Ecological Protocols in Indigenous Game Design

Curator's Note

As a cultural-computational medium, videogames are embedded with ethics of interaction. Mainstream U.S. genres have codified relationships between players and environments that reflect neoliberal ecosocial values: strategy games colonize, commodify, and instrumentalize natural spaces (SimCity, Civilization, FarmVille); while platformers construe environment as obstacle to accumulation or occupation (Super Mario Bros.). Critical design intervenes in normative game mechanics to disrupt the protocols they reproduce. When Jason Lewis (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace) observes that technology developers “design the epistemological protocols through which culture operates” (61), Native game designers see this as a call to imagine new ways of computing—enacting, not just representing—Indigenous ecological ethics.

Developers utilize critical games’ ability to pose alternative values, seeking to reorient players’ relationship to diegetic environments. While the popular game Never Alone (2013) focuses primarily on Indigenous representation in a conventional platformer, games like Arrival: Village Kasike (2008), Mawisowin (2012), and Spirits of Spring (2014) express critique through gamic action, by which players learn protocols for behavior. These games posit ethical conflicts that disrupt settler society’s instrumentalization of environment.

Described by Minority Media as a “non-violent empathy game,” Spirits of Spring situates an anti-bullying narrative in an Indigenous ecological context. Rooted in a relational conception of environment, the gameplay articulates a protocol of stewardship: characters gather energy from healthy plants and redistribute it toward a sustainable ecosystem. Each species in Spirits of Spring fits uniquely into the gamic ecology, both in its mode of navigation of the game world and in its contribution to ecological balance. The environment transforms in response to these acts without being reduced to extracted commodity. Though not as explicitly embedded in Indigenous traditions as Never Alone, Spirits of Spring exhibits Cree iconography, art, and story forms in addition to its ecological ethic.

Raindrop Games’ Arrival is a real-time historical strategy sim that places the player in a Taino community in the fifteen century, before European contact. As a young woman Kasike (chief) of a village, your goal is to “lead wisely and build a prosperous community in balance” with the earth (Raindrop). Building self-sustaining farms through Indigenous polyculture farming techniques is the key game mechanic, expressing an alternate script for ecological action at the level of food production and environmental stewardship.

Works Cited: Lewis, Jason Edward. “A Better Dance and Better Prayers.” Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art. Eds. Steven Loft and Kerry Swanson. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014.

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