Above: An ancient Inuit inukshuk serves as a landmark for seafarers in a fjord of Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. This inukshuk is estimated to be at least one thousand years old.
A new educational program from local company Pinnquaq in partnership with the American gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA) may be the instrument of permanent change the locals of Nunavut have always longed for. Nunavut, a town on Baffin Island in Canada’s Northwest Territories, is about as Great White North as it’s possible to get.
The hot Canadian video game development hubs, in Hamilton, Montreal and Vancouver, are not going to be feeling any kind of competitive heat, but to one of EA’s best and brightest software engineers, Michel Despault, the ‘different’ thinking of Inuit children, often reared in a vacuum far removed from our materialistic, hustling, western ideals, could be the harbinger of a revolution. “We’re taking these young kids and hoping to light the spark,” says Ryan Oliver, founder of Pinnquaq, “play” in the Inuit language. “At the same time we can hopefully make the point to the education side that this is something really important in terms of job creation.”
Despault got involved after Oliver, whom he’s been friends with since they were both kids in Ontario, got in touch with him and sold him on his idea. Using EA’s annual company-wide, civic-action-minded Action Time, a two-week period that EA employees get to devote to things they feel passionate about, they dived in, according to the Toronto Sun.
After starting in the first week of the New Year, Oliver and Despault will keep the program running until February 21, 2014. One five-day Code Club event is teaching kids in Pangnirtung, pop. 1,325, the basics of game design in what is the first computer-programming course ever offered in Nunavut. Despault, who has worked on the company’s NHL hockey franchise, is showing kids how to use Scratch, a free program that is used to create simple web browser-based games. The goal is for the kids to create one game per day.
Sixteen participants between the ages of 8 and 19, signed up for the course and thus far have produced games like Hoogaly Boogaly and Booooooooooooo, where the objective is to click on as many on-screen ghosts as possible within a given time frame. Blown-away by the quality and originality of what’s been produced so far, EA executives are excited. Such in-class sessions are also supplemented by videoconferences with EA Canada employees in Burnaby, B.C., where designers field questions and talk about getting started in the game industry. Big goals. Big dreams. But, beyond all the clichés concerning thinking outside the box, Despault is a realist committed to Inuit children in a practical way. Indeed, he hopes to get kids excited about the possibilities offered by computer programming.
In spite of generations of anti-Inuit propaganda that insists ‘the Eskies’ are a nation of intractable, ignorant savages bound to fail because of a genetic disposition toward alcoholism, Oliver and Despault insist they’re working with the world’s best kids in the world’s best place. Working against a historical image problem, decades of racist abuse at residential schools created a widespread distrust in public education across the North in Inuit parents. A chronic shortage of Inuit-speaking teachers only compounds such cultural wariness. According to the Globe & Mail, across the territory, only one in four Inuit students finish high school.
“It’s such a powerful tool that it lets you create whatever you can imagine, which is what we’re doing when we’re creating games,” Despault says. “If you think about it, a game is nothing more than something someone has imagined and that they’ve brought to life.”
The program, which will continue to run on Saturdays until the spring, isn’t without its challenges. Infrastructure, for one, is a problem, with satellite-based Internet access being irregular. When Oliver showed up at the Pangnirtung youth centre to set up, he found that the monthly bandwidth allowance of 15 gigabytes had already been depleted. He had to go home and get his own modem, then do some rewiring, to get the video calls with EA working.
Oliver hopes that both the government and companies such as EA will help continue the Code Club program after its initial run. “This territory has a lot of history with one-and-done events. We want to make sure we go beyond that,” he says.