Strategic Adaptation: Playing Indigenous Video Games as Disruption

There is a new wave of video games challenging the ways in which we all understand the contours of the digital environment—not as a means to escape the body and the lived environment, but as powerful nodes of storytelling, relationality, and futurism.

That said, the medium of video games, writ large, is still intensely problematic and often toxic. A 2009 study looking at representation in video games found that “in proportional figures relative to their actual population, whites are 6.59 percent and Asians are 25.75 percent over-represented” (Williams et al).

Comparatively, the same study found that Indigenous peoples were underrepresented in games by 90% and “did not appear as a primary character in any game, they existed solely as secondary characters”.

While some headway has been made since the publication of that study (see the image below), there is still considerably little space available for Indigenous developers in a medium, video games, that remains “systematically over represented” by white men (Malkoski and Russworm).

Distribution of video game developers worldwide as of April 2021, by ethnicity. J. Clement

Scholarship on Indigenous games has rightfully identified financial and technical support as primary responses to existent video game market. Elizabeth Lapensée, Maize Longboat, and Outi Laiti argue that future work in the study and development of Indigenous games should include “identifying and facilitating connections for funding sovereign games, continuing ongoing work in capacity building for aspiring and established Indigenous developers, and expanding possibilities through further modifying existing game engines.” Units like Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC) are training new generations of Indigenous devs and video game companies like Eastside Games are providing scholarships in Indigenous video games.

While we continue to build capacity and infrastructure for Indigenous devs, there also remains significant work to be done interrogating the medium itself. Like Sean Michael Morris, I believe that digital scholarship is at it’s best “in its knack — indeed, its proclivity — for tearing apart, breaking down, for parsing all the way to the marrow, the code behind the text and image.” “Disrupting” video games, the keyword that Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel use in the collection that Morris’s essay is published, means amplifying what Indigenous developers (devs) such as Meagan Byrne, Elizabeth LaPensée, Josh McKenna, and Maize Longboat, have accomplished, while simultaneously demonstrating how Indigenous games are re-configuring the medium, as Lapensée puts it, “from the code up.”

In this sense, reading and playing Indigenous video games, and grappling with the interventions they are making into the space is a means of addressing code in a slightly different way: not only as the computer languages that provide for a game, but as the socio-political valences through which the medium operates.

It is at this particular point, where the potential for video games meets the colonial heteropatriarchal foundations of the genre, that I argue Never Alone intervenes. The approach to adaptation in Never Alone offers a dynamic space to further conversation about what Morris, alongside Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel, identify as disrupting potential of the digital.

Foregrounding Upper One Game’s Never Alone, I look at how Indigenous storytelling can be translated into video games as a disruption to that space. I do so by illustrating not only the significance of Indigenous adaptation into the digital, but, stretching back 10,000 years, the technological proficiency implied in Indigenous foresight for this adaptation. In doing so, I hope to illuminate how, while perhaps statistically underrepresented in the medium, Indigenous-led games are carving new spaces for storytelling in the digital.

What is Never Alone?  

Never Alone is a collaboration between the Iñupiaq people, including the Cook Island Tribal Council (CITC), their production company, Upper One Games, and E-Line Media, a progressive gaming company that emphasizes positive social impact in the game design and development processes. The game was released to massive critical acclaim, winning “Best Debut Game” at the 2015 BAFTA Games Awards as well as “Game of the Year” and “Most Significant Impact” at the 2015 Games for Change Awards.

The game, a side-scrolling platformer, tells the story of an Iñupiaq girl, Nuna, and her Arctic fox. Across eight chapters, gamers must handle the two (at times toggling back and forth between them) to solve puzzles, leap gaps, and escape cranky polar bears in order to save Nuna’s village from a never-ending snowstorm.

There has been significant critical work published on the game, including multiple essays in a special gaming issue of Transmotion, edited by Elizabeth LaPensée. At least three graduate theses have also been defended and published on Never Alone, by Inger Lise Damli Lohne, Peter Keogh Williams, and Kandace Hawley, respectively.

In their analysis, Bushell, Tomhave, and Prather identify Never Alone as “an exemplar of an Indigenous game” because of the survivance through which the developers assert Iñupiaq presence in the digital. That is to say, Inuit storytelling does not just survive in the digital space of a video game, it flourishes—to the degree that we must consider the impact these stories have on video games as a platform, rather than the impact the platform has on Inuit stories.

In short, the game already has a demonstrated impact in the academic world, across a variety of fields and disciplines. However, the existent literature all, in one way or another, looks at Never Alone through a cultural or ethnographic lens. This post, in turn, approaches the game in the terms of technology — namely the Iñupiaq storytelling technologies that makes a home for traditional narrative in the often-inhospitable spaces of video games.

Why is adaptation important to Indigenous video games?

According the Naithan Legace, “Never Alone’s impact on video game storytelling is an essential step towards addressing how to implement sacred stories within this media.” This is because Never Alone remediates traditional Inuit design and storytelling into the digital generating a platform that articulates digital sovereignty that serve as “a reference point for constructing positive Indigenous identities in communities” (Legace).

My focus here is on adaptation—particularly how it functions as a method of iterating traditional Inuit stories in video game formats. Never Alone is the activation site for this analysis, but the method I draw on for reading the game is grounded in Indigenous literary studies.

Keavy Martin, author of Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature, writes that, “Inuit storytelling traditions… have much to say about the challenges and potentials of adaptation” (24). The adaptation of stories, as they are shared and retold within and across communities (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), is directly connected to the Inuit way of life, which, within an often-unforgiving climate, demands versatility and the ability to change quickly and efficiently.

To this point, Igloolik writer Rachel A. Qitsualik, suggests that “Inuit are the embodiment of adaptability itself, and other peoples who direct eyes towards the Artic…would do well to emulate such plasticity”. The necessity of adaptation in the circumpolar north resonates in the Inuktitut word aulatsigunnarniq: “the ability to change quickly for the continuance and well-being of all”. Aulatsigunnarniq also translates into cultural outputs. Inuit stories and songs readily “adapt to new contexts” as the situation demands, illustrating the dynamism and resiliency of narratives with thousands of years of history behind them.

While the original structure of a story may feature particular characters, settings, and plots, future tellers of that same story may shift and revise certain elements around the core narrative to meet the needs and contexts in which the story is being (re)told. Hence the title of Martin’s monograph, “stories in a new skin”: while the skeleton of the story remains constant, the “skin” that stretches over it is dynamic and versatile.

What is Never Alone adapted from?

Never Alone is an ikiaqtaq (adaptation) of the Iñupiaq unikkaaqtuat (traditional song) “Kunuuksaayuka,” first published in 1980 in the collection Unipchaanich imagluktugmiut: Stories of the Black River People.

“Kunuuksaayuka” and all of the stories in Unipchaanich imagluktugmiut are transcribed from earlier recordings of Iñupiat master storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland, who told them to the geographer Don Charles Foote in the 1960s. Foote selected pieces from the recordings to be translated into English for Human Geographical Studies in Northwestern Arctic Alaska: The Point Hope and Upper Kobuk River Projects and the recordings themselves were archived.

In 1979 Ruth (Tatqaviñ) Ramoth-Sampson and Angeline (Ipiilik) Newlin worked with Minnie Gray, Cleveland’s daughter, to transcribe all of Foote’s tapes and publish them as part of the Iñupiaq literature collection in Upper Kobok, thus repatriating the stories into the community.

For most Iñupiaq people, Stories of the Black River People represented the first time that “Kunuuksaayuka,” and many other stories, were written down, which provided new points of access to traditional stories for a broader swath of the community. However, as a piece of oral storytelling, “Kunuuksaayuka” stretches back 10,000 years.

With Never Alone, adaptation provides the narrative space for “Kunuuksaayuka” to support modern Iñupiaq economic initiatives through traditional storytelling. At the same time, it generates the creative space necessary to adapt traditional stories and technologies into digital space so that they meet contemporary contexts and challenges.

Indeed, as adaptation, Never Alone can more concretely be linked to long-standing systems of well-being that are built into Iñupiat storytelling practices. CITC President and CEO Gloria O’Neil identifies this sustainability as the “double bottom line” of Upper One games, which is: 1) generating profits for the Iñupiaq community and 2) supporting and proliferating Iñupiaq knowledge, both within and outside of the community.

The board said: “we want you to make an investment, we want you to develop a double bottom line company, making money first and making impact second” … So, we looked at everything from traditional real estate to funeral homes. We also wanted to be bold and be courageous, so we started thinking about how CITC could become more progressive. How could we use technology? And we asked ourselves at the time, what is the greatest asset of our people? And we said, our culture and our stories. It was one thing, however, for CITC to identify that the native Alaskan community’s strongest asset was its long history of storytelling. But how to turn that in to something that made money to help support the community in the future, while also sharing it with others? The answer, CITC decided, was to build video games.

By identifying storytelling as a community asset and video games as a medium by which to proliferate and benefit from that asset, the CITC underwrote their fiscal security with the cultural integrity that sustained the Iñupiaq people for thousands of years.

The double bottom line model worked. Thanks to the success of Never Alone, Upper One built a reputation as a major player in the rising genre of “world games,” video games that “bring carefully-selected stories from indigenous cultures from around the planet to life in compelling, innovative ways”.

The Iñupiaq community, which, according to Amy Fredeen, the CITC CFO, included “everybody from eighty-five-year-old elders who live most of the year in remote villages to kids in Barrow High School,” found new points of connection to community-specific systems of knowledge exchange passed down for thousands of years.

The Iñupiaq community also saw an influx of capital thanks to sales on the gaming platform Steam as well as major gaming consoles like Xbox, and later iOS and Android, tapping directly into an indie gaming industry that was, at the time, reporting $7 billion in sales.

How was the story adapted into a game?

A specific example from the game helps to clarify the specificity with which Upper One Games and the CITC adapted “Kunuuksaayuka”.

Upper One Games was given permission to use “Kunuuksaayuka,” by Minnie Gray, Nasruk’s daughter, who also gave permission to alter key details in the story—most notably the gender of the protagonist. In the original story, this character is a young boy (Kunuuksaayuka), but in the game, it is a girl (Nuna). When we look at the socio-political contexts that surround the game at its release, Upper One’s decision to adapt the main character becomes clearer.

Representation in video games matters, materially. The Canadian non-profit MediaSmarts argues that “video games have the potential to influence how children perceive themselves and others.” That said, they also acknowledge that “there is not a lot of research available in this area, and few of the existing studies stand up to critical examination. This lack of scrutiny means that we know very little about the effects that video games may have on children’s development and socialization.”

In a survey of the video games featured at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), researchers with Feminist Frequency, a non-profit organization focused on online justice and representation, discovered that “out of the 76 games featured, only a paltry seven of them centered female heroes—less than 10 percent. Meanwhile, more than three times as many games, over 30 percent of the total, centered male heroes” (Female Representation in Video Games). The games that did centre women often reinforced “harmful stereotypes or turn[ed] those women into sexual fantasies for the benefit of straight male players.”

Just a year after the Never Alone release, this data helps to illustrate the kind of gaming environment that Upper One was working in and clarifies the significance of releasing a game that featured a strong, independent female protagonist. Upper One could have just kept the protagonist of the story male. The protagonist in the original story was already male, so there would seem to be no outright incentive to make changes to a core piece of the narrative, particularly in a market in which the majority of capital is derived from young, white men.

However, as Upper One has made plain, Never Alone was never just a financial endeavour. Upper One’s double bottom line model balanced fiscal security with cultural security. Foregrounding an Indigenous woman in the game worked in direct service of the latter. In the Never Alone secondary literature, the developers speak further to the need to adapt the story to represent a strong, female character, a justification that aligns closely with the evidence that Feminist Frequencies outlines in their research:

The team really wanted to create a strong, resourceful, smart, brave character who could be a great role model for girls. Great female characters have historically been woefully under-represented in video games and the team wanted to help change that. The game does so by representing a strong, intelligent, and independent female.

Why a Girl?”

Engaging the same contexts that Feminist Frequencies would identify the year following, Upper One Games establishes a need for adaptation, tuned specifically to gender representation in digital space. Nuna was a strategically placed intervention aimed at specifically at the need, adapted to improve the representation of women in the video game environment—not only for the benefit of Iñupiaq women and girls, but for the broader field of video games.

This is what I call, riffing on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “strategic essentialism”, strategic adaptation: bending a story so that it serves a specific, contemporary, context.

What makes Never Alone such an interesting case study for strategic adaptation, is in how it demonstrates how supple the game’s storytelling structure is. Against the backdrop of male-oriented gaming culture, Nuna represents the substantial capacity for Iñupiaq storytelling to adapt to—and flourish in—contemporary digital environments, even when, or particularly when, those environments are bleak or even hostile.[1]

What was adapted from the story to the game?

“Kunuuksaayuka” features a boy as the protagonist, but Never Alone stars a girl. According to the makers of Never Alone, this was an intentional choice meant to reflect, and intervene into, the current cultural climate:

The team really wanted to create a strong, resourceful, smart, brave character who could be a great role model for girls. Great female characters have historically been woefully under-represented in video games and the team wanted to help change that – particularly since many have young daughters themselves.

“Why a Girl?”

Indigenous feminists argue that gender representation is an issue that needs to be addressed locally, from community-specific Indigenous perspectives. Minnie Grey, for instance, (not Cleveland’s daughter, but another Minnie Grey of Inuit descent) is critical of the ways in which mainstream feminism fails to address the issues Inuit women are confronted with as well and often overlooks the work that has already been done in community:

We, as Inuit women, have been striving for such things as equal pay for equal work, equal share of roles for the good of the family, equal rights to participate in the decision-making processes of our governments, equal rights for the hiring of women at all levels of commerce and science, equal rights in education, and most importantly, equal rights to raise our children in safe, healthy, and positive conditions. This means, among other things, above the poverty line. I look at these aspirations not as women’s liberation, but as people’s liberation. In fact, we need and love our men, and similarly, we need to liberate them from the concepts that bind them to unbreakable traditional roles that, in turn, keep the status quo intact in many regions of the world. (27)

“From the Tundra to the Boardroom to Everywhere in Between: Politics and the Changing Roles of Inuit Women in the Arctic: in Indigenous Women and Feminism

Grey articulates Inuit feminism as an intervention into the colonial binaries that delimit, both internally and externally, women’s contributions to community. Deconstructing those binaries is not only linked to women’s emancipation in her formulation, but to the development of healthy and productive communities as a whole. In other words, Inuit women’s rights make Inuit communities stronger.

With this assertion in mind, Nuna can be read as a focussed response to at least some of the sociopolitical contexts in Inuit territory. As an adaptation of the protagonist in “Kunuuksaayuka,” she not only disrupts the male gaze that shapes the medium, she draws community together through self-determined Inuit feminism.

To this point, Peter Keogh Williams writes that “changing the protagonist’s gender… not only help[s] amend lacking representation of women in video games, [it] also address[es] colonialism’s long-standing misrepresentations” (19). Nuna explodes the gender roles, often delineated and enforced by colonialism, that position Indigenous men and boys as the community protectors and breadwinners while sexualizing and dehumanizing Indigenous women (Nason).

She not only saves her community from the snow storm that is starving her community, working adeptly with the land and more-than-human kin to do so, but she also “exerts more agency in the narrative than any other character, even the ice giant that is able to send her entire world into turmoil” (Williams).

Operating against mainstream assumptions about Indigenous gender roles, Nuna operates in reciprocity with and relation to Grey’s call for liberation, contributing to healthy community development through the deconstruction of the gender binaries delineated by colonialism. All of this, of course, is facilitated through adaptation and the space it opens for the representation of strong, savvy, and resilient Indigenous women.

So, does adaptation mean anything can be changed in Indigenous video games?

In a word: no.

To this question, there is perhaps one last point to be made on the topic of gender and adaptation and it relates to the relationship between fixity and movement in the “Kunuuksaayuka”/Never Alone story. While the gender of the protagonist is adapted to meet contemporary context and community need, that does not open the door to a descent into postmodern relativism.

The developers of Never Alone make clear that while Cleveland’s telling features a young boy, the adaptation of the protagonist has a relatively small impact on the structure and messaging of the narrative: “Inupiaq stories are filled with boys and girls, men and women, and the gender of the characters is much less important than the wisdom and learning contained in [them]” (“Why a Girl?”).

Here, Upper One affirms a secure core in Iñupiaq storytelling, or, to use Martin’s metaphor, the skeleton of a story over which new “skins” are draped, removed, and replaced—gender included. The secure framework that Upper One points to acts as a buttress against critique that would suggest that the video game adaptation of “Kunuuksaayuka” is unmoored from the traditional story. Indeed, the name “Nuna” itself means “land” in Inuktitut, an identification that helps to root the adaptation squarely in the heart of Iñupiaq context: the land itself.

The wisdom of Cleveland’s telling, what it teaches about relationships to the land, to other-than-human relations, and responsibility to community, remains robust and steadfast in Never Alone, even as the gender of the protagonist shifts. To this point, Michelle Brown writes that the “game is infused with the foundational principles of the Iñupiaq people—interconnectedness and interdependence” (Brown 22).

That is to say, while the skeleton of Never Alone (i.e. its messaging, teachings, and land-based learning) are constant, the representations built out of this ground are nonetheless nimble and responsive to their environment, be it digital or ideological. Or, to use Jodi Byrd’s terms, through the stability afforded by the skeleton of Cleveland’s storytelling, Never Alone has the latitude to establish gender an “active presence” in the story, meaning that the identity of the protagonist can be adapted in order to meet the challenges and contexts it is introduced to without fear that that adaptation will dilute the meaning or impact of the narrative.  

Upper One didn’t have to adapt the protagonist of the “Kunuuksaayuka” story to make Never Alone. That they chose to do so, even within the inhospitable climate of video game culture, is a direct testament to the flexibility and resilience of Inuit storytelling and its power to disrupt.

In the process of adapting “Kunuuksaayuka” to a video game, Never Alone articulates itself not only as a Inuit-empowered intervention into the public market, but also as an intersectional representation of gender and Indigeneity into what Jentery Sayers identifies as the “toxic masculinity” of video games as a platform.

In this sense, by adapting the story for modern gaming contexts and the cultures that surround them, Never Alone bends the story it is built out of so that it remains responsive to contemporary contexts. It does so while not only maintaining the integrity of Cleveland’s telling, but by making it more robust—creating significantly more space to imagine women in the role of community defender and custodian.

With Nuna as the principle character, the game makes very clear statements about inclusion and gender fluidity as it pertains to social responsibility. As a disruption, Never Alone facilitates cultural continuity by delivering context-specific responsiveness into stories that nonetheless impart traditional values and ways of knowing that have been in place since time immemorial.

This flexibility, the capacity to meet community needs even in the most hostile of conditions—settler colonialism included—provides the basis for cultural and economic and cultural returns that sustain community while disrupting colonial landscapes.  


[1] Without going into too much detail, I am alluding here to the #gamergate controversy which erupted in 2014, in white, male gamers explicitly attacked developers that identified as women. Indigenous women were implicated in these attacks as well, particularly LaPensée who took an active stance against the re-release of the racist, rape fantasy game Custer’s Revenge. For more on LaPensée’s intervention see Kim Weaver’s CBC article, “Indigenous Video Game Designer Takes Stand against Custer’s Revenge.”  

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