Elizabeth LaPensée, Vicki Moulder
In the following conversation, Vicki Moulder and Elizabeth LaPensée discuss the intersections of game development and LaPensée’s artistic practice. LaPensée’s social impact game Techno Medicine Wheel brings the digital to the land by using QR codes to encourage active engagement with traditional medicinal plants growing in urban spaces. Her motion game Manoominike brings the land to the digital in an exhibition that passes on vital teachings about wild ricing with an emphasis on reciprocity. Her singing game Honour Water merges both by using gameplay to pass on water songs that can and should be sung anywhere. Although different in platforms and mechanics, all three games use real land, plants, and water in the art or game design and offer a unique glimpse at Indigenous ways of knowing and making.
Elizabeth LaPensée: Round of introductions!
Vicki Moulder: I’m an artist and interaction design researcher. Through the lens of culture and site-specific art practice, I investigate how, or if, mobile and social computing can support the exploration of real-world places, histories, and collaborative problem solving.
LaPensée: Aaniin. I am an Anishinaabe, Métis, and Irish game designer, writer, and artist. I do my best to contribute to games with the hope of players remembering and activating teachings about our creative connection to land and life.
Moulder: Within the digital humanities, that sovereign position of human users, the praxis of human-computer interaction still seems to interpret environmental health as an anthropocentric phenomenon. Do you agree, and could you talk a bit about your creative process in that regard?
LaPensée: To me, human-computer interaction and the well-being of all life must be interwoven. As Loretta Todd discusses in “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace”  with acknowledgment of Dr. Leroy Little Bear, Indigenous communities have always understood the vast complex systems of interaction. My process involves offering asemaa [tobacco] when I am harvesting plants or gathering materials such as birch bark that will be used in art for games I’m working on. I make the same offering when I’m taking photos of, for example, Grandfather Rocks and waters that will be adapted into textures for digital art (Figure 1). Reciprocity is essential through development and player interaction.
Moulder: In 2014 when I interviewed you about Techno Medicine Wheel , you mentioned that your team used “talking circles” to facilitate the collaborative process. Is this still the case? Can you elaborate on the effectiveness of this practice and describe the game?
LaPensée: Definitely! I often collaborate with other Indigenous creatives and use methods such as talking circles where each person in the circle is given the opportunity to speak and all people are given the opportunity to respond and comment. Talking circles were vital for Techno Medicine Wheel (2008), which was named by the Squamish herbalist and artist T’Uty’Tanat-Cease Wyss. I called it an alternate reality game (ARG) because the term social impact game hadn’t hit yet. We always laughed about calling it an ARG because players thought what made it an ARG was how they interacted with hints left by the Little People (water and plant spirits). Little People aren’t mythological to us; they’re very real and understood to move fast the way hummingbird wings blur when moving, so there was never anything very “alternate” about the reality we opened up to players through the game.
Although technology such as GPS was used, most of the interaction happened with the land. Players interfaced with the plants by finding locations where they were challenged to garden or learn about the medicines. Sometimes Cease was there herself for gifting teachings. For example, players were told not to record and then learned from her how yarrow is known as medicine for women and has different parts that can be helpful or even harmful for a woman during different stages of her life. Players then planted yarrow as a form of reciprocating the medicinal teachings. In another, players were tasked to place medicine wheels in urban places that had meaning to them and take photos to share online.
Another important aspect of Indigenous game development involves creating the game and then gifting it to the community fully or partially, depending on how they determine to proceed. I taught Cease how to design and run games, and she continues to iterate Techno Medicine Wheel with changes in technology such as QR codes. Players today still find gifts left by the Little People such as wood that has been cut into paddle necklaces. Regardless of transitions in technology, the heart of the game remains the same and encourages players to directly engage in ways of knowing about traditional medicinal plant knowledge and its interconnectedness with caring for the land and all life.
Moulder: When you use the phrase heart of the game, are you referring to the core philosophy? I’m curious to know if the heart of the game informs the game mechanics, and if so, how?
LaPensée: Both! Ways of knowing and game mechanics always inform one another in anything I work on. In Techno Medicine Wheel, the heart of the game involves finding and tending to plant medicines. How that unfolds can forever iterate, but the core experience of reinforcing closeness with plants will always remain.
Moulder: I have noticed that whereas Techno Medicine Wheel brought players to the land, the game Manoominike brings the land to players. Both games combine physical movement with intrinsic rewards. Can you talk more about the significance of this design consideration?
LaPensée: Sure. Manoominike is a motion game about Anishinaabe practices of ricing created for the Duluth Children’s Museum that takes place inside a fabric wigwam with a back projector. Players enter into the private space and engage in the levels using the physical motions of harvesting and preparing wild rice.
As players progress by using the correct movements, they are gifted with audio and visual rewards. Meaningful phrases in Anishinaabemowin related to ricing, the importance of wild rice to Anishinaabe communities, and the value of stewardship with wild rice pace the gameplay. In a game like Techno Medicine Wheel, players would interact hands-on with wild rice, but here they engage with colorful scenes depicting the phases of ricing including knocking, parching, dancing, winnowing, and thanking the rice. Since the reward for getting the physical movements on par involves the scenes changing, it was important for the art to be playful, dynamic, and realistic all at once. Video artist Joellyn Rock worked with Nevada Littlewolf to film live movement at ricing lakes and layered in my hand drawings and textures of mineral life, such as copper, and plant life, such as birch, found around the Great Lakes (Figure 2).
Moulder: Much like Manoominike, I’m moved by the artwork in Honour Water. Many of the images visibly map the voice box to the waters and beyond. In the context of interaction design, what are your thoughts on working with living spirits and the role of players as advocates?
LaPensée: Miigwech, I appreciate that. With the singing game Honour Water (http://www.honourwater.com), which shares water songs in Anishinaabemowin, my greatest hope is to bring awareness to threats to the waters and offer pathways to healing through song in honor of the work of grandmothers walking along the waters and women I admire, including Sharon M. Day, the Oshkii Giizhik Singers, and Margaret Noodin. In our ways of knowing, these songs genuinely heal the waters. And so people from all over are encouraged to sing these songs, because we must all be responsible for the well-being of the waters.
Just as Anishinaabekwe carry copper, which amplifies conductivity, the game art for Honour Water is made from this same copper and embedded with symbols. “The Women, They Hold the Ground” (Figure 3) depicts six women standing on Earth while another watches over them from the moon. The art is inspired by the teaching that as we stand side by side and compete only with our own selves, we uplift all in parallel. This teaching influenced the game’s design to emphasize singing, recording, and sharing the songs rather than competing against the system or other players for correctness.
Moulder: In Techno Medicine Wheel, players met T’Uty’Tanat-Cease Wyss in person to hear the teachings of the Little People, and in Manoominike players enter a fabricated space. In Honour Water, a player’s experience is mediated through a device. What are the influencing factors in your choice of technology? And what would be your ideal model if you had zero limitations?
LaPensée: Choices always come down to making sure I’m meeting the needs of the community I’m collaborating with. I’d love to express Indigenous ways of knowing through virtual reality, but access is so limited that I’m focusing mostly on mobile, Web, and museum games that I’m sure will reach community members. I’ve been back and forth between living where there’s very limited Internet access, so really, why I would make games I can’t even play myself? And yet there’s so much that can be shown through VR that I’m hopeful for future opportunities.
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