Home > Uncategorized > Quick Educator Review – When Rivers Were Trails

Quick Educator Review – When Rivers Were Trails

Just tweeted a thread on the videogame, When Rivers Were Trails, which was developed by a partnerships between the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab. https://indianlandtenure.itch.io/when-rivers-were-trails… by lead designer Elizabeth LaPensée, PhD. and lead artist Weshoyot Alvitre (and many others). 
Then I thought I would put this on GTP and, at the same time, experiment with a different short review style for the blog)

What it is: A FREE, beautifully illustrated, choice-based interactive text for Mac and PC with just a bit of a resource model. Players read about the main character and make choices by clicking on the relevant text with the mouse. The player character has three main attributes affected by gameplay:  a medicine and food inventory and a level of wellbeing that can increase and decrease. Navigation across the map is carried out by clicking on a simple compass rose. According to the introduction to the game on itch.io:
“An Anishinaabeg in the 1890’s is displaced from their traditional territory in Minnesota and heads west to California due to the impact of allotment acts on Indigenous communities, facing Indian Agents, meeting people from different nations, and hunting, fishing, and canoeing along the way as they balance their wellbeing.”  In short, the game offers a different, less-often seen perspective on the suffering, resistance, and adaptation of indigenous people in response to the US policies of forcibly seizing indigenous land and forcing indigenous peoples to relocate and re-start in places far from their homes.

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Approachability: This is a very approachable game even for players with little comfort/familiarity with video games since controls consist mostly of mouse clicks on choice texts. The hunting and fishing elements might prove difficult since they are based on coordination and timing, but the main game should be playable from 5th grade to college. Teachers of lower middle school kids will have to assess readability, of course, and what supports might be needed for kids to engage the text. Here’s a passage from the start, just to give an idea about readability.

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I suspect a teacher of younger students could read and translate the difficult passages while the class views the game on a projected screen as a class.

Use in Class: Because this game offers a perspective on US Expansion / Colonialism not often as accessible, even just playing the game individually or as a class (one screen everybody contributes to decisions with teacher guiding the process), then discussing the experiences and perspectives of the player character and non-player characters in the game will help teachers increase the diverse perspectives they include when exploring US expansion / imperialism westward. A number of reflection/analsysis assessments and activities could supplement the basic playing of the game: student-constructed diaries, drawings or painting, role plays, or even formal essays on the point the game makes about this important episode in history.
For those who want to consider the gamic medium in their classes, When Rivers Were Trails can be compared and contrasted to the Oregon Trail game that inspired it. The Internet Archive has a fully playable 1990 version of Oregon Trail playable in an internet browser.  There are all sorts of discussion and reflection questions a class might engage in through comparison/contrast: the strengths and weaknesses of these gamic genres for engaging the past; the biases underlying game design; even the real-world context for the design of each game, one from 1970s Minnesota (Oregon Trail; here’s a good article from VICE for background) and the other (WRRT) from the 21st century. The fact that When Rivers Were Trails is inspired by / plays off of Oregon Trail makes a great opportunity for rich analysis and discussion. (a text interview with WRRT designer Elizabeth LaPensée Ph.D and one on NPR). One could easily get into the colonialist assumptions of many video games (a provocative recent essay, The Colonial, Non-Colonial, and Decolonial in Video Games, by Why Not Games, helps a lot with one way to frame a discussion on these topics)

Hardware and Software: As noted above the game is free and available in Mac and PC versions on itch.io . It has very little animation and should be playable on a wide variety of hardware. As an interactive narrative, it could easily be played on one projected computer by a whole class under teacher guidance.

Bottom Line: Please check this game out. It provides different and critical perspectives to a common historical topic, it is free, it is easy to play. When Rivers Were Trails is WELL WORTH playing even as a one class play-a-bit-and-discuss exercise because of the perspective it brings to traumatic events that is not found often enough, certainly not in games.

Let me know if you’d like any assistance working out some lessons more with this (jmc.hst@gmail.com)

Categories: Uncategorized

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