Kids “Hack the ROM”

Through a joint ROM-Ubisoft partnership, students participate in fully playable video games—all rooted in Indigenous knowledge.

A blocky Minecraft-like person tears through a spooky moonlit forest. Behind them, a giant, yellow-eyed monster gives chase. All seems hopeless until the person comes across… a pair of moccasins. This footwear, an in-game pop-up screen explains, isn’t just a power-up—it’s a shoe, “often made of deer skin,” worn by Indigenous Peoples. The blocky person dons the moccasins, then runs through the darkened woods, the monster not far behind.

This is Rez Dog!, a game created and coded by Jenna, a middle-school student from Bkejwanong Kinomaagewgamig in Walpole Island First Nation. She is one of “nearly 350 students from nine schools” who participated in the most recent iteration of Hack the ROM, a program in which students across Ontario create their very own video games inspired by Indigenous cultural belongings held at the Museum.

Over three months, students worked with mentors from Ubisoft Toronto, as well as Indigenous Museum Educators and Makerspace Technicians at ROM, to code fully playable games threaded with Indigenous knowledge, from the utility of tikinagans to the sacredness of strawberries.

The coding, as many kids are quick to tell you, isn’t easy. Jenna, for example, lamented that “Nothing ever worked.” While another student described coding as “torture.” But from those frustrations came deep satisfaction as students solved seemingly intractable problems, while growing their knowledge of Indigenous worldviews. And on June 11, the day of the big showcase at Ubisoft Toronto, when Jenna and more than 150 students shared their games with each other, their sense of collective pride was undeniable.

That was especially true for Michael Pilatzkie, a level designer at Ubisoft Toronto and Hack the ROM mentor. “Days like this are definitely the most rewarding,” he said. “The way that their excitement just spills over, their eyes light up, and they get to show off this thing that they created to people who do this for a living.”

Equally important, Pilatzkie said, is the inclusion of Indigenous learning in the games. “I am Indigenous person myself, and I don’t see a lot of representation around the industry.” Therefore, not only was Hack the ROM cultivating the next generation of game developers, it was teaching them the value of Indigenous knowledge—something “really special and close to [his] heart.”