Language Game Design with Community

by Ala’ Diab


I’ve just arrived back from a wonderful, enriching trip to Australia.

I was invited to co-facilitate a design workshop on language preservation and games. The workshop brought together linguistic anthropologists, software developers, and teachers and mentors from the many aboriginal language communities. The workshop was organized by the Research Unit for Indigenous Language at the University of Melbourne.

In Australia, and around the world, languages are “shifting” and becoming “obsolescent” at a rapid rate.  Why is this?  It has to do with the larger forces of education, media, and adoption of the new and flash (over the old, ancestral, and traditional).  Language and culture go hand in hand, and when kids fail to learn their community language, they loose contact with customs and practices that have endured in Australia for 50,000 years.

Working with a groupd of aborigine womenMy desire was to connect with community members who traveled long distances to be there.  In a few short days, I wanted to teach about designing games and apps, and to be able to shift some of their biases around mobile computing as it’s being pushed and marketed at communities.  In other words, I wanted to share tools that would let community leaders think creatively about apps that they could build and create working with youth, versus using the tools to adopt the latest global trends.

Working with Prof. Inge Kral of the Australian National University, we created a space during the working session for people to be safe to express their ideas without judgement. How could we help these community leaders, healers and teachers think of their tablets and phones as new tools in the toolbox of cultural preservation?

Together, we engaged in a session on the many tools and programs that are being deployed for language maintenance. Then, we got in to the fun stuff–co-design. We worked with the community of leaders to design and imagine new experiences with tech.

The key goal they had was this: fun! How could interactive experiences become fun and engaging enough for their young learners to be interested in learning and retaining their mother language. Community leaders engaged in a process of needs and skills assessment to begin to imagine new design ideas.

Prototyping with paper and iPadWhen it was time to get down and start documenting some game ideas, I borrowed a useful tool from the UI/UX toolkit: a print out of an tablet. It proved so effective and successful  that printing wasn’t able to keep up with requests by groups. Understandably, it offered the design teams a tangible sense of the scale of the device but also immediate feedback to idea generation. A sketch on a mock paper device is not simply a sketch, it is a doorway to multiple interaction possibilities.

I could not have imagined the depth, variety, and sophistication of the ideas the community generated. The ideas can be grouped into three main areas: country and culture, kin relation and mapping.

As designer interacting with these new communities, one of my major challenges was to understand the subtleties and dynamics of identity and gender in aboriginal communities: the way women and men had separate spheres of activity, language and geographical affiliation, and the notion of sacred knowledge and the ownership of cultural practices. If the apps we make don’t take this into consideration, they won’t be effective.

I was particularly excited about some of the work that NPY Women’s Council created.  The team brought a 3D map of a typical village and had mapped emotions across the spectrum in context. They identified a real need for apps and games that offer people scenarios where they practice non-violent communication and tackle issues of mental and emotional challenges.

Through the experience, I discovered that there is a need to create a toolkit that combines the best of Design Thinking and Player-centric Game Design methodologies for use with communities and by communities…so now, we’re starting to put this together.  We want to create a way to prototype with communities so that developers can use first ideas to build a digital prototype. Stay tuned as we collect ideas and turn them into exercises and printable materials.

If you have any ideas about co-designing games for language and cultural preservation, I’d love to hear from you!