Tuwitames: Developing an Augmented Reality Storybook

Wow wow WOW! Am I ever excited to talk about this!

After a long time of community engagement and collaboration, I am ecstatic that I get to share some info about the app that was developed in partnership with the Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn!

The app is called Tuwitames. It is the result of long-term community collaboration and engagement between Elders, community members, staff that work at the Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn, and myself, David Lacho. The app is based on Tuwitames, a Splatsin community play that features traditional Secwepemc stories and, through stories, draws attention to assimilation practices of Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop. These Secwepemc stories are “a manifestation of Secwepemc footprints through time.”

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This story tells of how Porcupine got its coat

I worked with incredible community research partners Rosalind Williams and Aaron Leon in bringing this app together (The work that Rosalind and Aaron do at the Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn is incredible). The app is narrated by Kia7a (Grandmother) Annie Cook in Splatsin’s dialect of Secwepemctsín (Shuswap Language). We’re in the final stages, which involves user testing and polishing the app. The app is copyrighted to the Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn. I helped develop the app in Unity and worked on the technical side of things.

Like I mentioned, the app is narrated in Secwepemctsín. The language of the Splatsin people is an Eastern Dialect of Secwepemctsín (Shuswap) language, of the Interior Salish language family. The Secwepemctsín language as a whole is endangered and has 1,190 semi-speakers, although Splatsin’s Secwepemctsín dialect is further endangered because less than 1% of over 800 of its band members are speakers (First Voices 2013). According to the Language Needs Assessment of the First Peoples’ Heritage Language & Culture Council, in 2014 there were 8 speakers that understood Secwepemctsín fluently, all of whom are over the age of 65. There were 14 speakers that understood and/or spoke Secwepemctsín somewhat, and there were 63 people that were learning Secwepemctsín. (First Peoples’ Heritage Language & Culture Council 2014). Many speakers have since passed away.

The project had a really interesting start: The Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn (Splatsin Teaching Centre), a registered not for profit organization for teaching Splatsin language and culture, were looking for ways to use technology to share the efforts of their ongoing language revitalization with community members. Using technology is a key component of the community’s language revitalization plan, as presently the community is using various technologies to maintain their language. For example, the community is using magnetic stripe encoded cards to play and record sound clips of the language. The cards give children the opportunity to compare their own recording to one of a fluent Secwepemctsín speaker.  They are also using digital recordings and digital archiving for the purposes of language preservation and conservation. Documentation of the language is supported by Indigitization. The community also uses online resources, such as a YouTube channel and FirstVoices, to learn their language.

Elsewhere, Aaron and I have explained the importance of technology for language revitalization, highlighting Leisly Thornton Wyman’s concept of linguistic survivance, as the continuous use and presence of language in light of processes of globalization. Many Indigenous groups are challenging overarching globalization theories and are calling for the importance of context in describing processes of globalization (Hall & Fenelon 2009). Aaron and I have previously demonstrated that the use of technology in Indigenous communities is often tied to processes of reclaiming identity, decolonization, and self-determination. This is the case for the Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn, as they use technology for many of their language revitalization programs.

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Each story in Tuwitames has a lesson

The project over time has shifted from creating a video game to making this app. In some forms the app draws on game studies and can still be considered a game. Research has shown that games can be used to introduce players to differing, unfamiliar world-views in a safe environment, where the risk, and price, of failure is low. Mitigating the risk that might accompany these types of experiences in ‘real-world’ contexts allows players to learn new ways of understanding the world – new critical lenses from which to analyse their interpretation of ‘reality’, and to explore ideas about the construction of, and potential to reimagine, identity. Aaron Leon shared a really important quote with me:

“I like that notion paired with language learning, because a lot of people they’re scared of learning the language because of failure … there’s this part of them that’s been taken away from them that they’re trying to learn. A lot of people have to recognize they don’t know their own language, which is very scary and maybe video games can be that place where …you can be put in a place where failure is not that big of a thing and they would want to learn the language” (Aaron Leon)

Indigenous peoples in the past have not been represented well in video games. Some games, such as Custer’s Revenge for Atari, go beyond problematic representations and actually condone racist and violent acts towards aboriginal people. In Custer’s Revenge, the player’s goal is to navigate a western landscape (with a smoking teepee in the background, portraying this landscape as foreign and Indigenous) as a naked cowboy with an erection, avoid pixelated “arrows” that fly from the sky, and rape an indigenous woman tied to a cactus. Each successful rape increases the player’s score. Since games have the power to change the way we see the world and to experiment with different world views, designers have an ethical and moral obligation to be aware of the worldview and culture they are portraying, as these representations influence social attitudes and behaviors outside of the game.

One way of ensuring representation is designing and developing games alongside community members to ensure that not only are the games properly representative of Indigenous communities, but that the content in the game is relevant, as well. When designing a game specifically for a predetermined audience or group, representations and content will be much more effective and well received if they are culturally-relevant (Khaled et al. 2006, 214).

This research stressed the partnerships and relationships built during the research process. The research has been a personal journey for me, as well. The same month I started my graduate studies I received my Aboriginal status. I was excited and proud of being a Métis person. The serendipitous timing of this fact informed many of the early decisions I took in approaching this research, including my choices of methodologies. As an outsider to the Splatsin community, establishing research partners allowed me to be accountable to the relationships built through working on the project. Relationship building takes work and often involves having to step away from the institutionalized routine of academia and step into the values of community. At times, I felt as though relationship building was at odds with my life at the university. Yet, there were moments where the process of building relationships with the community aided in settling that feeling.

Games have the power to create positive change in the world and can be used as a tool for learning. I am greatly inspired by Jane McGonigal (2011), who writes, “I want gaming to be something that everybody does, because they understand that games can be a real solution to problems” (13). Nothing brings me better joy than seeing community members coming together over this app and sharing how they feel. What I find really cool about Augmented Reality is that this media can change the way we see a space; our reality is augmented by this form of media, as handheld technology facilitates “combining real and digital information into the user’s view” (Väätäjä et al. 2013: 968). The potential of the use of mobile phones in place-based learning on the territory contributes to re-conceptualizing place, since “[n]o longer is a region necessarily a physical space, but can be entirely virtual or a combination of virtual and physical” (Chess, 2014: 1110).

It’s at this time that I would also like to give a special thanks to everyone that has been a part of the journey of developing this app: Dr. Christine Schreyer (My Master’s Supervisor), Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée (who continues to push the boundaries for Indigenous game developers and is such an amazing inspiration to me), The Kikia7a (Splatsin Grandmothers) who share their infinite knowledge of Secwepemc language and culture, Aaron Leon (community research partner and friend), and of course Rosalind Williams (who has devoted countless hours, energy, and love to her Secwepectsín and her Stk’láp (roots)).

If you are in the Kelowna area, please come join me in a discussion on collaborative approaches to Augmented Reality:

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Portions of this post will appear in my thesis and elsewhere in publications and conference presentations. 

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