Dissertation: Sámi game design is a cultural trait that evolves when given space


Throughout history, Indigenous peoples have played, gamed and created their own games. Games and gaming are in fact an integral part of Sámi culture, but there are, nevertheless, only a handful of digital games around. In her dissertation Outi Laiti, BE, MEd, explores the possibilities offered by game development events for the cultural self-expression of Sámi people. What kind of a picture of Sámi culture, then, do digital games convey – who draws it, for whom and on whose terms?

Historically, Indigenous peoples have mostly been objects of the gaming industry: Mystical shamans and witch doctors who help the white heroes of the games. Today, also members of Indigenous peoples work in the gaming industry, but because of the demand for games combined with lacking resources, Indigenous people mainly end up as cultural consultants. Thereby a lot more than the mere mechanical implementation of a game is outsourced, because working as a cultural consultant leaves especially game development skills outside the realm of culture.

Indigenous game design model

In Sámi culture, games and plays are an essential part of education through which for instance intangible cultural heritage is passed on from generation to generation. Games and plays have also had their role in increasing the mental resilience of the Sámi – an attribute that is not to be underrated when it comes to an Indigenous people that has been the target of an assimilation policy.

Laiti’s research addresses Sámi agency, particularly their right of self-determination in digital games. She notes that game creation is a cultural trait that emerges, grows and flourishes when given space.

– “Elizabeth LaPensée, an Indigenous games researcher, has encapsulated the salient idea well in the phrase ‘Nothing about us without us’. By this she refers to active agency as well as the right of self-determination in Indigenous game development,” Laiti says.

The Indigenous Game Design Model designed by Laiti depicts the process of game creation. Using the model, Indigenous game design can be examined particularly in terms of how it enables empowerment. Empowerment may occur through storytelling, contemporary experiences, teachings, language, sharing and developing.

– “The model sheds light on the cultural meaning of game design to Indigenous peoples. Sámi culture is often thought to live in a mythical past. The intangible Sámi cultural heritage should rather be seen as a vivacious cradle of creativity that feeds the diverse Sámi way of life we witness today.”

Cultural self-expression in game development events

Laiti collected the research material in two game development events (a programming course for adolescents and Sami Game Jam) that were organised in Utsjoki during 2017 and 2018. Altogether 16 games were created, reflecting the features of contemporary Sámi game and play tradition. The events gathered together 57 participants from all over the world, some of whom were Sámi.

Information on the public examination

With the permission of the Faculty of Education at the University of Lapland, Outi Laiti’s dissertation ”Old ways of knowing, new ways of playing - The potential of collaborative game design to empower Indigenous Sámi” will be publically examined in Lecture Hall 3 on Saturday 6 February 2021 starting 12 noon. The opponent is Professor Tuomas Harviainen from the University of Tampere and the custos is Professor Satu Uusiautti from the University of Lapland.

The defence can be followed online at http://blogi.eoppimispalvelut.fi/ulapland

Information on the doctoral candidate

Outi Laiti graduated as an engineer (ICT) in 2008 and as a master of education (media education) in 2016. In addition, she has completed pedagogical studies for teachers in 2019 and the workshops on e-sports coaching and mental coaching of the Finnish Esports Federation.

Laiti has conducted her doctoral research while working for the Municipality of Utsjoki as a project coordinator, for the Finnish Pensioners’ Federation as a project manager and for the Davvenásti cinema in Utsjoki as a theatre manager.

Laiti has been one of the main organisers of the successful Sami Game Jam event that was one of the three events that made it to the finals in the 2018 Pelikasvattaja game education competition. In 2020 Laiti was selected on the Gamesindustry.biz GI100 list that contains the world’s most prominent actors in the games industry. The nomination was based on her accomplishments in promoting the game culture of the Sámi and the aged.

Further information

Outi Laiti

Information on the publication

Outi Laiti: ”Old ways of knowing, new ways of playing - The potential of collaborative game design to empower Indigenous Sámi”. Acta Electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 302, ISBN 978-952-337-249-8, ISSN 1796-6310. University of Lapland, Rovaniemi 2020.

Permanent link to the electronic publication: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-337-249-8