Elizabeth LaPensée

Enacting sovereignty through play

October 23, 2020 / Interview by Alex Westfall | Photography courtesy of Elizabeth LaPensée

Whether activated through a singing voice, a computer mouse, or one’s own hand, the work of Elizabeth LaPensée integrates Indigenous ways of knowing into the act of play. A narrative designer, fine artist, researcher, and educator, Elizabeth’s wholly interdisciplinary practice touches on everything from oral storytelling to the language of memory; from the healing qualities of water to the science of the stars. 

Elizabeth teaches games-focused courses at Michigan State University, leads youth advocacy workshops on Native representation in games, and created Along the River of Spacetime—an astronomy-centered point-and-click adventure, which was the first-ever game to win a Guggenheim fellowship. 

We spoke with Elizabeth about her material-based design process, if games can indeed produce empathy, and what it means to make a game in which you always win. 


Could you talk about your creative upbringing and educational background? How did you first get into game making?

I was raised in an urban Native community, and I was just playing around with modulators. To change the art, you had to deal with green pixels behind the scenes. I did a mod of Super Mario, too.

I was just playing as a gamer who wanted to see more native player characters in games. There’s a family, the Bruno family, in my community. They have sons who seriously wanted to make games. Because I had been modding and there wasn’t enough understanding about the difference between modding and actually developing games, everyone was looking to me like, Well, you know how to do this? I told them, I’m just an artist. I don’t actually really know how to do this

The first-ever youth workshop I gave was because of this family. It was really my community rallying together and saying, We need this for our youth, that pushed me to learn enough about developing games beyond being an artist to move forward and do that kind of work myself.

There’s nothing like having to learn something to teach it to motivate you—to really understand everything about the background of game development. My mom is [Portland State University professor] Grace Dillon, and she coined the term Indigenous Futurisms—she’s the first-ever person ever tenured in science fiction as a field in the world. 

I tagged along with her to conferences. My one big act of rebellion—because I’m this much of a geek—was pretending to be a graduate student. I’d submit to conferences so that I could go watch the presentations with her for free.



While I ran youth workshops, I was attending presentations on problematic representations in games. The talks were always so depressing. Someone would be in complete shock because they would have seen what was happening in film, but maybe not what was happening in games.

There was something much more visceral about what was happening with games because of the way interaction is incorporated. It always felt terrible by the end of it where I was just like, This is terrible. That’s all this is ever going to be unless I actually do something about it. When I really went for making games myself, it was from that place of, You know what, I can’t just talk about what’s wrong, I have to show what can be done and what is possible.

I’m not just fascinated by representations in terms of art and music or the story which can be conveyed, but also what are the mechanics, and how can those portray Indigenous ways of knowing? It roots back to Indigenous Futurism very often because my mom talks about how their stories are science, or how there’s science in our stories.

What is the design of these stories? What can be lifted out and highlighted to change the present interactions we’re having in games? That question set me down this path of experimentation. 

So I experiment in these microcosms and say, Here’s one or two mechanics—and hopefully, there will be attention and support and enough funding. There will be future generations of Indigenous game developers who can push it further. That’s where it goes. Then it loops back around to where it all started, which was in development workshops for youth. As much as my work expresses my voice, I’m so much more excited for what the next generations will bring forward.



What’s the first step in the creative process? Do you think about a particular theory or a certain Indigenous knowledge, are you experimenting within the design space first, or do you start with the narrative? 

It’s tangible for me and also very auditory. Something that I’ve come to understand about myself is that I have some form of synesthesia. I do know that I can feel color. I have a tangible interaction, and so different sensory changes that happen for me.

The hardest part for me is switching gears. If you’re doing academic writing, and then you’re doing creative writing, and then you’re doing a drawing—once it gets going, it won’t stop. Through the years, I have had to learn how to pull it back and say, I can set this aside right now and come back to it again, and it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s not like I’m going to hit a wall. It’s that gear switching that happens very rapidly as long as I have tangible interactions.

With games, I always start with paper prototyping. There’s something about it where there are materials or I gather together—It can be something that’s not necessarily design related. For example, with When Rivers Were Trails, I knew that there would be the sounds of a shaker in there. I had rocks from Minnesota, where the game takes place. Then the artist, Weshoyot Alvitre, sent me sand from California where the game ends, and I had a handle, a handle made of Minnesotan wood. I also had a real hide. One of the first things I did for When Rivers Were Trails was I made a shaker, putting together these pieces from California and Minnesota, and it was like the feeling of the game. It shows up very little in the game, the sounds from that shaker, but it isn’t about that. It’s about what is the feeling, the resonation of this. That resonation can come through the art, it could come through the stories, it can come through all of these different aspects.

The maps of When Rivers Were Trails were physically laid out on the floor and numbered on pieces of paper. It’s very hands-on, and my drawing process is still very much like that. I’ve tried to get into drawing digitally, but it just doesn’t communicate to me. When you look at my art, there are layers of pieces of paper. Any given piece is maybe at least four pieces of paper, perhaps a few more. I use a light board to line everything up and make sure it’s all in the right place. I hand-ink, and then I scan, and then I work with everything digitally. All of the textures are made from real water and real copper. These are places I’ve visited or stayed, or this is copper I’ve worked with, or these are trees that I’ve made offerings to.

There are always layers of connections that have to happen. I also make a playlist of music and just listen to it over and over again. It’s not so much about that music conveying itself into the work necessarily as it is about getting into some space with it, where for me, above all else, it’s not about me making the work happen. It’s about me being open to it happening, and it’s my responsibility to be receptive.

In-process sketches for THUNDERBIRD STRIKE.

You’ve worked with the digital video game space, and you’ve also worked on tangible board games. How different are these processes? What compels you to turn something into a screen-based work versus a material work?

That’s a vast place where it happens where what calls for interaction, what calls for visual storytelling, what calls for the need to have a group of people sit together or otherwise. I’m working right now on a tabletop storytelling game that can be played solo or multiplayer, and all it’s going to be is text. That’s going to be in an anthology of tabletop games, which was asked of me. There’s part of the process where a community wants a board game, so we know it will be a board game. There’s the reality of the contract based project. 

In my personal work, it comes down to what works best to convey meaning or story or express itself. Sometimes that means No; we need to be touching something and interacting with something and moving something around. Sometimes that means mobile phones. Maybe the game is calling for something about relaxing or feeling like you can dip in and out—that feeling. That then ties into the mobile work that I do, but it comes down to what fits best.

With Thunderbird Strike, I remember a conversation I had where I joke about having a game where you always win. Some people were like, Yes, I need that in my life. I need a situation in which we always win, and that’s just how it’s going to go. That’s totally against an industry-standard game. It calls into question the meaning of the game or the very definition of a game—Well, if you always win, what really are you playing? What happened with Thunderbird Strike, because there’s a split in the past. Either you win by actually taking out the pipeline snake boss, or it deconstructs on its own, and the waters will darken. It’s very subtle, but the waters will darken because the oil is spilling into the waters.

There is a loose condition, but it’s not clear because it’s a high score game. Somebody could have the feeling of, Well, eventually the pipeline snake boss is defeated, but is it because you have removed it, or is it because it has actually not been disassembled? Then it’s going to deconstruct on its own. 




You work across many different mediums—animations, immersive reality, and also your physical, sculptural objects. How does game-making fit into your overall practice, and what is it about the medium that excites you? 

What’s unique about games is the player’s ability to enact sovereignty in their actions if a game is designed in that way. In any case, if a player decides, well, I’m not going to play anymore, they have the ability to not play anymore—you’re choosing to enter that space of play and identify with it, potentially. There is a reason why in my own work, there are not explicit native representations. You do not actually see yourself in When Rivers Were Trails. In fact, I worked with 30 Indigenous writers for that. The intention was for there even to be no gender references to the player character. You can be male; female. You can be non-binary. There is a whole range of possibilities, and it’s up for the player to imagine that positioning for themselves or project themselves into that role.

You don’t do that in a comic you’re reading or looking at and interpreting stories about characters. Whereas with games, you can identify with and put yourself in the role of that player character potentially. When Rivers Were Trails, even though it’s a point-and-click adventure, it still has that first-person sense of you looking through the eyes of the main character. In part, this is why Weshoyot Alvitre did the character and environment art, but I did the animal art because it’s through an Anishinaabe lens.

This again breaks a certain standard of expectation of industry games: you have to have a consistent art style all the way through. When Rivers Were Trails dips back and forth between Woodlands-style Art, that’s very abstracted and more—Weshoyot comes from a comic illustration background. Her work ties in, and there’s always these threads of interweaving comics, games, animations, and Thunderbird Strike. The cut scenes are actually stop motion animations laid out at six frames per second. I move everything in Photoshop pixel by pixel, that’s how I animate, and it’s torturous and terrible [laughs]—like one month for one minute of animation. I don’t even use a mouse. I’m using my keyboard, clicking the arrow key left 20 times. 

Sometimes I work on comics because of the joy of complete ability, because I’m at a stage in my career where if I start working on a game, I know it’s three or five years out. As someone who feels the perpetual need for completion, it can physically hurt and feel like, What am I doing? I’m lost, and I’m not expressing myself. But you are, but it is under NDA, and you can’t share anything.

With comics, it gives that feeling of immediacy. With art prints, it’s even more immediate. When you’re working in games, it’s such a strain to just have to maintain this sense of hope that you’re headed somewhere when you can actually really fully see it functioning, and you can’t share it.




Could you talk about how Along the River of Spacetime came to be?

That started as messing around with a 360° camera and thinking about walking the land and giving offerings. I was very quickly noticing how climate change has impacted these places that I was visiting. I started gathering seasonal footage. I had enough of a prototype of this idea of looking to the stars in a virtual reality game to activate them with patience and focus. They then turn into constellations, and that those constellations reflect back to the land and offer healing. I also had this idea of medicinal plants as florals growing in and imparting constellations, but not the traditional stories like the science involved and interwoven with understanding star teachings, which relates back to the water. I was really honing what we can do now to take better care of the land and the waters. 

Part of the process was working with Perry Bebamash on translating water teachings from English back into our language Anishinaabemowin, and then my voice recording them. I spent over two years gathering 360 footage of different points along the same connected river, which is in the equation, which means where the rivers meet or where one body of water flows into the next. The sad part of the story—which is also important to tell—the whole inspiration for this was this beautiful ice cave, which I came to understand was a place where native people would sleep or stay or camp out at when they were traveling during times of hunting and all of that. Still, also it was vital during displacement. It was a place of safety.

It was filled with ice crystals, and it was so inspiring. It never happened like that again because the snow would fall or the ice would freeze, and then there would be this extremely rapid shift afterward, and it would melt and get muddy. I saw plants falling early and then die when the cold would come again. I saw maple sap run too early. Then the season was shortened. Climate change is not changing everything in this direction. It’s the rapid back and forth changes that are so destructive, and the unpredictability of it.


The original ice cave shot that inspired the whole thing, to begin with, can’t even be in the game because it never happened again like that. When it had two seasons before, so it was strange to see how things changed. It was very eye-opening, but then it’s the land telling its story then. Using real-world environments, I can’t just draw things and imagine them how I want them to be, which I realized through this. You have to see the truth that’s around you. It was immensely sad but also incredibly meaningful about working on that.

That ended up being a shot in the dark to Guggenheim. No part of me thought that I would actually get that. Receiving the award was legitimately life-changing—what I created became the first game ever awarded a Guggenheim.

That says so much about games’ capacity to be perceived as an intersection of art and science. If nothing else, that was meaningful, is that now a pathway has been opened for Guggenheim to look at games and consider games for their fellowship. Then the process of Along the River of Spacetime really was like hand drawing all the constellations. They are NASA-accurate. I just went to the MSU planetarium because I am working on an extension of the game where the constellations will be up in a planetarium dome. We’re talking about a traveling exhibit with audio recordings.

Along the River of Spacetime will not be a game in that space. It will be a show about constellations, again not of the tellings of traditional stories that can only be shared when snow is on the ground, and in fact when the lakes are frozen over in a particular way, but sharing the science of them. This constellation is seen when spring has arrived, and it might be a warning of the snow melting and how the water is rushing, and you might get pulled in by an undertow. We can talk about those scientific teachings behind the constellations.

It is vital to bring in diverse representations, but what is more important is to bring people in to represent themselves. That’s what the emphasis needs to be. 

How do you see games as producing emotional responses?

Let’s tackle the idea of an empathy game. How can you develop games that have to create awareness? What is that saying it’s trying to do? Is that really possible? I question the concept of empathy games. I want to caution this next generation of game developers that it is vital to bring in diverse representations, but what is more important is to bring people in to represent themselves. That’s what the emphasis needs to be. The dedicated advocacy work is saying, let’s expand the opportunities within this industry, build capacity, create meaningful opportunities, and hire people as cultural consultants or diversity consultants, but give them roles, not only any part but ideally lead roles.

Everyone has the capacity to be a writer, programmer, designer, artist. There are many different forms of artists, animators, level designers, audio. There are many possibilities there, and it might mean more training, but to impart to the next generation of game developers that it’s all of our responsibility. If we really are going to have more diverse games, more people need to be involved in their own self-representations.