Updated: Jan 24, 2021
What's going on everyone?
I have often found it difficult to get my students excited or interested in learning about indigenous populations of America. It may be because of my teaching style, or the difficulty of finding engaging resources about these communities, but luckily there is now a game that can help teachers in situations like my own. I recently played through the video game Never Alone, developed by Upper One Games and E-Line Media, a game about the Iñupiat Alaskan people. What a gem it turned out to be. You can find the lesson plan for Never Alone here.
Never Alone is a a puzzle platformer. That being said, the puzzles and jumping mechanics are not the highlight of this game. They are fairly simple and do not really add that much to the experience. Where Never Alone shines is the storytelling. Never Alone is a retelling of the traditional Iñupiat tale, "Kunuuksaayuka", which was first recorded by master storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland. The original Kunuuksaayuka was about a young boy and his journey to discover the source of a savage blizzard. In this game, however, you play as a young girl accompanied by an arctic fox to find and put an end to the savage blizzard. Playing through the tale is not the only focus of this game. The developers wanted to tell this story, but they also wanted the players to learn about the Iñupiat Native Alaskan people. I myself knew very little about the people and culture before playing this game.
Scattered throughout the game are twenty-four owls, which upon locating, unlocks a cultural insight. Each cultural insight is a short documentary clip of actual people from the Iñupiat communities detailing different aspects of their lives and culture. We learn about how they hunt and their various sources of food. They talk about a particular drum they use in their music making. We are shown the importance of community and how important is for everyone to work together in order for their community to thrive. They discuss the very real dangers that are often a moment away in such a harsh environment. Dangers that are being exacerbated by climate change. Despite these dangers, they cherish their environment and all of the nature that surrounds them. They as a culture and people recognize the importance of their entire ecosystem; be it the ice, temperature, animals, and even spirits. Best of all, we interact with all of these aspects of their culture throughout the gameplay.
These details may all seem familiar, but I realized while playing that I almost never actually hear any of these details from Native Americans, or other indigenous peoples. Most of what I know was taught to me in school through textbooks, movies, or in my personal readings. I can't remember ever actually watching a documentary about Native Americans, let alone the Iñupiat population in Alaska.
Being a teacher is tough for a number of reasons. As a social studies teacher, I am almost always speaking on the behalf of other populations and people, which is tricky because I never want to misrepresent a culture that is not my own. My students take almost everything I say to heart. I know I can effectively teach about native populations, but I do not want my students in the future believing something just because Mr. Zack said said so (my school goes by first names). Instead, we can offer resources like Never Alone where representatives from whichever people we are studying actually delivers the information we want to learn. Then we can step in and help our students engage in dialogue and process the information.
Popular media, while improving, still struggles to represent the vast diversity of our countries and world. Gaming is also increasingly becoming a larger part of many of our students' lives. Games like Never Alone are one way to meet our students where they are. We can take a medium they are often very familiar with and use it for the purpose of education.
Never Alone is not just a game. It is at its heart, a documentary about the Iñupiat Alaskan people. It is narrated in their language, incorporates their music and their art, and was made by the very people represented in the game. Will this game be the perfect solution to get your students excited to learn? I don't really know. I have no doubt, however, that it will be successful in engaging students who are often disinterested in learning about topics that do not readily impact their lives.
Thanks for reading,