Thunderbird Strike Wins Best Digital Media Work at imagineNATIVE

These days, videogames do more than entertain. Game designers and developers are finding new ways to incorporate education and awareness into their work, and some are winning awards for it.

Assistant Professor Elizabeth LaPensée recently won Best Digital Media Work for her latest game, Thunderbird Strike, at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, the world’s largest Indigenous film and media arts festival.

“Receiving this award is meaningful on so many levels, but mainly I am excited to bring attention to Thunderbird Strike and issues regarding pipelines,” said LaPensée, an artist, writer, and designer who has a dual appointment in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences and the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures in the College of Arts & Letters.

Thunderbird Strike is a side-scrolling game where players control a thunderbird, a figure in several Indigenous cultures, that uses lightning right the wrongs of the oil industry while also reviving animals and activating people along the way.

digital rainy scene with deer and bird and construction vehicle
A scene from Thunderbird Strike

“I was inspired to develop a game to address oil operations since I am both Anishinaabe and Métis and my children are also Beaver Lake Cree, a nation which is near the tar sands,” LaPensée said.

Thunderbird Strike focuses on the connection from the Alberta tar sands to Enbridge Line 5 in the Great Lakes and Straits of Mackinac. At the end of the game, players battle against a pipeline snake representing Line 5.

“I designed Thurderbird Strike to be a high-score game where players can strike lightning at oil infracstructure as well as activate animals and people back to life,” LaPensée said. “My greatest hope is to pass on stories of thunderbirds from my community.”

Thunderbird Strike was created with design, art, and writing by LaPensée; music and sound effects by NÀHGĄ, a.k.a. Casey Koyczan; and programming by Adrian Cheater and Aubrey Jane Scott. It was developed thanks to the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council through residencies including O k’inādās Residency, The Banff Musicians in Residence Program, and Territ-Aur(i)al Imprints Exchange.

Thurderbird Strike currently is available on Windows PC and will be released on mobile devices in December 2017.

The College of Communication Arts and Sciences contributed to this article.