ATC Revisited: Elizabeth LaPensée

05 May, 2021

ATC Revisited: Elizabeth LaPensée

Elizabeth LaPensée spoke on Thursday, April 22, 2021 at the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium at BCNM. Recap from ATC Liaison Jaclyn Tobia.

Elizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D. is an award winning artist, writer, designer and scholar who creates and studies Indigenous-led media. She is of Anishinaabe and Irish descent. LaPensée’s talk at BCNM highlighted works from a global network of game developers who are inviting indgenous ways of knowing to restructure narrative and influence game mechanics; often with not so overtly indigenous aesthetics and story lines.

La Pensée began the talk by introducing the important concept of self-determination. An indigenous artist can portray their work and express themselves how they choose to. If an indigenous person or group is involved in a game, it is inherently indigenous, regardless of how it appears or takes form. For example, Cook Inlet Tribal Council members collaborated with E-Line Media on games “Never Alone” and “Beyond Blue". “Beyond Blue” does not call itself an indigenous game, but while the player engages with life in the ocean, the game's mechanics allow indigenous themes of reciprocity, listening, and respect emerge.

The prominent theme and wide range of indigneous futurism(s) in game design is also self-determined. Santo Aveiro-Ojeda’s “1870: CyberPunk Forever" is an example of a game that is part of this wider network of indigenous futurism. Santo’s work goes beyond the idea of decolonizing cyber punk, even further to indigenizing cyber punk, while integrating anti-colonial sentiments. Cyberpunk can oftentimes have a frontier senseability of expanding technology and dystopia. "1870" refuses to play into the settler colonial mindset and instead presents the player with conversation, decisions, and questions that lead to a deeper way of knowing an indigenous futurity.

Elizabeth La Pensée most recently designed “When Rivers Were Trails” (2019), a 2D adventure game that follows a displaced Anishinaabe during the land allotment of the 1890’s. The game is a point and click adventure where the player interacts with dialogue and makes choices. The game follows the path of resistance or assimilation with multiple endings. Over 20 indigenous writers collaborated on developing 100 character scenarios.

Designed for classrooms, Indian Land Tenure Foundation wanted a game for their curriculum. The game has references to the American elementary school game “Oregon Trail” that was popular from the mid-1980s to mid-2000s. “Oregon Trail” was deeply problematic, Native characters were always portrayed in relation to settlers - serving, trading, letting them know where food is - and never shown as autonomous. “When Rivers Were Trails” profoundly takes back that space within classrooms. Gestures in the game like offering a tobacco tie while hunting increase the yield of meat of one squirrel to more than a deer, a lesson that is about reciprocity and indigenous humor.

What makes a game indigenous? Game mechanics, sound, narrative, can all point back to indigenous ways of knowing. Point and click adventures can retell and break colonial narratives, linking to futurisms of reciprocity and restoration. This recap featured just a few of the many games LaPensée discussed in her talk, and we invite you to explore her website community to learn more: Indigenous Game Devs. The website highlights indigenous-made games, and is a resource for opportunities, reflection on exhibitions, conferences, and more.