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The Baniwa Ceramics Game - On visualizing indigenous cultural heritage in gamification

The Baniwa Ceramics Game - On visualizing indigenous cultural heritage in gamification


For our project in the Visualizing cultural collections course offered by Marian Dörk, we chose the Amazonian Future Lab (AFL) as our data partner. The AFL describes itself as following on their website:

“In close cooperation between Brazilian and German partners, digital tools are being developed within the framework of the project. From different perspectives, they bundle and connect information on collection objects. A central challenge is to convey the diverse approaches in their complexity. In this way, historically grown separations between collection institutions are to be overcome. Disciplinary and institutional logics of organization and classification are taken into account as well as indigenous knowledge orders and practices. Historical ethnographic and botanical collections from the Brazilian Amazon region and cultural-historical collections for their contextualization (including field diaries, photographs, maps, sound recordings, films, secondary literature) serve as case studies. These artifacts, plants, and documents have been collected over the last 200 years and stored, classified, conserved, restored, and researched in the Ethnological Museum, the Botanical Museum and Botanical Garden, and the Ibero-American Institute. Only a part of these extensive collections have been explored in greater depth and are available digitally. So far, the collections have not yet been connected across institutions and countries.

The general aim of the project is to use the potential of digital formats and tools to communicate, exchange, network and jointly create new knowledge from different perspectives, knowledge practices and social contexts. The connected knowledge will be publicly accessible in its processuality, via interactive formats of exploration and participation. The tools created will subsequently be made freely available and can thus be used or further developed by other communities and institutions that are engaged in the field of participatory cultural education.” (Amazonian Future Lab. 2020)

Project partners are Dr. Andrea Scholz (Ethnological Museum/SMB of the SPK) SPK-internal partners: Prof. Dr. Barbara Göbel, Ibero-American Institute (SPK); Dr. Patricia Rahemipour, Institute for Museum Research (SMB of the SPK)

Additional partners are the following: Prof. Dr. Thomas Borsch, Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum (Freie Universität Berlin), Berlin; Dr. Thiago da Costa Oliveira (Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethnological Museum Berlin); Prof. Dr. Carlos Fausto, Museu Nacional Rio de Janeiro (Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Amazonian Future Lab. 2020).

The Digital Culture Programme of the German Federal Cultural Foundation is currently providing the funding for the AFL. (Amazonian Future Lab. 2020.)

The AFL was an interesting data partner for our group because of the cooperation and the connection of different international partners with the ultimate goal of providing accessibility and preservation of the cultural heritage of communities within the Amazonian region in Brazil. Yet, their approach for the project we got involved with does not just focus on collecting objects and placing them in an analogue collection or database (a practice one connotes with institutions and archives) but also on regaining information on the intangible cultural heritage of communities like the Baniwa Women, with the ultimate goal to revive the cultural practice of the community.

Therefore, one could argue that the AFL is practicing a joint act of restitution of knowledge through different institutions and access points. In a way this might be a best practice case of intangible restitution, as the focus here does not lie on returning the objects, but rather on creating access to pieces of a cultural practice that was almost displaced and forgotten even by the Baniwa community, due to colonial interference.

What was the most interesting to us, was the question of how to document and visualize intangible cultural heritage and practices, as one cannot simply create a collection out of a practice. Because, while the practice of creating the ceramics of the Baniwa Women is very much intertwined with tools and objects, the finished products might not be the most important parts but rather the practice itself and everything that surrounds it.

So, how can we visualize this practice and get potentially interested individuals to get engaged and invest time and attention into as many aspects of the cultural practice as possible? Preferably without actually sending them into the Amazonian forest. And how can we avoid the usual academic approach of lists, descriptions and reports that (mostly European) anthropologists used until the anthropological turns and crisis in the 1980ies and 1990ies (Paleček, M. & Risjord, M. 2013)?  Especially considering that our group is not consisting of people from the community, whose cultural heritage we are currently working with. Also, how can we create this project appropriately, without recreating colonial perspectives that almost erased this cultural practice in the past?

Related Work

The main piece of research would be a 21:47 minutes video, provided by the data partners. “The art of the Baniwa Women_English subtitles”, published on the vimeo channel of Thiago da Costa Oliveira, is showing the process and cultural heritage of the ceramics created by the Baniwa Women (de Costa Oliveira, T. 2018). In addition to the video, they gave us access to JSON data that creates a written visualization of the production process of the ceramics (fidelthomet. 2022). 

After several meetings with the group and further inquiries, the data partners also gave access to a pdf file and an illustration of the different locations within the context of the Baniwa ceramics production practice.

During the reading of F. Windhagers Visualization of Cultural Heritage Collection Data: State of the Art and Future Challenges in our class, we also came across the need and also challenge of visualizing intangible cultural heritage. In this case, practices like the ceramic practice by Baniwa Women might be similar to an art performance, when it comes to the documentation and provision of information regarding the practice (F. Windhager et al. 2019). The approach through the medium of digital video documentation provided by the team of the Amazonia Future Lab for the Baniwa Community is quite similar to the video documentation of various art performances in the late 20th and early 21st century.

In the course of our research we had to find a definition of cultural heritage that would fit the data given to us. Because the datapartners we were working with did not really provide data linked to certain objects within the collection in a classical, museum like context. Cultural Heritage in this case could be described as “a form of inheritance to be kept in safekeeping and handed down to future generations, [as well as] a linkage [within a] group identity and cultural identity of a self-identified group” detached from nations or other state like concepts (Blake, J. 2000). Cultural heritage is “added value which carries an emotional impact” (Blake, J. 2000) – independent of the actual emotional reaction. It can thereby consist of tangible objects, but ultimately does not have to (Blake, J. 2000). Therefore, the ceramic vessels are part of the cultural heritage of the Baniwa Women, but the holistic practice of collecting the materials, working on the vessels, exchanging knowledge and anecdotes about patterns and rituals is the actual cultural heritage they share. This concept of cultural and intangible heritage and the challenge of displaying it, did become the focal point of our work, rather than displaying digital copies of objects.

To get a glimpse of how this might look within the context of a computer game we looked into game productions working with indigenous artists, like When Rivers Were Trails (Indian Land Tenure Foundation et al. 2019). Since we wanted to avoid depicting Baniwa Women, without a secure way of getting their consent on drawings of them, we tried to avoid using narration through characters for users to identify themselves with and kept the user representation to the usual cursor, similar to the Game Unpacking (Witch Beam. 2021).

We also wanted to make sure that no factors within the game, like countdowns, lives or other pressure implementing entities, would take away from the learning and gathering of contexts. The game is not supposed to work within the context of competition, because the creation of these ceramics is also not a competition but rather an exchange and practice of culture and knowledge. There is no rush in it that could stress the user through time stamps or points to lose (Diakopoulos, N. et al. 2011). We wanted to use the ability of game-like visualizations of data to enhance the joy and fun within the learning experience (Diakopoulos, N. et al. 2011).

After checking all the given data, we then created a very loosely sketched storyboard to get an overview of how many layers and levels would be needed to create enough space for all the different steps in the ceramic production process and all the given cultural contexts.


Concept and Approach

Our main focus was the previously mentioned video. From the beginning on, we felt that there was a lot of valuable information in that video. It shows the complete process of the ceramic making while also portraying the culture that lies behind that. The Baniwa Women themselves tell their story. That was something we really wanted to implement in our own project.

The video, of course, is telling us a linear story, even though the process is not actually that linear in itself. So we set ourselves the goal to use all the information provided by the video (and external sources) and make the story explorable in an interactive way.

We took inspiration from classic Choose Your Own Adventure books and Point and Click computer games. The user should be able to choose their own path and thus create their own journey and really experience the story rather than just being told the information.

With none of us having any experience in programming games, and a timescedule of three months we, set out to create our own Point and Click Adventure.

With the video as our base again we looked at the locations mentioned and shown there. Our game is based on those locations, you can move from the forest to the river, for example, where there are then different tasks to be done and information to be gathered.

At this point in our process we struggled with finding the right words to represent the culture and not appropriate it or use colonial terms. “Discovery” is a word which is very often used when it comes to Point and Click Adventures. In the context of a cultural practice from an indigenous community living in a country where the word “discovered” was used to legitimate colonization, the word becomes problematic in this context (Wright, R. 2005). Especially considering that our game is probably going to be played mostly by people living in the Global North.

Instead, we are using the word “gathering”. The user is learning about the process by finding and gathering information. Gathering still holds true to the adventuring spirit of those games, but without giving the implication that there was nothing there before one discovers it, since the tradition of making the ceramics actually goes back many generations and has been passed on to the younger people (mostly women) in the Baniwa community. There is nothing to “discover” here, but a lot to gather and learn.

While the final goal of the game would be to create a ceramic object, which is also what some of our workshop participants focused on, we wanted to guide the user through the cultural practice of the production process - including as much background information and cultural context as possible. Thereby trying to shift the focus from the finished product to the practice itself. The to-be-created object therefore almost becomes a stand-in for a process bar within the game, leaving space for the cultural heritage surrounding the production of the ceramics.

In order to learn what aspects would be interesting for potential users without any background in the art of ceramics or cultural heritage work, we also designed a workshop with friends and fellow students as well as our experts in the AFL.

Before the workshop started, the participants were given a short presentation and introduction by us, to get everyone on board about the data we were working with, since they were provided by an indigenous community and therefore required to be treated with sensitivity and respect. The participants were then divided into three groups to work on the projects, while one of the members had to be a person that didn’t have contact with the cultural practice of the Baniwa women.

Group 1 focused mostly on the connections between materials and objects, while also integrating yarn and post-its on their poster, Group 2 and 3 showed more interest in the flow of the production. Group 2 used pictures to show the process, but also integrated various information by little junctions within a stream, perhaps representing the Amazon. They also used illustrations within their visualization. Group 3 on the other hand, predominantly worked with the provided list of words, creating a more text based structure, while using picture batches to create Moodboard-like visualizations on the sides of the poster. Group 3 was the only group to utilize sticky tape to create a guiding line within their structure. The transcripts of the workshop can be found in the appendix of this documentation.

We used these observations, especially with the participants’ focus on pop-up-like structures for further information and a narrative following the production process, for further adjustments in our storyboarding process and the set up of the game structure.


Design and Implementation

During the development of our concept, we created a storyboard that portrayed the important locations and steps of the ceramic making process. Our end result follows said storyboard pretty closely, but we made it more location based. The three main locations in the game are the river, the forest and the village.

In the village there were some extra locations like the inside of houses and the place where the Baniwa Women fire the ceramics. Each of these places is represented by an illustration in our game. The style of the illustrations is meant to make the user feel immersed in the scene, but still being unspecific, because there is not just one forest, one river or one village, where this cultural practice takes place.

The deep green and turquoise tones are complemented by purple and orange (in the information layers). The use of gradients and textures creates warmth and some roughness to the illustrations as we did not want for them to be too clean and modern.

In the beginning the user can choose if they want to start by the river or inside the forest. Afterwards they are greeted by a quick tutorial, explaining the game mechanics and functions.

The main game element is the bar at the bottom. The user can see a horizontal list of the materials to collect or tasks to fulfill. The items are shown as simple outline icons. Once the user collects the materials or finishes a task the icon gets coloured in. This way the user gets a feeling of accomplishment.

To keep track of the overall progress in the game, there is an icon of a ceramic pot in the top right corner. This icon continuously updates the game progress both visually and by giving you a percentage of how far along you are in the game.

We wanted the design of all the icons to be minimal and universal, to attain vast inclusivity.

Throughout the whole game the tutorial comes back in whenever there is something new happening that might need explanation. This provides narration and guidance during the game so the user won’t end up feeling lost.

We wanted to have different layers of information weaved into the game. The user themself should be able to choose how deeply they want to delve into the story and how much they want to learn. This part is still somewhat lacking in our current prototype, but we would like to include more information that is not directly connected or necessary for the process, so there is more to find.

The video is included in our prototype in the form of snippets. For example, once you find the Kawa tree and click on it, you get a little information text, some pictures and also the relevant video snippet. This way the user can see the actual people involved in the process and learn a bit more about the cultural practice surrounding it.

The game currently exists as a prototype in Adobe XD. We created a click-through video of one possible game scenario to show what the game contains. In the future we would like for the game to actually be playable.


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Since we currently do not have an actual playable prototype outside of Adobe XD, the feedback we received was mainly focused on the screen recording that we shared with friends and interested people. The mostly orally shared feedback was overwhelmingly positive. People reported directly to us that they thought the topic of the cultural heritage of the Baniwa women appeared more approachable for non-experts due to the playable interface. The presented information access appeared to be welcoming, especially after adding the tutorial level at the start of the structure.

The different snippets and bits of information seemed to be less overwhelming and deterrent than the confrontation with a video of more than 20 Minutes, even though people will probably have to invest more time with the gamified approach in the end. But due to the ability, given by the implemented structure, to skip parts or come back later within the process, the users felt like they gained more autonomy in their approach to the topic. Also, the added links to external information from museum or plant collection databases were very appreciated from people with specific interests in the plants or different collection objects.

A few people started googling information about the Baniwa communities and the territories they are inhabiting, right after being introduced to our project. So we can assume that we sparked an interest in the overall topic that exceeded our project. At the same time, one should mention that most of the people introduced to our structure were people who also studied at the Fachhochschule Potsdam or obtained at least a bachelor degree in different humanities, Information Visualization or anthropology. Therefore, a certain level of interest in projects like ours and learning about different cultures was already existing.

We are aware of the fact that some of the design choices (like the icons indicating the finished steps within the process) might remind users more of a westernized design style, as this was also pointed out during our final presentation. But these choices were ultimately made to create an easy readability of the gamelike concepts, as well as the data that was provided to us. Also, we are currently assuming that the main audience for our project would probably be people outside the Baniwa communities, who do not have access to their knowledge and very few connections to it. Big parts of the information sheets and PDFs we received in addition to the video could probably explain more information on patterns and vessels, but since those were written in Portuguese we were not really able to use them - apart from the digital pictures without further information. With some more development within the Amazonia Future Lab, that information could be used in future add-ons and pop-ups - which ultimately leads us to the next point in this documentation.

Discussion and future work

For future work, we would have loved to gain more data that could also be implemented into our game-like structure. But since the project of the AFL is still a work in progress, future findings could be added to our given prototype. If the AFL has the resources and the know-how to actually write the code to implement the game into their website, we would be thrilled to see it live in our browsers with all different kinds of story junctions and possibilities within the narrative.

If we had more time and connections, we would have loved to work more directly with the project partners in Brazil and perhaps even from the Baniwa community to receive feedback on design and narration choices. We could also imagine working in collaboration with some students from the Institute of Anthropology and/or Latin American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, to get a better understanding and sensitivity regarding the work with cultural heritage of indigenous communities.

Before the implementation and coding can happen, we would like there to be some feedback by actual members of the Baniwa community, since we were unable to receive it during our production process throughout the semester. This project should not be published, until the feedback would be implemented and the women of the Baniwa community are happy with the final product.

For this to happen, an adequate translation from English to Portuguese and the different Baniwa languages spoken in the Amazonian territory would be needed as well.


Working with the already created narrative given by the video, we tried to include all the information provided by the explanations of the Baniwa Women. Instead of using lists and categories, we tried to display the information equally, trying to avoid hierarchies and cutting connections between entities and contexts. One could argue that we tried to implement more of an Actor-Network-Theory (Latour, B. 2012; Czarniaska, B. 2015) approach, but in the end the displayed connections are still extremely limited, due to the limited data currently available. However, our network within the game is still expandable, due to the implemented structure of links and further information options. So, in a way we were able to avoid general colonial and anthropological practices and narratives of displaying “a whole community” or “practice” by displaying it as a form of game network, that can be expanded with further research - from the perspective of the user as well as future work of the AFL and their collaborators.

In our project we specifically avoided colonial motifs and practices like cartography and overviews, to not fall back into colonial practices of “discovery”. A kind of overview is only presented after the user unlocked all the information in the game structure and metaphorically created a vessel by learning about all the steps and contexts. This might make it a little bit more complicated for users to consume the information in a short amount of time - but our goal was to get people engaged and not easily move on to the next topic. And according to the feedback we received we succeeded in the aspect of getting users to invest time and attention, to gather as much information as possible and get engaged with the material surrounding the cultural practice of the ceramic art by the Baniwa Women.

We tried to implement and include as much of the spoken language, by embedding snippets of the video into the game's narrative and making them the information source displayed on top of the pop-ups within the game.

Nevertheless, we are aware that future users might be more familiar with written explanations - especially in the context of academia and descriptions of cultural heritage. Therefore, we tried to find a balance between offering oral transmissions of the Baniwa cultural heritage and knowledge and the users' habits of information intake. While producing the texts displayed in the game, we tried to use a more explanatory language one would use to describe the process and context and tried to avoid any language that would make us speak on behalf of the Baniwa Women - something we neither want to do nor could we. In the end, the clips are always the first thing one sees in the information-Pop-Ups.

However, we were not quite able to avoid overviews and lists completely, since users needed some guidance within the process. So there is still a process bar and another list-like bar, that explains and gives hints on what the users still need to do and what aspect to unlock next. But this is more due to the gamification aspects, rather than anthropological lists and tables one can find in colonial collections and museums. Regardless, we are aware that we did create a project that is (at least in parts) a product of our own cultural upbringing and academic education. Because after all we are not a part of the community of the cultural heritage we were working with in this project and we most likely never will be. It was a very enriching experience for us to be trusted with the provided data and having alot of creative freedom within the production process.

After all, we think we can claim that we explored a new approach to display cultural heritage in the context of cultural heritage education. We also found a way to attract and keep users interested in the cultural ceramic practice of the Baniwa Women and getting a “foot in the door” for future learning experiences regarding cultural heritage of indigenous communities.


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List of team members and their key roles and responsibilities.

Michelle: Academic research, first (very loose) Storyboard, narration texts, video cutting, collection of pictures, screenshots and external links within the game. Documentation & Paper.

Klara: Design of the illustrations, designing the Layout and functions of the game, building the prototype + click-through video, implementing narration into the prototype, writing for Design/Implementation and Concept / Approach.

Dishunee: Designing the icons, listing the materials & process involved, assisting with the workshop, ideation for pop-ups, writing for Design/Implementation, and Concept.

Transkript of the workshop added below.

221207 - transkript Workshop Amazonian Future Lab.pdf PDF 221207 - transkript Workshop Amazonian Future Lab.pdf