Back in 2012, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) found that the oral tradition of the Alaskan Native society, which is made up of eight tribal communities, was becoming more and more at risk thanks to slowly advancing outside influences. In addition to their language disappearing, the cultural heritage of their people was in jeopardy as well. In the face of such dire consequences for inaction, CITC decided to invest some newly acquired funds in a very creative way: developing a video game.
Creating the game company Upper One Games, CITC ensured that the game developers worked alongside Alaskan Native storytellers, elders, and artists every step of the way. The result is the game Never Alone: Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, the first addition to the new genre of “World Games,” which strive to bring the diversity of real world cultures into dynamic, interesting game worlds for people from around the world to play. Essentially, the Alaskan Native society wished to go beyond the mere preservation of their culture for historical purposes. They chose to revitalize their culture by sharing who they are in a medium that would reach a whole new audience, where they had a part in the creative process and it was not being done for them.
Never Alone takes a piece of Iñupiaq folklore and makes it into an interactive fable which the player hears more of the further they play. The two main characters are Nuna, a young native girl, and an arctic fox that assists her on her journey to try and stop whatever force is causing the countless blizzards that plague her tribe. The game can be played either solo, where the player switches between Nuna and the fox, or cooperatively, with each player taking control of a character. The game itself is similar to “platformers” such as Super Mario Bros., and has the player running and jumping across the snowy landscape and taking advantage of each other’s special abilities.
The difficulty of the game gradually increases the further the player gets in the narrative, with some areas requiring a great deal of teamwork and finesse in order to progress. Interdependence is a key facet of Iñupiat culture, which is explained in the numerous documentary videos the player unlocks as they play through the game. The challenges of living in an environment as harsh as the Alaskan tundra forced native tribes to work together to survive. In Never Alone, this theme is portrayed in both the Iñupiaq voiceover narration as well as the rules and mechanics of the game. Nuna can move objects and wield tools while the fox can jump higher and call upon the spirits of the land to open up new areas. Both characters rely on the other’s special abilities in order to progress further in the game, which implicitly shows the importance of working together in order to succeed.
In this aspect, Never Alone shows how it can lend itself to be used for language learning purposes. Because cooperation is embedded in the mechanics of the game, a language teacher would not have to adapt the game very much in order to take advantage of this in the classroom. The teacher could have the learners play the game in pairs, with each learner playing a specific character, and the one rule is that they have to communicate with each other in the target language. As they play through the game, they will make mistakes by mistiming a jump or being attacked by a polar bear, but they will automatically respawn at the previous checkpoint so that they can try again. Trial and error is as important for language learning as it is for playing games, so this feature lends itself very well to the language classroom.
When playing a cooperative game such as Never Alone, the learners will naturally have to use imperatives and locative words in order to play the game successfully. The teacher can take advantage of this and design a lesson that focuses on having learners negotiate meaning together and progress through the game in the target language. Normally, the game translates the Iñupiaq narration into English subtitles, but there are several other languages available including Spanish (European and Latin American), French, German, Chinese (Simplified), Italian, Japanese, Portugese, Russian, Korean, Polish, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, and Swedish. The diversity of languages makes this game adaptable for numerous language contexts, so the teacher can take advantage of this feature if they choose.
These are just a few ways that Never Alone could be implemented in the classroom, but there are other options as well. The game can also be analyzed from a cultural perspective, with the learners breaking down the values of the Alaskan Native society and their inherent world view. Even though Never Alone strives to give players an in-depth look at their culture, the teacher should not use the game to say that all Iñupiaq communities are the same as the one portrayed in the game for fear of caricature. Instead, the teacher should use the game as a vehicle for the learners to compare the cultural values found in the game with their own. Never Alone could have easily been a surface-level game; just another standard “platformer,” only this time it is set in the Arctic. Instead, it is the product of game designers, education experts, and Alaskan Natives all working together to create a brave new genre of game. It is up to us to be aware of the significance of “World Games,” knowing that when we share the experience of playing this game together, we are truly “never alone.”