Video games are helping people stay in shape. They enable artistic expression. They make workplace training more engaging and effective. And they are transforming the way we learn. In addition to subjects such as math and science, however, games are now being used by Native Americans from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest to teach, preserve and pass along their indigenous languages to the next generation of tribal leaders.
Most recently, members of the Pauma Band of Luiseno Mission Indians have turned to the Nintendo DSi to teach younger members proper pronunciation, conversation skills, oral histories and cultural customs. Last year the tribe, in coordination with the California State University San Marcos' California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, created a series of Nintendo DSi games to teach the Luiseno language through words, pictures and phrases. Members ranging from tribal elders to young children, many of whom are learning their first Lusieno words, lent their voices to help preserve a language nearly extinct. The game's accessibility and inherent entertainment value, combined with children's natural aptitude for languages, makes it an especially effective tool for younger students. Nearly every household on the reservation is using the program, and the tribe plans to expand the program with more advanced games and mobile apps.
Other tribes are using online and computer games to preserve their indigenous languages, too. The Association on American Indian Affairs employs flash-based Internet games to teach young children the Dakotah language, a dialect of the Sioux. Several distinct games – a memory-card game, a traditional matching game, a "what belongs?" game and a game modeled after "Simon Says" – help introduce young students to their native language. Each one has three levels and builds core vocabulary through words, pictures and audible clues. A similar partnership between the University of Northern Texas and the Klallam tribe uses computer games to build younger members' vocabulary and to teach correct pronunciation.
Thorton Media's RezWorld takes learning an indigenous language to a new level. Designed to teach Cherokee, RezWorld fully immerses a student in a virtual world complete with responsive non-playing characters and "quests" to help build a strong vocabulary and to teach cultural customs and day-to-day interactions. Most students who have played the game achieve conversational level in as little as a week.