Once upon a time there were two Aboriginal New Media artists, Jason and Skawennati, who wondered what they could do to help their people. They were concerned about the misrepresentations of Aboriginal people in photographs and movies. And they were very dismayed at the levels of poverty, addiction, incarceration and suicide among Aboriginal people in Canada. They believed that their people’s pride had been wounded, and they came up with a way to fix it.
Jason and Skawennati had been lucky enough to avoid many of the obstacles that had kept so many of their people from thriving. Both attended university and had the opportunity to learn how to use computers to create images and stories. They thought that, by teaching others to do the same, they would pass on valuable skills. Skills that could help people get jobs. Skills that could encourage self-representation. Skills that could build confidence and restore our pride. One day they met Celia Pearce, who told them about video game modding. She said, “How would you like to see some Native characters and Native stories in video games?” Jason and Skawennati realized that was it! They knew that video games were becoming more popular than movies, and they knew that a lot of Aboriginal kids played them, too. What if they could show kids how to produce their own video games? They gathered up a group of very smart people, including Celia. The people helped them to make their idea even better, and called it the Skins Aboriginal Video Game Development Workshop.
The workshop combines instruction in video game design with immersion into Aboriginal stories and storytelling techniques. Designed by the Aboriginally-determined research team, AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace), it specifically addresses the unique world view of Native youth. Participants learn how to “translate” their stories, legends and oral traditions into a new medium: the video game.
In addition to traditional storytelling, the workshop covers important topics in game development including: art direction, 3D modeling and animation, level design, sound, and programming. The lessons are taught by game-industry professionals, Aboriginal artists and a core team of Concordia University students majoring in Computation Arts. We also invite Aboriginal mentors who lend their considerable expertise as cultural consultants, advising on appropriate use of story, language, and the design of virtual artifacts. They also provide moral support to the participants during the workshop as well as after it. This important aspect of the project provides an avenue for elders to pass on their knowledge to the next generation, while the youth can form important relationships that could last a lifetime.
The first workshop ran throughout the 2008-2009 academic year, at Kahnawake Survival School, the high school on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The students created Otsi! Rise of the Kanienkehaka Legends, an amazing game (it features an evil flying head that terrorizes a village; your job is to stop him!). They produced one playable level. Skins 2.0 was offered to Kahnawake youth as a two-week intensive workshop at Concordia University. The participants of this workshop made a new game The Adventure of Skahión:ati - Legend of the Stone Giants. We are currently preparing Skins 3.0.
We would love to involve more Aboriginal youth, by sending the workshop to other communities. We wrote our curriculum in modules in the hope that we could eventually find a way to do this.
We know that Skins is making a difference because we still have students from the first workshop working on their game. One level was not enough! These kids truly, deeply understand the medium and it is clear to us that we have shown them a path that was hidden to them. They now have an understanding of a new industry, have skills they didn't know how to get, and, most importantly, feel empowered to create their own images and stories.