Surprising Cultural Partnership in Gaming At This Year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival

The Margaret Mead Film Festival, at the American Museum of Natural History, is the longest-running, premiere showcase for international documentaries in the United States, encompassing a broad spectrum of work, from indigenous community media to experimental nonfiction. When the the 2013 Festival opens later this week, it will screen 39 films, host special events and performances, and features 16 U.S. premieres.

Gloria O’Neill

Of particular interest to me is a panel focused on Upper One Games, the first game company owned by an indigenous community in the U.S., developing commercial video games that draw on a rich, centuries-old storytelling tradition. In advance of the panel, I invited Gloria O’Neill, president/CEO of the Alaska’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and Ruth Cohen, the Museum’s Senior Director, Center for Lifelong Learning, to give us a sneak peak at both the panel and their first game.

Hi Gloria. Can you please introduce us to the Alaska’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council?

Gloria: Hi Barry. Cook Inlet Tribal Council is a Tribal non-profit organization based in Anchorage Alaska. We serve over 10,000 Alaska Natives and American Indians each year and focus on education, employment and training and healthy families. We like to think of ourselves as an organization of teachers and learners, because sharing knowledge goes both ways here. And 2013 is our 30th anniversary, so we are particularly proud of all we have accomplished for the advancement of Alaska Native people.

Where does the name “Upper One Games” come from, and why did the Council decide to create it?

Gloria: Upper One Games is a for-profit subsidiary of Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The name is an inside joke for Alaskans. In Alaska the continental US is referred to as “the Lower 48”, so we are Upper One Games, high above the Lower 48.

CITC has traditionally been largely funded by the federal government. Several years ago the CITC board made a commitment to social enterprise as a means to develop a revenue stream to allow the organization to control its own destiny. As you know government funding often comes with strings and restrictions on use of funds. We believe CITC, not the government, is best able to determine where to put money to get the most impact.

Here’s a photo of Mike Angst, CEO of E-Line, and Gloria O’Neill, president/CEO of CITC and Upper One Games.

So Upper One Games is a separate company with a separate board and is focused on making money in a manner that is consistent with CITC’s mission and values. The intent is to grow Upper One Games to have a portfolio of games and that over time dividends will be paid to CITC to help fund programs and services. We had looked at a variety of business opportunities over a 12 month period before deciding to try video games. It meshes with our focus on youth and education. The more we learn about games the more we are convinced this is a great way to connect with our youth in medium they are using. Plus we believe this is a way to have a large impact on education nationwide. So we are now working on the first of a series of games for the education market, initially middle school social studies. We are also starting on games to enhance the delivery of social services at Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

How did you find game designers with whom you could partner, and how did you decide if they had the proper sensitivities to collaborate on material so foreign to them?

Gloria: Through some hard work and just digging around the industry we found Mike Angst and Alan Gershenfeld, co-founders of E-Line Media. We wanted someone to come to Alaska to give a workshop for our board on the business opportunities in the video game industry. We really lucked out because Mike Angst had been to the other 49 states, but never to Alaska. So he jumped at the chance to come to Alaska in January, 2012. That’s always a good test for a potential partner- you have to earn some street cred by coming in the winter before you can show up with a clear conscience in the summer!

As we have gotten to know the team at E-Line it is clear that our values are aligned. They are fabulous partners and we love working with them. Last November we cemented our relationship by taking an equity stake in each other’s companies. We all believe working together we can grow both companies and increase our social impact and the financial returns.

Let’s talk about your first game. Please tell us all about it, and any challenges you experienced telling stories through game design.

A preview of the upcoming game.

Gloria: Alaska Native cultures have been around for thousands of years, and have adapted in order to survive. This isn’t any different from challenges faced by indigenous people around the world. So we are convinced we have a lot to share and be proud of.

We want to leverage video games as a way to reach our youth in a medium they are already excited about. And games can be looked at as a modern iteration of the oral tradition. So our first game is based on traditional stories and values. It takes place in the Arctic and involves a teenage girl undertaking some challenges with various companions. The story narrative is being developed in coordination with Alaska Native storytellers. We also got some great ideas from students when we visited Barrow with the game design team. We sat down with several groups of Alaska Native youth, showed them a demo and asked what stories they would like us to share. It was exciting to see how engaged the kids were and what stories they find memorable.

To be honest, it has been a challenge to balance authenticity of the original stories with making a fun and exciting game. There are tradeoffs that push the game design team daily. But we won’t be able to share our culture and make money to support CITC programs unless people want to buy and play our game. At the Mead presentation our creative director Sean Vesce will go into more detail from his experiences in the trenches of the challenges of balancing cultural authenticity with the need for a commercial product.

Ruth, when it first launched in 1976 the Festival commemorated the 75th birthday of Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologistwho worked for 52 years at the Museum, with a festival of ethnographic films. 1976 was also the year Atari’s Breakout was released in video arcades. If she were alive today, how do you think Mead would respond to the Festival’s inclusion of a panel about game design?

Ruth: “What Would Mead Do?” is a frequent question in our Festival planning! It is a small jest masking a large mandate–and that question leads us to pursue innovation and test the boundaries of what it means to document culture–and from the perspective of the Festival–what it means to engage in culture. Mead was a tireless pioneer in visual anthropology and ethnography; from her writing to her photography and film documentation in such works as Trance and Dance in Bali to her design of the first Hall of Pacific Peoples at the Museum, her goal was to link the study of diverse cultures to the larger human endeavor. She considered her work as essential because she believed it informed the future.

Now it’s 2013 and New York audiences at the Margaret Mead Film Festival are experiencing a future that Mead might well have imagined–probing engagement in diverse cultures in the most cutting edge media available, in a mode that taps our inner need to connect–gaming!

This is not the first time games have been included at the Mead Festival. Can you please share how this builds on the Museum’s previous partnerships with Games For Change, which is co-presenting the panel, and what it means to treat game as worthy of attention?

Ruth: In the 1990s the Society for Visual Anthropology added “new media” to its list of interpretive tools of visual ethnography. I think that was post Breakout but pre-Xbox. Games For Change came in a number of years ago to do a panel on how games — in particular their brand that promotes social good — might integrate into the Festival.

Last year, things had advanced enough so that we could set up an arcade with five games recommended by Games For Change that were themed around cultural understanding. The best part was that the games attracted regular Museum-goers, especially kids, not just the Mead Festival attendees. It was kind of a proof of concept that if we broadened the modes in which people could engage in the diversity of cultures and human stories represented at the Festival, we could broaden the audience. I doubt 11 year olds are a natural audience for the Mead Festival, but if they are attracted to some aspect of playing with cultural identity (one game challenged assumptions of race for example) that’s exciting!

This might sound like so much spinach, but it’s exactly the opposite. We are not trying to make games carry the weight of engendering cultural understanding; we are challenging ourselves as game designers, storytellers and Festival producers to connect to as broad an audience as possible and bring many, many new voices and hands into play–in Mead’s playground.

Gloria, so where can people learn more about Upper One Games and your first release?

Gloria: We encourage people to sign up to receive progress reports at As we get closer to launch, late summer 2014, we’ll be adding lots of additional content including developer diaries and bonus materials.

Pita Benz, and E-Line Chief Creative Officer Sean Vesce, right , meeting with Dr. Aron Crowell, Alaska Director at the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage.

The panel, Firing Imaginations: Pioneering Traditional Storytelling Through Digital Games, will be held at AMMH at 4pm on Sunday, October 20, 2013

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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