Skins Workshops on Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design

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Skins Workshops on Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design

$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Once upon a time there were two Aboriginal New Media artists, Jason and Skawennati, who wondered what they could do to help their people. They were concerned about the misrepresentations of Aboriginal people in photographs and movies. And they were very dismayed at the levels of poverty, addiction, incarceration and suicide among Aboriginal people in Canada. They believed that their people’s pride had been wounded, and they came up with a way to fix it.

Jason and Skawennati had been lucky enough to avoid many of the obstacles that had kept so many of their people from thriving. Both attended university and had the opportunity to learn how to use computers to create images and stories. They thought that, by teaching others to do the same, they would pass on valuable skills. Skills that could help people get jobs. Skills that could encourage self-representation. Skills that could build confidence and restore our pride. One day they met Celia Pearce, who told them about video game modding. She said, “How would you like to see some Native characters and Native stories in video games?” Jason and Skawennati realized that was it! They knew that video games were becoming more popular than movies, and they knew that a lot of Aboriginal kids played them, too. What if they could show kids how to produce their own video games? They gathered up a group of very smart people, including Celia. The people helped them to make their idea even better, and called it the Skins Aboriginal Video Game Development Workshop.

The workshop combines instruction in video game design with immersion into Aboriginal stories and storytelling techniques. Designed by the Aboriginally-determined research team, AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace), it specifically addresses the unique world view of Native youth. Participants learn how to “translate” their stories, legends and oral traditions into a new medium: the video game.

In addition to traditional storytelling, the workshop covers important topics in game development including: art direction, 3D modeling and animation, level design, sound, and programming. The lessons are taught by game-industry professionals, Aboriginal artists and a core team of Concordia University students majoring in Computation Arts. We also invite Aboriginal mentors who lend their considerable expertise as cultural consultants, advising on appropriate use of story, language, and the design of virtual artifacts. They also provide moral support to the participants during the workshop as well as after it. This important aspect of the project provides an avenue for elders to pass on their knowledge to the next generation, while the youth can form important relationships that could last a lifetime.

The first workshop ran throughout the 2008-2009 academic year, at Kahnawake Survival School, the high school on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The students created Otsi! Rise of the Kanienkehaka Legends, an amazing game (it features an evil flying head that terrorizes a village; your job is to stop him!). They produced one playable level. Skins 2.0 was offered to Kahnawake youth as a two-week intensive workshop at Concordia University. The participants of this workshop made a new game The Adventure of Skahión:ati - Legend of the Stone Giants. We are currently preparing Skins 3.0.

We would love to involve more Aboriginal youth, by sending the workshop to other communities. We wrote our curriculum in modules in the hope that we could eventually find a way to do this.

We know that Skins is making a difference because we still have students from the first workshop working on their game. One level was not enough! These kids truly, deeply understand the medium and it is clear to us that we have shown them a path that was hidden to them. They now have an understanding of a new industry, have skills they didn't know how to get, and, most importantly, feel empowered to create their own images and stories.

About You
About You
First Name


Last Name


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Jason E. Lewis

About You, Your Group, or Your Organization

AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace)


, QC

Please confirm that this project could benefit First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples


Twitter URL
What categories best describe who your group or organization serves (check all that apply)

First Nations people.

What best describes your group or organization

University, Technical Institute or College, Non-profit organization.

How long have you, your group, or your organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Define your idea / project in 1-2 short sentences

Skins is an Aboriginal video game workshop combining instruction in video game design with immersion into Aboriginal storytelling.

Select the stage that best applies to your solution

Growth (the project is up and running and is starting to move forward)

Social Impact
Please tell us about the social impact of your idea or proect

Skins’ social impact begins with teaching Aboriginal youth valuable skills in technology. This basic idea translates into a larger picture: such skills can be applied towards earning a better living; Further, Skins participants could one day start their own video game companies or design firms, stimulating new economies on reserves. Skins also addresses the issue of self-representation. Through Skins, participants are taught how to critique representations of Aboriginal peoples in popular media. They consider how to best represent themselves and their culture in a new, extremely popular form of media, one in which they are often misrepresented or not represented at all. The resulting games reflect their pride in the culture and their empowerment.

Your Future Goal(s): Tell us what you hope to achieve with your idea or project in the next year

1) We'd like to improve the two games and distribute them; 2) We'd like to offer the Skins workshop in a new community.

In 5 years, what will be different as a result of your idea/project?

In 5 years, we will see more Aboriginal students in technology-related post-secondary programs, and perhaps a few in entry-level positions in the game industry. Some of the original Skins participants will be teaching Skins workshops to the younger generation. The Skins workshop and/or curriculum will be circulating amongst Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. The games that have already been conceived, such as Otsi:!, will have been re-versioned --with new levels added, cut-scenes and improved gameplay-- and in circulation amongst Aboriginal communities all over Turtle Island, a testament to its audiences that we can be producers and not just consumers of new media technologies, and that we will use them to proudly represent ourselves.

Tell us about the people/ partnerships that are already involved and why they are important to your idea or project.

Our initial partnership, with high school teacher Owisokon Lahache at Kahnawake Survival School, was essential to our success; She saw our vision and shared it with the school admin, and integrated our curriculum into her own. That led to the reserve-wide Kahnawake Education Centre partnering with us to encourage and facilitate participation by Kahnawake community members in Skins 2.0 and future workshops.
We have worked very hard to identify Aboriginal mentors who have expertise in the disciplines related to game design. Our lessons in Character Design, Photoshop for Games, Principals of Anmimation, and Sound Design were all taught by Aboriginal practitioners, who become role models to the participants.

If there are other people/partners that you will reach out to tell us who they are and why they will be important to your idea or project.

The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival is an international festival in Toronto that celebrates the latest works by Indigenous peoples in film, video, radio, and new media. We have already begun discussions with them as they are very interested in offering workshops like Skins to their urban community. Such a partnership would allow us to reach out to the wider Aboriginal community.

We are also always on the look out for programmers, especially ones with experience programming games. Currently we use Unity (

Describe the kinds of support you receive (other than money) or will need to support your idea or project (e.g.: donated, space, equipment and volunteers)

We continue to depend on the Kahnawake Education Centre, who supports us by liaising with the community and finding students who are a good fit for Skins. Concordia University and the Hexagram Research Institute have donated the use of a computer lab and break-out space, as well as technical expertise and infrastructure, allowing us to offer the workshop in a university setting. Game industry professionals have volunteered to talk about their experiences, mentor the students, and even teach a module. They have become an intrinsic part of the curriculum, offering a glimpse into the "real world" of video games.

Do you currently have funding for your idea or project?

Yes (answer the next two questions)