Growing Up Ojibwe: The Game, in which players can both engage with and learn about Ojibwe practices and tradition, is now available to download on Android devices, and is also playable on any web browser.
Players can choose to play as either Tommy or Annie Sky, two Ojibwe youth, as they embark on a journey through northern Wisconsin to learn about their heritage. The game is based on a children’s book series of the same name.
Eleanore Falck is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and the artist, programmer, and developer of Growing Up Ojibwe: The Game. She designed the game during a summer internship with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). The organization also published the book series.
Falck completed the first three levels in the summer of 2019 and finished the last two starting in March of 2020, working five days a week.
“[GLIFWC] wanted me to help connect with the younger generation and do something educational for young people… so I thought a game would be an easy way to get kids interested. Specifically in the middle-school age range,” Falck said.
“Video games are actually an extremely good way of learning things,” Falck continued. “Games are great for teaching because they’re so interactive, you repeat things and remember them better. Because you’re doing the activity yourself, it becomes your experience too, rather than just someone else’s experience.”
The game features five levels, each exploring an aspect of Ojibwe life and culture: Treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, maple sap gathering, spearfishing, and harvesting wild rice.
Spearfishing became a controversial topic in the late 1980s, leading to tense clashes and standoffs when Indigenous people exercised their rights. The topic has become a hot-button issue again recently; just last year, a Lac du Flambeau man was shot at while spearing.
“In the spearfishing level, players learn about the history of spearfishing in the northern Wisconsin area,” Falck said. “Players learn about harvesting sustainably, which is a big point because, during the spearfishing controversy, there was a lot of racism towards Native peoples. Many white people were very upset with treaty re-affirmation. Some believed that if tribes were able to exercise their treaty rights and go out and spearfish, the environment would be damaged, when really tribes are very careful. This is something that is really pushed in that level.”
As a descendant of the Oneida people whose father is a tribal member, Falck was already familiar with some of the practices featured in Growing Up Ojibwe: The Game. However, designing and developing the game allowed Falck to “discover part of my identity.”
“I had grown up learning about the culture a little bit. My family would harvest wild rice and maple syrup,” she said. “I actually did put a lot of my own experience into the game. So I was already introduced to some of the activities that are shown, but I actually got more education about the culture during this internship.”
As good reviews flood in, Falck added that she is both appreciative and inspired by those who have played and enjoyed her game.
“I also got a letter from someone who wanted to show the game to his son, someone who is also Native American and that was really sweet,” Falck said. “It really makes me happy [that] it’s getting a good response. Helping to educate people is one of the things that I want to do with games. I want to make pretty stuff but I also want to make content that has a deeper meaning, that people can connect with and that inspires them.
“A commonality that I tend to go towards is making beautiful scenes of nature in my work because I think the natural environment is really undervalued and that contributes to issues like pollution and climate change. I hope to make people appreciate nature more through my art,” Falck continued. “Although, it might be a little shallow to make people appreciate nature through beauty all the time, because it obviously has so many more reasons to be important.”
In January 2020, Falck and GLIFWC staff went to Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School school in Hayward, WI, to teach children and introduce them to the game. However, they weren’t able to play due to the school’s wifi restrictions. Instead, Falck decided to show the students how the game was made, and invited the students to use the same game engine that she had used to program it.
“There’s this one little girl I remember who was maybe like eight or 10 and she was super excited about making games,” Falck explained. “She told me, ‘I want my friends and I to work on this in the library today later.’ It made me so happy that I was able to inspire the next generation. It’s an amazing feeling.’”