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Tongva Chief: Game Design Diary #1

I'm drawn to the story of the Native People (Tongva) that once populated the area where I grew-up. Could the story of their civilization be made into a compelling game?

Steve Fulton, Blogger

September 12, 2012

6 Min Read

Growing up in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, I had almost no connection to the native people that once occupied the land.   In school we were taught about "The Gabrielino", the natives of the area as they were named by the Spanish, but only in the context of their unfortunate interactions with Jesuit priests, Conquistadors, and the Spanish California Missions.  We were never taught that native Americans, not only passed through the land our houses were built upon, but thrived in a bustling community along the Southern California Coast.

As kids, we repeated several "ghost stories"to each other about our home town: that our houses were built on top of the giant sand dunes that would "liquify" in the event of an earthquake, and that area was once an "Indian Burial Ground".  We knew natives had lived there, but we did not know much more.  However, this talk never amounted to much.   Our lives were lived on seas of concrete and asphalt that extended as far as we could see in every direction.   It was very easy to imagine that was how it always was, and how it would always be.    It seemed that was the people in charge wanted us to think:  if the area had no history, then they could do what ever they wanted with it.  

However, there were a few cracks in that concrete notion.  Dotted around our neighborhood were empty lots, covered with the natural flora of the area (most of Los Angeles beach commnities were once a large desert).   There were also wild, wet places, where water collected in ponds, and pollywogs grew into frogs the Spring time.   These locations fascinated me as a kid.  When my friends and I explored them, I felt something deep down: a connection to the land underneath the checkboard of suburbia.  However, as the wild places were  bought, bulldozed, and built up, and ponds were filled-in and paved over, my interest also faded.  I grew into an adult forgetting that my fascination with the land of my childhood ever existed.

It was not until just a couple years ago when I was able to piece together some of the ancient history of the area.   I took my family to visit the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Palos Verdes, Ca (about 10 miles South of my home town).   I was most interested in the Marineland exhibit in the museum, a local Sea World-like amusement park that closed in the 80's.  However,  in another part of the museum they had a very interesting exhibit of the native people that once lived in Palos Verdes: The Tongva.  

The Tongva lived in the area for at least 10,000 years.   They reached their technological peak in about 500 AD.  The Spanish arrived en masse in 1781, which means the Tongva lived in a civilized stasis in relative peace and harmony with the land for more than 1200 years. 

Twelve Hundred Years.  That's not an insignificant amount of time.

The Tongva numbered about 5,000-10,000. They traded with their neighbors, but did not fight many wars with their them.    They, along with the Chumash, were one of the only sea-faring people of California.  They built boats, and explored the channel islands.   They had abundant food resources from the sea, built houses, made artwork, and thrived until the outside world arrived.  Now they exist as a few scattered groups, but criminally, are not recognized the the United States as a Native American Tribe.   

Intrigued, a few weeks ago, I searched for the Tongva on the interbaun and found a wonderful post by a guy who calls himself The Militant Angeleno.   He has been writing about the Tongva for some time now.   He produced a map that showed where some of the Tongva villages were supposedly located.

When I looked at the map, I finally put two and two together.  The Tongva were THE SAME native people that I talked about and felt connected to so many years ago,  I just did not know their name.  They were the very same native Americans that had been paved over by progress, but whose spirit still resonated in those vacant lots and ponds I loved as a kid.  In fact, the village of Engvanga was located (according to the map) in my current neighborhood, near the offices of Producto Studios.

For some reason, this information lit a fire inside me.  I bought every book I could find about the Tongva on Amazon (not many), and started to collect old maps and information about the area I call home.  

My head began to swirl with ideas for a strategy game based on the 1200 years the Tongva thrived in my (their) neighborhood.  Would a game based on peacful natives be enjoyable?  How could a game be exciting, but not exploitive?  Could it be both respectful, and addictive at the same time?  

My first idea was to create a version of the old computer game Kingdom/Hammurabi and then adapt it to the specifics of the Tongva.  That might give me the basic game model to work from.   It would not be enough mind you, just a starting point.   However, it also seems like elements of The Orgeon Trail might fit in as well.  At the same time, fishing, sea-faring, resource gathering, and trading are must-have features.    Maybe the game would start a bit before 500 AD, so a tech tree could be researched, possibly based on making boats to explore the sea and islands.  Trying different materials, water proofing, experimenting, building, and thriving.   I want to create a game that will teach the local kids about the history of the land they occupy, but at the same time, be game I, myself would like to play over a long stretch of time.    

I also recently  found out that the local Tongva people are desperate for land and money so they can build a musem to honor their lost past.  At their web site, they ask for donations and have a ton of information about their history and culture.  I don't think there is any way to make game based on native people like the Tongva and not  both get their support, and donate part of the proceeds (theoretical proceeds) to them.   The latter will be easy for me, but the former might not be so easy for them. However, I won't even broach the subject until I have something that might work as game first. Otherwise, it's not even worth talking about. 


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