Elizabeth LaPensée discusses her scholarship, comics, and her latest videogame, “Thunderbird Strike”

"...I used to sneak into conferences pretending to be a grad student when I was about sixteen because I was a high school dropout who worked my way into a completion program at a community college and eventually got into university. Real rebellious, hey?..."

Elizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D. is an award-winning designer, writer, artist, and researcher who creates and studies Indigenous-led media such as games and comics. She is an Assistant Professor of Media & Information and Writing, Rhetoric & American Cultures at Michigan State University. LaPensée recently released Thunderbird Strike (2017), which is a game that merges environmentalism and Native American culture with a side-scroller design. Wanting to learn more about her career and this game, LaPensée allowed me to interview her for ScifiPulse.

You can learn more about LaPensée by visiting her homepage.

Nicholas Yanes: For the record, what is the proper way to pronounce your last name? On this note, what has been the worst pronunciation of it you’ve ever heard?

Elizabeth LaPensée: Think French, but Michif, not French. I don’t get hung up on how people pronounce it since it changes even in my own family depending on if you’re in Canada or the states. Stateside, it becomes LaPonsie. The worst is when people just look at it and don’t even try.

Yanes: Growing up, what were some videogames and comic books that you enjoyed? Are there any that you still enjoy revisiting?

LaPensée: With games, Joust is where it’s at. Obviously. I always play an archer/range if possible thanks to Diablo and Ultima Online. I played in the Shadowclan Orcs in UO, which pretty much speaks to how I like to game. Hardcore. Always with the hardest conditions possible and with as few items as possible. With comics, I often went for the quirky indie local comics and mostly followed the work of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Alejandro Jodorowsky with a critical but receptive eye.

Credit: Elizabeth LaPensée

Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue the study of video games? Did you encounter any resistance from other scholars on this project?

LaPensée: I used to sneak into conferences pretending to be a grad student when I was about sixteen because I was a high school dropout who worked my way into a completion program at a community college and eventually got into university. Real rebellious, hey? Anyways, I’d present about Native representations in video games, which were all pretty much terrible. Even then, I still played all those games and there was a phase in my life where I was just happy that there were any representations at all. While giving presentations, I realized that if I ever wanted to play games with the representations I wanted, I’d need to do it myself, and so I started making game mods with BioWare’s Aurora Toolset. I quickly transitioned into design research and have experienced a great deal of support for the most part, although there is an ongoing need to frame design processes and reflective study methods as valid research.

Yanes: You both study and produce videogames and comics. How do you think creating these forms of media have influenced the way you study these fields?

LaPensée: Since I focus on design research and also evaluative studies, development and research go hand in hand. I look at development process as well as, when I can, how a game was played and interpreted, standing by Brenda Romero’s foundational statement that “the mechanic is the message.”

Yanes: Much of your work centers on Native American culture. Given that mass media has a history of problematically depicting Native Americans, what are some steps entertainment creators can do to change this?

LaPensée: Actually involve Native people in their own representations. And that doesn’t just mean picking someone as a token and using them for their name. And paying a person as a consultant when they are contributing writing, design, art direction, and community connections isn’t enough. Provide roles which are equal to in-house salaries and influence. Build in time during iterative development cycles to get feedback from community members and be able to genuinely act on those insights. Give back to communities being represented by offering access to technology and efforts to develop their skills for future self-determination.

Credit: Elizabeth LaPensée

Yanes: One of your recent games is Thunderbird Strike. What was the inspiration behind this game?

LaPensée: The game is inspired by doing my best to pass on stories from my communities. I am both Anishinaabe and Métis with family at Bay Mills in Baawaating, so the game reflects the voices of both. Jim LeBlanc, an elder from Bay Mills, tells a version of the story in which Crane Clan is foundational to the restoration of balance. In the game, Isaac Murdoch’s “Thunderbird Woman” and Dylan Miner’s “No Pipelines on Indigenous Land” artworks appear. Both have been used in screen printing gatherings for posters, banners, and shirts. While pipelines snake their way through Aki (Earth), thunderbirds walk among us. Winona LaDuke shares a Lakota version of the story which describes a black snake. Christi Belcourt cautions us to remember that snakes are not simply a representation of wrongs. There are snakes which help just as there is a snake which threatens to swallow the lands and waters whole. All life can be honored, and all greed must be recognized.

Yanes: How did you develop the art style for the game? What were some of the sources that inspired the game’s look?

LaPensée: Thunderbird Strike is a side-scrolling stop motion animation game in which all the art was hand drawn and the textures come from photos I have taken of the lands and waters damaged by oil infrastructure as well as the equipment and structures themselves. Uniquely, the first two levels have approximately 38 unique background images each. It takes about one month of work for every minute of stop motion animation. So yeah, there’s that. Ha ha.

Yanes: Do you have any future goals for Thunderbird Strike? Would you like to make a sequel for it, or turn it into an animated film?

LaPensée: Thunderbird Strike is a mobile game (also available on PC), a stop motion animation, and a website. I hope to see people contribute reflections of their own on the website. I’ve been working on an art series imagining an Indigenously-determined future without reliance on oil. Meanwhile, NÀHGĄ, a.k.a. Casey Koyczan, is working on an album inspired by the soundtrack he made for the game. We’re also collaborating on exhibiting Thunderbird Strike alongside art and live music performances.

Credit: Elizabeth LaPensée

Yanes: When people finish playing Thunderbird Strike, what do you hope they take away from the experience?

LaPensée: The meaning is in the meaning you make. My greatest hope is to draw awareness to issues with the Line 5 pipeline and the fact that it has, in fact, already spilled.

I’m grateful for Adrian Cheater weekend warrior-ing programming and all of her unending effort as well as Casey Koyczan for his fundamental contribution of music, sound effects, and voiceovers. It would be incredible to see more support for their work and voices as a result of the wide distribution of this game.

Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working on that people can look forward to?

LaPensée: I have had the honor of co-editing two comic book collections which are off to the printers and will be on shelves soon! Sovereign Traces: Not (Just) An(Other), co-edited with Gordon Henry Jr. through MSU Press, adapts short stories and poems from many well-known Indigenous writers including Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Richard Van Camp, and more into sequential art. Deer Woman: An Anthology, co-edited with Weshoyot Alvitre through Native Realities Press, brings together more than a dozen Indigenous women writers and illustrators who share stories of resistance, survival, empowerment, and hope for the wellbeing of Indigenous women.

Remember, you can learn more about LaPensée by visiting her homepage.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow ScifiPulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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