"A Primer for Aspiring Indigenous Game Developers"
I want you to make games because I want to play more Indigenous games, and I believe that we as Indigenous people can contribute to game development in interesting ways. From our teachings to the land we honor, we can express ourselves through determining our own representations and we can also inform game design.
Of course, that's not to say that just because you're Indigenous that you need to make a game that's recognizable Indigenous. The way in which we choose to express ourselves through games is just as much an expression of sovereignty as are our expressions of our cultures. It's all about making self-determined decisions game to game.
You can make games in any form, ranging from text to full-scale video games. I started by working for America Online running the community Advocates for Collaborative Writing, where I kicked off Story Line Role Playing (SL RP), which was text role playing with ongoing storylines and more in-depth writing in chat rooms, private messages, and bulletin boards. Although that was my first official position, I feel that most of my experience as a game writer and designer has been informed by just being a gamer, running live events, and writing stories in a guild in Ultima Online (orcs, of course). Even today, I find that the quickest way to express myself is through text games, paper games, or at least paper prototypes used to experiment with design.
Before you get into game development, play games. Better yet, replay games you enjoyed and reflect on them to understand what you liked about them and what they’re made of. Look at all aspects, including the gameplay, art style, sounds, and writing, at whatever might be relevant.
Whether you’re interested in joining game industry or pursuing independent game development, it all comes down to: Community, Experience, and Process. This primer is intended to give you the very basics to get you started and guide the way to resources you’ll need to expand on. Most of all, remember to just make games!
Community includes your mentors, everyone who stands with you, and connections.
Sticking with game development rests on the support of mentors. Since we’re still on the cusp of a rise in Indigenous game development, most of my mentors are from other areas of my life. I expect this to change as Indigenous people involved in game development step out, including John Romero, Manuel Marcano, Renee Nejo, Jon Teriini, Rommel Romero, Sadekaronhes Esquivel, Brittany Arthur, myself, and more. In Indigenous communities, mentorship is lifelong and skill-based, and those of us present now are well prepared and eager to help aspiring game developers.
As we rise as Indigenous game developers, it’s important to remember that mentors who come from our communities are just as meaningful as those that understand game industry. In my work, I hope to continue the legacy of my mother’s contributions as a scholar of Indigenous science fiction by bringing Indigenous science fiction into game development. Ongoing conversations with elder and storyteller Woodrow Morrison Jr., filmmaker Loretta Todd, and the works of Archer Pechawis are foundational to my understanding of the intersections of tradition and technology—that tradition and technology are actually interwoven and not in conflict with one another. Most importantly, mentors are there to push us. I wouldn’t have finished my dissertation if not for Jason Edward Lewis—who co-directs Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace and coordinates the Skins Video Game Workshops—telling me when I was at my breaking point that if I quit I’d being doing a disservice to the community. That sure snapped me right into action! Whatever we face, we can look to the good work that has happened before us to guide us, recognizing that everything we do now continues into the next generations.
We’re all in this together. As I was taught, competition isn’t directed at other people, it’s directed at our own selves. All others stand side by side with us and as we lift, we lift together. When you’re developing a game, this can come out as clearly as sharing responsibilities with a team of people. With a team, you can have industry-defined individual roles or overlap responsibilities based on your skills. Just make sure you have someone leading so that you’re encouraged to complete your game.
Not everyone needs to be directly involved in development though. We need community members to back us up as playtesters. When you’re making a game, you’ll want to playtest it yourself or with your team first, then bring it to friends and family, and then bring it to the wider community, expecting to revise the game along the way. This iterative process will help make your game better, whether or not you want to listen to what your cousin has to say.
In general, there’s a huge community of independent game developers out there. There are many resources available and it’s up to each of us to find what works best for us. This could be events like game jams, conferences, online spaces like forums, or social media. If you get stuck or have questions there’s someone out there who can help. You’ll just want to make sure you have a clear understanding of what that person’s role is in your game.
In the game industry positions often rely on networking, but networking is about more than looking for the connections that can get you work. When you remember people and what their interests are, you can connect them with other people either with related interests or with games that need their contribution. That’s how we build genuine community.
Down to basics, you’ll need a business card that keeps it simple. Your name, your intended role, and your website and contact information will do it. You should have a simple but catchy design so that you’re remembered for your skills and not for your card. Remember to list the skills or roles that you’ve already taken on. If you want to be a game designer be able to back it up with games you’ve designed that can be clearly described in an online portfolio.
Experience comes from just making, which will help you define your best role(s) in game development, develop your skills through hands-on learning and education, and show your skills in a portfolio.
All in all, you just have to make games. You can do this by joining in on game jams or even starting up workshops or gatherings in your community. GameNight Studios, which is based in the Hoopa Valley Tribe, started off as youth gatherings to play games and eventually grew into game development workshops and is now a game studio. Even just conceptualizing and pitching a game concept is an important step in expressing game development from Indigenous perspectives. Loretta Todd pitched an empathy game for adult players at the Digital Extensions Lab, which inspired important conversations about empathy mechanics (forms of interaction) in games like Minority Media’s Spirits of Spring.
Your portfolio should be a website that very clearly includes at least your images and descriptions of your work, a biography, and your contact information. There’s a great deal of advice about what makes a really sharp portfolio. Portfolios are especially important for artists where your previous work deeply defines your role on a game.
Roles and Skills
If you don’t already have a clear sense of what role(s) you fill in game development, making a game will help you figure that out. Both game industry and independent game development structures have some flexibility in roles. Since the technology is always changing, new roles can form. On a basic level, game development involves game designers, programmers, artists, audio artists, and producers. Some of these roles can overlap. For example, technical artists are, most simply, artists who also code. There are also other meaningful roles, such as game writers, quality assurance (testers who are able to identify bugs), customer support, human resources, marketing and sales, and business development.
Game designers decide what a game consists of and how it is played.
Skills and Interests: gameplay, writing, storytelling, sketching, talking, listening, presenting, design, managing, scheduling, research, code, interfaces
Related Roles: Lead designer, creative director, level designer, level editor, map builder, object planner, graphic user interface designer, storyboard artist, illustrator, graphic designer, script writer
Programmers code the game and tools.
Skills and Interests: problem-solving, code, multitasking, physics, math, 3D, gameplay
Related Roles: Lead programmer, software engineer, artificial intelligence programmer, middleware/tools programmer, graphics programmer, gameplay programmer, action scripter, platform designer, information architect, systems analyst, database designer, engine programmer, server architect
Game artists create art, including landscapes, buildings, characters, and objects. Animators create movement.
Skills and Interests: sketching, drawing, color, textures, lighting, graphic design, sculpting, modeling, anatomy, environments, architecture, characters
Related Roles: Art director, lead artist, concept artist, environment artist, technical artist, 3D modeler, pre-visualization artist
Sound designers and audio engineers create and produce music, sound effects, record dialogue, and direct voice performance.
Skills and Interests: listening, composing music, performing music, sounds, directing, acting
Related Roles: Musician, audio engineer, sound effects designer, composer, occasionally scriptwriter
Producers manage budgets, schedules, milestones, and reports.
Skills and Interests: managing, planning, scheduling, talking, team building, motivation, negotiation, leadership, listening
Related Roles: Creative director, head of development, executive producer, project manager
Game writers are also a very valuable addition to a game. They have ranging responsibilities. I’ve done everything from writing animated cut scenes to AI barks (a variety of automated responses for Artificial Intelligence) to scenarios that influenced design. Specialized roles such as the Narrative Designer—first defined by Stephen Dinehart—recognize the importance of story to game experience.
There are several hundred schools with programs focused on some aspect of game development. Picking a school should be mostly based on the connections you’ll make from it, access to technology, and where you want your work to be positioned from. If you want your games to use sounds and other elements from your community, then choose a school nearby that gives you the range to use your student work to build your portfolio.
We have other considerations as Indigenous students—we often need a community of support just to get through some of the content in classes (I’m saying that as someone who held weekly gatherings in my home with a circle of women coping with grad school). Specifically Indigenous programs can be a clear choice. If you’re interested in a wide range of media, then the Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking program at Capilano University is a good place to expand several skills through project-based learning where there’s some flexibility towards game development. You can also look to where Indigenous people in games and higher education are based. John Romero is the Creative Director at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Games and Playable Media where they have a yearlong masters of science in games and playable media. To get into that program, you need to be able to code, so you’d want to spend your bachelors getting enough coding experience that you can make a game. Jason Edward Lewis leads Obx Labs at Concordia University, which has a more experimental focus. In a community like that, you can stick to games or expand. You can also look for universities that have programs in areas like Indigenous Studies, Aboriginal Studies, and First Nations Studies, and Indigenous student groups like the American Indigenous Science and Engineering Society chapters to ensure that you’ll have access to support and resources.
You may also find that you’re making games based out of a program with a focus other than game development. In that case, look for resources such as the Skins 1.0 Video Game Workshop Curriculum, which weaves together storytelling and game development education. As long as you have mentors and instructors who are supportive of your work you can find resources and ways to make games in any context.
There are several models for game development. An Indigenous development process aligns really well with iterative game development as it consists of cycles of development—rapid prototyping, playtesting, reviewing and determining revisions, implementing revisions, playtesting again, and so on until the game is at the point you want it to be. This is a natural process for us considering how much emphasis we put on community input.
Beyond that, it comes down to technology, inspiration, and collaboration, regardless of whether you are interested in landing a position in commercial game industry or going the indie game path, the latter of which involves understanding business and possibly finding funding through means such as crowdfunding, grants, or private investment. Designer and programmer Manuel Marcano is now pursuing indie game development following years of important contributions to mainstream commercial games.
Paper works. No, really. Paper can be one of the most effective ways to playtest a core mechanic. Everyone should know how to paper prototype. Paper can also be used to sketch out characters or environments, depending on the type of game you’re developing. For sketches, materials like mechanical pencils and fine tip markers will do. Whether you’re prototyping a complete game or just elements of a game, paper and other materials are always handy. Before I had the money to get prototyping materials (mmm, wooden tokens), I just used cardboard.
Paper prototyping is also effective for other forms of games. If you’re developing an alternate reality game or social impact game, paper prototype for using a mix of websites, apps, in-person interactions, and other elements depending on the design. Survivance, a social impact game developed for healing from intergenerational trauma, started as a Word document and then became a website with a list of the quests before any acts of survivance were made. When there were several acts of survivance, the structure of the website changed, but the core gameplay remained the same. Regardless of the direction in your design, if you’re project-based, you need to start figuring out the gameplay and platform (e.g. transmedia, consoles, personal computer, mobile). The Hoopa Valley Tribe developed a game that comes with the Project Spark package on Xbox One, which contributes to the possibilities for Indigenous games on console.
If you’re revved up for developing a video game, it’s good to have a sense of current game engines and what they can do when you conceptualize. Right now, Unity3D is a staple in game development. Not only is it versatile, it’s also free until you want to sell a game you developed with it. If you want to make a game with 3D graphics and animation check out Blender, which is also free and has a vast community with resources.
If you’re just interested in generally developing your skills and understanding games there are several resources. For youth, there’s Gamestar Mechanic, which has a free trial. With any level of experience you can make text games or prototype game writing using Twine, which is also free and has a strong community of people interested in new projects.
To get through the hard parts—the bugs and crunch—you need to be coming from a place of following inspiration. That’s what will get you through. For me, inspiration comes from gathering together materials, either digital materials organized in some way on my laptop or physical materials kept on display or in a box. When we bring together elements that inform a vision, we can dream on it and let the game unfold through iterative development cycles of prototyping and revising. Try not to get caught up on “originality.” Remember that we are here to iterate and pass on teachings. When you recognize this and then expand your work with your voice, you’ll come to see that we each express ourselves in completely unique ways, just by being true to ourselves.
To get you going, here’s a barrage of questions: What do you like about the games you play? What’s an action you haven’t seen before that you’d like to see in a game? Who are you making this game for? How are your players going to be able to play the game? What’s your hope for what will come out of the game? What stories and teachings do you want to see represented? How can your language be included in the game? What about your language could become an aspect of the game design (e.g. placenames)? These and more can spark discussions that will lead to game ideas.
We can make games on our own and involve communities in playtesting as an opportunity to refine our games, or we can more deeply involve communities. What’s best at any given moment depends on the game. Based on the success of Never Alone, a console game developed by E-Line Media at the request of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, deep collaboration with storytellers can give your game depth. E-Line Media also followed protocol for permission to adapt a story from a member of the community. Whether you’re positioning the game as your work or as belonging to the community, it’s vital to always remember the work that came before us.
Alongside adding a description, image(s), and link(s) to the game or your portfolio, you need to get the game out there once it’s done. In a grant-funded model, a team can be paid for their contributions and the game can be distributed for free or for profits that often go to a non-profit organization. If you plan to start up without crowdfunding and need to make money from a game, learn as much as you can about indie game promotion.
Whether or not you plan to sell the game, entering contests, competitions, and festivals can be a great way to get awareness about the game, promote your work in general, and encourage other Indigenous game developers. Lily Ginnish-LaValley, a youth developer, created Warrior Women Series I: The Beginning on her own and had a great opportunity for sharing the game when it premiered at imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in New Media. Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, created through the Skins game development workshops, won the New Media award at imagineNATIVE in 2010 for Otsi:! | Rise of the Kanien’kehá:ka Legends and 2013 for Skahiòn:hati: Rise of the Kanien’kehá:ka Legends. Even if your game does not receive an award, being a finalist is an incredible way to have people play the game and get press, which happened when Never Alone hit up IndieCade 2014. And I look forward to an Indigenous game receiving an award at the Independent Games Festival.
In any context, always represent yourself by remembering that the work speaks for itself.
As we work to expand the capacity of existing technology, I dream of a future of Indigenous games built from the code up—game engines with Blackfoot physics, game engines with star knowledge, game engines designed from structures of ongoing storytelling. For now, we have greater access to game development technology than ever before. If John Romero could teach himself how to code while borrowing computer time in stores and at the library, we can certainly do the same, with the added support of the wide range of free tools, game development curriculum that integrates traditional storytelling, and vast possibilities for Indigenous game jams and workshops.
I encourage all people interested in expressing themselves through games to start now in any form. Whether through conversations with friends, drawing character sketches, writing down design ideas, or getting right into a game engine, we have opportunities to pass on teachings, continue our languages, and express ourselves in any way we see fit through the incredible space of games.
“Just Make Games,” Elizabeth LaPensée, November 23, 2014.
“More Than Shamans and Savages: American Indians and Game Development,” Daniel Starkey, US Gamer, November 28, 2014
“Games Can Preserve Indigenous Stories and Oral Histories,” Alexa Ray Corriea, Polygon, March 17, 2014.
“Making Games: Everyone Can and Should Make Games,” Shawn Alexander Allen, Game Career Guide, 2014.
“Developing a Decent Unity3D Game on a $0 Budget,” Yuriy Nikshych, Gamasutra, 2014.
Skins Video Game Workshop, Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec
Indigicade, Indigenous Routes, Toronto, Ontario
The Niikaan Project, Oujé-Bougoumou, Quebec