Gaming offers deeper understanding of Anishinaabe language and culture

Featured image for story on the MMORP game developed by Glendon professor Maya Chacaby
Featured image for story on the MMORP game developed by Glendon professor Maya Chacaby

Students by the dozens have joined the fight to protect Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language) from the Linguicidals as part of Maya Chacaby’s Glendon Campus language classes.

How could any student, brought up in a world that takes gaming culture and activities for granted, resist this informal course description:

“Once, Anishinaabe lived in beautiful homelands, connected to the life source of all Beings.
Through the magical powers of Anishinaabemowin they were able to connect to their life source and truly thrive. 

But then, LINGUICIDALS came and destroyed the language, shattering Anishinaabeg connection to the life source and destroying their homelands.

​ But not all is lost …

You have been carefully chosen to travel the wasteland and reclaim the magic of Anishinaabemowin to help build a better future for all Wasteland Dwellers and Anishinaabe Remnants.”

Chacaby, an assistant professor of sociology who is Ojibwe from the Thunder Bay region, is passionate about her language and culture and intent on reclaiming Anishinaabemowin from its status as an endangered language.

“My mother was a fluent speaker,” Chacaby said, “but there is a lot of guilt, shame and pain associated with the language, and there is a low percentage of in-home intergenerational transmission due to the trauma (e.g. residential schools, the Sixties Scoop) associated with it.”

 Maya Chacaby in her virtual forest classroom.

Maya Chacaby in her virtual forest classroom. Image courtesy of Maya Chacaby

In teaching Anishinaabemowin herself, Chacaby realized that trauma was a factor for many Indigenous students; when they came to class feeling shame or upset about the language, they were in no state to absorb the necessary information.

“I realized that I would have to create a safe, accessible, fun environment in which they could learn – a place where they could acknowledge their shame and develop pride beyond that, so the experience wasn’t so painful,” Chacaby said.

Thus, Biskaabiiyaang: the Quest for the Language was born. Chacaby, an avid gamer herself, realized students, too, would enjoy a taking part in a role-playing game where they could build a better world, one where there was a safe territory for her Anishinaabe Intergalactic Mentoring Station.

“I turned learning grammar and vocabulary into a big quest, a challenge that students go on the adventure with me,” she said. “There are four basic parts to the language structure, so the quest is to restore the circle [a symbolic shape in Indigenous culture].”

Chacaby initiated the new course design using a card-based live action game that students played in class. Soon, she noticed a “huge positive impact. Students were retaining so much more information. In 12 weeks, they were learning what it took me three years to learn in traditional classes, and they were having fun.”

She moved the course online using a commercial platform, but it had limitations, due to security issues. This fall, Chacaby will introduce the game through a platform specially designed in partnership with the virtual learning platform developer CDNG, allowing her to have complete control of the design, the content and the site’s security. To view a trailer for the game, click here.

A still image from Maya Chacaby's game
A still image from Maya Chacaby’s game Biskaabiiyaang: the Quest for the Language

The reimagined Biskaabiiyaang: the Quest for the Language is a massively multi-player online role-playing game (MMORPG, for gaming regulars) that invites each student to create an avatar and travel through the territory, meeting other players in real time. They travel through a post-apocalyptic landscape that includes cross-cut deforestation, lakes full of plastic refuse and abandoned radioactive uranium mines. It is a landscape many Indigenous students may recognize.

As they complete their grammar-based quests, they must find spirit helpers, learn to fend for themselves by finding water, shelter and food and show respect for those with whom they share the land. Chacaby has incorporated many traditional stories into the quests.

“The students learn about Anishinaabe language and culture in a caring, online community,” Chacaby said.

She plans to involve a partnership with First Nations communities around the Lake Nipigon region in the game to provide students interactions with Elders and others from reserves that offer support and insights into their own lived experiences. Her fall classes will serve the beta testers for the game, since Chacaby eventually hopes to expand it to include students of Anishinaabemowin elsewhere.

“Not only does this game teach students the language, but it provides an understanding of my peoples’ world view,” Chacaby said. “We’re all inside, trying to understand the world from that perspective. It challenges everyone’s own way of thinking.

“We have a rich culture, and the game is a way for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come together, deal with troublesome issues and create a new future.”

She envisions that, eventually, other Indigenous groups will add to the game, inserting their own traditional territories and using it to teach their own languages.

“The United Nations has declared 2022 the start of the Decade of Indigenous Languages, so we’re providing a platform at Glendon, starting with Anishinaabemowin,” Chacaby said. “It’s part of a bigger Truth & Reconciliation picture.

“My goal is to be a force for reconciliation. The cultural transmission of knowledge – including language – is good for everyone.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, Innovatus