How Three Academics Created a Game About Indigenous Culture and Philosophy

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Each week here at Geek & Sundry we’re taking a look at new and upcoming exciting titles on Kickstarter! This week’s Kickstarter of the week is Potlatch: A Card Game About Coast Salish Economics which has more than reached its funding goal of $2.5K and is currently funded for over $18.5K as of this writing.

From the beginning of their development of Potlach, Jeanette Bushnell, Tylor Prather, and Jonathan Tom have set out to create a game using a different mindset and approach.

“There are many games that center around resource management, worker placement, and communal goals,” Bushnell said. “However, in many of those games we could not look past the shadows of a colonial framework that influenced them.” Currently funding on Kickstarter, Potlatch is a card game based on indigenous philosophies. Each round players gift cards to other players’ house cards to meet their needs, trying to fulfill obligations using the least amount of resources. If they succeed, then their status will improve. The game ends when one player has met all of their house needs.

“For indigenous scholars like ourselves who study systemic oppressions (and live them), analyzing and playing game after game that reproduced these oppressions got tedious,” she recalled. “One aspect, in particular, was individual accumulation, at the expense of others – a concept often associated with capitalism.”

The trio specialize in indigenous philosophies, American Indian studies, intercultural communication, and other subjects, and they’re all dedicated gamers as well. From Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft, they’ve enjoyed playing some of the most popular tabletop and video games.

They’ve also seen the problems inherent in some of the designs. “I started playing WoW as soon as it was released,” Bushnell said. “MMORPGs often are uncomfortably sexist and racist. Even though the folks I played with were a great bunch, slurs were common.”

As the hosts of the NDN Players Research Group and its related podcast, Bushnell, Prather, and Tomhave research and discuss issues of representation, race, and criminality in games. They also consult with other designers who want their games “to have less systemic oppressions embedded within them.”  It was through these experiences that Prather shared his desire to create a game using indigenous economic systems. The group studied a local system in the Salish Sea region, where waterways connect southern British Columbia and northern Washington, and decided to use the concept of potlatch.

“Potlatches, or giveaways, vary among the Pacific Coast peoples. Resources are shared as gifts to everyone attending and the events have varied ceremonial components,” Bushnell said. “Our game tries to tease out the common economic aspects and knowledges about subsistence resources and historic uses.”

The group worked in conjunction with tribe elders and local language experts to develop the game. “Community collaboration is highly valued within indigenous communities and we have been part of many community endeavors before we began our NDN Players gaming activities,” said Bushnell.

Citing popular board games with solid design and mechanisms such as Catan, Kingsburg, and Dead of Winter, the group’s approach was to, “look at how mechanics reflect colonial mindsets and then address them in our own development process to shift our perspective from accepted ideas about what to do with a bundle of wood or food and place indigenous concepts at the forefront.”

This unique method of game development is also apparent in the game’s Kickstarter campaign, which includes a pledge level for two copies, one of which will be donated to a Native school or youth center. “From the beginning, we perceived it as a teaching tool for K-12 students to both learn about indigenous peoples and to have a better way to imagine economic systems other than capitalism,” said Bushnell.

The community has responded to Potlatch, which has surpassed its initial funding goal several times over. This early success bodes well for continued development of a series of games from the group.

“When NDN Players started developing our game, we strategically set up the mechanics to value inclusiveness and working together,” Bushnell said. “Always, the primary ideas came from our knowledges of indigenous philosophies. Potlatch was envisioned as the ‘basic’ level of more card games and a board game. We’d like to make some games that can have regionally specific knowledges. We’re also in the opening stages of developing a card game based off of Indigenous storytelling.”

You can learn more about Potlatch on their Kickstarter and back the project to secure yourself a copy, and join the Potlatch Facebook Page to keep up with the game’s updates! 

Looking for more interesting stories on diversity in gaming?

Image Credits: Jeanette Bushnell, Tylor Prather, Jonathan Tomhave

Ruel Gaviola is a writer and educator based in Southern California. He loves board games, books, cooking, traveling, date nights with his wife, and Star Wars. He reviews games and reports news for and his name rhymes with Superman’s Kryptonian name. Follow him on Twitter.

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