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BARROW, Alaska – Seven-year-old Shaney Harcharek is deadly serious about her video games. She sits on the floor with her eyes glued to the television screen, her hands tightly gripping an Xbox video controller. But she's not destroying anything.
She's playing a game called “Never Alone.” In it, an orphan girl, Nuna, must overcome a series of obstacles to discover what is causing the never-ending snowstorm that threatens to annihilate her village. She's accompanied by a fox that helps in her quest.
The game is a collaboration between several Alaska Native groups who are using today's technology to interest a younger generation in their own culture – and to introduce that culture to a wider audience.
"One day over lunch about three and a half years ago, I'll never forget the moment. I was sitting with our team, and we said, ‘Why not video games?’” said Gloria O'Neill, CEO of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), “Why not use the greatest asset that we have – our people, our stories, our culture?"
But as mainly a provider of social services to indigenous groups, CITC had no experience in the cutthroat world of video games. So when O’Neill asked the community elders for permission to make the game, she was met with skepticism.
"They were going, ‘We wonder if this is a little crazy,’" O’Neill said.
The game would cost millions to make, and since nothing like it had ever been attempted, there was no guarantee that it would make money, a key goal of the board.
"It was certainly outside of our box being a traditional social service organization," O'Neill said. But over time, the idea of using the new to preserve the old appealed to the board, and they gave the green light.
Introducing a culture
To ensure that the game's central story appealed to a broad audience, CITC hired story-telling expert and Alaska Native Ishmael Hope. He drew upon the rich diversity of stories within Alaska's indigenous culture for inspiration.
"Something that I value so much is the way that our elders tell the stories. It just can totally take your breath away," Hope said. "They reach heights of literary and spiritual achievement that will rival anything in human history."
He settled on the tale of an endless blizzard, a story that came from the Inupiaq people of the far North.
James Nageak was one of the Inupiaq elders that Hope consulted, and eventually became the narrator. Nageak teaches the Inupiaq language, spoken by only 2,000 of the remaining 15,000 Inupiaq in Alaska.
"The way that we live was influenced by the language, and that's going to be lost by the young people because they haven't experienced the way we grew up," he said.
Since the entire game would be voiced in Inupiaq with English subtitles, Nageak is hopeful it can make a positive difference in helping to preserve the language, and perhaps even more.
"Maybe playing the game would make [the youth] interested enough to get really serious about living the Inupiat way,” he said.
CITC was also excited that “Never Alone” could serve as a record for indigenous culture. But for them, it was just as important to bring their stories to a wider audience.
"Westerners need a little saving, too," said Hope. "There's so much enrichment, whether that's spiritual or literary, or whether that's learning how to be at home, be indigenous where you live."
‘Very natural, very organic’
Creating a video game that would appeal to an audience beyond Alaska Native youth would require insider knowledge. To help navigate the brutally competitive gaming world, CITC turned to E-Line Media, a Seattle-based studio whose developers have worked on everything from the “Tomb Raider” games to the “Doom” series.
But developing “Never Alone” had its own unique challenges. Sean Vesce, E-Line Media’s creative director, says research shows that the industry often falls short in its portrayal of indigenous people in video games.
"We realized that not only did we need to become real students of the culture, we'd have to do a lot of listening, really check our egos at the door," said Vesce.
To ensure they got it right, E-Line sent its artists to Barrow, which would serve as inspiration for the video game’s world. Dima Veryovka, E-Line’s art director, consulted with elders on every detail of the art in “Never Alone,” from its weapons down to the ornamentation used on Nuna's parka.
"It's very natural, very organic, very beautiful" said Veryoaka about the indigenous art he saw. "It's inspiration from their land, from their people, from the animals around."
A huge impact
When it launched, “Never Alone” received universal acclaim. It was downloaded 2.5 million times and was released on five major platforms, including Wii U, according to O'Neill. Since then, E-Line also launched another chapter in Nuna and Fox's adventures, titled "Foxtales."
"We made our money back," O'Neill said. "Not only will we make money, but we had huge impact in the world, a huge impact in the industry.
This year, “Never Alone” won best debut video game at the British Academy Television Awards, the UK equivalent of the Oscars. CITC recently acquired a large stake in E-Line Media, and hopes to showcase other little-known cultures in the future. CITC is currently in talks with other indigenous groups hoping to develop video games similar to “Never Alone,” a new genre that has been dubbed "World Games."
"The nerve that it’s hit is this whole idea of taking culture and using the technology of videogames to share and extend throughout the world," O'Neill said.
Ultimately, she believes “Never Alone” is a strong testimony to the resilience of the indigenous cultures of Alaska.
"We found innovation where no one else could,” she said. “We had to survive and thrive in our climates. And we're still doing that today.”