“Innovation isn’t always about creating new things. Innovation sometimes involves looking back at our old ways and bringing them forward to this new situation. So, for the young people going forward today, I encourage you to understand what it means to be who you are, to understand where you come from, to know the teachings of your people, including your creation story. Because that is the foundation of your life, and you will be able to fulfill that purpose in many different ways.” -- Senator Murry Sinclair (Ojibway) from Canada
Alaska Native people have been innovating for thousands of years. Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) embraces the idea that by knowing our past we can shape the future. CITC is a leading Alaska Native social service nonprofit with the mission of connecting Alaska Native individuals to their potential and increasing self-sufficiency. In 2010, CITC decided to pursue mission-aligned investments that could celebrate the cultures, stories, and languages of Alaska Native people, create unrestricted revenue streams as a form of self-determination, and inspire Alaska Native youth, the stewards of CITC’s future. CITC spent two years exploring investments ranging from culturally appropriate burial services to traditional real estate investments, but nothing felt right. After much exploration and internal discussion, they determined that creating an impact video game based on Alaska Native people and culture had the potential to successfully accomplish all of the goals they had outlined.
Across the planet, people spend over three billion hours a week playing video games (and billions more watching them being played). Video games empower players to take on different identities and explore diverse worlds, cultures, and stories. They are immersive and interactive, giving players the agency to make decisions and explore the consequences. Many Alaska Native youth, like youth throughout the world, are gamers—but none of the games they played reflected their cultures. In 2012, CITC’s Board of Directors formed the first Indigenous video game company. Given that CITC had no experience in video games, they had to start by finding the right partners. As they researched the space, one name kept coming up: E-Line Media. E-Line’s management team had extensive experience in both the commercial video game business and the emerging impact game sector.
CITC management invited E-Line’s founders to Anchorage to explore the possibility of a partnership. E-Line made it clear that investing a few million dollars in a single video game had great potential, but it was also an extremely high-risk investment. Through their initial discussions, CITC and E-Line found they had aligned goals, so they agreed to collaborate on approaches to reducing the risk. Together, they researched Indigenous representation in commercial video games, which predominantly yielded examples of appropriation, caricature, and sampling without context, and in other media, like music, graphic novels, and movies, including successful projects like the movie Whale Rider. They also researched the market potential of independent video games that explored meaningful themes and new perspectives, and spoke with e-store curators and influencers to gauge their interest in an Alaska Native game. The feedback was clear: there was interest in bringing new perspectives to the medium, but it needed to be done at a high-quality level—good intentions would not be enough.
Together, CITC and E-Line concluded that if they could attract a team of experienced, passionate game developers with previous commercial success to collaborate with Alaska Native Elders, writers, storytellers, and community members, and if they could engage key distribution partners and influencers, the project could be significantly de-risked. Through a partnership with Upper One Games and E-Line Media, CITC greenlighted investment in their first video game, Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa). The game is based on a story that has been passed down for thousands of years. It is a two-player cooperative game (reinforcing the theme of interdependence), and there was much debate over choosing a boy or girl as protagonist, and a wolf or fox as the companion. The process required constant community feedback, transparent communication, and a continual balancing of creative, cultural, and commercial needs. The finished game is in the Iñupiaq language and features 26 mini-documentary interviews with Iñupiaq community members, which players can unlock through gameplay.
Released on November 18, 2014, Never Alone has touched a nerve globally. It has been featured in over 1,000 publications, downloaded by over 3.5 million players, selected for over 75 “Best of 2014” Game Lists, and won multiple awards, including a BAFTA and “Game of the Year” at Games for Change. The game has been released across nearly every major gaming platform, most recently on Android and IOS mobile devices, where it was selected by Apple as Editor’s Choice in the App Store. Never Alone is not a game made about the Alaska Native people; it is a game made with the Alaska Native community.
In addition to the millions of gamers who have played the game and watched the embedded documentaries, an independent marketing analyst concluded the game has been exposed to over a half a billion people worldwide—reinforcing the original impact objective of sharing, celebrating, and extending Alaska Native culture, stories, and language with a global audience. The impact has also been deepened through use of the game in educational and other cultural contexts.
Never Alone has been distributed with a classroom guide to all school districts in Alaska. Classrooms throughout the world, from grade school to graduate school, have incorporated the game into their curricula. Never Alone has been showcased in many museums, currently in the Denver Art Museum, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the China Academy of Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian, and at hundreds of conferences, including the World Economic Forum at Davos. There have been multiple films about the making of Never Alone, including those by The New Yorker and the Future of Storytelling. Both CITC and E-Line continue to receive weekly inquiries about Never Alone. Most impactful are the emails, phone calls, and in-person feedback received from individuals who have been deeply touched by the game, as well as those who have been inspired to share, celebrate, and extend their own cultures, stories, and language through video games and other media. The impact goes beyond the game itself, however; Never Alone was just the beginning. We know that our youth are more connected to technology than ever, so CITC is moving further down the path of impact investing through games and technology to ensure that they are not only connected to technology career pathways, but leading the way in the age of digitalization.
A 2007 study by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska estimated the number of fluent Iñupiaq speakers to be less than 2,150 individuals. Other Alaska Native Tribes have even lower numbers of fluent speakers, like the Dena’ina, who have an estimated 50 fluent speakers. CITC recognized that a video game could not be the sole source of language learning, but designed it to spark curiosity. Never Alone is narrated entirely in Iñupiaq, through the voice of the late James Nageak, with subtitles in 16 languages. With over four million downloads to date, this means people across the world have heard an endangered language, and millions more have heard it through YouTube, videos, and news stories.
CITC and E-Line continue to deepen their partnership. The two organizations are now developing more impact games together and are considering a sequel to Never Alone and a potential movie based on the game. Together, they are also exploring the development of an impact game investment vehicle for impact investors interested in bringing new voices and perspectives to the medium. They have already launched a new game project with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The partnership has extended beyond games to collaborations on other impact initiatives, such as creating “fab labs,” community facilities with powerful digital fabrication tools, and “world building,” where individuals collaborate to create research-informed, aspirational, but achievable futures for their community.
— Ivan Encelewski, executive director of the Ninilchik Traditional Council, is Board chair of Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s Board of Directors. He is a member of the Ninilchik Tribe and a shareholder of Cook Inlet Region, Inc., and Ninilchik Native Association, Inc.
Photo: The making of Never Alone with Iñupiaq elders.
All images courtesy of Cook Inlet Tribal Council.