Pixels and Pandemics: Indigenous Game Devs Respond To The Virus

That flux is creating enormous changes in what might be little Indigenous-run studios, but it is these creatives who have been meeting those same challenges head on in ways that larger studios cannot hope to.

by Elijah Forbes on April 13th, 2020

Since the moment COVID-19 became a known threat, the world at large has been in flux. People across the globe have seen job losses, social dynamics shifting, and a clear class divide. As with all turbulent events, minority groups have been specifically affected by the loss of opportunity and social currency that social isolation brings with it. For many, the effect of COVID-19 is boredom and a desire to wait out the event until life can resume “business as usual.” However, for many Indigenous game designers, business is never usual. In fact, being an Indigenous game designer means knowing full well that the way the industry works is often entirely contradictory to Indigenous ways of being. 

So what does it mean to return to normal, when you barely fit the description? Or is it best to build something entirely new?


“Hill Agency”, from Meagan Byrne’s studio “Achimo Games,” follows Indigenous P.I. Meegyun Hill through a cyberpunk future North America. This Indigenous take on cybernoir is a breath of fresh air for the genre, yet has found its development shaky following the COVID-19 event.

Indigenous peoples are not strangers to pandemics. We have remained resilient and adapted across centuries of oppression, but no amount of resilience protects from a virus. For Meagan Byrne (Âpihtawikosisân or Métis) of Achimo Games, creator of the Indigenous noir-cyberpunk game “Hill Agency: Bark and Bite,” the effects of this virus were not initially apparent on her company. Their workers had always been remote, and their amount of funding was always shaky. “There was already a certain feeling of instability, so our company was prepared for this in some way,” she noted in an interview, mentioning that the bigger impact was the fact that many of her remote workers had returned home to reservations with shoddy (and sometime, no) internet connection. 

There have also been issues of monetary losses in the wake of the pandemic, which is certainly no surprise to anyone in the game industry. Still, without gaming conventions, where most promotion of new games takes place, distribution has had no choice but to be adversely affected.

Making games, and who has the privilege to make them, has also changed in the wake of the pandemic. According to Meagan, this is a mixed bag. “There’s going to be lots of frustration with online learning. The physicality of the team is very important [to learning game design].” Many universities picked up online learning as a stop-gap measure when it became evident that COVID-19 was being passed around in lecture halls. However, very few professors have ever been trained in online teaching, which has led to a lower standard in education.

Still from the video game When Rivers Were Trails: "An Anishinaabekwe (Anishinaabe woman) is headed in the direction of Leech Lake to the north." The game offers the option to Talk About White Earth, Gift or Trade.

Doctor Elizabeth LaPensée’s “When Rivers Were Trails” is an Indigenous response to the Oregon Trail games. It focuses on Indigenous sovereignty, reciprocal relationships to the land, and relationship to one’s self. Doctor LaPensée’s background as an Anishinaabe person informed all levels of game development, as this game would not exist in its current form if created by a production-focused mainstream studio.

Doctor Elizabeth LaPensée (Métis and Anishinaabe), a game designer and assistant professor at Michigan State University, is one professor that had a background in online education before the pandemic rocked the world of education. She noted that this pandemic has had somewhat of a positive impact on what game conferences are still ongoing. “There have been several new resources thanks to the focus on online communication. Indigenous game developers are connecting in more accessible ways because of events canceling.” For Indigenous game developers who have never had the funds to attend such conventions, this seems to be a change worth keeping. New resources in the wake of COVID-19 include video-conferencing in lieu of traditional conferences, free Unity courses, and community support in the form of Slack and Discord groups, sharing links to upcoming events and grants for affected studios. 

In our current climate of social isolation, games are more important than ever to give people of all backgrounds ways to experience the world, as well as socialize with others. As social events move online, many Indigenous people have begun participating in “Digital Powwows,” in a wonderful expression of Indigenous futurism. Special moments of connectivity become possible despite stay at home orders, as well as more generalized entertainment. Game developers of all backgrounds have an opportunity here with remote working teams to create media that can be published fully online and enjoyed long after movies and television have all dried up, Meagan noted.

They also offer a different method of dealing with traumatic events. “Games can offer a space for  you to think, process, and hold space for yourself that we don’t usually allow in real life. You don’t have to share the game itself with anyone else, and making games can even help you process that trauma.”

Two examples Meagan offered are “Undertale” by Toby Fox and “Everything Will Be OK” by Nathalie Lawhead. In both of these games, players are allowed to be, and perhaps forced to become, unsettled. In Undertale, you are a child navigating the fall into the “Undergound” inhabited by monsters – in a departure from traditional games, you don’t have to kill any of them to win. Lawhead describes “Everything Will Be Okay,” as “a desktop labyrinth of vignettes, poetry, strange fever dream games, and broken digital spaces. It is a collection of life experiences that are largely a commentary on struggle, survival, and coping with the aftermath of surviving bad things.”

These developers approach traumatic events through games differently, but in the end players are left with a question they could only answer for themselves: If you can only be yourself after everything that has happened to you, are you okay with that? Indigenous people, as a group, are trying to process generations of trauma. For us, being “okay” with ourselves will likely be a longer journey than the mainstream may see as healthy. For both Indigenous game developers and Indigenous people that play games, these sacred spaces to take time with one’s self and feel hard feelings can be very healing.

Amid COVID-19, the world keeps rushing on with deadlines, productivity quotas, and algorithms unceasing. These same deadlines are what often creates such a conflict with Indigenous thought and ways of being. Art deliverables and protocol leave little space for ceremony, let alone the thoughtful contemplation, pause, and laughter that comes so naturally to Indigenous creatives. While for many Indigenous game designers this event has meant more time to work, Elizabeth cautions that we must also take time to mourn. “While access and resources have increased, it is also important to not expect maximum productivity right now. It is okay to need to process… and focus on adjusting life in crisis mode.”

Perhaps if there is a new normal coming to Indigenous game designers, it needs to be the willingness to change out the way things have been, for what they could be. What does game development from Indigenous studios look like when it is not based on office work and meetings? Meagan suggests that game studios of all kinds look into co-working environments following the pandemic in order to remove some of the barriers to entry in the games industry. Not everyone lives in New York and Vancouver, after all. Companies she has worked with in the past have utilized co-working office spaces in Hamilton, Ontario in order to reach talent that would otherwise be inaccessible.

As our world becomes more isolated and yet more connected than ever, the games industry is in flux. That flux is creating enormous changes in what might be little Indigenous-run studios, but it is these creatives who have been meeting those same challenges head on in ways that larger studios cannot hope to. This flexibility has allowed these creatives to lead the way in game creation, education, and sustainable work environments within traumatic situations. The time to support Indigenous game companies is now, not only through monetary support (such as the Pay Your Rent initiative, where non-Indigenous people can donate land and money toward Indigenous sovereignty, either locally or through online efforts), but also through platforming their work on social media and in physical spaces. 

Not all industries will survive this pandemic. If the gaming industry wants to, it must be ready to change, and quickly. Indigenous people are leading the way once again. Let’s hope the rest of the world is watching.