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Preserving Indigenous Cultural Heritage Through Videogame Technology.

Kicking off the Heritage and Technology series is our first speaker, Juan Hiriart, designer, artist, games developer and a senior lecturer in Interactive Media Art and Design at the University of Salford.


In his talk Juan shares his project preserving the indigenous cultural heritage of the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) people. Listen to what Juan had to say here:

Speaker transcription*:


My name is Juan Hiriart. I am a lecturer at the University of Salford. I have a background in design and computing science, and I have worked in the games industry for quite a bit doing mobile and web games.


In this presentation, I would like to discuss the process of making a game for the preservation of the indigenous cultural heritage from the Rapa Nui people from Easter Island.


This project is not finished in any way, I'm not showing a complete process here but rather a pilot which is the first step. What I really would like to focus on is on the process and all the different activities that we did with the community to make this game.


I would like to start by bringing up a little bit of geographical context. I know that Keith went to Easter Island, but maybe many people are wondering where this is. The name of Easter Island is Tepito Ottawa, in the Rapa Nui language. It literally means the bellybutton of the world. It's also known of course as Rapa Nui. And it is far from everything really. The very bottom of the world is a small volcanic Iceland, of around 166 square kilometres, and it's located around 3500 kilometres from the coast of Chile. It is really isolated as you can see with fascinating history.


So, the first Europeans arrived on the island in 1722 and then became annexed to Chile. The Chilean state in 1888. Unfortunately, the population quickly became the target of the Peruvian slave trade and suffered greatly as well from a lot of different diseases brought from Europeans, especially leprosy, leprosy was quite a problematic one. From an original population of between 3000-5000. The Rapa Nui collapsed to just 110 survivors in 1870. The island, as you probably know, it's very famous for the iconic Moai are these giant sculptures that are scattered in the island. One of them, the one that I have at the bottom right, actually belongs to the British Museum. And the community from Easter Island is asking for it to be brought back.


Something to understand here is that these studies are not just sculptures, they're actually embodied spirits of the Rapa Nui ancestors. So that's why they are calling the British Museum to return it back and I understand that they even offered to make a replica.


So, the eruption we did not just lose the precious mice but also when the island became next to Chile. It suffered as well from acculturation and linguistic assimilation processes, which accelerated the loss of the culture and the language. Currently, only 10% of the young population are able to speak the language with a large gap between the older people and the young people in understanding and speaking. A key to stop this language loss is to create a bridge between older and younger generations with a sense of community and respect as Ricky put on those words. The anthropologist advocate Mikey had very eloquent evidence of how important the preservation of language for the rock'n'roll people has become. With this kindergarten view I find it very inspiring and very nice. spread this message to the parents help us with and we language I take good care of my voice is my language and the data gave me want love and respect the Rapa Nui language. So, according to UNESCO, actually, the language is inseparable from, of course, the way of being is not just a way of expressing, but also a way of being thoughts and feelings. It is how people show who they are, if a language disappears, of course, the whole socio-cultural foundation of the community is put at risk. So, it is quite urgent to do something about this. And this is when I came to this project, I was approached by a former student of mine, her name is Harvey Tuki. And she is now a teacher and a community leader in the island, have a was, of course, very concerned about the loss of the Rapa Nui language and culture. And she talked to me, she said, the children don't know anything about Iguacu, who's like a bad spirit. They are losing the mana which manner is like the traditional wisdom, which is a catastrophe. So, this is quite bad. But actually, she noticed that they like to play video games.


So, what can we actually do something about, can we make a game about the runway, have a is shown there in the picture on the right on the traditional garments? So, I was I was instantly caught by this project. We have, of course, no funding, and this was at the beginning of the COVID lockdown. So I was, we have to think hard, how actually we could put this project together. As well as so many other things. Like your continued teaching, for example, on lockdown, and all those sorts of things. This game I'm showing now is was a huge inspiration. Never Alone or worse, is one of the few games that you develop with the indigenous communities. I think the developers did really a great job creating a game that brought the cultural ambience, the worldviews and tradition large from the Inupiaq from Alaska to broader audiences, making a game that was educational, but also super, super fun to play. So yeah, if you ever have haven't played this game, I really recommend these games and was a big inspiration for this project. For the researcher and game developer, Elizabeth Lapin say, games can be a powerful means of self-expression for indigenous communities. But she, she highlights that they need to be done right. So are these I think this was the first starting point of your project, how we can work with indigenous communities. And doing it right, I mean, that is understanding translating respecting the views, while also empowering them to use this new medium for self-expression.


The key for me at this point was to adapt participatory game design methods, and also to devise ethical frameworks to design and develop this project. And this actually became one of the most important research goals which is as I explained before, it is not in any way finished. So, this is this diagram shows a bit of the process that we follow this, it was a lot more chaotic that is working our way to work with the weaponry community online, developing the project, with no funding, so I resorted to seek for academic collaboration. As a starting point, the first the first part, we organised a worship with children from the island.


At this point, we wanted to understand the ideas and expectations. We make an event an online event where we also are getting in touch with parents and with the community in general, discussing their concerns. At this point, I got the collaboration from Professor Eric champion from the University of South Australia, who is a pioneer on cultural heritage and serious gaming. In second face, we extended this pilot study to young people, teachers, and also wise community leaders with semi structured interviews in a way to better understand our target audience and the design opportunities for this project. And finally, we set to develop the first game prototype, which we didn't expect this to be perfect. And that was developed by Game Design students from Salford University sorry, the second face also I need to I need to mention was developed by undergraduate students from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. They were doing a major in anthropology and design.


So, this some you know, just from the back sympathy work or participative worship, very, very challenging to make because the internet connection in Easter Island was really, really bad. We explained the project to children and invited them to participate. First, we asked them to draw, and to play. With the help of some tools that we develop for paper prototyping are the main things that we ask them to explore, we're about the places that they found that were meaningful, and they have to be included in the game. Also, the characters, both physical, mythical spiritual characters that should be in the game, and also about the histories and from Easter Island. So, I will show you now the results, which were very interesting that we collected through these drawings, we got a lot of drawings from them, as well as a lot of interest in participating in this project. The maps from the island actually were beautiful and very intriguing, are giving us a glimpse of not just like the physical environment, also the symbolic understanding of the island and the places. There's a perception there in the story, for example, about the position of it in the global context. The dragon represents the sort of like a theme of defending the island against overseas aggression. So, you can see that this like in Spanish, los buenos, which is the Goonies and then attacking los Manos, which is the baddies right. Also, we have a lot of characters, drawings, for example, this one from by aqua, which is the bad spirit that I discussed. Moving on into the qualitative interviews. We have four students from Chile working this project, they, of course, spoke Spanish, and they interview Robin, we teachers, young people from Rapa Nui, and Weiss cultural agents. Developing these personas are like our target audience, like our personas are like fictional characters that represent what a user might be. And then also, interestingly, with a recent study, we came with some design opportunities, right elements that raised from the conversations and which could be used as guides for the design and development of the game. The first was finding cultural elements present and recognisable by children as the basis for introduction of new cultural knowledge. The second point talks about default, avoiding default polarisation of the rock'n'roll culture, looking at the past, but also the present, which can be illustrated by those two pictures that I put on this slide. One of them talks about, it shows like ancient petroglyphs but these in contrast with modern day, modern day cultural expressions like this are graffiti, which is also very important in the island, and finally, the concerns about environmental degradation and impact of climate change, which also raised an important theme.


So, I was very lucky then at this point to find a group of enthusiastic final year game students from Game Design at Salford University, they formed this study is to not just work with very technical proficiency, but also professionalism. And they truly immerse themselves into the Rapa Nui culture observing Much, much in a very short time to make this game. The game that they made was called the pizza or the culture and the little piece of land translated, and they it is based on 2d puzzle mechanics as the core Gameplay The game follows the journey of our modern-day Rapa Nui child and recreating the myth of the tango Kumano which I'm going to talk in a minute is the birth month encountered characters collecting words and solving puzzles. The prototype is not a full game not with and we didn't have enough time for this but it brings a very good understanding of gameplay narrative and also the aesthetic direction that we could take and most importantly, it allows us to discuss all these elements with the community during the project forward so I have a video but I think I have to stop sharing just so you know funny is just crumbling now and again when you when you move in your paper there but you can I can show this I think we just wrap up Danny facts are right after you've shown this. Okay. I'm short of time. Yeah, just another minute, if we can just Okay, so I'm going to just show this Some of the stuff in the game right i mean that goes over a little base okay can show the video just letting you know got you know, maybe two or three minutes left for you. Okay Can you see YouTube now? It's not showing anything at the moment still all right so probably I have to stop sharing this and then select okay just one second yes can see it now that's great thanks no sound though he's got to share or share with sound Gosh sorry I'm alright we're all tech dinosaurs when it comes to zoom yeah okay so right I don't find what we share the sun actually with this okay hear this okay I'm doing it now kid yeah go for it okay nice sound stone frayed not get any sound No, but it's okay, we can get the we can get the visual. We're not getting the sound but it's okay, I think we can get the visual. Yeah, it's okay. If you've got a couple more slides as well, you can just carry on with just a few slides. Just showing the presentation again.


Yes. Okay, cool. So yeah, just showing very quickly, some of the environment design of the game. Of course, we the group didn't have we didn't have the resources of the island was close. So, we couldn't go there so that they relied on Google Maps and satellite images, to translate the drawings all that the children make into this map that they have to translate into today game design. So really, that I think that it was it was interesting and important, because it brings back a sense of place some of the images of the landscape here some of the images that the group used as a reference point to build this environment using modular techniques. And finally, the characters that they develop, they found some inspiration on the on the drug use of the kids to develop these cards character the child who is to be a character as well as non-player characters like Iguacu and the narrative was based on the tank Ackerman which is the Birdman myth, it's it is it is a competition in which the Rapa Nui engage every year to choose who will be the leader of Rapa Nui. And also, the whole new which is the sea turtle, as you could see there in the representor in the game, which is also found in the past of the island through speculates but also in many representations that the community built nowadays. So that is that is the end the future of the project, the community is testing the game now is giving us their impressions. And we will continue with this project looking of course for funding to continue developing this this game. And I think that we that I can stop there. Thank you. Amazing one that's really fascinating projects. And yeah, one of the questions or comments on that was, if only you know, history lessons were alive that I think they'd be more intriguing way to explore ancient history. So, thanks so much for that.

*Transcribed by AI technology so may not be 100% accurate.