Convincing native leaders to embrace technological change is sometimes difficult, Thornton says. "There is built-in resistance to technologies in some native communities among the elders." In marketing RezWorld and TMI's other products, including a portable language tutor and translator called the iRez, Thornton says he works with his more than 100 clients face to face to make sure they're comfortable with the technology involved.
RezWorld is based on the Tactical Iraqi training system developed by Alelo Inc., an American company that sells programs to the U.S. military under its wholly-owned subsidiary, Tactical Language Training LLC. Alelo's technology uses speech recognition to let players communicate with NPCs and to monitor and correct players' pronunciation. Plus, Alelo's A.I. programming creates what the company calls "Cultural Puppets" - NPCs that behave according to cultural norms and customs. So, for example, if you don't properly greet a character in RezWorld, he or she will respond to you differently than if you are polite and follow proper protocol.
"Each character has its own personality," Thornton explains, "and reacts to not only the language you speak, but also your gestures and your manners. You must approach them a certain way, the same way you must approach a [real-life] elder of a particular tribe or First Nation."
Like other Alelo products, RezWorld also comes with a "Skill Builder" component, which trains users with interactive audio and video recordings of fluent speakers before they enter the virtual environment. Following Tactical Iraqi's success, Alelo has also created versions that teach Pashto, French and Dari, as well as one for businesspeople called Mission to Iraq.
While the technology is advanced, RezWorld relies on a simple principle for its success: fun. The Cherokee version features a landscape Thornton says players find humorously familiar. The player's avatar is a Cherokee man with long pigtails (a female avatar will be available in the full game) who drives a car that's constantly breaking down. While visiting locations like a casino and a tribal hall and attending a pow-wow, players meet characters ranging from other residents to a talking coyote and Bigfoot. "The most common reaction in a demo is laughter," Thornton says. "The game contains many references to Indian culture and native movies that Indians recognize immediately. The 'rez car,' the 'rez dog,' the 'Philbert' character - all of these are cultural references, inside jokes."
The reaction makes Thornton very happy, he says, as preserving native languages has become his life's mission. He tells a story of how a non-native professor visited his grandmother regularly for three years while working on a Cherokee-English dictionary. Though promised a copy of the finished product, Thornton's grandmother never received one, nor was her work acknowledged in the book. Learning of how the professor had exploited his grandmother inspired Thornton to work towards ensuring natives have control over the destiny of their languages and culture.