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Building positive food relationships in indigenous populations through games

Photo from Elizabeth LaPensee

You know what they say: you are what you eat. Our diets can be as important as our medications, making healthy eating choices and habits an essential part of our daily lives.

Getting this message across to youth, especially those within Indigenous communities, can be tricky. That’s why Elizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D., a post doctoral associate for the University of Minnesota’s Research for Indigenous Community Health Center (RICH) in the College of Pharmacy, has designed a board game to promote healthy food culture.

LaPensée, along with the Northwest Indian College, created a board game called The Gift of Food. The game takes place in a traditional community in the past and encourages food and medicines to be seen as gifts that align with traditional teachings, rather than simply something to be used. The goal is that this attitude toward food will translate to healthy eating habits.

“I create these games to hopefully help members of Indigenous communities, particularly youth, remember and activate teachings through gameplay,” LaPensée said.

Players represent a family in a Northwest Native community and are encouraged to collaborate and practice generosity, stewardship and gratitude. Through the game, they learn how to gather, use and share foods within the six ecosystems of the territory so that the community can flourish throughout the seasons.

LaPensée wanted the game to be available to everyone. A board game made the most sense because it is accessible in classrooms, community centers and most homes.

“Board games are an accessible alternative to video games in communities that are often restricted by the digital divide, which creates a lack of access to Internet and technology,” LaPensée said.

The game was created to promote intergenerational play. According to LaPensée, the Indigenous population is still healing from disconnect across generations because of a history of displacement, loss of language and teachings.

“This flexibility is so important in game design for Indigenous communities,” LaPensée said. “Games can offer a safe space for experiential learning and sharing as long as the mechanics focus on uplifting players.”

LaPensée uses her expertise in Native American culture to integrate Indigenous knowledge into the game, including visual aesthetics, user interface design and rules to engage players.

“We want to educate players about ecosystems, traditional foods, genuine stories and recipes throughout game,” LaPensée said. “My hope is to continue to expand perceptions of health and how to be healthy through games.”

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