Thursday, August 8, 2013

How not to sound white: Exploring my culture through a video game

In this article, game producer Angel Inokon recalls how the struggle to connect to her Nigerian American culture led to the creation of her very first video game.

“You Oreo!” Of all the names the bully could have called me, I kind of liked Oreo. My round belly and chubby sixth grade arms made no secret of the fact that I enjoyed dunking chocolate cookies in milk until they crumbled into a mush of goodness. Yumm....

But it was intended to be an insult. I was a brown-skinned little girl with nappy hair who spoke like a white person. An Oreo is black on the outside and white on the inside. This is the story of how a video game helped bridge my cultural identity as a Nigerian Black American.

I never felt like I belonged – not at home or at school. My parents ate funny food, wore funny clothes and spoke a funny language. We were forbidden to learn their native tongue, Ibibio, one of Nigeria’s 400 plus dialects. To make matters worse, they had a British education so we were hopelessly out of place at school.

We weren’t Nigerian enough to speak our native language and not American enough to sound black. I would beg my parents to teach me Ibibio. I fantasized about how awesome it would be to have my own secret language – I could talk about people in public, understand jokes that seemed funnier in Ibibio or eavesdrop on my parents.

They would laugh as we mangled sounds that don’t exist in the English language. For example, 'akpan' means first son, a common name for men. The ‘kp’ pops from your lips like a hard bouncy b. My parents wouldn't teach us because they feared discrimination if we spoke with an accent. Assimilation meant survival. Therefore we had to sound white. I’ve gone through cycles of acceptance around this fact – indifference, annoyance, anger, self-pity, resignation and back again. Hungry for power, I ordered books on Ibibio from Amazon. Books suck. They don’t speak to you. You can’t easily learn a language from a book.

Books weren’t the solution. So I created a video game.

What I was trying to accomplish was darn near impossible. I wasn’t a programmer. I didn’t know the language. My parents wouldn’t teach. And we were the first generation to speak full English. Undaunted I opened up Macromedia Flash 8 and designed my first game – Ibibio Hangman.

It was a bilingual hangman game where you selected the mode - Green for Ibibio or Blue for English. If you selected English you saw a blue screen with spaces and letters to guess the secret word. If you clicked the hint button you would see the translated word in Ibibio. When you got the word right in either mode you could hear a pronunciation of Ibibio. One problem – I can’t pronounce these words.

So I cornered my mom and got her to say a couple words into my cheap microphone before she escaped. I felt sorry for my mom. She had a geeky daughter. I was not interested in being in the kitchen learning to cook fufu soup or wearing a lace buba dress. I wanted to code. At my computer, I converted her voice to wav files using Audacity and put them in my game asset folder. In the end my game had an external dictionary of about 10 words. If you failed to guess the word a bomb would explode which somehow made sense as a lose condition for Hangman. It was a game, it worked and it was mine.

Now almost ten years later I make games for a living. Video games can act as a time capsule capturing experiences we can relive again and again. There will be a day I’ll want to hear my mother’s voice. I’ll wish I was able to hear her speak our language. While I no longer have the source code for the original game, I have the memories. Now as I’ve started my own mobile gaming company my wish is to rebuild Ibibio Hangman and invite you too to become an Oreo.

Angel Inokon is a game producer, entrepreneur and a member of the IGDA living in Oakland, CA. She is creating That's My Move!, a mobile game for shy wannabe dancers who want to have fun doing flash mobs with friends. Follow her at @angelinokon or @thatsmymove.


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