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Coding for culture: Connecting digital skills with Australian Indigenous heritage

A figure step through tall grass as native birds caw and the distinctly Australian sound of insects bristle and hum in the sun; our view scans the treeline, looking for a smoke trail, and far in the distance, we can just see the spindly masts of tall ships against an otherwise clear sky.

The scene on the screen is part of Virtual Songlines, a Unity gaming project by game developer and “Virtual Heritage Jedi” Brett Leavy – a Kooma man who also refers to himself as a “Digital Aboriginal”.

Leavy is aiming to help preserve Indigenous culture and knowledge through gamification, with the goal of digitally mapping every part of the Australian continent and landscape as it was pre-colonization – right down to region-accurate native birdsong in ambisonic audio.

Through Virtual Songlines, Leavy is also helping teach Indigneous youth how to code their own ‘Virtual Songline’ and be proud of their culture and heritage.

At the Microsoft Office in Sydney, a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were shown for the first time how to code for culture.

The 28 students from Grafton & South Grafton High School, two thirds being female, were part of the Indigenous Digital Excellence (IDX) FLINT program run by the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) in partnership with the Telstra Foundation.

This program aims to empower young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in their post-school career options and create pathways into digital economy jobs.

With fewer young Indigenous Australians entering into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related higher education and employment options, Microsoft is supporting the IDX program to increase STEM skills in young Indigneous students and ensure they can thrive in the digital economy.

The program is designed to inspire students to strive to excel, discover new career paths they might not have considered, and help Indigenous young people from the digital-native generation stay connected to their culture and community, in every sense. The five day program agenda ranged from engaging with Indigenous culture and history, visiting corporate workplaces, participating in intensive coding sessions, attending the Microsoft Customer Summit, to visiting Microsoft’s office in Sydney for a groundbreaking crash course in game development.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at the Microsoft Tech Summit

“Everyone talks about coding,” adds Leavy. “We’re talking about Coding for Culture – and you’re seeing the world premiere.”

Leavy is supporting the students to build landscapes from scratch in Unity, and within half an hour they’re dropping water bodies, topographical shifts and grassy patches onto their own tiny slice of the map.

“You’re too deadly,” Leavy beams at the group.

While the students have already spent the day before in an intensive coding session, this level of immersion is entirely new to some and well understood by others.

South Grafton Year 10 student and Assassin’s Creed fan Sonny aspires to work in diesel mechanics – or to build survival games. But he approves of Leavy’s vision for Virtual Songlines, and thanks to his school classes, was more than comfortable running through programming languages covered in the previous day’s session, from Python to Scratch.

A couple of others confess they don’t take any computer or tech classes at school at all, but are intrigued by immersive tech like the virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality on display at the bustling Microsoft Summit during their visit. Student Daniella is the first to try on a Hololens headset, eliciting giggles from her classmates as the demonstrator helps her pick out, resize and then play with a virtual golden retriever puppy, and exclaims: “She’s a natural!”

While it’s clear that the advanced immersive tech will play a more significant role in several potential career paths, it’s hard to resist the lure of fun – the gaming-related tech, predictably, draws the most enthusiasm from the students. Minecraft is a major point of interest for many of the participants. At the Summit, they gravitate towards the row of Xbox consoles dedicated to the wildly popular block-building game; and within minutes, at least one student is under the hood, tinkering with the code text.

When talking about the Unity session, Leavy notes that using the practical language of game development – for example, how one would go about programming the physics of a spear being thrown with or without a woomera – to discuss specific aspects of Indigenous history and ingenuity, turned out to be the bridge between tech and tradition the camp is designed to help build. As it turns out, the students agree.

“I feel like programming was a major part of the camp, but it all really started to click when Brett showed us how to create pre-colonial Aboriginal lands in a virtual world,” says Year 10 student Declan. “I can’t wait to see where this project goes from here, and hopefully, we’ll to see Grafton and the Clarence in the virtual world.”

“A lot of the jobs that my generation will hold in the next 20 years haven’t even been invented yet, and that makes me excited as to what the future holds,” Declan adds.

“Tech is a big part of today’s workplace and it will only become more prominent as the years go by. I think a future career in tech is straight down my path.​​”

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