Elizabeth LaPensée, assistant professor of media and information at Michigan State University, wants Indigenous video game developers to be able to independently make their passion projects, and is leading this movement by example.
LaPensée is Irish, Anishinaabe (with relations from Bay Mills Indian Community), and Métis, and named after her ancestor Elizabeth Morris. She first noticed an absence of Indigenous representation in pop culture when she was a kid. While playing video games, she could never find any characters that she could identify with.
“I realized sometime into playing games that if I ever wanted to see representation for myself in this and in comics, then I would have to do it myself,” she told me.
With that goal in mind, LaPensée honed her skills as a game developer, comic writer, artist, and animator, and created artwork and games like the educational Coyote Quest and helped write the narrative-driven Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. She experimented with modding a desktop version of Super Mario Bros. by going into the backend, changing Mario's sprite to portray an Indigenous character, and adding a thunderbird power-up. She then used a modding kit for Bioware’s game Neverwinter Nights to further develop her skills.
When she created these mods, she would name characters after people in her community, so they could see themselves and people like them in games for the first time. “Seeing how their eyes lit up, seeing themselves represented in the game, really brought it home for me how important this work was at the time and continued to be,” LaPensée said.
In October, LaPensée released her most recent and famous creation— Thunderbird Strike, a video game where players can destroy oil pipelines as a thunderbird, a symbol in several Indigenous cultures.
The award-winning game was created to protest the controversial Enbridge Line 5 pipeline that runs across the waterway that connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and encourages players to learn more about the pipelines and alternative sources of energy. LaPensée also previously told Motherboard that she wanted Indigenous players to reclaim some agency in the fight against oil pipelines, even if just through a game.
After its release, Thunderbird Strike gained significant media attention when it was criticized by oil lobbyists as well as a Republican politician who called it “an eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds” and tried to force LaPensée to return the grant money she received to make it.
But now that the backlash has mostly cooled off, she’s left with ardent fans of the project. LaPensée said she had a 77-year-old woman reach out and ask her to make a Linux version of the game. She’s now working on that as well as a free mobile version.
“I ended up making the game better because of all the attention it was getting,” she said.
After earning her PhD from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in 2014, she became a professor. It’s not what you’d typically expect from a budding game developer, but LaPensée said that creating games and other art through academia allows certain freedoms that can’t be found elsewhere. Thanks to grants, she can pay everybody up front and doesn’t worry about making something that will sell to a large audience, which means she can focus on creating games made for Indigenous players.
“We don't need to tailor the experience to communities beyond ours in the interest of trying to make better sales,” she said.
A lot of the modern participation in the games industry on the part of Indigenous creators is through consulting on game projects, LaPensée said, where they share their input, stories, or even design ideas, but don’t get credited like the rest of the game team. She’s hoping that her work will inspire other Indigenous creators to be able to tell their stories in their own way, and have some sovereignty over their material.
“More often than not, Indigenous creatives who have made a space for themselves," she said, "have had to fight to do it. There's this need for them to constantly create in order for them to break through.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated LaPensée's role in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. She was a writer for it. The article has been updated.
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