One way to avoid cultural appropriation: Seek collaborators, not just characters

The line between cultural appropriation and cultural inspiration is often a complicated one for creators of art, media and entertainment to walk. Today, the New York Times published a series of opinion pieces on the subject. But the best thing I've seen today is a video that describes a situation where creating art about another culture went very right: the video game Never Alone.

An award-winning platform and puzzle game about an Alaska Native girl named Nuna and her pet arctic fox, Never Alone not only made indigenous culture and folklore and integral part of its gaming experience; it made a real-life community of Natives an essential part of the development process.

In the video from the Future of StoryTelling Summit, Alan Gershenfeld, the president of game publisher E-Line, describes being approached by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and how they worked together to create Never Alone through a collaborative process. Cook Inlet Tribal Council members weren't just asked to superficially consult; they became part of a greenlight committee that had equal numbers of E-Line employees and Natives, and worked together to address problems related to everything from concept art to personnel.


"When people hear about the game, they think that we went and made a game about the Alaska Natives culture. That's not really true. We made our game with our Alaska Native partners," says Gershenfeld. "We had to learn to see the world through each other's eyes and that really did mean spending a lot of time in each other's worlds… We agreed that we were going to do everything inclusively."

Amy Freeden, the executive VP of the Cooke Inlet Tribal Council, notes that "the whole game development process ended up being a process of interdependence. That was amazing for us to see that naturally happen, because interdependence is such an important value for the Alaskan Native people."

She hopes that the game will serve not only as an invitation for more games in the "world games" genre, but a model for "a way to include a whole community in the making of a game, where the whole community gets to become that storyteller trough the game."

Never Alone is currently available on PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Mac and PC. An additional downloadable chapter called Foxtales was also released last week, for anyone looking for more adventures with Nuna and Fox.