Co-creating a game to explore Aboriginal heritage and health perspectives.
Western Sydney University’s Heartbeat program was ready for its next step: a digital educational tool.
Each year, Heartbeat helps hundreds of Aboriginal kids discover higher education options in health and science, get practical health and fitness knowledge to strengthen their communities, and learn Aboriginal cultural approaches in these fields. After five years of running face to face activities, the Heartbeat team approached Future Friendly (DE) to create a digital component that children, teachers and parents could engage with in their own time.
We don’t like to make assumptions about design solutions so we went to work wrapping our heads around what Heartbeat was really about. At its core, it’s a series of university open-days for local Aboriginal children, so with the Heartbeat team, we started with a workshop, tracing the connections between the program’s aims and how students, parents and teachers experienced an activity day.
We also interviewed a range of educators, Aboriginal Elders and other peers in the educational design landscape. Aunty Fran Bodkin, a D’harawal Elder academic involved in the program, taught us how central the gathering of different viewpoints is to Aboriginal approaches to knowledge:
Western science and Aboriginal traditional knowledge are different ways of understanding the same thing. And because we place value on telling stories from different perspectives, we always adapt to different influences and conditions.
So we asked the question: what would the future of Aboriginal health knowledge be like? Because this is what Heartbeat is about: future health workers, future peer educators, future community leaders.
Towards the end of the Immersion phase we made a field trip to one of the Heartbeat days to understand it first-hand. We immersed ourselves in the energy of 200 Aboriginal schoolchildren as they explored a range of knowledge activities across the campus. They were curious, probing and cheeky, and we watched as they tuned in to the experiences that were the most kinetic and fun.
Creating the world of Lightning Runners in collaboration with Aboriginal elders was an amazing and incredibly beneficial experience — the illustrations and the game itself were much better for it.
– Ben Hoh, Design Director, Future Friendly
As we began sketching concepts, three main findings stood out:
- The biggest digital opportunity lay in extending Aboriginal cultural knowledge about health. Up until now, this relied on the face-to-face efforts of community Elders who were very much in-demand.
- The most popular Heartbeat activities demonstrated how compelling it was for our audience to explore an active world.
- We learned from Elders that knowledge must be earned, and that challenging users to decode the true meanings behind Dreaming stories was the way to learn in an indigenous context.
These factors made our concept sketches more and more game-like as they progressed, and we focused on culturally specific stories to bring the right learning outcomes to life and to let students feel proud of their heritage.
By getting involved in a story, we can see the consequences of our own actions. The learning is baked into the experience.
To set the right story points in the best cultural context, we invited Aunty Fran back to our studio to work through her wealth of Dreaming stories with us, and we collaborated on gameplay scenarios.
It was this point that the concept cohered into an action game, framed by an overarching quest and a focused set of characters.
The world of Lightning Runners was beginning to take shape.
Reflecting the adaptability of Aboriginal cultures, we set it in a post-climate-changed future in which the fearsome mutant kangaroo Burra’gorang has stolen the Lightning Stone — our future society’s clean power source. The player must recapture the Lightning Stone and take it back to their people. Along the way, they have to learn healthy eating habits, environmental and social health concepts, traditional Aboriginal medicines and the importance of helping others.
Critically, you play both Tuktuk and Kuti, a heroic sister and brother whose health status is absolutely interdependent — what happens to one happens to the other. You have to work together to to stay alive, solve puzzles and right wrongs along the way, and finally confront the evil Burra’gorang. In tribute to the Aboriginal tribes that carried their fire in embers from lightning strikes, we christened the game Lightning Runners.
The design of natural and built environments plays a key part in the visuals, the puzzles and the overarching narrative. While Lightning Runners is science fiction, we also wanted to make it “authentic” in the truest sense, so we drew its environment from traditional D’harawal resources on climate, seasons and local vegetation. We then added a twist: the remains of ancient cities were now half under water.
Just as we strove to make Lightning Runners conceptually accessible, we also knew that to have the highest impact, it had to work across as many devices as possible. We had to use technology that was simultaneously lightweight and high-performance enough for immersive and demanding gameplay.
We needed an almost console-level platform game engine that would work in any modern web browser. On a desktop machine or on a phone.
In addition to their technical acumen, the Gopherwood team also truly understand games. An epic cross-planet creative collaboration process took shape as we passed sketches, specifications and artwork back and forth. Overnight they’d provide detailed feedback and technical nuance to our level designs along with new gameplay ideas for us to discuss and review the next morning.
In the middle of implementation, we tested a rough prototype with Aboriginal students from Briar Road Public School, who brought vital feedback into our design and development loop. Some segments were too easy. Some didn’t make sense! But to our joy, we found that once they got involved in the challenges, kids intuitively grasped the aims and lessons of the game.
And best of all, they felt a sense of ownership, there input was critical to the evolution of the gameplay and characyers and we think it shows in the finished game and the way that it’s played with such enthusiam by young indigenous kids.
Lighting Runners was a perfect (positive!) storm for us: a challenging project with a great potential for social impact, and a unique opportunity to design with wise people — young and old — from the community. With this kind of cross-cultural collaboration, we’ve taken co-design to a new level in our practice.
It’s also one of the most story-centric projects we’ve created — to the point that we basically wrote a children’s book to cover all our bases in term of accessibility. If you cannot play the game due to a technical or physical disability then you can read the rich story included on the site.
We’re very proud of our co-creation, but the ultimate test is in the playing.
Future Friendly would like to acknowledge the incredible team at Western Sydney University, the awesome elders Auntie Fran and Uncle Gavin, the children and teachers at Briar Road Public School and our tech team at Gopherwood and the many others who who co-designed and co-created with us.
A full list of credits can be found here