In the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, a small team of young developers calling themselves Lienzo are avidly working toward proving videogames as a valuable medium beyond mere entertainment. In fact, they can be used as a tool for cultural preservation.
The team at Lienzo has been working for the past few years on a game called Mulaka. As the eponymous main character, players explore a mystical world steeped in mythology many have briefly studied in history classes across North America. Rather, Mulaka integrates key ideas and beliefs from the culture of the Raramuri (also known as the Tarahumara) Native American tribe.
“When we began our research, we were amazed at all the different aspects of the Tarahumara culture, spanning a lot of myths and legends that blew us away,” Lienzo’s Adolfo Aguierre explains.
The Raramuri tribe is a large indigenous tribe located in the Sierra Madre. They are a powerful tribe with an expansive history, and their general reluctance to modern culture and adherence to tradition makes them a unique relic dangerously resting in the path of ever-expanding modernity. It’s their endangered status that has led many organizations to increase their efforts to preserve much of the Tarahumara’s cultural heritage.
One such organization is the Milwaukeee Public Museum, which boasts one of the largest collections of Tarahumara artifacts in the United States gathered with help from the tribe themselves. A representative of the Museum’s Curator of Anthropology Collections points out that the modern attacks on the Tarahumara heritage takes place on multiple fronts.
“With contact from the Mexican government, drug trafficking, and other Western influence, it can be said that Tarahumara traditional life has become ‘endangered’ as the cultural context changes,” she said. “Unfortunately, this can be said of many other indigenous tribes as they adapt to their changing environments.”
There have been efforts from people within the developed world that aim to “help” the Tarahumara adapt to modern ways of life. But good intentions don’t always produce positive results, and as the representative further explains, this is a major part of why it continues to be an endangered tribe of indigenous peoples.
“Development usually suggests some form of Westernization, which is not the best option for many of these tribes when they cannot make the choices themselves but is thrust upon them,” she says. “Some of the issues currently facing the Tarahumara way of life include the presence of drug traffickers and loggers who take Tarahumara land, drought that threatens food security, and other issues that affect their livelihood are issues that can be helped.”
This is why the Lienzo team has decided to use Raramuri beliefs and mythology as the foundation of Mulaka. By placing one in the position of a Raramuri tribesman, the team can give people the chance to interact with and explore these traditions, thus serving as a mode of cultural preservation extending beyond typical means.
“Videogames are, without a doubt, today’s most powerful communication tool, given the player’s interaction with it,” Aguierre says. “That makes them the best medium to deliver a message like this. Videogames can definitely get people interested in a lot of things that they wouldn’t otherwise [be], especially because gamers are a demographic that enjoys exploration or discovery.”
Mulaka’s creators are working with the Raramuri tribe to make sure every aspect of its portrayal is faithful, even going so far as to include the language and voices of the tribe as part of the game’s narration.
It’s not unlike Never Alone, a puzzle-platformer game released in 2014 that borrowed heavily from the traditions and mythology of the Alaskan Native people. It was created by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in association with E-Line Media as a way to harness technology and better educate people of the customs and traditions held by the Inupiaq and other Alaskan indigenous peoples. By incorporating their legends and beliefs into a video game, their rich heritage can be virtually immortalized and survive much longer and in a more pure state than these tribes themselves.
No amount of books, movies, or retellings of tales can quite match the revelatory power of experiencing something firsthand. Lessons learned from inhabiting a role can be deeper, more personal, and more rooted in appreciation and empathy. Videogames like Mulaka are unique chances to experience, explore, learn, and appreciate, the vehicles through which preservation and education reach heights traditional forms of education can only hope to achieve.