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Devin Gardner's great-great-grandmother painted her face white and stopped speaking her native Shoshone language so she wouldn't get made fun of in school.
No one Gardner knew spoke the language, and he grew up interested in Xbox, PlayStation and computers. "I was Shoshone, but I didn't feel Shoshone because I didn't know anything," the 19-year-old said.
But Gardner eventually became interested in his heritage and started to learn his history and traditional songs. "It's really hard to describe when I sing Shoshone songs, it makes me feel better," he said. "I feel good for some reason."
He wove together his modern sensibilities and native traditions at the University of Utah this summer, when he helped create the first Shoshone-language video game.
The game is called Enee, a Shoshone word pronounced "en-uh" and meaning scary or frightening. It features Tim Burton-esque graphics and elements from traditional tales, and is designed to help young people learn the language. With just 2,000 to 5,000 fluent speakers, it's in danger of dying out.
"I'm hoping that young people will see that their language can be used for anything they want to do with it," said Marianna Di Paolo, director of the Shoshoni Language Project and associate professor of anthropology at the U.
Historically, the Shoshone and Goshute people were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of the Great Basin, living from the Sierra Nevadas to the Wasatch range, and from southern Nevada to Idaho. The famous Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea was a Lemhi Shoshone.
The game features a nongendered central protagonist who is kidnapped by cannibal birds and dropped into a forest far from home.
On the quest to return, the character meets a rock monster and a coyote, a trickster mainstay in Shoshone lore.
"You meet him, and he tells you to watch out for the water babies," Gardner said. "They're shape-shifters who eat your baby and take its form. If you pick them up, they'll eat you."
The game displays the Shoshone words for different objects as the player picks them up, and instructions are in auditory Shoshone.
The first three levels of the game are complete in beta mode and available to play online. The students plan to continue working on the game this year and may add English subtitles.
Gardner created the game with fellow students Cora Burchett and Trent Griffith as part of the Shoshone/Goshute Youth Language Apprenticeship Program.
Designed to preserve native languages and traditions as part of the Shoshoni Language Project, the apprenticeship program brings 10 young people to the U. each year for six weeks for intense language classes and training on entering higher education.
It encourages the students to use bits of their language as they learn them, in text messages as well as conversation. Gardner, for one, is now Facebook-messaging his friends in Shoshone.
The teens and young adults also create ways to help others learn their nation's traditions and language, such as children's books and vocabulary videos.
The trio made the game with the help of Zeph Fagergren, a master's student in the U.'s No. 1-ranked Entertainment Arts and Engineering program. Fagergren picked up a few words working on the project.
"Being American, it's kind of cool to hear any other language at all," he said.
Enee is also an example of expanding of video games beyond entertainment, Fagergren said. "I really feel like it has the potential to be an educational tool," he said. "This game, and gaming itself."
The project also has changed Gardner's trajectory: He hopes to enter the video game design program at the U. next year.