Elizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D | Critical Distance: Keywords in Play, Episode 1


“Keywords in Play” is an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.

In this episode we speak to Elizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D. Elizabeth is an award-winning designer, writer, artist, and researcher who creates and studies Indigenous-led media such as games and comics. She is Anishinaabe with family from Bay Mills, Métis, and Irish. She is an Assistant Professor of Media & Information and Writing, Rhetoric & American Cultures at Michigan State University and a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow.

As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.


Thunderbird Strike

Thunderbird Strike

When Rivers Were Trails

When Rivers Were Trails

Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed.

Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart

Double Bass: Aaron Stewart


Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about games research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.

As a joint venture Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.


Elizabeth LaPensée, really happy to have you here.  Could you introduce yourself in your own words?

Elizabeth:  Yeah, absolutely. Aanii. Waabananang indizhnikaaz miinawaa gekek indoodem miinawaa Baawaating indoonjibaa. [Text provided by Elizabeth]

My name is Elizabeth LaPensee and I am an Anishinaabe and Métis game designer, artist, researcher and writer.

Darshana: What are some of the most recent games that you’ve worked on?

Elizabeth:  I just released ‘When Rivers Were Trails’, which is an educational 2D adventure game in collaboration with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. As actually based off of their curriculum ‘Lessons of Our Land’.  And then before then in terms of my own work, was releasing ‘Thunderbird Strike’, which is a side scroller in which you play as a thunderbird striking lightning down at mining company buildings and the big giant mining trucks.


Darshana:  We’ll definitely talk about that one.  That one’s like quite, quite striking in many ways. So, but just to kind of like kick-off, there’s an academic Kyle P Whyte, whose argued that concepts such as the Anthropocene or climate change, they tend to erase indigenous experiences, of the already existing catastrophes of capitalism.  I was wondering do you see resonances with this argument in the way that digital games have often worked with, or struggled to work with the concept of the indigenous?

Elizabeth:  Hmmm.  Absolutely, growing up for myself I was always looking for women representations, indigenous representations.  And because there were so few of those you know you look at ‘Night Wolf’ ‘Wolf, Hawk, Field’, you know that it goes on and on. There’s always pattern and there’s always their keeper of their people, the protector of their people.  And you don’t actually know who their people are.  It’s often generalised, often displaced from the idea of nationhood and often also in relation to settlers.  So indigenous people operate or function within relation to the settler as the primary.  And the reality of it is, as I understood growing up, a teaching that was passed onto me by my mother, Grace Dillon, is that we are all already living in a post-apocalypse.  For indigenous people, the apocalypse has already happened.  And so how do we actually continue to thrive in an ongoing way and how can we look at games in terms, especially of mechanics, as a way to extend teachings about science, about traditional ecological knowledge, about ways of continuing on?

Darshana:  There’s recently a paper that’s come out by Rhett Loban and Tom Apperley, they say that many digital games are about eurocentric values at play.  Do you see that kind of critique as resonating with what you are talking about there?

Elizabeth:  Absolutely, right down to mechanics!  One of the very first papers I had ever written when I was in graduate school was about ‘Age of Empires 3 – The War Chiefs’ and the irony of taking a realtime strategy game and having indigenous representations in it, when those mechanics are all constructed around the values of taking, taking, taking, taking, taking.  That’s what you do.

Darshana:  Yeah

Elizabeth:  And, even down to the way that a map is represented.  So, you know a map in realtime strategy games, the land exists in relation to what the player has quote-unquote discovered.  And also, in relation to what they have claimed or what they own. You know the colours are dependant on who has what territory and how the battles are unfolding.  And so as a way to respond to that in the 2D adventure game ‘When Rivers Were Trails’, the maps actually exist in relation to the land, our state borders are removed, all the maps are from the 1890s based on the real layout of railroads and where reservation lines were at that time in 1890.  But it has been very interesting to see players go through a game that does not identify that you are, say in the state of Minnesota or you are now in the state of Washington.  But in fact, you have to learn to recognise the land and really look at the land in relation to a self, and how much that changes the way in which we are looking at a game level, right?

Darshana: Yeah

Elizabeth: So, it’s really important then that we understand that there are ways in which games design can reinforce colonisation through the very mechanics themselves.

Darshana: Yeah and I guess a lot of your, your practice may be critiquing that sort of you know, approach I guess. Or the way in that those eurocentric values are baked into what’s usually considered, by a lot of people at least, non-political.  You know it’s, it’s mechanics, it’s a very kind of, that physics kind of metaphor.  It’s not a, not a political kind of a thing.  Whereas in your work, indigenadian politics seem inextricably linked a lot of the time.  How do you think about that relationship between indigenadian politics and how does the game design-build that out?

Elizabeth:  It was really quite a fascinating experience, terrifying at times as well but.

[Chuckles and laughs]

Elizabeth:  Y’know, hey death threats that’s great!

Darshana: Oh God!

Elizabeth:  But during that process, I actually did not understand the work I was doing to be political.  I am just existing, I am an indigenous game developer really just hoping for the best for the next generations, continuing on stories.  And so for me, when I made ‘Thunderbird Strike’ I was passing on thunderbird stories from my family members and from people who I answer to – elders and storytellers. And then it really came forward for me when an oil lobbyist group attacked my game and accused it of being political.  And when the institution that I am a part of actually had to clarify with me “did you use any institutional equipment to develop this game?”.  And no, I had not because it was actually entirely on my own laptop. I had been working to it prior to being hired into this position.  But it was a potential issue, it was a legal issue. And through that process, I was audited because I had received an arts grant which had partial funds from taxpayers in it.  And I have since gone on to be used as an example at a government level to articulate the reason for a new bill that is being passed forward in the state of Minnesota.  That says that anyone who receives arts funding, if they depict what they get to, as in the senate and the court, determine to be quote-unquote civil disobedience or quote-unquote domestic terrorism (which was their accusation of ‘Thunderbird Strike’, was that I am training eco-terrorists).

Darshana:  Even though it’s a giant thunderbird!?  It’s not…

Elizabeth:  Yeah!  You’re playing as a thunderbird in a like cartoon-esque woodland style game. In which you actually both have restoration points and destruction points and just as often as you can strike lightning down at mining company buildings and big giant mining trucks, you can also strike it at animals, the bones of animals to bring them back to life.  Or at people to activate them, right, and deform. And so you know, there’s a balance there, the teaching of that game is balance and continuance to the thunderbird itself.  So, effectively now there is a law going through that says that a person who depicts what they you know choose to be, what they claim to be domesticate terrorism or civil disobedience can be charged up to ten times the amount that they received.

Darshana:  Wow!

Elizabeth:  So, ‘Thunderbird strike’ had something around three thousand seven hundred dollars.  Indie devs, right, like “I have a few thousand dollars! Woooh!”  It was great!

[Chuckles and laughs]

Elizabeth:  And so, but (and it doesn’t retroactively apply to me) someone like me if I were to have moved forward with a game like this or any kind of form of art with these depictions, I could owe thirty-seven thousand dollars!  Simply for being indigenous and for speaking our truths.

Darshana:  Wow!  So that means that this route to funding a game could be ultimately a liability.  Was there any kind of recognition that this might be metaphorical or was not actually advocating violence against a group or company or something like that, or you know, did they take it very literally?

Elizabeth:  It was taken very literally but it was also revealed thanks to games development news sources, journalists who were familiar with games making a move to actually interview the senator who was attacking me at the time, as well as the head of the oil lobbyist group. Revealing through an interview that they had never actually played the games.  So their argumentation was undone, but that was only thanks to the fact that there were people who knew about games who were able to come forward and became sort this like media fighting media.  Ah, you had Fox News saying “this trains eco-terrorists”.  And that went out across national news and then that bigger story broke into smaller stories which hit all of the state television news shows, right.

Darshana:  Sure

Elizabeth:  And so there was just sort of this smattering that happened.  And then you had the follow-up from the game journalists who were able to say “this is actually completely ridiculous argument or accusation!”. And in turn, I mean really honestly like the way that that game was accessible initially was as a dropbox link.


Elizabeth:  Like this was not intended to really go that far.  I had hoped for my friends to play it, and family to play it and y’know maybe some wider indigenous communities.  And I had also submitted it to Imaginative Film and Media Arts Festival.  Which it went on to win best digital media that year.  Which is the award that means the most to me because those are my peers.

Darshana:  Sure

Elizabeth:  And what was interesting about it was not that the attack happened because of the award or that the award happened because of the attack.  They actually happened at about the same time simultaneously.  So as a fascinating experience for me to show that sometimes like a game just strikes, right?!

Darshana: Yeah, yeah!

Elizabeth:  It just hits the right moment and then that was one that just hit in the right moment, in the right way.  Even though, you know it can be played in ten minutes!  Y’know there’s a lot…

Darshana: Yeah

Elizabeth:  …that can be said even in a very short kind of experience and I think that’s been emphasis of a lot of my work is just trying to create accessible games.

Darshana: Yeah

Elizabeth: You know, games that can be reached by people who are on the other side of the different divide.

Darshana: Yeah

Elizabeth:  Which is a really important aspect of my work.

Darshana:  It’s interesting that you say that there, there wasn’t any intent for it to be political.  But it’s almost like there was a process of politicisation for indigenated to appear in the public sphere…

Elizabeth:  Hmm

Darshana: …is to be politicised.  Even if there’s no intentionality behind it.

Elizabeth:  Yeah, exactly!  I mean it’s just that we are existing.  That our existence is an act of resistance.

Darshana: Yes

Elizabeth: At every turn of the way.

Darshana: And you’ve used the term ‘survivance’ to describe this.

Elizabeth:  Absolutely!  So, ‘survivance’ comes from Gerald Vizenor, who’s an Anishinaabe scholar and writer.  And my mother knows him and has included him in some of her work (well a great deal of her work).  And so, I learned about that term through her as a part of her working with Gerald Vizenor on including his works in her books, her anthologies.  Survivance is one of those terms that has developed different meanings over time.  And Vizenor even talks about being sort of a bit of a trickster in the way that the term is portrayed.  One way of looking at it is that it is a combination of survival as well as resistance, another way of looking at it is thriving, right?!  And so, and then another way of looking at it, the origin of it is that he was actually acting to, he uses the term appropriate survivance from the French.  And so he took the French term to act back on them to say “actually our stories, our oral stories, and our re-tellings of history are in fact valid in the court of law”.  That was actually the very beginning of the term ‘survivance’ and so it is interesting how even that terminology goes back to, being able to have power, within a court setting in order to defend treaty rights for example.  Y’know to be able to say well my family said that this is a trap line that ran to this land.  So that land, therefore, is a part of my family and we do have a legal right to it.  Y’know that was the true origin of the term.

Darshana:  [agrees]

Elizabeth:  And so, it really reflects back on what has happened with my work where whether y’know intentionally or not, and certainly in the case of ‘Thunderbird Strike’ completely unintentionally, ending up in a situation of having to then use, as Vizenor also talks about, words as arrows in our defence.

Darshana:  So there’s a, y’know, where the indigenous may often be portrayed and the opposite of Western institutions this is an attempt to navigate them or to make use of them in a certain kinda way.

Elizabeth:  Mmhmm, yeah!   From, from within, also from without.  I think that there are many different possible approaches and that this can be reflected in-game development processes as well. And so, there are many possibilities for how indigenous people can interact within game development.  So for me, I built myself out as an Indie Dev and I like to work on games that are sovereign, in the sense of being completely self-determined, when that is possible which is the ideal, and then also being available for free.  There are another, you know, indie dev Megan Byrne has recently received a grant and then she will be running crowdfunding in order to support her game and she will be releasing it with a price attached, because this is her career, right?!

Darshana:  Sure

Elizabeth:  To like, really make it as a game developer.  And she does, at every turn of the way, she can’t encourage indigenous game developers to charge for their games, to go ahead and do that.  Then, you know for my own work, I went a different path working from within academia to give that academic funding back to communities, that it has so greatly benefited from over many generations.

Darshana:  Sure, and you’ve got that interesting balance of like scholarly aspect to your work, but also the practice led side as well.  You’ve also written that “games with an indigenous emphasis can take many forms with exciting design possibilities”.  ‘Thunderbird Strike’ obviously has a very strident voice and a very kind of, distinctive visual style.  Whereas ‘When the Rivers Were Trails’ seems to be going for more of a narrative oriented experience.  What are the kind of like game design techniques that you’ve been most excited about and have been most influential in your work?

Elizabeth:  Mmmmm, yeah.  I think just the process of constant iteration and learning and that every game for me needs to come about of its own self.  So, I am not necessarily connected very deeply with any one engine.  For me, it’s like, what is the engine that will work for this particular design.  Ideally, it would be great if we an indigenous game engine that had an Anishinaabe sense of physics and quantum physics coded from the ground up.  And I do know that we will come to a place where this will come into form.  It just may not necessarily be you know me doing that work but I do feel that there are a lot of possibilities and there’s a really deep importance to really being able to work from the code up.  Because, for example, my language Anishinaabemowin, is very much so about relationships and connections.  It’s not so much about objects and naming something in regards to it existing on its own.  I think that all of that is a very exciting direction to go in, and then in the meantime, working with the tools that we have accessible to us is really important and really looking at how can we have non-linear gameplay.  I think that that was something that I struggled with when I was developing ‘When Rivers Were Trails’ because that game did need to be linear in order to convey a particular amount of the curriculum for classrooms. That was a requirement and so because of that, I think that that design aspect went a bit against some of my other work, which does tend to be either non-linear or it acts as a direct commentary on the typical conventions of game design.  So for example, in ‘Thunderbird Strike’, usually one would expect a side-scroller to go left to right, those are the conventions that we have been raised with as gamers.

Darshana:  Sure

Elizabeth:  And instead it actually goes right to left.  And there is a direct meaning for this, it’s not just that I’m trying to like do the opposite of what would be expected in games…


Elizabeth:  rather that the journey itself, is a right to left journey.  So you start in the Tar Sands in Alberta and from an Anishinaabek world view, thinking about being positioned from the Great Lakes and looking south down over the lakes then you’re coming from that direction.  The Tar Sands from the right and then you’re heading in the direction of left in towards the Straits of Mackinac.  And so, there is a specific reason for why you are taking that movement and it really is reflective of the world views that are held within the design.  And so, I think that those kinds of aspects are what excites me most, is like how can we bring our teachings in through design in ways that are tangible and can help create new kinds of experiences?

Darshana:  Yeah and it seems to be that you can’t take for granted what a triple-A game developer would take for granted; that there are a certain kind of person who would appreciate this game, who would play it and there’s certain distribution models that are already out there they’re fully deployed. And that kind of smooths the whole, whole process of what they’re going for.  Whereas you seem to be reacting, in each game, to the challenge of constructing it a certain kind of audience.

Elizabeth:  Yeah, exactly!  And I think that this is why there’s no one right way, no one particular way for indigenous game developers to build out their work because there will be people who are working on games like Carl Petersen.  He is working on a game that is called ‘The TiPi Builder Game’.  He is Lakota, and that game potentially will appeal to Lakota players,  but also to a much wider audience that would be interested in a cultural game.  And so, he is developing out his work in that way and then with my work, I always went for the grant oriented approach or arts-oriented approach so that I could have that exact freedom.

Darshana:  Sure

Elizabeth:  It wouldn’t matter to me then if only one person plays.  You know I had, there was a player from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation who was looking at ‘When Rivers Were Trails’ and she said that it brought tears to her eyes to see her methodologies infused in the gameplay.  And that’s all it really takes for me, is just having even one person say “OK, I connect with this in a way”.  And it’s beautiful to see that our teachings can be relayed into design.  That we’re not always just re-skinning other games…

Darshana:  Sure

Elizabeth:  … in order to express ourselves.  That there are other ways to go about it.  And that ‘s not to say that that’s the only way to go, I think that there are many different ways.  But in my work I tend not to actually physically represent native people as the player character, such that you are seeing yourself as an avatar because I do not want to personally create a game in which anyone is quote-unquote playing Indian; as in you know, Native American Indian, as in the miswording of it.  But like that tends to be something that can happen, this idea of like “oh we’re going to ‘play’ Indian”. Quote-unquote Indians and cowboys.

Darshana:  Yeah

Elizabeth:  And so how can we then ensure that does not happen?  And so, you know I’m, I ah…

Darshana:  You’re actively trying to avoid that game as empathy machine.

Elizabeth:  Yeah, right! Cuz it’s like, is that actually what we’re going for?

Darshana: Yeah

Elizabeth:  Awareness? Absolutely!  Some form of understanding but do you need to have empathy through being?  Or taking that space?  Or being the form of someone else?  Or can we have games in which you gain empathy because you are a part of a wider experience, but you do not be that to have empathy for it?  Should we not have empathy, inherently, for all people?

Darshana:  I guess if you’re working with a design that’s more about relations than beings then that’s kind of like inherent in what you’re doing.  What are you currently looking forward to the most in both academia and game development?

Elizabeth:  Right now I am starting a game that is entirely for me with no deadline.


Elizabeth:  Imagine that! It’s, it’s going to be…

Darshana: I know!

Elizabeth:  Yeah I know, it’s like wow!  I’m like actually making something just for me.  And that will be great!  So now right now I am working on a game with beadwork in it.   You play as yourself, you just are simply touching the screen, or providing input.  And you are going along a pathway that’s very much like a river and you get to gravitate towards different beads that you would like to collect.  And as you gravitate towards different colours, those colours bring themselves into different form as florals.  And for every level, you are creating your own floral patterns that continue on a vine. And so it is a very beautiful game to work on, it’s very meditative.  It brings me back to looking at traditional plants and medicinal purposes for those plants.  And so, I am very excited to work on that.  It will also have a language component and Anishinaabemowin is something that I am very excited about doing with this game, is it will be full language immersion, like some of my other work.  And in a sense then not needing to explain itself.  You know it’s not going to be educational, it will be something that if people want to learn more about the language they can seek that out for themselves.

Darshana:  Sounds fascinating!  Thank you so much for speaking with us today.  We’ll definitely look forward to letting a thousand indigenous game engines bloom in the future.


Darshana: Where can people find out more about your work?

Elizabeth:  Yeah, they can find out more at elizabethlapensee.com and thank you [ Miigwech] for having me.

Darshana:  No worries!  Thanks, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth:  Mmm [Baamaapii]

Darshana:  We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play.  For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com.  Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org