The Enee game opens a window into Shoshone language and culture.
Cora Burchett is pretty much like any American teenager. Never far from her Mac and cellphone, she emails, texts and spends an inordinate amount of time on Facebook. And, of course, she relishes video games and creepy fantasy stories.
In a couple of ways, however, Burchett’s life is very different from most teenagers. Her wi-fi connection on the isolated Duckwater Indian Reservation, in the Nevada desert, comes through a satellite feed. Texting is even more of a challenge: “We have enough cell reception to get texts if you stand in just the right place,” the 19-year-old college student says.
And Burchett’s beloved spooky stories are rooted in an ancient society alien to the pop culture of most teens. Burchett and her Shoshone friends’ childhood nightmares were haunted by indigo vulture-like birds that eat humans, very creepy “water babies” who turn infants into the Shoshone equivalent of zombies, Tsoo-ai-tithe (rock monsters) and the cunning trickster, Coyote.
“They’re the stories I heard from my grandma when I was little,” Burchett says.
But Grandma Lilly Sanchez always warned her granddaughter: “Don’t be afraid of these stories. You’ll be scared—but don’t run away from it. You will learn from them.”
Burchett and other young Shoshones fear the tribe’s next generation may not inherit the old stories or even the Shoshone language in which to tell them. In an effort to save their language, Burchett, Devin Gardner and Trent Griffith, as part of the University of Utah’s Shoshone/Goshute Youth Language Apprenticeship Program, joined with linguistic scholars and the U’s Electronic Arts and Engineering program last summer.
“It was an opportunity to show that gaming can have an impact beyond entertainment,” Zeph Fagrergren, an EAE video game producer, says, explaining his role. “It was cool to work with them because this is a tool to keep their language alive.”
The team developed the game Enee as a fun way to teach Shoshone vocabulary through the culture’s spooky legends. Enee means “scary.”
“We wanted something attention-grabbing. We decided to do a game because that’s the way technology is advancing now,” Burchett says. “Almost everyone plays games now, even old people.”
Burchett created the digital characters. “You get dropped into a world where all these stories unfold.” The protagonist in Enee must find his or her way using clues in traditional Shoshone myth—Coyote is the guide. During the quest, players are exposed to Shoshone culture. “The goal is to get back home. Along the way, you should be able to pick up at least a few Shoshone phrases for things and emotions.”
Marianna Di Paolo, an anthropologist and director of the Shoshoni Language Project (spelling and pronunciations of the tribe’s name vary), says the language program offers Shoshone youth tools.
“If this language is going to be saved, it’s going to be saved by young people,” Di Paolo says. “These kids are saying, ‘We want to use gaming to save our language.’”
Burchett says her peers realize without their culture they will lose their identity. “Language holds people together. If we can’t understand the words, we can’t understand the songs and our stories. If you save the language, you can keep your whole culture alive.”