Semana Indígena, Games and Digital Anthropology: Huni Kuin

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We live in the digital age, and one where digital games form an ever-greater part of popular culture. Indeed, it has been claimed that the twenty-first century will be defined by games.

“games are machines of inputs and outputs that are inhabited, manipulated, and explored” (Zimmerman 2014, 20)

They have been the focus of anthropological study, but increasingly games are made with anthropology and archaeology as their subjects. One of the often cited benefits of this development is the ability to engage a broader audience in discussion and develop their understanding. In Brazil, games have not been used as extensively in this area as in other parts of the world, but there are some exceptions. One is Huni Kuin: Os caminhos da Jiboia, which will be released at the same time as the Brazilian Semana Indígena this year. It presents a great opportunity to discuss the intersection of cultural events and engagement through games.

Each April, Brazil hosts the Semana Indígena. If you’ve not heard about it, this is a week dedicated to indigenous people. It promotes discussion of indigenous rights and politics, and education about indigenous groups. During the week thousands of schools in Brazil plan activities, culminating on 19 April with Dia do Índio or Indian Day. These activities form part of the theme of História e Cultura Afro-Brasileira e Indígena within the national curriculum, supported by law (11.645/08). For some students, it is their first introduction to Amerindian societies.

This is a great initiative, and one that continues to improve, but on occasion activities can perpetuate misconceptions or stereotypes of perceived “real” Amerindians, or not engage and explore relevant issues. Here a fantastic opportunity to provide insight into Amerindian beliefs and cosmology is lost.

It would be great to have an interactive method which supports a better understanding of those groups. This promotes identification, empathy and better relations with indigenous Brazilian groups and their culture. It is particularly important given the historic and current discrimination against people from these communities.

But, what if we could provide an engaging, fun, and interactive activity which acknowledges individual agency, one in which the student plays a role in the exchange of indigenous knowledge and memories? Video games represent a way to provide an immersive and interactive experience in an appealing digital form. So why not use a gaming session to help? Games can have a variety of benefits and might contribute to a more critical discussion about indigenous cosmology, ways of life and art. And who doesn’t like a good video game? So if you are a teacher or just an enthusiastic person looking for ideas for Semana Indígena activities, then Huni Kuin might be a great choice.

Huni Kuin – A collaborative gaming project

Huni Kuin: os caminhos da Jiboia or Huni Kuin: The Pathways of the Anaconda is a 2D RPG game for PC and Mac which results from a remarkable collaboration between the Kaxinawá groups of Rio Jordão, Acre state, anthropologists and game developers. The anthropologist Guilherme Meneses and colleagues proposed the game as a way to communicate songs, myths, and views of the Kaxinawá, providing a device to share their stories while also bringing benefits to the contributing communities.

In the game, during a dream, an anaconda conceives of a twin brother and sister: the boy is a hunter, and the girl is an artisan, and they inherit the snake’s special powers. The two travel through five stories which are based on elements from the Shenipabu Miyui – stories of the ancestors – of the Kaxinawá group: Yube Nawa Aĩbu, Siriani, Shumani, Kuĩ Dume Teneni and Huã Karu Yuxibu. During the journey, they gain abilities of their ancestors, animals, plants, and spirits. They communicate with visible and invisible forest beings – yuxibu. They go through several challenges to become a healer – mukaya – and master in arts and drawings – kene. Once they pass all the challenges they become Huni Kuin, which means true people in the Hatxã Kuin language.

Huni Kuin was developed through a series of workshops with around 45 Kaxinawá people from 32 villages in Acre state. Recordings of songs, stories, drawings of their environment and material culture, including patterns, clothes, animals and plants, were used in game development. This collaboration means that the representation of the Kaxinawá is quite different from sometimes stereotyped game images. For example, the village is depicted based on how the settlements look today, not an idealised version.

These stories are not precise representations of Kaxinawá myths, but combinations of story variants. The songs also combine different elements of traditional music. In this way, cosmological elements are represented, and ideas are explained, but in new or remixed forms created with the Kaxinawá.

The project is a great example of collaboration, returning more than a game with stories, images, and recordings of the Kaxinawá. The local community learnt how to film and record, and obtained access to a range of useful resources.

The Potential of Anthropological Games

This has great potential for teachers and students for activities in Semana Indígena and beyond. Biology teachers could use the game to explore biogeography, animals and human-environmental interactions in South America. Others could use it to develop classes around Amerindian mythology, ritual, and Amerindian Perspectivism.

In Brazil, the digital humanities and development of video games by anthropologists and archaeologists are still under-explored. Similar series of games like Huni Kuin for different indigenous groups have been undertaken to stunning effect. One example comes from Alaska, where Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) was released in 2014 by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in association with E-Line Media. The game looks great and has won at least six major awards and is based on Iñupiaq stories. Other efforts include Mulaka, developed in collaboration with the Raramuri of the Sierra Madre in Mexico.

These are good examples of collaborative works between researchers, local communities, and developers. In other areas such as archaeology, current discussions note the lack of engagement between academics and developers on some projects regarding the past. However, engagement and subsequent outcomes depend on the project context. In the case of Huni Kuin and others noted above, the projects were planned by researchers and local people. In some of the examples related to archaeology, the projects are not necessarily research-driven. Another contrast is the concept of ‘ownership’ of the past. The Kaxinawá have a voice today, and represent their culture in the present. For games which deal with societies thousands of years ago ownership may not be as clear – in those cases who has the right answer? I am biased towards an archaeologist’s view, but in the end, both are interpretations.

Conclusion

Huni Kuin is a great way to engage people to understand another culture and results from an important collaborative work. Ultimately, this type of work can help break prejudice and diminish violence towards Amerindian individuals. The future of our heritage lies in collaboration and exchange, which can facilitate identification and empathy. We should support this understanding from an early stage so in the near future all respect and value each other’s culture.

This Semana Indígena take the challenge, leave the sketches behind and try Huni Kuin. The game is released on Friday 15 April; it is free and will be available in Hatxã Kuin, Portuguese, Spanish, and English. For more information see the Huni Kuin site.

Bibliography

Zimmerman, E. 2014. Manifesto for a Ludic Century. In Walz, S. P. and Deterding, S. (eds.). The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications. London: MIT Press, 19-22.

This is the English version of the article. Access the Portuguese version.

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