This interview originally appeared on Rachael Petersen’s blog, Global Native Networks.

Pinnguaq_logo_final

Pinnguaq is a software localization initiative based in beautiful Pangnirtung, Nunavut in Canada’s high Eastern Arctic. In June 2013, they released an Inuktitut-language version of the best-selling iPad game, Osmos. To do this, they engaged Inuit across the territory to complete a crowd-sourced translation of the terms in the game. As Ryan Oliver, the founder of Pinnguaq explains below, participation was so great that they translated the game a total of four and a half times.

Nunavut is Canada’s newest territory, both the largest and the most sparsely populated. As a result of this difficult and isolated geography, technology plays critical role in the delivery of basic services from healthcare, to government operations to schooling. But what is the role of recreational digital tools – namely, video games – in this majority-indigenous Arctic region? Below, Pinnguaq founder Ryan Oliver discusses digital technology uptake and gaming among the Inuit, the importance and power of play in indigenous language, and the strategy of crowd-sourcing translations.

1) How did Pinnguaq begin?

Pinnguaq began in mid-2012 as a result of a personal passion of mine for programming and specifically for gaming. My son – and more recently my daughter – have taken an interest in gaming thanks to my own passions as well as the accessibility of devices like the iPad for kids as young as 1 or 2. At the same time there are kids in the community (of Pangnirtung) who often visit and play the large collection of games we have in our house. I do what I can to share the access I have to games and technology with my kids and their friends.

It dawned on me watching a kid play a game called “Uncharted” on the Playstation that gaming, for the most part, is a really “white” experience.The heroes are often white (and male, for that matter), the stories are takes on western storytelling and concepts that directly relate back to the Western, particularly the white North American take on life as has been defined by Mass media and particularly Hollywood over the last 50 years . These kids were not hearing the language they speak at home and at school in these games and they are not seeing their culture reflected in the media they consume.

It dawned on me watching a kid play a game called “Uncharted” on the Playstation that gaming, for the most part, is a really “white” experience.The heroes are often white (and male, for that matter), the stories are takes on western storytelling and concepts that directly relate back to the Western, particularly the white North American take on life as has been defined by Mass media and particularly Hollywood over the last 50 years . These kids were not hearing the language they speak at home and at school in these games and they are not seeing their culture reflected in the media they consume.

This is nothing new. APTN was a response to the lack of Aboriginal media on television, but there is nothing for games or technology. I was fortunate to attend a high school that taught coding from Grade 9 and attended Digipen (at the time in Vancouver, now based out of Washington State), a programming school specifically targeted at designing video games. A disproportionate number of my fellow students at my high school ended up in the Industry and while I ended up moving into Government, I have contacts and friends across the Industry in Canada and have always had a passion to dive in myself. The timing seemed right to attempt a move into the industry. My kids were becoming aware and excited about gaming and I had a unique position in Nunavut to present the language and culture in gaming. My first language is English and I do not speak much Inuktitut with my kids, but I want them and encourage them to embrace the language and culture and speak it whenever possible.

Pinnguaq was as much about saying to my children, “This is my attempt to go on this journey with you. Dad is going to learn and value this language too.” So that’s the personal side, at the same time I think it’s an incredible opportunity to show kids here how possible it is to succeed and express yourself in this industry. Nunavut is a very artistic territory and cultural and self expression is second nature here. Gaming provides another opportunity to grow on the artistic and storytelling history of this territory. The learning curve is steep (coding), but there is room in this industry for artists, story tellers, animators, actors and really anyone. So as much as anything, Pinnguaq is saying to Nunavummiut, “You have a place in this industry, there are people willing to open doors for you.”

Pinnguaq is saying to Nunavummiut, “You have a place in this industry, there are people willing to open doors for you.”

After dreaming up this idea I touched base with a number of friends to bring them on board. Tommy Akulukjuk is a good friend from Pangnirtung who I trust to advise me and steer me in the right direction at all times. Tommy has no coding experience but believes in the fundamental concepts behind this idea and has been my partner throughout the last two years in seeing the projects we’ve worked on come to fruition. He is a writer and artist himself, and sees the potential for expression and cultural representation in the industry. At the same time I’ve touched base and brought on board a number of friends who currently work in the industry on a full time basis. While Tommy ensures that Pinnguaq represents Inuit and Nunavut well, my friends working in gaming guide us from a technical and industry standpoint.

2) What is Pinnguaq’s mission? Why is gaming in language important for the Inuit and other indigenous communities?

Pinnguaq’s mission is multifaceted. Most importantly it is the embracing of technology to promote, advocate and share Inuit and Nunavut culture and ideas across the world. We’re currently working on projects that use technology to spread the language, the mythology as well as more economic development related projects like a smart phone App to promote Tourism in the territory. I can bring to the table a wealth of experience and contacts in the technology industry and it is my intention to bring that to Nunavummiut, to Inuit and to my community to help spread this culture and territory to all reaches of the earth.

Gaming in Indigenous languages is something that really excites me and I hope takes off. Let’s get one thing out of the way first, it’s not a market savvy idea. Games can cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars to make, and for 99.9% of the companies out there to take time out of their insane schedules to translate a game into a language that is only accessible to a very small population is not something that is sustainable in a capitalist driven industry. However, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It just means that those companies needs guidance and assistance from the people in those communities and representing those communities to help ensure localization can be done with minimal cost to the production. Or we need to convince those companies that there is a market ready reason to work in Indigenous languages, one I believe we’re beginning to explore and I will expand on further.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, it’s not a market savvy idea. Games can cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars to make, and for 99.9% of the companies out there to take time out of their insane schedules to translate a game into a language that is only accessible to a very small population is not something that is sustainable in a capitalist driven industry. However, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It just means that those companies needs guidance and assistance from the people in those communities and representing those communities to help ensure localization can be done with minimal cost to the production.

It is important because these kids are consuming this media, no matter what. Kids in Nunavut are as hardcore when it comes to gaming as anyone else in the world. They are online in Call of Duty, they are obsessed with Candy Crush Saga on Facebook, they are going into schools playing Mario on their DS. Someone else’s culture (whether it is Japanese, American or Southern Canadian) is making up 100% of the gaming that our kids are playing, and it’s not being presented in the language these kids are using 99% of the day. Nunavut kids (especially in the communities) are surrounded and living in Inuktitut in everything they do except for the media they consume. Making those same game experiences, where possible, available in their language is an important step to validating the language for those kids and ensuring they understand that it has value outside of their community.

It is important because these kids are consuming this media, no matter what. Kids in Nunavut are as hardcore when it comes to gaming as anyone else in the world. They are online in Call of Duty, they are obsessed with Candy Crush Saga on Facebook, they are going into schools playing Mario on their DS… Making those same game experiences, where possible, available in their language is an important step to validating the language for those kids and ensuring they understand that it has value outside of their community.

But I believe there is a second, more important reason to translate games, even if it is only a handful that ever get done. The effort says to these kids that this Industry is not a closed world that exists only in the south and they’ve only ever be consumers off. This lets kids know that they have a place as creators. We import nearly everything in Nunavut, from our food to the wood that we build our houses with. We don’t have to import technology. It’s mostly 1’s and 0’s and Pinnguaq’s mission and the importance of these types of projects is to say to kids, “You have a place in this industry. Your culture has a place and your language has a place in this industry.”

3) Off all the games, why did you decide to localize Osmos? What has been the reaction to the Osmos release?

The very quick answer to that is because Osmos let us. The longer, most detailed explanation is that they were very enthusiastic partners and truly believed in the value of it. In fact, every company I contacted was enthusiastic about it and it really encouraged me in the mission.

A very, very large portion of the gaming industry is based out of Canada. Over the last ten years, starting in Vancouver and spreading to Toronto and Montreal, the provincial governments of the provinces have recognized that manufacturing is a dying industry in North America. Low skilled jobs are being exported with globalization, but high skilled, technical jobs have a very strong future here. The industry is estimated to be worth 2.3 billion dollars to Canada, and a vast majority of the major “Triple A” games are created in Canada. Assassin’s Creed, a majority of the EA Sports Franchises (NHL, FIFA, Need for Speed) and much more. These companies employ thousands of people and the offshoot is a massive and powerful independent gaming community. Again, a majority of the best Independent gaming companies are Canadian. Klee, Superbrothers, Polytron, Minority, Asteroid Base. There are so many amazing companies in this country that are transcending boarders and creating some of the most memorable gaming experiences. The awesome part about that, when you’re looking to pitch the localization of games into Indigenous languages is that you don’t have to explain what Nunavut is, what Inuktitut is and who the Inuit are.

When I pitched the game to Hemisphere Games, it was almost instant. They immediately understood the value for the community here and were anxious to help. In fact, I pitched three companies at the same time (in case anyone said “no”), and all three were completely on board. Osmos was ultimately chosen because the dialogue in the game is minimal and it was seen as a very good starting point. There were only 300 phrases/terms that had to be translated and it was a much easier technical process that other games would have been. Osmos made sense and the developers didn’t hesitate for a second.

[Note, hemisphere Games wrote about the whole process on their blog.]

The reaction has been very positive. People are excited that there is an App on the App Store in Inuktitut, that the language is spreading and gaining awareness.. It’s been nothing but positive.

4) For other readers who may be interested in localizing software for their language, can you summarize the steps for crowd-sourcing translations? How do you get people involved in and excited?

I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with a lot of fundraising and community initiatives here in Pangnirtung and used similar techniques to get Nunavummiut involved and excited about this translation. It was all about Facebook and prizes. The uptake in Nunavut for Facebook is insane. I would bet, per capita, Nunavut has a higher concentration on Facebook than any other province/territory/state in North America. Nunavummiut have created groups, upon groups for each community and interest and we are constantly in touch with each other, the 2 million square kilometers of physical land made infinitesimally small by the ability to connect with each other digitally.

The uptake in Nunavut for Facebook is insane. I would bet, per capita, Nunavut has a higher concentration on Facebook than any other province/territory/state in North America.

We launched the crowd sourcing campaign the week before the new “iPad Mini” was released. As I’ve mentioned, Nunavummiut are as involved and up to date with technology as anyone else, and we made the iPad Mini the grand prize for a randomly selected translator who participated. I created an online “quiz” that presented the user with 15, randomly selected terms from the game. User just had to login, do the quiz and they were entered into the draw for the iPad Mini. The response was instant. There were some who did it in support for the language and the concept, there were others who wanted to win the iPad. All in all we had around 86 people participate. The game itself was translated an equivalent of 4.5 times total. At the end I was able to go through a database of translations, and then ran them by my team in Pangnirtung to pick which terms were best. Afterwards we tested the game at Trade Shows and with friends in the community, tweaking some translations as we went.

5) What are the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of crowd-sourcing translations in a digital media context? How do you operate crowd-sourcing in a territory as remote as Nunavut, which also has notoriously slow satellite internet connection?

Biggest disadvantage is dialect. When you are inclusive and build a translation in this way, you solicit the dialects and opinions of 25 unique communities, each with its own slightly unique – and in some cases extremely different – dialect. If you look at the translation document we produced, you would quickly see how diverse the translations are. It’s exciting, as much as it is difficult. In one sense, we’ve produced a translation that is truly “Nunavut”. It represents every dialect, every region.

At the same time, we’ve produced a translation that on a day to day basis, no one actually speaks.I can’t count how many times in the beta testing we had people say, “Oh.. well.. that’s a different dialect, but I understand what you’re saying”. It’s a mixed bag. I’m not sure if it’s the best solution. It would have been very easy to just hire a translator and have the entire game translated in an afternoon. But the process was as much about building awareness of the game as it was producing a finished translation. It was as much about making people aware there were people in the territory interested and willing to localize games as it was about ensuring the translation was the best representation of one dialect.

But the [crowd-sourcing] process was as much about building awareness of the game as it was producing a finished translation. It was as much about making people aware there were people in the territory interested and willing to localize games as it was about ensuring the translation was the best representation of one dialect.

As I mentioned above, despite our slow internet, the territory is very connected and very tech savvy. I had no problems from a tech standpoint. People immediately understood the quiz and Facebook/Twitter allowed us to spread the word to every corner of the territory in less than an hour.

[Ryan further explains the crowd-sourcing process in the video below.]

6) What are the challenges of localizing software for Inuktitut language in particular?

The dialect is the biggest, as I mentioned. After the game was released and press started to cover it, we received an email from someone at the Language Commission pointing out spelling mistakes we’d made per the official “standardized writing system for Inuktitut”. I wasn’t even aware that such a system existed. One thing I’ve learned from years of working with Inuktitut and attempted to produce written documents is you’ll never make everyone happy. In fact, you’ll rarely make anyone happy when you try to write it down.

One thing I’ve learned from years of working with Inuktitut and attempted to produce written documents is you’ll never make everyone happy. In fact, you’ll rarely make anyone happy when you try to write it down.

This leads to the other challenge of localizing in Inuktitut. Osmos is a game with all written text, and Inuktitut is first and foremost an oral culture. Writing has never been apart of Inuit culture and it was only the invasion of missionaries that led to a writing system. Having said that, syllabics have been adopted by most Inuit and the writing system persists and has a role in an increasingly westernized territory. It’s a hard one to work through. In a lot of ways, localization would be easier if we did it orally. The language lends itself to oral translation so much easier. However, it’s also incredibly cost and technologically prohibitive. The cost of recording someone doing voice overs (and doing them well), then inserting those into a game is huge; with a written localization we just had to edit a single file.

7) Can you describe the interest levels in new technology among the communities you work with?

I think I’ve covered this throughout. The interest level, especially in kids under 18 is rabid. Kids adopt technology instantly. iPads, cell phones, gaming systems are prevalent in most households and our children are online with everyone else’s.

8) What’s next for Pinnguaq?

We have a number of projects on the go. The first will be the release of our first original App for iPad called “Songbird”. It should be out in early September and will work to promote Inuit culture and language by teaching the language through music. It’s a bit of an experiment we’re trying out to see how easy it is (and what the best ways are) to teach language through music. It’s very close to done, we’re just ironing out the bugs now.

At the same time we’re working on three brand new projects:

  • Inuktitube is a video aggregate that will compile a list of all videos on video sharing websites in Inuktitut and present them in a very easy to use, organized Inuktitut App on the iPad. We’ll likely turn this into a website as well, for those that don’t own iPads.. But essentially you’ll have a menu with categorizes of types of video: Music, Academic, Entertainment, Hunting, etc. Each will contain all the videos we can find from various video hosting websites, in Inuktitut.
  • Nunavut Passport is a Tourism Smartphone App that will work to act as a “virtual tour guide” for visitors to Nunavut. We’re piloting and developing it for Iqaluit and Pangnirtung right now but are hoping to spread it out across the territory. Nunavut is notoriously low on infrastructure and this App would serve to help visitors find what they want to find and encourage them to visit new places from the moment they enter a community.
  • We’re also in the very early stages of developing a completely original game based on Inuit/Nunavut culture and Inuit Mythology. We’re still prototyping ideas, but I’m the most excited about this. The goal is to make a game that is completely accessible and competitive in the mainstream gaming market, but tells a story from Nunavut and does so in Inuktitut. I touched on this above, but I believe that Inuktitut can serve as a primary language for a game, even for a primarily english speaking audience. By making the Oral language Inuktitut, with written English subtitles, we’ll expose people to Inuktitut without them even realizing it. At the same time, Inuktitut gamers will have an advantage and understand a side of the storytelling that English subtitles can’t get across.

The priority for the game is that it is fun, first and foremost. Hence right now our focus is entirely on developing prototypes. If the game isn’t fun, no one will play it. Once we have the mechanics down, we’ve got a team built that is going to put together and incredible story and package that will truly represent Nunavut on a game that will be playable and accessible across the world. I’m very excited for what this could be.

In the immediate future (July 20th), The Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto is hosting an exhibition called “The Art of Play”, looking at Inuit representation in games and gaming. Pinnguaq is playing a large part in that. Songbird and Osmos will both be permanent members of the collection and features of the exhibition. I’ll be down in September to talk about the process of developing these games and the projects/mission statement of the company.

*     *     *

Thank you to Ryan for this thorough and engaging interview. To learn more about Pinnguaq, please visit their website, like their page on Facebook and follow them on Twitter at @Pinnguaq.