by Beth Aileen LaPensée and Jason Edward Lewis.Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC) conducted the Skins Pilot workshop to explore a pedagogy that integrates North American Indigenous cultural frameworks into the design of digital games and virtual environments. Skins provides instruction in digital design, art, animation, audio, and programming within a context of Aboriginal stories and storytelling techniques. In the pilot workshop with Mohawk youth at the Kahnawake Survival School, students developed a digital game based on traditional stories from their community. Students were interested in integrating stories from their communities in digital games, respected but modified or expanded the stories where appropriate, and were capable of translating those stories through the complex means for developing a video game. Encouraged by these outcomes, AbTeC is adapting the Skins Pilot yearlong curriculum into Skins Intensive, a two-week intensive curriculum for a summer workshop that offers college credits through Concordia University. This paper describes the motivations behind revisions to the curriculum and considers possible advantages and disadvantages.
Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), based out of Obx Labs at Concordia University in Montreal and directed by Lewis and Skawennati Fragnito, is a network of academics, artists, and technologists that encourages Indigenous participation in online culture and exploration of new media technology. The main objective of the AbTeC research network is to discover, define, and implement methods by which Indigenous people can use networked communication technology to strengthen our cultures. In an effort to overcome the economic, social, and cultural factors that influence the low rate of Indigenous participation in the making of new media and encourage Indigenous representation in digital games and virtual worlds specifically, AbTeC proposed to conduct Skins, a game/virtual world development workshop for Aboriginal youth that teaches them design programming, art, animation, and audio. In developing the curriculum for Skins, AbTeC brought together diverse academics, artists, activists, and technologists in workshops that involved discussions around the role of new media technologies in North American Indigenous cultural production, outlining curriculum for teaching First Nations youth how to use such technologies, and testing curriculum. Some of the participants included Nacho Nyak Dun storyteller Louise Profeit; Mohawk new media artist and curator Steve Loft; Dogrib writer Richard Van Camp; Cree comic book artist Steve Sanderson; Cree filmmaker Myron LaPensée; game researcher, designer, and curator Celia Pearce; game and human computer interaction researcher and designer Katherine Isbister; digital culture, games and virtual worlds researcher Bart Simon; game animator and designer Ken Finney; and Microsoft Canada’s Christian Beauclair.
Simultaneously, AbTeC created a studio/research outpost in the virtual world Second Life (SL). Using SL, AbTeC made TimeTraveller™, a machinima series and alternate reality game which won Best New Media at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival 2009. We drew upon what we had learned via research, workshops, and projects to design curriculum and launch Skins. The Skins Pilot took place over one year (2008-2009) in the senior level art course at Kahnawake Survival School—the high school of the Kahnawake Mohawk First Nation in Quebec, Canada. We found that:
- Students were interested in integrating stories from their communities in digital games
- They respected but modified or expanded the stories where appropriate, and
- They were capable of translating those stories through the complex means for developing a video game
Due to these positive outcomes, we are adapting the curriculum for the Skins Pilot (yearlong workshop) to Skins Intensive (a two-week intensive workshop that offers credits at Concordia University).
In this paper, we first discuss the motivation behind Skins. Secondly, we compare other game/virtual world development workshops for youth to Skins. Then we discuss the curriculum and findings of the Skins Pilot workshop (2008-2009) in relation to influencing the forthcoming Skins Intensive workshop (Summer 2011). Lastly, we consider future work for Skins Intensive based on lessons learned from the Skins Pilot.
In conducting Skins, 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. We are motivated by the possibilities of digital games and virtual environments for Indigenous peoples as well as correcting or adding to representations of Indigenous peoples in commercial games. Indigenous peoples’ survival, recovery, development, and self-determination hinges on the preservation and revitalization of languages, social and spiritual practices, social relations, and arts . Digital games and virtual environments, with their unique combination of story, design, code, architecture, art, animation, and sound , provide a rich medium though which to explore different strategies for pursuing such preservation and revitalization. For example, Thornton Media’s RezWorld is a virtual environment for learning the Cherokee language. It has even been argued that the fluid, open, and networked characteristics of modern digital media make it particularly useful as a tool for Aboriginal storytelling, with Loretta Todd, Cree/Métis filmmaker and Director of the Aboriginal Media Arts Lab, suggesting “the experience of cyberspace offers the reversal of narrative as derived from storytelling, a return to oral tradition” . Furthermore, due to the radical decrease in the costs of the means of production and distribution, digital games and virtual worlds present Indigenous people with a powerful opportunity to widely (or narrowly) communicate stories in which we shape our own representation.
Unfortunately, most Indigenous representations in commercial games and virtual environments are lacking. LaPensée (née Dillon) has conducted extensive investigations into Indigenous representation in both game content and production teams. Her research has shown that, while North American Indigenous youth are known to be avid video game players , they rarely appear in commercial games, and when they do, they are misrepresented in aspects including culture, behavior, and language [5, 6, 7]. For example, GUN—a Sandbox Third-Person Shooter in which the player character Colton White fights his way through the West—includes missions to kill Apaches and scalping as a killing move. The Association for American Indian Development (AAID) consequently ran a boycott against GUN. Additionally, although Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs (Fig. 1) treats American Indian/Alaska Natives positively as allies to European colonists, the game has been criticized for its revisionist approach to history  and its lack of incorporating Indigenous thinking in the gameplay . For example, in The WarChiefs, players have to gather resources like wood, but are never given the ability to replenish resources by planting trees. Players experience land as a map with borders to be discovered, fought for, and claimed. Overall, where North American Indigenous characters are playable, they are stereotyped, and where they are side-characters, they are targets of violence .
Figure 1. Icons for Character Units from Age of Empires III.
These representations are not surprising when considering that there are few North American Indigenous employees in the game industry. Despite the wide range of opportunities in game and virtual worlds development teams, which are made up of designers, programmers, artists, animators, sound engineers, and others, there is still a clear lack of diversity in employment. In the most recent survey by the International Game Developers Association, 83% of respondents stated they were “White” and 88% stated they were male . American Indian/Alaska Native and First Nations representation was so minor – totaling only 41 respondents, most still in school – that statistics were not reported. In order to address concerns in diversity, enabling communities with technology, education, and experience is paramount. American Indian/Alaska Native and First Nations representation in the game industry is likely low because there are so few in Computer Science—the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Natives earning Computer Science bachelor’s degrees in the U.S.only increased from 0.4% to 0.5% during 1985 to 2005 .
Interestingly, Katherine Isbister suggests fostering training and production environments in which people of a specific group can produce stories, characters, and gaming scenarios that are imbued with their aesthetic, concerns, and interests as a community . Skins speaks to this approach.
Prior to Skins, LaPensée conducted a game workshop for Anishinaabe First Nations youth at Algoma U in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. However, few game/virtual world development workshops reach out specifically to Aboriginal communities. There are several workshops offered to youth in general, such as Activate!, Emagination Computer Camps, and Game Dev Camp. The overall hope for all workshops is for youth to take the knowledge learned—whether practical skills or developmental life lessons—into the future, by accessing higher education and possibly entering media industries. The structures and findings from these comparative workshops offer insights into Skins.
Although game/virtual world development workshops are often short—ranging from a few hours to a few months—they rely on long-term layered learning to retain and enhance the varying skills needed to develop a game/virtual world. The Skins Pilot benefited greatly from the ability to stretch curriculum out over one school year, but even so, needed more time. The Skins Intensive workshop faces an even greater time restraint.
Like Skins, most game/virtual world workshops for youth bring in experts from the industry to give students hands-on experience with people who work day to day with the technology. Researchers are brought in for conceptual elements, such as the importance of characters in creating emotionally driven games. There are also numerous resources online for students to access during the workshop or afterward, ranging from tutorials for using software to articles about how to break into game industry. All of these additional resources for knowledge are essential in Skins.
AbTeC was motivated to select the virtual world Second Life and the game engine Unreal (Fig. 2) as platforms because of the benefits offered by “modding”. “Modding” involves modifying an existing game/virtual world by changing code and assets using an existing engine rather than developing a game/virtual world from scratch. Modding workshops help students adapt a complex system and critically reflect on commercial games made with the same technology , since youth work with games that they have played, but with the opportunity to change environments, stories, characters, and objectives to suit their creative goals. Notably, modding costs less and is less time consuming than commercial virtual environment and game development .
Figure 2. Screenshot of Unreal Editor
The unique motivation of game/virtual world workshops directly informs the curriculum. Many game development workshops task youth with creating educational games that will appeal to their peers [15, 16, 17]. Other workshops focus on teaching skills like programming or engineering through the process of designing a game . Skins differs in that the curriculum integrates Aboriginal stories and storytelling techniques.
Similar to Skins, there are workshops geared toward non-gamers. Much attention in this area has gone to girls due to the lack of female participation in game culture and the game industry. These workshops tend to start from the basis that girls play games less than boys, or play games only from certain genres. Regardless of prior experience with game play, game virtual world development workshops are accessible pathways to learning communications technologies, in part because of the shared knowledge amongst youth .
Jacob Habgood, who hypothesizes that anyone can and should learn how to develop games, adapts Bloom’s cognitive learning to his workshops . Students participate in six kinds of engagement:
- Knowledge, in which they observe and recall factual information,
- Comprehension, in which they understand the meaning of knowledge,
- Application, in which they apply knowledge in new situations,
- Analysis, in which they identify and extract patterns in knowledge,
- Synthesis, in which they use old ideas to create new ones, and
- Evaluation, in which they reflect on the ideas.
Skins follows this structure, but with unique considerations for Aboriginal storytelling and acknowledging processes used in the game industry.
In Yasmin Kafai’s workshops [16, 17, 18], youth designed games with math and science topics for other youth to play and simultaneously learned programming; contemplated interface designs; designed visual elements; came up with stories, dialogue, and characters; wrote instructional strategies; and created fraction representations. Youth were put in the active role of constructing their own programs and in the end, constructed new relationships with knowledge in the process . In Skins, students have a similar experience, but with the added layer of controlling the game’s topic.
Youth become active participants by having team or personal direction in workshops. The Girls Creating Games Program found that, when girls were provided the skills and support to design choose-your-own adventure games, they resisted gender stereotypes by offering players the chance to win or lose the game and providing more opportunities for personal triumph than opportunities to help others . They also found that when youth are given the option to express themselves, they are more likely to retain knowledge . Similarly, in the Skins Pilot, youth excitedly engaged with traditional stories and reworked them unexpectedly. In all of these workshop examples and in Skins, participatory design is paramount in education.
Participatory design projects need clear definitions on the roles of participants and how they contribute , much like game/virtual world development, which requires a team with a variety of very specific roles. Youth can learn design, programming, art, animation, writing, communication, sound design, and a myriad of other skills in the process of developing a game. When youth take on individual responsibilities, they feel accomplished as a member of the team. Instructors and mentors can help each student with their role, but it is important that each youth have a sense of individual participation and learn specific skills . It is the hope that this participation, in turn, encourages youth to pursue higher education and helps shape their career interests.
The curriculum, dynamics, and results of the Skins Pilot held in 2008-2009 inform Skins Intensive, a two-week version of the Skins workshop to be offered in 2011. The Skins Pilot took place at Kahnawake First Nation’s high school, Kahnawake Survival School, in the Senior Graphics Arts course taught by Owisokon Lahache. Ten Mohawk students participated.
The Skins curriculum teaches First Nations youth a multitude of skills related to game production while at the same time encouraging them to develop game concepts, characters, and mechanics based out of their own cultural experience . The curriculum materials can be used in numerous settings, whether intensive or long-term workshops, extracurricular programs, or in-class projects. Skins can also be adapted into a regular class schedule, as its content could fit well in Culture, History, Art, Design, and/or Technology classes.
The curriculum contains several aspects that are uniquely oriented towards First Nations students. One is the emphasis on traditional stories and storytelling techniques, which serves to both encourage youth to reflect on how stories are transmitted in their community and how they themselves can participate in the preservation, evolution, and future transmission of those stories. A second such aspect is the inclusion of a community partner who plays a central role in mentoring the youth and ensuring that cultural elements, such as language and stories, are represented in ways that reflect the history and values of the community.
The curriculum covers traditional storytelling as well as topics central to game and virtual environment production, including: Aboriginal storytelling traditions, Aboriginal storytelling techniques, Aboriginal storytelling across media, concept development, interactive narrative, level design, art direction, 3D modeling, 3D animation, digital audio, and project management.
Lessons are broken down into 4 modules – Play, Storytelling, Game Design, and Technical. Play involves playing digital games, board games, and viewing films by Aboriginal filmmakers. Storytelling helps students reconnect with their culture and reflect on choices for their game design. The Game Design module walks students through the pipeline process without needing to use technology. Technical lessons break down the practical skills needed to develop a virtual world or video game.
The Play module was created to provide opportunities for students and mentors to get acquainted with each other at the beginning of the workshop series by playing digital games, board games, and viewing movies made by Aboriginal film-makers. These sessions can also be scheduled throughout the workshop series to break up long work periods. The lessons in the Storytelling module are designed to give students a chance to listen to stories told by elders as well share their own stories. Students learn about the different ways that stories can be told from traditional oral storytelling to comic books, films, and narrative in digital games. The lessons at the end of this module are meant to help students work as a team to decide on a story they would like to tell in their own video game. Students will also learn how to write the narration that will be featured in the introduction and cut scenes for their game.
The Game Design module helps students take plan their game from concept through implementation via group work. The lessons concern how to create a basic layout and design for game creation through paper-prototyping, how to test the game idea without even turning on a computer, and designing the concept art for the game.
The lessons in the Technical module introduce students to the hands-on work required for implementing a successful game, including Modeling, Textures, Animation, Unreal, and Sound. Lessons involve the production pipeline from beginning to completion and focus on animation, texturing, and modeling. Notably, the module employs Second Life as a preliminary step before using the game engine Unreal.
We learned several must-haves during the Skins Pilot that help inform Skins Intensive: 1) flexible curriculum, 2) a dedicated instructor connected to the community, 3) defined roles, and 4) creative freedom. The Skins Pilot resulted in iterative design of the curriculum—meaning designing, testing, and revising curriculum during the workshop. The on-site research team (Lewis, Fragnito, and research assistants) held weekly meetings where Lahache joined when possible. The curriculum constantly adjusted as the workshop developed. Causes for adjustment included the students’ rate of progress, input from guest lecturers, and changes in the school’s general academic schedule.
Lahache’s participation was central to the success of the Skins Pilot. As a respected teacher, artist, and traditionalist within the Kahnawake community, she brought a deep understanding of both storytelling traditions and creative expression within it. She fully embraced the curriculum, to the point that she herself learned all of the technical skills involved, and her enthusiasm was palpable to the students. When the teacher is willing to devote a pedagogical and a Saturday every month—in addition to the bulk of regular class-time—the students understand that she believes what they are doing is important. We feel that the workshop would not be repeatable without the same amount of commitment that Lahache provided.
In the third month of instruction, we began the game design process. Lewis, Fragnito, and Lahache acted as producers while the students chose roles suited to their interests and previous skills. Roles included designers, artists, programmers, or hybrids such as technical artists. We gave students the choice between modding a virtual environment such as Second Life, or modding in a video game engine, thinking that some students might be more interested in one than the other. The students unanimously decided to create a game mod. Using what they learned in the other modules, the students selected stories and brainstormed how to adapt them to a game environment and gameplay. They were encouraged to stand out as individuals with their skills while maintaining a sense of teamwork and group integrity.
We were encouraged by the degree of participation and intensity of commitment shown by the students. In addition to the normal class hours, they spent considerable amounts of their free time at the workshops. We asked them to undertake a rigorous technical curriculum that included programming, art, design, writing, audio and image production; that demanded both teamwork and leadership from each participant; and that required them to improve their time management, critical thinking, and cultural refection skills. Though a few students’ participation waned towards the end of the year, a core group of six persisted through the entire process.
The core group of students successfully implemented an Unreal level of the game Otsì:! Rise of the Kanien’kehá:ka Legends . Otsì:! is a rich representation of their story, and, by extension, themselves and their community. The landscape reflects that of the Kahnawake area, and the longhouses in the village are modeled after traditional Iroquois structures. The Flying Head came (Fig. 3), as one of them said: “Straight from the nightmares I had when my Auntie told me stories.”
Figure 3. Screenshot of the Flying Head.
Anecdotal evidence such as this suggests to us that the workshop met most of its objectives. Stories from the community came alive for the students in both the telling and discussions about them, and, ultimately, in the game itself. They were then able to synthesize their own original story, and furthermore, transform that narrative into a gamespace and gameplay They learned the technical skills necessary to then implement the game to a point that it was playable (if not entirely finished).
After the Skins Pilot, three of those students joined Lewis’ research lab as Junior Research Assistants while starting their studies at Concordia University. They continued working on the Otsì:! game level created in the workshop, and, along with Obx Lab’s other research assistants, developed it to the state where it won Best New Media at imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival 2010. Our goal is to offer similar junior research assistantships to the students who participate in the forthcoming Skins Intensive workshop in Summer 2011.
Encouraged by the degree of participation and intensity of commitment shown by the students, we are working on adapting the yearlong Skins Pilot to a two-week workshop called Skins Intensive.
In the Skins Pilot, we chose to start with Second Life, and, while that environment has several pedagogical advantages (shared workspace, easy object creation and avatar customization, etc.), the students’ healthy ability to absorb instruction indicated that we could start with more complex tools. Since we quickly moved on to the animation software Blender (Fig. 4) in the Skins Pilot, we will begin with Blender in Skins Intensive.
Figure 4. Screenshot of the hunter's hand in Blender.
Although using Unreal was successful, we became interested in the game engine Unity3D after seeing it used frequently at the International Game Developers Association’s Global Game Jams—a 48-hour collaborative event where teams rapid prototype games . Further, Unity3D is Mac-friendly and supports mobile game development. AbTeC has been exploring mobile app development and we are very interested in the possibility of focusing the intensive workshop on mobile game development. Thus, we looked closer at comparisons between Unreal and Unity3D with our curriculum needs in mind.
Overall, Unreal and Unity3D compete in terms of rapid prototyping–both engines can produce prototypes at the same pace as long as we have instructors who are comfortable with the technology. However, Unity3D is more flexible for making different genres of games, while Unreal is strongest at making a handful of game genres. Breaking out of Unreal’s mold is difficult, which is an issue when making games based on Aboriginal storytelling. For example, in the pilot workshop, students still had to fit the mold of a First-Person Shooter game and le els. We appreciated Second Life for its sandbox play, but this didn’t translate well to Unreal later in the workshop.
Unity3D’s greatest strengths, relative to Unreal, include: 1) community, 2) documentation, 3) development language, 4) web deployability, and 5) extensibility.
The Unity3D community is vast and provides support as well as many utilities and tools available for free on the web. Unity3D’s user base varies from beginner to expert, educational to commercial, and produces games for platforms from console to mobile. UNITE, a yearly conference, offers presentations, discussions, and bootcamp sessions specific to Unity3D .
With such a prominent community, documentation is also in-depth. Resources such as Unity’s official documentation , Unity3D Student , and Mixamo for Unity animation  have extensive written and visual (often video) tutorials as well as forums for community trouble-shooting.
Further, it is feasible and even recommended to make our own engine or art tools with Unity’s extensibility in its engine and editor. Although this will be more time consuming, we have the opportunity to develop a specific toolset for our curriculum, relying on help from the vast Unity3D production community.
Unity3D’s greatest weaknesses, relative to Unreal, include its 1) graphic prowess and 2) graphic tools. Some graphic tools we will need, such as decals and blend shapes, are not available and require us to write our own toolset or look to community resources. Fortunately, there are many options currently available or in-development that we can carefully select and plan for before the Summer 2011 intensive workshop. Also Unity3D works with Blender, which allows us to retain our existing art and animation lessons. Based primarily on community and documentation resources, we have decided to change the game engine from Unreal to Unity3D. Fortunately, since there are many existing lessons, we can easily adapt and incorporate resources into our curriculum structure and focus on our workshop dynamics.
In the Skins Pilot, the main challenge we faced had to do with the sheer quantity of content that we needed to cover, coupled with the need—created by the substantial production hours necessary for 3D modeling, animation and level-building—to proceed with all four modules in parallel. We staged the modules so that eventually they were all running in parallel, though our original preference had been to conduct the Play and Storytelling modules first and then move on to the Design and Technical components. The result was that the third through sixth month were probably too heavy, and too fractured between the modules.
We are faced with an even greater time crunch in the two-week intensive workshop (including only around 80 hours of workshop time), but also with an opportunity to adjust the curriculum structure to match the development pipeline of rapid prototyping. The sessions in the first week will be subject-oriented day by day in the following module order: Play, Storytelling, Design, and Technical. Game concepts will be decided early so that each session contributes assets to the final games as students learn the technology components of game development. The second week includes intense work time for developing the game that walks students through the development pipeline. There are two major factors to consider that will likely require iterative design of the curriculum during Skins Intensive: 1) the number of total students and teams, and 2) the game genre. Students may want to be divided into more groups either because they want to explore certain roles (e.g. if several students desire to be the lead designer) or they have different game concepts. Genre will be influenced by what excites the students, as well as our interest in exploring mobile gaming platforms.
Throughout the process, beginning with the first planning meetings two years before the workshop was conducted, a central concern was the issue of what stories – if any – were appropriate for remediation. The genre chosen in the Skins Pilot – a First-Person Shooter – raised even more questions. The most difficult aspect here is that it is virtually impossible to establish who has authority, or even simple legitimacy, to make such decisions. We relied heavily on Lahache, Fragnito (herself from the Kahnawake community), our guest lecturers from other Aboriginal communities, and even the students themselves to make these judgments. In Skins Intensive, each new story will have to undergo similar inspection. Since the workshop will take place at Concordia University in Montreal as opposed to the Survival School in Kahnawake (thus “off-reserve”), we must be especially mindful of protocol. Lahache will again be active in the designing and execution of the workshop, and will represent and advocate the community’s concerns. We also plan to involve guest lecturers such as storytellers from the community.
Depending on the number of students, we are considering dividing the youth into two teams so that two games can be developed in parallel. In this way, students will have more freedom to work on the game design they prefer, but will also experience working in a team structure with flexible but identified roles, including variants of designer, level designer, writer, artist, animator, programmer, sound, and producer. A long-term goal is to offer college credit for such workshops through Concordia University. This simultaneously offers a direct payoff for participating in the workshop, and introduces students to how the university environment operates. We are conducting entrance and exit interviews with students to investigate their perceptions of higher education in order to understand their educational and career aspirations before and after the workshop.
Since the workshop takes place in Montreal, we are providing transportation for the students for the 20-minute ride from Kahnawake to Concordia University. Skins Intensive, unlike the Skins Pilot, has to include travel time and for settling in after arriving at Concordia. However, since we do not need to fit into their secondary school hours, we are able to include several evening events for team building and debriefing after long workshop days.
Skins Intensive will be the site of a much more in-depth data collection and analysis effort. The Skins Pilot resulted in useful but limited findings in regards to the perception of the curriculum, the technology, and higher education and/or professional choices . We need to obtain concrete data on these aspects in order to fully validate the curriculum. To that end, we will interview youth about the curriculum as the workshop progresses, as well as conduct entrance and exit interviews to verify their experience and determine their perspectives about technology and higher education and identify any changes.
We will also conduct extensive videotaping and ethnographic observation. The students will be employing Photovoice whereby they take photos to capture their experience, perspective, and concerns, and then write captions for the images explaining what the images represent and why they are important. All of this will be done in a context that integrates indigenous and Western methodologies for understanding knowledge acquisition and cultural context .
Following the intensive workshop we hope to find other Aboriginal communities who wish to try the workshop. The curriculum is available for free from the AbTeC website , and can be reconfigured so that even communities which may face technical resource challenges can still conduct an interesting workshop with only the Play, Storytelling, and Game Design components. The intensive version of the curriculum will also be made available for free at the AbTeC website when it is completed.
We would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Hexagram Research Institute, and Office of Research at Concordia University for their support. A special thanks is given to Owisokon Lahache and the Kahnawake Survival School administration for hosting the Skins Pilot workshop. We look forward to the Skins Intensive in 2011. We also wish to thank the full AbTeC research team for their invaluable assistance in preparing the curriculum.
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