Games can preserve indigenous stories and oral histories

One way to pass along a culture's oral history is to transform them into games. Building quest-like tasks based on cultural content also gives players not native to these traditions the chance to reflect on them, according to independent game designer Elizabeth LaPensee.

LaPensee makes "indigenously-determined games," which are developed in collaboration with cultural groups and designed to have a social impact. LaPensee has worked on board games and other non-digital space games as well as touch screen titles that cope with historical trauma.

Speaking in a panel at GDC today, LaPensee discussed Survivance, a game she made alongside Oregon-based non-profit company Wisdom of the Elders. Wisdom of the Elders is an organization dedicated to preserving arts, environmental science and other pieces of oral history in the west coast Native American tradition. In Survivance, players "listen to, reflect on, and create stories in any medium" based on indigenous stories within their cultural tradition. The game sets players on quests that ask them to reflect on the stories they are working through, which are non-linear affairs inspired by tales from Native American elders and storytellers.

In indigenous storytelling, there is a reciprocal relationship between the storyteller and the listeners at all times, LaPensee said. Storytellers guide listeners through the experience. Players, through engagement, also build out the experience by completing it. In Survivance, storytellers and elders guide the player with quests built on their stories. Indigenous stories are also non-linear. Survivance players complete and continuously revisit these "stories with stories," digging deeper into the game and learning different lessons at each stage.

Through this questing, players eventually become storytellers themselves. As new storytellers, at the end of the quests players create an "act of survivance," a moment of reflection that can take any artistic form — short stories, animations and other forms of art.

"Indigenous storytelling is sometimes misconstrued to have morals — this comes out of adjustments that come out of western storytelling over time," LaPensee said. "Traditionally, all stories are ongoing. They can last a few minutes, hours, a whole night, days, months, years — there is revisiting that happens.

"As you grow you are given access by storytellers to more layers — 'add-on content' if you will — as you go along," she added. "As we grow as human beings and as we experience our own life lessons, our eyes are closed but our ears are open to more teachings that reveal themselves. The storyteller is always telling the same story, we're just able to access more teachings from it."

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