Video games are not just for entertainment. They can also be a powerful tool for education, especially when combined with immersive technologies like virtual reality. Experiential learning is at the core of many indigenous cultures, including Torres Strait Islanders, which led Rhett Loban to create a one-of-a-kind VR game that captures his peoples traditions and customs in a whole new way.
JAMES PARKINSON: In December of 2015, Russian developer NIL Entertainment published Survival Island 3 for iOS and Android. It was a 3D first-person action game where the player has to survive in the Australian Outback by crafting weapons and hunting animals. But the game was overtly racist in its representation of Indigenous Australians. The game's mechanics gave the player the ability to kill Aboriginal people, which its marketing in app store listings openly promoted as a feature. And it grossly portrayed Indigenous people as primitive, aggressive and violent. The backlash though was strong and immediate. A change.org petition inspired over 80,000 signatures, and Survival Island 3 was hastily pulled from the App Store and Google Play in January of 2016.
JAMES PARKINSON: On one hand, the quick response to something like this shows how far we’ve come and that people will unite against injustice and can work together to produce a positive result. But as a country, Australia still has a long way to go. Indigenous Australians continue to face discrimination and violence every day. And these kinds of dehumanising depictions in the media we consume only encourages this discrimination and disregards the human rights of First Nations people.
JAMES PARKINSON: The fact that the Survival Island game was approved, and a petition was even needed to remove it is deeply concerning. But as a countermeasure, digital media has great potential to provide opportunities for education, and preservation of Indigenous cultures.
RHETT LOBAN: I obviously think digital media plays a very important part for that. And I think tradition, and very cultural ways always play a very important part in many Indigenous cultures, at least Torres Strait culture. But something that I also do want to see is new ways of expressing culture. Although we can carry on culture in very traditional forms, and it will continue on in that way, and we're going to try and do that, culture is not something that's static. It kind of changes, and it shifts, it melds, it intermixes with other things. And sometimes you end up with something brand new, but there's remnants of the old there.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Rhett Loban, a Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney and a Torres Strait Islander.
RHETT LOBAN: So the Torres Strait is located in Far North Queensland. And it's between Cape York, which is the northernmost tip of Australia, and Papua New Guinea. So in between there, there's a collection of islands, and that's the Torres Straits.
JAMES PARKINSON: Rhett’s work revolves around games-based learning and virtual reality, and in 2015 he set out to make a VR game that celebrates Torres Strait Islander culture.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games, and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: Virtual Reality is still an emerging technology and in 2015, Rhett Loban was excited by its potential, as it was becoming more accessible. And this coincided with him teaching at the University of New South Wales.
RHETT LOBAN: And during that time period, I was also set up to teach a course at UNSW where I had to create, kind of, simulations or interactive environments. So I was learning how to, not create games necessarily, but create interactive environments. So VR was coming out, I had just learned the skills, and I had a look at these things and I thought, “Hmm, nobody's really done anything, in terms of Indigenous media, but let alone media about the Torres Straits. So I had, kind of this knowledge, that I had, a little bit about Torres Strait knowledge, I had a little bit about how to design those kinds of interactive environments. VR was a new medium and I feel like Indigenous storytelling, and for me, Indigenous ways of learning in some Indigenous communities are, kind of, very experiential and interactive. So these kinds of things combined together for me, and it made me come up with the idea that perhaps I could communicate Torres Strait culture through this medium and then that would be kind of a nice fit, from my perspective.
JAMES PARKINSON: Rhett submitted a proposal to UNSW and was given approval to develop his game, which he called Torres Strait Virtual Reality.
RHETT LOBAN: It kind of was difficult at first, because I'd never made a game before, or kind of a large interactive environment like that. So I tried to base it around a cultural, kind of cultural things within the Torres Strait. So the main storyline of Torres Strait Virtual Reality is that you're collecting different things for a tombstone opening. So a tombstone opening in the Torres Straits is after somebody’s died, you have this end of a mourning period, but it's an event where there’s - you’ll have singing, you’ll have dancing, and you'll also have a feast as well. So my approach was kind of basing it around this journey, where you're going and getting different things for the tombstone. And, of course, with the tombstone, in tombstone opening, everyone's kind of assigned different responsibilities. So whether you're collecting the food, or different items for the tombstone opening, or maybe you're cooking, or maybe you're one of the dance groups that are there, people have different roles that they have to do. So it's your role in the game to collect some items from the tombstone opening, and some food as well. So that's kind of how I was trying to base it, around some sort of story or some sort of cultural event that was unique to the Torres Strait, and that was significant.
JAMES PARKINSON: Development took place over a couple of years, as Rhett was also undertaking his PhD in Media Studies at the same time. Making your own game is somewhat easier these days, but VR has its own challenges, and with limited skills and a small budget, Rhett relied a lot on free assets available online.
RHETT LOBAN: So I used Unreal Engine 4, because that's what I learned when I was teaching interactive design. And of course, I'm not like a person who can create 3D models necessarily. So a lot of what I was doing, because I had a certain amount of funds for the project, I was strategically utilising things that I could download or different assets that I could get. And I would use them in the game where I could. It’s an island setting, but there are, of course, loads of islands around the world, so there were a lot of assets online available for that. So I could use, kind of, different things like that. But where there are culturally specific sorts of things, I did little things to try and kind of kind of work around that. So there was a Torres Strait Elder on the project, and he drew some pictures of different constellations that we have in the Torres Strait as well. And I essentially used those to turn them into 3D objects, and then I turned them into constellations that we can then put up into the sky. And of course, they're not exact, but they're kind of the interpretation of what it is. And then I also had two students of mine that were helping me as well. I got one of them to craft little things that we associate with the tombstone opening. So we have a certain harpoon in the Torres Straits called a Wap. And I was getting him to craft those little spears, or the harpoon. And I also got him to craft a tombstone as well, so to kind of indicate that. So that was kind of my approach to creating the game, is that I would try and leverage generic things that a lot of islands have. But then when they were culturally specific things, I would kind of craft them in certain ways, or get, use my student to craft little things as well. And of course, you add extra flavour to the game through the story. So when you're going through the game, the story is told to you, where it’s a Torres Strait Elder telling you, as you kind of go through the story, and you're told the little bits about the culture that are there as well. So that's kind of how I went about doing the back-end was utilising a lot of stuff off the internet. But then when it came to culturally specific things, I was doing little things to insert them in.
JAMES PARKINSON: Rhett encountered the typical technical problems as well, like bugs and glitches, and often had to problem solve or seek out help from forums and other resources. But he also experienced some real limitations in the assets he had access to. Finding plants, animals and other environmental objects wasn’t an issue, but there are no people in TSVR, because 3D models that accurately represent Indigenous people just don’t exist.
RHETT LOBAN: So one of the issues that I kind of had was that Torres Strait Islander people and Aboriginal people, Indigenous people, generally, aren't really represented in games. And this goes the same for things like 3D models, and if you want to build a game world. If I want to build a Japanese game world, I can do that. There’s all the models online, you can put them together, that that's fine. You want to do that for, like, a place in the US or somewhere in another western country, you can do that. All these kinds of things are online. These things aren't really available for Torres Strait Islanders or even Indigenous people generally. So although the game is about Torres Strait culture, you won't find any people in the game, because there aren't any kind of assets available online. So that was kind of one of the big barriers, because there were assets available of all sorts of other cultures, but I wouldn't want to put a model that doesn't really culturally represent a Torres Strait person in there. So my design decision around that was just not to have anyone and that I would use other elements to communicate culture.
RHETT LOBAN: So it’s like another obstacle to make the game. I feel like, for different things, it's like a compounding obstacle, because there's none of those assets available, whether it's people, cultural objects, story characters, whatever it may be. The game itself is unique, because there's not that much out there. It is a compounding sort of thing where it's more difficult, because we can't have access to those things.
JAMES PARKINSON: These limitations forced Rhett to narrow the scope of the project. But having a clear vision for the game allowed him to include as many cultural elements as possible. The result is a game that’s educational and interactive.
RHETT LOBAN: So when you put on the headset, you'll be put into kind of a movie theatre, almost. And you'll be told that a relative has passed away, and it's your responsibility to collect different items for the tombstone opening. So you'll start off on Mabuiag Island, and you kind of find your way around there. And Mabuiag is where my family lineage comes from. You’ll kind of go through a little bit of a tutorial, there are signs telling you how to move around, what to do, the Elder is also telling you what to do in the background as well, and you're going through there. I've made the checkpoints for each game, in terms of campfires. Now, they are short checkpoints, between them. But I've made them in terms of campfires. So once you get to the first campfire, that's when the screen goes blank. And then you'll kind of be told that you need to go to Boigu Island to collect some different cultural artefacts from Papua New Guinean traders. And then the day and night cycle of the game kicks off from there. So then you'll look up to the sky, and then you'll see the different constellations in the sky. And then you continue on your journey. So the first part is kind of an introductory to the game and how to move around, and then setting you off on the first things that you need to get on Boigu Island.
JAMES PARKINSON: TSVR isn’t open-ended but it does allow the player to explore the game world and go at their own pace.
RHETT LOBAN: So some people could complete it in 20 minutes, and that would be enough. Some people are in there for, like, an hour or more. Because they often end up going on to the side routes or onto different islands that have all the story characters, so they kind of find those. If you jump in the ocean, you’ll find all these different marine life as well. So it depends on the route they take and whether they wander off onto different sidetracks. It also actually depends on whether the people can stomach the virtual reality as well. Because some people put it on for two minutes, and they have to go out because they can't necessarily handle it. So that's kind of one of the elements as well, that determined whether they were there. The other thing was, I started this when VR was quite early. So Torres Strait Virtual Reality uses a controller, like an Xbox controller to move around. And what we find is that that can cause an issue for some people, because their body doesn't synchronise with what the digital body is doing. So the time you spend in there, kind of varied on whether you are doing - what you did in the game, and how you reacted to virtual reality as well.
JAMES PARKINSON: While Virtual Reality isn’t perfect, Rhett says it was the obvious choice for TSVR, to provide a more interactive and immersive way for the player to experience Torres Strait culture.
RHETT LOBAN: Yeah, I had always kind of set my eye on virtual reality. I really like the experiential nature of virtual reality. So I had visions, you know, whether they kind of met them or not, but I had visions of when I was starting off, that I would go into the game, and I could look up at the stars, and I could look up at the constellations. And I would see the different - some of the things there, some of the story characters in the sky. And I thought that was really cool. And I had this vision, where you would go through the island, and you would be in that first person perspective there, and that would be an experience in itself. So I had always set my eye on virtual reality, because I had very much liked that idea. And like I said, it matched with a lot of Torres Strait ways of learning. And I had liked that way of learning, just by walking through the game and kind of being there and seeing different things and hearing things, and being in that place. I'd always really liked that idea.
RHETT LOBAN: I would say that, it's got game elements in there, where you're moving around, and there are different characters that you kind of see, and you'll be told stuff by the narrator in the background. But I would probably say it might even lean more towards the accessibility element in there. Because there were points in there where I was thinking, it'd be cool to have like a survival element or a survival component in it. So you could go do traditional ways of hunting and traditional ways of gaining food or you might get plants or fruits and stuff like that. But then I thought it won't tie well with learning and the purpose of what I wanted to do, which was communicate the cultural elements. So I mean, obviously, if it was like a normal, non-VR game, these things might work out quite well. But for a game like Torres Strait Virtual Reality, I had to go towards the way of simplifying it for people just pick it up and play it. So I had considered inserting and having more traditional “gamey” elements. But I erred on that side, because of where I was going to implement it, in terms of education.
JAMES PARKINSON: TSVR is what’s called a “serious game”. Games that are intended for things like education or health and wellbeing - basically anything outside pure entertainment. And after the break, we look at how Torres Strait Virtual Reality was implemented in classrooms. We also examine the problems when games portray historical events, at the expense of Indigenous Peoples. That’s next, on Gameplay.
JAMES PARKINSON: Rhett Loban’s intention behind Torres Strait Virtual Reality was always to implement the game in a classroom setting. And he did so, in a few different ways, including game development and Indigenous education.
RHETT LOBAN: One class, they had to develop a manual game prototype for the client. And this client, they would have been interested in new tech, and those sorts of things and new ways of communicating. So we had used my game as a kind of an exemplar for game design, because it was obviously a game for learning. But it was also a game that leveraged new technology as well. So that was the game design class. And then we use it in an Indigenous cultural class or an Indigenous introduction to a indigenous culture. And that was used in. And we use the game as kind of like an exemplar for a new way to communicate culture.
JAMES PARKINSON: And another class used TSVR to discuss the processes around working with Indigenous communities.
RHETT LOBAN: So for that one, the lecturer had this approach to what he called the politics of process. And that was his approach to Indigenous education. And with that, whenever you go into Indigenous communities, or at least Torres Strait communities, there are certain protocols and processes you have to follow. And they're quite democratic, it's getting the community's perspectives. Sometimes you can go ahead and do things yourself. But normally, we try to take a more equitable and democratic approach where we get people's different perspectives. And we go through that process, and then at the end of that, you come up with some sort of consensus or decision, because you've gone through and you've talked to different people in the community. And, you know, you do that sometimes when you're in education, as well. And when you're dealing with Indigenous people, and he wants to communicate that. And with my game, it was no different either. Because when I was going through it, I was getting input from obviously an Elder, different organisations, both inside and outside the university, various Indigenous people, the students who were playing it, they were telling me things as well. So I was going through this process of consultation, and I was going through the proper protocols that I have to, for my culture. And so the good thing about this was though, if you're making a game, you have to go through a quality assurance process as well, making sure that you get any bugs out and those sorts of things, and how you can improve upon the game. And this was this sort of process was very similar to the cultural consultation process, in the sense that I had to talk to different people and see what they thought, and then integrate that into the game. So I found out by going through the quality assurance process and the play-testing process, and through the cultural consultation process, they synchronised into one process that worked quite well. So I was talking to the students about how when I was going through this sort of process, I was doing the consultation at the same time. So that's kind of the message that I was putting forth for that class, is that they have to do these things when they're going into schools, and they have to go through these processes when they're dealing with Indigenous people. And it's no different for my medium as well, or in my industry. I still have to go through these things, even though I'm a Torres Strait person, and I've my family and everything, there are still these processes that you kind of have to go through and you have to adhere to. And they're important for the culture and for the community.
JAMES PARKINSON: Rhett says that watching people play TSVR confirmed to him how impactful this kind of experience can be, helping them connect with Indigenous culture in a whole new way.
RHETT LOBAN: I had one Torres Strait person come, she was an older woman. She quite enjoyed it. We had students come in who were, like, 16. They weren't necessarily Torres Strait, but they were Aboriginal. They came in and they enjoyed it as well. It was something very new for them. For some of them, even if they weren't Torres Strait, they could kind of see some sort of Indigenous representation in the game, and kind of like things that would be important to them. So kind of seeing things about the sea, or sharks, or crocodiles or those sorts of things, these things, seeing these in the game. Things that would be important to them, so seeing things about the seas, or sharks or crocodiles or those sorts of things. See these things in the game and in an Indigenous context, I think could be quite important for some people. So for me, my Totem is Dugong and crocodile. And so seeing those things in the context of the game, and in the Torres Strait environment is quite important for me. So I think some of the kids, they really enjoyed seeing the wildlife, but in an Indigenous contexts, it was kind of important as well, because it's that actual link on country.
JAMES PARKINSON: Rhett is a big believer in the ability for games, and other forms of digital media, to take on the role of sharing and preserving tradition and culture, in new and evolving ways. He says there needs to be a shift to a digital mindset, in the ways we teach and learn, visually and experientially. It’s an idea that’s becoming increasingly important for current and future generations, and not just for Indigenous communities but for everyone. And for Rhett, this approach comes from a Torres Strait Islander concept called the cultural tree.
RHETT LOBAN: So the cultural tree, in Torres Strait culture, and at least from my family as well, we see culture as a tree. So at the bottom of the tree, you have your roots. And for me in terms of culture, this is representative of kind of old culture, or very traditional forms of culture. It could be singing, could be dance, could be storytelling, those kind of very traditional ways that we've kind of embodied culture in the Torres Straits. When you go up the tree, and out at the top comes like all these different branches, you have new forms of culture, or culture that's been remixed. So this could include things like, you know, movies or games and virtual reality. So, for me, this kind of tree and my place sitting in the tree is one of those branches, because I've tried to take from the kind of traditional elements, and I've tried to represent them in the game somehow. Whether you know, that's kind of those story characters, or maybe kind of little bits of traditional knowledge about the environment, or representing, you know, the landscape. So some islands are a little bit different, others, some have more rocks on them, other ones, will have kind of a different landscape. So the Torres Strait tree is kind of, it's how I see and how some of my family sees culture and how its transformed and represented kind of in different ways, and how, although the medium is new, it's been remixed a little bit, there's still that core culture that draws from and that feeds into that new culture, new cultural representations, like games or virtual reality. So that's kind of what the cultural tree is, for me. It's a representation of how culture changes, but there are always kind of like, traditional elements there, and that new forms of culture draw upon from the old.
JAMES PARKINSON: Rhett grew up playing a lot of traditional games for entertainment as well, and he has a particular interest in grand strategy games. So much so that he based his PhD around them.
RHETT LOBAN: So my PhD was looking at how we can teach history through grand strategy games. And whether, kind of, new forms of gaming practices, or maybe not even new but uncommon forms of gaming practices, such as modding, are useful learning exercises or ways of learning.
JAMES PARKINSON: The research showed that modding did prove to be a more useful way of learning history through the game, offering more opportunities for creative engagement. But the findings also acknowledged the educational limitations of games based on history. There are often inaccuracies, and grand strategy games in particular usually portray history from a very narrow and colonial perspective. And that brings up a lot of problems, with how First Nations people are represented.
RHETT LOBAN: With, say for example, Europa Universalis, there's very visual ways that it sets out the game. And there's a lot of maps that they use. And so what I had found through my game, my own game experiences with Europa Universalis, I had learned a lot about geography, and places in the world, different resources, and all these sorts of things. And so I, when I was going through these things, I am playing the game and playing out the game, I was learning a lot about where things were in the world, where people were, these borders. But of course, the way that the game is designed, it's based on building an empire. And there's a lot of imperialistic and Eurocentric elements to the game. How empires expanded, almost always, the new world will be colonised by European powers. So these sorts of games, they're good at telling you the geography elements, and maybe broader elements of how history turned out, and the broader themes of history, but they reinforce it from a certain perspective of that these processes were good things, or you play them out, wanting to do those things in-game because you want to win the game, right? So you want to expand and you want to find out how to get as much resources and you want to find out how you can win the game. So these are the tools that you have to use to win the game or to, more or less, beat it because there's not necessarily an end goal. But for you to win it, per se, you have to do these things. Indigenous people, more or less, aren't reflected. In a normal game, you can interact with a nation, you can form some sort of diplomacy, you make alliances with them, you can trade with them, you can do all these sorts of things. But essentially, these lands are there just to be colonised and taken over, more or less. So they kind of reinforce these really harmful, or these really problematic ideas. Whether the game developers intentionally do this or not, they’re kind of reinforcing these attitudes through their games, I feel, to some extent.
JAMES PARKINSON: So are these kinds of strategy games inherently problematic for allowing the player to carry out acts of colonisation? Or is there an alternative approach to making these games that’s respectful of Indigenous people?
RHETT LOBAN: Yeah, that's a hard question. It may be that certain games may be more predisposed towards - or certain certain topics may be more predisposed towards other kinds of games. Because, I made a mod for the game called Indigenous People of Oceania. And I inserted Torres Strait nations, I tried to insert and represent other indigenous nations in the game as well. But the issue there becomes then, although I can play as a Torres Strait nation, or another indigenous nation in the mod, which I created the game, you still have to conform to the same rules that are inherently ingrained in the game, where you have to expand otherwise, you kind of die out or you lose the game. And that's not to say that there aren't other - like there are options where you can trade and you become the richest nation, and that's a strategy in itself. But as a general sort of thing, you still have to conform to this Empire, what a lot of people on the forums call map painting, where you're just painting the map in your nation's colour. So these sorts of things could be represented in games, but it's hard for grand strategy, if grand strategies are predominantly built on having an Empire and then, you know, expanding it, and through whatever tools, whether it's trade or military conquest, or diplomacy, or those sorts of things. Do you know what I mean? I suppose what they’re doing is historic, but it’s from the perspective of the people doing it. It’s something that’s actively encouraged in the game, because you have to do it. Even if you can have the Torres Strait Nation, what it's been pushing is kind of what we're trying to work against in education, and providing different perspectives on history and different perspectives on how the past happened.
JAMES PARKINSON: Grand strategy games are fairly niche, but they still have very active and passionate communities. So even if they tend to fly under the radar, in how they portray historical events and represent Indigenous Peoples, it’s important that they’re not exempt from criticism.
RHETT LOBAN: And just from like, an educational perspective, as well, I think in education, were even trying to train up students to be media literate, as well. So it's just not accepting whatever is there, but actually being quite critical of it, and understanding that, whatever it is, whether it's games, movies, news even, that you're critical of that you're just aware of the biases that are there and what's being said.
JAMES PARKINSON: Of course, Rhett Loban wants to see more positive representations of Indigenous people in video games. But he says game developers have to ensure they go about things the right way.
RHETT LOBAN: You have to involve the community or you'd want to have a little bit of input from the community when you're creating games, or you're wanting to represent indigenous people. So, fairer representations, and more representation if we can, if possible. There was a really good version - there was a really good approach - do you remember, Age of Empires 3? In the original game, there was a lot of criticism for them in the way that they portrayed Native Americans, and different tribes there. They used, like, the fire pit, there was issues around that, because they weren't representing the actual way that different Native American tribes would have used the fire pit. And they were kind of like, very stereotypical elements in there. But they had quite a good approach, where when they released the deluxe, or the updated version of it, they were working in consultation with Native American tribes that were depicted in the game. And I think they swapped out the fire pit, which they used for like, a marketplace, which would have been more historically accurate, and it's more culturally authentic as well. So it's not beyond the realm of developers. So, more representations and fairer representations of Indigenous people, is something that I would kind of want, particularly for Australia, where we're basically not depicted or we’re depicted in kind of those really awful ways.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much to Rhett Loban. This episode was inspired by an article from Rhett, published in the Guardian - there’s a link to that in the episode description and on our website, gameplay.co. TSVR isn’t publicly available, but if you’d like to check it out, we also have a link to the trailer.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the Traditional Custodians of the land, and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. I acknowledge that sovereignty has never been ceded. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Blue Dot Sessions and Breakmaster Cylinder.
JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. We’re also on YouTube, and we have a Discord, so come and join the community, where you discuss the show and can talk games with me and other listeners. You’ll find the link to join, plus episode transcripts and further reading on our website, gameplay.co. Thanks for listening.