Wednesday was National Navajo Code Talker Day. It’s a day commemorating the role of Navajo code talkers who used their native language to transmit secret information during World War II.
Today, many American Indian languages are dying out. To help remedy this problem, some Shoshone students are using a new kind of code—video game programming code—to help save their language and promote their culture.
Your name is Enee (eh-NUH). You’re walking through a dark, rocky landscape, and you come across a coyote, who talks to you. The language he’s speaking in this video game is Shoshone. And as Enee explores this virtual landscape on Zelda-like missions, there are more encounters with Shoshone-speaking characters.
The game is designed to teach younger Shoshone kids—and any other interested gamers—about basic Shoshone words and phrases. Shoshone is a language that, according to game engineer Devin Gardner, is down to a couple thousand native speakers, and many who do use Shoshone as their first language are elders.
"There is a huge generation gap," Gardner said. "There's a lot of elders who are fluent, and their children know a little bit, but then the children of those children don't know, maybe anything. So our language is basically dying because all the native speakers are elders and none of the younger people want to learn it, because it simply takes too long. Or they don't want to, because English is simpler."
Gardner, who is Shoshone, was one of the students from the Shoshone Youth Language Apprenticeship Program who collaborated with the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) program to create this game. The goal, Gardner says, was to create a game that anyone could play and enjoy.
"We wanted a video game to, basically attract young children and have them play it, and teenagers, but still be fun enough and simple enough that elders can play it as well," Gardener said.
Zeph Fagergren, a master’s student at the University of Utah’s EAE program, oversaw production of the game. He said he was very impressed with the work done by his young Shoshone team.
"It was really cool to see how hard they worked and how involved they actually got in the project, because they were all loving it," He said. "They were there all the time, they were putting in hours that they didn't even need to record, they were working really hard, they loved being in our game studio just to get that game feel. So, they loved it."
For his part, Gardner said he is hoping to explore a possible career in video game programming.
"I want to be making more games, more cultural games, not just in Shoshone. My plan is to make video games like Enee that have language choices for other native languages as well, and not just in America," Gardner said. "Other native languages around the world. Because our language isn't the only important language out there."
Fagergren said he would like to point out that there are still a few bugs in the gameplay, but you can try it out online for yourself. And look out for that coyote.