Video games not only have the ability to teach us about history; they can also help us learn more about unique communities and cultural backgrounds. In the 2014 game Never Alone, users play as an Alaskan Native girl and her arctic fox companion as they venture through a mighty blizzard. Brian talks with Amy Fredeen, Lead Cultural Ambassador for Never Alone, about the game’s design and the Alaskan Native stories incorporated in the game.
Brian Balogh: While some commercial video games have been criticized for stereotyping native populations, others have actually worked side by side with native communities on the game’s development. Take for example the 2014 video game Never Alone. It’s based on folklore and stories of an Alaskan indigenous population called the Inupiaq. You play as a young Inupiaq girl and her arctic fox companion and you venture through a might blizzard to save your village. Along the way you encounter spirits and characters from Inupiaq stories and learn more about the group’s cultural history. I know for a guy from Miami I learned a hell of a lot.
Speaker 17: [foreign 00:37:12]
Brian Balogh: I talked with Amy Fredeen about the video game. She was the lead cultural ambassador for Never Alone. She says their mission was to make sure that Inupiaq people were in control of telling their own story in the game.
Amy Fredeen: Throughout the game we had about 24 cultural ambassadors engaged in the making of the game. And what ended up happening is we were filming those cultural ambassadors as we were developing the game and we realized what a treasure we had in that over 40 hours of footage. So we distilled it down and created these cultural insights in the game. And so essentially as you see the northern lights come on the screen, once you achieve a certain level there you can pause gameplay or you can wait until later to hear about the sky people and what really is.
The cool thing about this video game is it’s built on that story, they call it Kunuuksaayuka, and it is a story about an endless blizzard. The story itself only takes about five minutes to tell, but what we did was we wove in different recurring themes from Alaskan native stories from across Alaska, so whether it’s the little people out on the tundra or the sky people which are the northern lights or even our spirit helpers.
Brian Balogh: Maybe you could share with me one of your favorite oral histories for those players that get that far.
Amy Fredeen: I have to say my favorite one is the sky people because it’s shocking and you see this beautiful feature on the video game and then you hear the story. And I’ll paraphrase it, we have several of our cultural ambassadors explain what it is from what they heard from their parents.
But essentially the aurora borealis or the northern lights are the youth that passed before they grew up. And so these are little kids who’ve passed away who are playing in the sky. And that sounds beautiful and it’s great. But sky people really was a tool for us to teach our kids how to be safe outside. And so you don’t go outside and play without your hood up because if you did and the northern lights went out, those little kids could come down and chop your head off and play football with your head, which is Eskimo football for us.
Brian Balogh: And you would join those sky people?
Amy Fredeen: Yes, essentially you would
Brian Balogh: You must have learned a lot in figuring out this story for yourself. What was it like searching for this story?
Amy Fredeen: I have to be honest, it was one of the best gifts I ever had through my job. And one of the most amazing things was being able to really connect to some of our culture bearers in the community. The story Kunuuksaayuka is a well-known story across northern Alaska, but Robert Nasruk Cleveland was the storyteller most associated with this particular version of Kunuuksaayuka.
So we had to go really find the person who was holding the story. We found Minnie Gray, who is the eldest surviving child of Robert Nasruk Cleveland. She is an elder now and a culture bearer in her own right [inaudible 00:40:42]. One of the things we learned from Minnie Gray is that each storyteller tells a story different. They may highlight certain aspects of it so a listener can latch onto a key lesson or they may use a different cadence so that it engages the audience in a different way.
But the most powerful message she gave to us was when we first met her in her daughter’s apartment. Her daughter’s apartment was filled with kids and grandkids and I was really nervous because it was Minnie Gray, she is such a great culture bearer for us. I knew she probably never played a video game in her life so I didn’t know how she would feel about us making a video game. But when we explained to her what we wanted to do and how we want to preserve our traditional stories and language through this video game she said, “Of course you should be doing this. This is how my grandkids are going to hear this story.” And she looked and there were her grandkids playing games on phones. And so it was one of these amazing times when you just happened to be in a space with an entire family and you see how that story can live on beyond the current generation.
Brian Balogh: Well, speaking of passing of information from one generation to the next, part of that community were high school students, right? What did they have to say about this when you first approached them?
Amy Fredeen: Yeah, I think there was probably a combination of pure excitement and disbelief. There is not a lot of media examples out there that portray the Alaska native people in a way that really reflects us as a living people and a living culture. But as we brought the game to test with the youth and as we continued to engage them, you could just see the excitement on their faces.
And I think one of my favorite things about the launch of the game is we hosted a booth at the Elders and youth Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, which is thousands of elders and youth coming together. And getting to watch two complete strangers from our youth population sit down in a booth and start playing Nuna and the fox together without knowing each other and just seeing the instant connection they made through the gameplay.
Brian Balogh: Well, surely there are other video games that represent indigenous peoples. Are you aware of any? Did you use them by way of comparison? And how is your game distinctive?
Amy Fredeen: When we first entered into this agreement with E-Line Media to make Never Alone we did a six month landscape of what was happening in the video game industry and indigenous cultures. And what we found is there weren’t a lot of good examples back then. If there were good games, they weren’t a commercial success, or if they were out there they portrayed indigenous populations in a very stereotypical way or they were pure appropriation.
But I think what we ended up doing is we looked at other mediums. And so what was happening in movies, in some of the successful movies back then at the time. We were inspired by movies like Whale Rider, ones that truly took the voice of a community and wove it into the storyline and kept true to it.
Brian Balogh: Are you a parent?
Amy Fredeen: I am.
Brian Balogh: How old is or are your kids?
Amy Fredeen: My kids are both teenagers. My eldest is in college and my youngest is a junior in high school. And I really thought being on a video game design team would make them think I’m cool, but that hasn’t happened yet. But they both played Never Alone and they’ve really enjoyed it. They’re avid gamers.
Brian Balogh: Well, that is terrific except did you get pushback from parents saying, “Well, wait a second. I spend a big part of my day trying to get my kids to go outside, to do things other than video games.”?
Amy Fredeen: When we’ve had those conversations there was definitely concern, particularly with the other traditional activities, that kids do still get out there and they do subsistence hunting and fishing. One of the things we were cognizant of is that our kids are going to be connected to some sort of electronic at least eight hours a day, whether it’s their phone or their computer. We want to provide a little avenue for them to go on and have a positive experience through this video game. And it’s not that all games that are “shoot ’em up” are bad games, but there’s not very many games out there that can spark curiosity and interest in what is largely an unknown culture across the world. And so when we did this, we did it with the hope that it could be a very distinct experience for our kids seeing themselves on the screen but also allow them to be proud because they have something in popular media that reflects them as a people.
Brian Balogh: And as lead cultural ambassador, wearing that hat, forget the parent hat now, have you achieved your goal?
Amy Fredeen: I think it’s achieved way more than I ever dreamed possible. This is a game that even four years after its launch continues to have sales, continues to have interest from media and research and educational institutions. And so for us, not only are we seeing the connection our kids are making here locally but we know that we’ve been able to reach over 680 million people across the world. That is 680 million people who have never heard the Inupiaq language spoke, and the entire video game is narrated in the Inupiaq language with subtitles. And so that is something more powerful to preserve our culture than we ever dreamed possible.
Brian Balogh: Amy Fredeen is the Executive Vice President and CFO for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Anchorage, Alaska. She also served as the lead cultural ambassador for the video game Never Alone.
Well, it’s pretty courageous of you guys to hand me the controller for this discussion given that I didn’t know what a controller was when you handed it to me.
Ed Ayers: Yeah, your finger are kind of itchy there.
Brian Balogh: I’m going to try not to create any nuclear explosions, all right? I do know, Ed, that you actually enjoy these video games, if that’s what you call them.
Ed Ayers: Well, I have in the past. And I was fascinated with them when they were first emerging in the ’70s and ’80s. And we bought all these new games on floppy disks. So you’d get Oregon Trail, the famous one, and it came on like multiple floppy disks that you had to swap in and out. And I just found it fascinating that you could … Well, there’s this whole new medium and that we might do something remarkable in it. And the fact that Oregon Trail emerged so early and it was so captivating, so obviously I’d sit there with my kids on my lap and we would navigate the Oregon Trail together. I’d have to say as I grew older and the kids grew older my son really got into them, but then I decided that I just don’t really have much to do with them. I do think it’s one of the clearest markers of generations, the sort of commitment to playing a video game as a leading form of entertainment.
Brian Balogh: Well, let’s that theory. And if only we had a younger … Oh! Is that you laughing, Nathan?
Ed Ayers: He’s laughing at us, not with us, Brian.
Brian Balogh: All right, is Ed right in his theory based on an end of three?
Nathan Connolly: [foreign 00:48:46] That is Japanese that I learned from playing a video game called Soulcalibur II. And I played it hours after hours. It means, “No one will take Soul Edge from me,” which is this mythical sword that animates the game. And there are tons of Japanese phrases that I’ll spare you because I know my Japanese only goes as far as what I can remember from the video game.
Ed Ayers: That sounded very persuasive.
Brian Balogh: You certainly convinced me, yeah.
Nathan Connolly: No, I mean the Oregon Trail bug was something that I actually encountered and it was in some ways a starter for games like Chivalry, games like Dynasty Warriors. There are tons of these games that emerged that are absolutely immersive in their evocation of history. Dynasty Warriors in particular is a game based on basically the founding myth of the nation of China, so three kingdoms that emerged the opening of the Han dynasty and there are kingdoms that are full of mythical warriors and you can take any one of them and effectively recreate Chinese history. And so as a teenager, even a 20-something, I would spend hours playing this game. And you can play it online, with friends, and you literally get to re-craft the story of the making of these dynasties. Soulcalibur, where I gave you my little Japanese piece, was actually mythical but rooted in 16th century mercenary culture. So there is a way in which these environments, again like Red Dead Redemption or Oregon Trail, are key to how you connect so strongly with them historically.
Ed Ayers: I’m not really certain that what I said is true. Is it that clear a generational marker or not?
Nathan Connolly: Well, I think there are reasons now why one, people are who are of a variety of different ages are associated with and tapping into video games. Online gaming from what the research shows has people in their sixties down to pre-puberty kids who are playing these games on the same platform. And I think it’s really stark because there are very few aspects of American life where elders and kids and middle-aged people are actually encountering each other as peers. So that to me represents a really important historical breakthrough, frankly.
Ed Ayers: You’ve noticed that what film and TV are really good at about history is the way things look. We can recover that. It strikes me the only thing that we can really know is authentic is that this looks like what I think ancient China looked like, this looks like what I think Japan looked like in the age of the samurai or whatever. Does it create the illusion of authenticity in which all the effect and the actions of people are really ourselves being projected back into those environment?
Nathan Connolly: I think there are allusory elements to it, there’s an element of allusion certainly. But as we have seen, as the games themselves have gotten bigger, more expansive, they’ve tapped historians, right? I mean franchises like Assassin’s Creed have historians on the payroll. Red Dead Redemption couldn’t be built without historians who had done work in turn of the century western America. Even Oregon Trail had certain elements of it that were rooted in what scholars ultimately uncovered. And so I think there’s a real expectation nowadays, frankly, that you can’t just make this stuff up, right? That there has to be some way that you can ground this in a somewhat more real, sometimes more scholarly understanding of the past.
Brian Balogh: But why does Red Dead Redemption look a lot more like the TV westerns I watched growing up in the 1960s than anything I’ve read among the scholarship in the last 25 years?
Nathan Connolly: That’s a phenomenal question and I think it points to the fact that for many of us, of this generation, our chief referent to history before video games was television. And so the visual grammar of TV is going to be there. And maybe you’re right, maybe it’s more of a mashup of TV history and written history than even I would acknowledge from the outset. But I still think you have to have something there at the level of language, at the level of custom, of environment that in some cases the old TV studios weren’t always necessarily committed to capturing.
Ed Ayers: So they are authentic. They’re authentic to the TV images that we have, right?
Brian Balogh: Just as early TV was authentic to radio that came before.
Ed Ayers: Yeah, right.
Brian Balogh: I just want to say I think anything that gets millions of people interested in a historical period is probably a good thing as long as we do our jobs to let them know what things were really like once that interest is piqued.
Ed Ayers: I don’t know. The interview that I did with Esther Wright suggest that to spend almost a billion dollars to make a game in which the majority of the population is marginalized in exactly the same way as older media is actually setting us back.
Brian Balogh: Well, that’s a good point.
Ed Ayers: Yeah, so does that mean you think we really shouldn’t try? That the logics game playing and the logics of history don’t really align enough that we could use this incredibly immersive environment to recreate historic scenarios that we would actually learn something about by exploring?
Nathan Connolly: I would here connect back to Brian’s point about television, which is that television provided a certain sight of American myth making. And I think video games, similarly to your point Ed, have that danger of giving us a flat picture. And the fact is that that is not going to go away. The platform of gaming is not going to go away. In fact, it’s only going to become more immersive with things like virtual reality and such, right?
I didn’t become a video game programmer, in spite all the hours I spent playing games. I became a historian. And what the difference was for me was that video games could never approach the magic of touching a primary document, of actually coming into physical contact with the pasts. And in that sense there’s always going to be an advantage that we’ll have as scholars and who are teaching this material and who are putting the past literally in the student’s hands instead of that controller, right? When you roll up to an actual primary source, a parchment, you see an old picture, I mean that kind of tactile connection to the past is really powerful. And I would say that’s going to always be our advantage over whatever digital platform next emerges to try to capture fragments of the past. I mean I think we’re always going to be able to touch students and even other communities in much more visceral and meaningful ways because we are able to connect them with the actual stuff. And to me that is encouraging.
Ed Ayers: That’s going to do it for us today. Do get in touch. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @backstoryradio. And whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
Nathan Connolly: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Mayor support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Johns Hopkins University. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.
Speaker 2: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for Virginia Humanities.