Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée’s recent and possibly most popular work is Invaders, her reinterpretation of the classic arcade game Space Invaders. LaPensée found inspiration for the game in the artwork of Steven Paul Judd, whose pieces used figures from Space Invaders in his representations of Native people’s confrontations with settlers (as seen below).
Building off of Judd’s work, LaPensée programmed a game that is almost exactly as any arcade bum remembers Space Invaders to be. The pixelated invaders come in swarms and total a player's defenses with their much more intense weaponry. The major difference is that instead of playing as a spaceship, you play as an Indigenous warrior... armed against the alien hordes with a simple bow. LaPensée utilized Steven Paul Judd’s artwork, animating his imagery into a playable game. The game also features music from Trevino Brings Plenty, who takes an Indigenous approach to the reformation of Space Invaders unique sound. Trevino Brings Plenty has described his process of creating this music in a video that is available to view by clicking here! Each of the three members of the Invaders team hails from an Indigenous background and used this to help forge an interactive and immersive gaming experience that would help to expand the minds of those unfamiliar with an honest Indigenous experience. Anyone can play Invaders, it is available as both an online and mobile app. Test it out by clicking here!
Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée’s work focuses on Indigenous cultures and attempts to better inform people of not only the struggles of Indigenous peoples but also of the cornerstones of Native identities. LaPensée hails from multiple tribes (Anishinaabe and Métis) and has found art to be vital in both her self-understanding and expression. LaPensée’s work with Invaders is a commentary on the settling of the Americas, given from the perspective of the Indigenous who are still suffering from the lasting effects of Colonization. At it’s core Invaders is ultimately Space Invaders, with a more symbolic utilization of the greater idea of an invader. This utilization allows the player to gain the perspective of the Indigenous, those who were forced to confront the onslaught of people bent on taking what had always been theirs.
“The game calls into question the term “invaders” and what an “alien encounter” can mean for Indigenous people” LaPensée, Elizabeth, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, October 3, 2015.
By drawing out the concept of an “alien” invader, the gamer gets a better understanding of what Native people perceived the more modernized, invasive settlers to be. Invaders, like its predecessor, only gets harder as you continue to level up. As you advance more invaders encroach on your land, shooting faster and more violently. While this is a simple function of the game itself, the symbolism behind this key component of the game speaks volumes. It is a historically accurate representation of the Indigenous peoples struggle as more and more Europeans made their pilgrimages to America.
Another key facet of this gaming experience is the personalization LaPensée made a point to include in the game. For example her representation of “lives” in Invaders. Of this LaPensée has said,
“Lives in the game are represented by images of community members rather than numbers, hopefully causing players to recognize the real lives lost because of colonization” LaPensée, Elizabeth, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, October 3, 2015.
This component of Invaders really drives the game’s purpose home. Invaders exists to teach gamers the honest-to-god experience of those being invaded, the darkest and most realistic characteristics of these types of events in our histories. In giving a player’s lives faces, bodies, instead of a basic number Invaders allows the gamer to feel each death as a blow to their little community.
LaPensée’s retainment of the Space Invader sprites, rather than using pilgrim boats or something akin to historical settlers, is also a key factor of this game. In giving the indigenous a face and the conquerors a mask of sorts it allows the gamer to identify more heavily with the warriors they play as. This also acts a commentary on Native representation in video games, something that Dr. LaPensée has focused much of her work on. Many video games have been designed to utilize indigenous iconography, imagery, and people to add exoctisim to the game. These representations usually lead to the muddling and misunderstanding of the deeper aspects of the cultures that are being explored. Native characters in games are usually heavily stereotyped and therefore misrepresented to be savage or mystical. In allowing the sprites to remain symbolic of the settlers, LaPensée allows the focus on the Native protagonists to be exclusively showcased in a more much humanizing light.
LaPensée’s videogame work has really circulated around teachings of Native cultures, experiences, and stories. Invaders is her most recent work (it was released in 2015), but she has been delving deep into digitally representing her heritage long before remixing the arcade classic. While a much different style of game, Elizabeth LaPensée’s We Sing For Healing does an incredible job of injecting the teachings of her culture into a gaming environment. The musical-text adventure game takes you on a journey “in theme and technology”. Soundtracked by the musical stylings of Exquisite Ghost , the magical game was forged earlier this year using Dreamweaver and Photoshop. As you build your own adventure, the poetic and cosmic narrative unfolds around you.
This act of storytelling is meant to heal, to relieve the soul from the present. It’s meditative. And it’s a principle of LaPensée’s heritage. Take a healing trip “made from a place where Google Maps can't zoom in and Skype doesn't load” by clicking here. While the two games are very different, Invaders being a arcade game with a social/historical commentary driving it and We Sing For Healing being a cultural tradition reimagined for the digital age, they deliver a common message. That playing a game can mold a world with a deeper understanding for all the people that live in it. That game art can preserve culture and shift perspective. In her approach to game development Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée has done just that. In a recent interview with the Financial Post she laid out what drives her game design-
“I make games because I want to play games that I’m interested in on other levels – games that represent Indigenous people as communities want to be represented, pass on Indigenous teachings, and engage me with unique gameplay” LaPensée, Elizabeth, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, October 3, 2015.
While he may not be a digital artist, Jeffrey Gibson’s artwork has been stimulated by a similar pull towards heritage conservatism as that of Dr. LaPensée’s. His pieces are contemporary, but his techniques and aesthetics hail directly from the artistic traditions of his people. For example his Punching Bag series features old punching bags decorated in vivid color, coated in detailed beaded designs. While the color palette is vast, the style of the beading and the designs featured are indicative of the beaded art of his Cherokee/Choctaw heritage. Gibson and LaPensée work differ greatly in style and medium, but the expression of their traditions through the arts are undoubtedly cut from the same cloth. In utilizing the aesthetics and techniques of their culture they share where they came from with the world. Gibson’s website features his vast collection of beautiful art and a 2013 piece from the Punching Bag series, American Girl, is featured below.
Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée’s Invaders was featured for play at imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival 2015 as well as SAW Gallery.
Also, check out Dr. LaPensee’s 2011 short film on Indigenous representation in digital gaming!