Calgary-made virtual reality game teaches Blackfoot language, culture

[It doesn’t use the term entertainment-education but that’s the basis for the positive application of presence in this story from the Calgary Sun. More coverage is available from The Star, CityNews has a 1:58 minute video report, Oculus Go has a 0:30 trailer  and more information and images are available from the Thunder website. –Matthew]

[Image: About 100 guests test out a new Blackfoot language and storytelling game created by MAMMOTH, a local augmented and virtual reality company. The guests attended the USAYÕs Thunder VR launch party on Monday, June 17. The virtual reality game teaches users Blackfoot language through storytelling. Credit: Von Zuniga]

Calgary-made virtual reality game teaches Blackfoot language, culture

Olivia Condon
June 21, 2019

Combining centuries-old Indigenous storytelling with high-tech virtual reality might not seem like an easy task. But for two Calgary organizations, it was a match made in culture-preserving heaven.

At a launch party this week, the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY) introduced a virtual reality game that focuses on teaching Blackfoot “power words” through the lens of a traditional Indigenous story.

After a trip to the VRKADE with their Indigenous inclusion program youth more than a year ago, USAY staff had a light bulb moment.

“They reacted so positively to (the VR) that it made us think … we had a popular graphic novel called Thunder that was out of stock and we were thinking of a way to make it more accessible,” executive director LeeAnne Ireland said.

USAY partnered with Calgary augmented and virtual reality company Mammoth in spring of 2018 to create Thunder VR, an immersive Blackfoot language and culture learning tool inspired by the novel.

Five years ago, Blood elder Randy Bottle visited USAY to meet with youth and help develop a graphic novel centred on traditional storytelling. Thunder tells the story of a man challenging and eventually honouring the spirit of Thunder and all the great things thunder, lightning and rain do for the environment.

“It’s such a positive Indigenous story and there’s certainly a negative representation of Indigenous people, or just reporting negative aspects, so our intention with this project and at USAY in general is to tell the positive, strength-based stories,” Ireland said.

“Having an elder who spoke and wrote (Blackfoot), which is an endangered language, was a huge asset to this project.”

Bottle also provided voice-over work for the game.

“It can be intimidating working with an elder,” Mammoth’s Shaun Crawford said. “When recording voice-overs usually we’ll give feedback but when you have an elder there, you’re not going to give him any kind of direction because just being there to share that story is incredibly powerful.”

Crawford and his team at Mammoth worked closely with USAY throughout the development of the program, taking part in a blessing ceremony and involving the youth in testing the game at various stages of its completion.

“We wanted to get the youth to take a look at it as we went to keep the story as true and in its traditional form as possible,” he said.

Thunder VR has four levels that take players through multiple challenges, taking roughly 20 minutes to finish. Ireland said the game has had a very positive response.

“It’s the only Indigenous game available for free download and so far we’ve been getting incredible feedback,” Ireland said. “Everyone is so impressed that it’s an Indigenous VR game … learning tools maybe aren’t going to be as fun or interesting, but this is both.”

USAY and Mammoth are working two more projects, set to be completed before the end of the year. The first is another VR game called Finding Victor which looks at the issue of homelessness, the causes and the experience within it. The second is an “unrestricted” VR look and tour of the Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, southeast of Lethbridge.

“It’s all been very humbling,” Crawford said. “This process gave us an opportunity to just listen. To listen and learn and be open and it has created this reverence for everyone at USAY whose partnership is the best thing to come out of this project.”

Ireland and the rest of the team at USAY are planning to take Thunder VR, with their 27 Oculus Go headsets, to schools across the city in the hopes that the new technology will pique interest in Blackfoot culture.

“VR is an empathy machine. The experience itself is very compelling so the youth are really integrated into that process, it’s extremely experiential.”

Thunder VR can be downloaded for free in the Oculus store for the Oculus Go VR headset.

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