Engaging Kids Through Our Rich, Modern Media Environment

Many parents are concerned about the effect that modern technologies like video games and social media are having on their children. The Iñupiaq people in Alaska are no exception. Because their language had no writing system for most of their history, oral storytelling has remained a central tool for transmitting their cultural heritage through the generations.

For kids in the modern world, though, storytelling has to compete with game consoles, social media and smartphones. Concerned that a key part of their cultural identity was being neglected, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) came up with an interesting solution: they would make a video game that would tell traditional stories.

By partnering with E-Line Media, CITC created “Never Alone,” a video game where you play as a young Iñupiaq girl, Nuna, and her Artic fox companion. The game tells a traditional story called “Kunuuksaayuka” in which Nuna travels across the wilderness to find out what is causing the blizzards that have been plaguing her small village.

Rather than collecting points or coins, as in a game of Mario, the player is rewarded by collecting stories throughout the game. Stories are told in Iñupiaq (with subtitles) by members of the Alaska Native community. The goal as to create an experience that transmits cultural learning in the voices of Native Alaskans.

There is, of course, an inherent risk in creating a commercial product that represents another’s culture. Native American cultures have long been exploited, caricatured, and misrepresented in the media for commercial purposes. But by visiting, working closely with and including the community that E-Line Media was creating a game about, they were able to create an experience through gaming that has been successful while remaining faithful to the culture it represents. More than culturally sensitive, Never Alone strives to be culturally engaging.

It is an interesting solution to the problem of engaging kids in a modern world that is so full of competing distractions. By being both fun for kids and full of authentic traditional stories, Never Alone has succeeded as a teaching tool for kids inside and outside of Alaska, and in preserving the culture and oral tradition of the Iñupiaq.