get told, how it should be represented”.

Early concept work for Nuna “looked like a Disney Princess”

That led to early concept work for Nuna “looking like a Disney Princess” admits Alan. “[She] didn’t look right. That more mainstream idea of a fairytale female hero initially dominated the lesser known culture. It was the continued efforts of the team to immerse themselves in the world and history of the Alaska people that ultimately created a more representative look for the character and in turn the entire game.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of the project is that it seems to have stirred other communities into action. Both E-Line and Cook Tribal Council have been approached by cultures all over the world, resulting in the joint venture between the two – an indigenous tribal people who thought about raising awareness of its culture through a video game are now going into business to do the same for others.

“We’re in the process of thinking about what that means”, admits Alan. “We’re going to continue to explore Alaska native culture with additional games because we were just scratching the surface of this really rich culture. But we also want to explore new cultures”.

However, the involved and entwined nature of Never Alone’s creation has made one thing clear, whatever comes next will be chosen and crafted just as carefully as this project. "It’s not like we just pick a new culture and make a game”, states Alan. “When we move into a new culture we’re moving into a new inclusive development which is a video game team and a culture going on a multiyear journey together. So we’re putting a lot of thought into that”.