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The Decolonial Walkthrough

Students will learn how to apply the basics of decolonial theory to the walkthrough method in examining the colonial structures of knowledge and hierarchies of power within cross-reality (XR) and 3D applications, such as 3D assets and games.

Published onOct 13, 2021
The Decolonial Walkthrough
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Session Specifics

The decolonial walkthrough session can be used for a workshop or a class exercise aimed at students and professionals with little to no experience with decolonial theory and digital methods. The instructor for the session should apply the content as appropriate for their discipline and curriculum goals and objectives. 

Content in this session covers an introduction to decolonial theory, postcolonial theory, and digital methods more broadly, an overview of the walkthrough method, and how to use the decolonial walkthrough in pedagogical settings. Students will learn how to apply the basics of decolonial theory to the walkthrough method in examining the colonial structures of knowledge and hierarchies of power within cross-reality (XR) and 3D applications, such as 3D assets and games. The session provides step-by-step instructions for a 30 to 60 minute activity using the decolonial walkthrough, along with supplemental readings. This session may be offered by more than one instructor in collaboration with another instructor if knowledge of expertise in decolonial theory and digital methods is shared.

Instructional Partners

Secondary school instructors, post-secondary instructors, librarians, archivists, museum and information professionals. One instructor should have some fundamental knowledge of decolonial and postcolonial theory as well as some awareness of the contemporary issues around ethnic and minoritized knowedges. One instructor should have some basic understanding of digital methods and how they have been used to study digital platforms, technologies, and infrastructures. This combined rudimentary knowledge will assist with creating a rich learning environment and examples to draw on for the activity.

Audience

Audience for the activity could include secondary students, post-secondary students, librarians, archivists, museum, and information professionals. Other learning environments may be applicable that look to engage in a decolonial critique of digital knowledge structures.

Curricular Context

The session is broad enough to be inclusive of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, as well as the sciences and engineering if instructors are looking to apply a science and technology studies (STS) approach to analyzing scientific applications with the decolonial walkthrough. Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) may also use the decolonial walkthrough to examine digital asset management systems and collections as well as materials and programming around XR and 3D technologies and fabrication processes, with the aim to address systemic inequities to access.

Learning Outcomes

Participants in the session will learn:

  1. The application of decolonial and postcolonial theory for digital methods.

  2. To think through the ways coloniality structures knowledge in XR and 3D applications.

  3. To teach participants how to be critical of colonial thinking in XR and 3D projects.

  4. To introduce participants to digital methods more broadly and to the walkthrough method.

  5. To lead participants in a decolonial walkthrough activity.

  6. To support the production of XR and 3D projects that recognize ethnic and minoritized knowledges.

Preparation & Resources

This session is comprised of separate sections on (1) an introduction to decolonial and postcolonial theory, (2) colonial epistemologies and decoloniality in pedagogy, (3) an overview of digital methods and the walkthrough method, (4) a detailed step-by-step activity to use the decolonial walkthrough in examining a XR and 3D application, and (5) links to useful resources and supplemental readings. If possible, the supplemental resources and readings should be provided to participants in advance of the activity.

Instructors should have a fundamental understanding of decolonial and postcolonial theory in how it applies to examining colonial epistemologies, as well as knowledge of digital methods more broadly in the context of XR and 3D technologies, infrastructures, and content. Participants do not need any prior experience, but it is assumed they will have some familiarity with XR and 3D applications, such as games, software tools, and content management systems. While it is not required, a basic understanding of how to navigate applications and capture data through screenshots and video recordings is desired.

Materials

Instructors will need to provide participants with the necessary hardware and software for the activity. For example, if the instructor chooses a mobile game to be used with the decolonial walkthrough then participants will need access to mobile devices and their own copy of the game. Likewise, if the instructor chooses a website or online platform then participants will need access to computers and web browsers. As some XR and 3D applications require additional hardware, like virtual reality (VR) headsets and various peripheral devices, you may need to have access to an XR research lab or technology library to ensure participants have equal access and opportunity to participate in the decolonial walkthrough activity. Some essential materials required for the example covered in the activity session are provided below.

Computer

A desktop or laptop capable of running a web browser, such as Safari, Edge, Firefox or Chrome.

  • PC: Windows 7 or later

  • Mac: OS X El Capitan 10.11 or later

  • Linux: Ubuntu 14.04 or later

Software

A web browser with HTML5 and WebXPRT website compatibility, such as Safari, Edge, Firefox or Chrome. However, if you choose your own website example for the decolonial walkthrough activity you may want to check how that website performs on several browsers as students will have their own default-browser preferences.

Additional Hardware and Software (Optional)

Instructors may choose to use a game or software for this exercise, which will have additional hardware and software requirements. They may include: 

  • Console hardware (e.g., PlayStation 4) or platform installation on a computer (e.g., Steam)

  • Play peripherals, which may include XR headsets, controllers, and equipment

It is strongly recommended instructors take a look at an application’s operating requirements before teaching a session of the decolonial walkthrough. Some of these requirements may include:

  • Processor  - Computer Processing Unit (CPU)

  • Memory - Random Access Memory (RAM)

  • OS - Operating System

  • Graphics - Graphics Card

  • Storage - Memory Space

An example of what an application’s requirements may look like can be found here for Civilization VI under ‘System Requirements’.

Session Outline

In this session we provide an introduction to decolonial and postcolonial pedagogy, an overview of the decolonial walkthrough and digital methods more broadly, and how to use the decolonial walkthrough in pedagogical settings. These overview sections can be used to deliver a short lecture of 20 to 60 minutes, depending on how deep the instructor wants to delve into decolonial and postcolonial theory, digital methods, and XR and 3D examples or case studies. Following the lecture, the activity can be completed within 30 to 60 minutes to allow for group breakout sessions and class discussion. Ideally, the lecture and activity sections can be completed within 1 to 2 hours.

Introduction to Decolonial and Postcolonial Pedagogy

The application of decolonial theory and methods to digital pedagogy (in this case XR), allows us to interrogate and resist colonial epistemologies, or the privileging of Western European and Anglocentric knowledge structures.

 Postcolonial theory critiques colonialism and recognizes that its legacy continues today through its modern iteration, “coloniality.” Coloniality denotes the ways in which colonial hierarchies of power continue to structure our everyday lives (i.e., racialized class hierarchies, labor hierarchies, gender hierarchies, the gender binary, racism, etc.). Decolonialism urges us to actively de-link from colonial epistemologies and ontologies in order to avoid re-creating colonial worldviews and hierarchies. 

 Colonial epistemologies tend to control knowledge production. Archives structure knowledge, history, and national identity. The archive and the process of archivization have functioned as a mechanism of coloniality by determining which histories, knowledge, and art are considered un-archivable as part of the national narrative. Other artifacts, such as indigenous works, are divorced from their context, organized according to Western European taxonomy, and described in terms of settler-colonial narratives.

 Epistemologies, however, are not completely controlled by institutional archives. Knowledge is also structured by national literary canons, popular canons, course syllabi, digital humanities projects, research, and XR environments, among others. When approaching archives and other knowledge organizations, it is important to ask questions about how the knowledge has been structured: 

What are the hierarchies at work?

  • Who can produce knowledge and in what capacity?

  • What “counts” as legitimate knowledge?

  • Whose epistemologies (e.g., histories, languages, memories, etc.) are considered important enough to archive?

Engaging in decolonial XR requires a concerted effort to avoid replicating colonial worldviews. In addition to questioning knowledge structures, it is important to actively critique and reject a white colonial heteronormative gaze that constructs and interprets the past and the world that has emerged from that past. The white colonial heteronormative gaze often tells history through a narrative of Anglocentric progress and contextualizes non-Western European cultures as primitive, exotic, savage, mystical, and uncivilized. Generalizations erase individual cultures and histories. And all too often projects that deal with enslaved people continue to (re)inflict violence on Black and Brown bodies instead of recognizing people’s humanity.

Figure 1. Screenshot of the asset POLYGON Western Frontier asset package that demonstrates the white colonial heteronormative gaze in the reproduction of coloniality.

Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpede Mohanty (1997) argue that decoloniality has a “pedagogical dimension” as it obligates us “to understand, to reflect on, and to transform relations of objectification and dehumanization, and to pass this knowledge along to future generations” (xxviii-xxix). We can practice decolonial pedagogy by adopting what Emma Pérez (2003) calls the “decolonial imaginary,” a theoretical lens which demands that we “rethink history in a way that makes agency for those on the margins transformative” (123, emphasis added). Doing decolonial work requires a constant questioning of how knowledge (e.g., research, stories, XR environments, syllabi, etc.) is produced, who produces it, whose stories are told, and how these stories are told.

Roopika Risam (2019) outlines ways that postcolonial and decolonial lenses are valuable tools for evaluating digital projects. Not only should we consider what histories are told in the digital world, but we should also attend to the ways in which they are produced (35-46):

  • Where is coloniality being replicated?

  • Are neocolonial power dynamics being reaffirmed?

  • How is intersectionality taken into account?

  • Does a project engage in equitable labor practices?

  • Does the project share untold stories?

  • Does the project avoid the exoticization or fetishization of a people?

Asking these questions can uncover some of the ways in which coloniality is replicated and maintained in virtual environments through an application’s default settings and the position of knowledge. In the following section, we adapt the walkthrough method to perform a decolonial walkthrough, which applies these questions to examine colonialities through a systematic review of how knowledge is placed and accessed in XR and 3D applications. 

Decolonial Walkthrough

Digital methods have grown in recent years as techniques to study contemporary social change and cultural conditions by gathering data through the use of digital tools (Rogers, 2019). Some of these techniques include command-line scripts to scrape web data, such as text and images, as well as social media content, like tweets from Twitter and posts from Instagram. Digital tools have also been used as analytical machines to transform data sets into graphical visualizations by using powerful programming languages like Python and R, or software applications like Tableau and Voyant. The use of these methods, tools, and techniques has enabled cross-disciplinary research to examine the platforms, technologies, and infrastructures that shape our everyday lives. As such, the application of digital methods to systematically study the colonial hierarchies of power within these systems can provide insight into how coloniality is replicated and maintained in virtual environments. In this workshop we focus on one digital method that can be adapted to almost any educational setting: the walkthrough method.

The ‘walkthrough method’ (Light et al., 2018) is an approach to directly engage with a digital application’s interface to examine its “technological mechanisms and embedded cultural references to understand how it guides users and shapes their experiences” (882). In other words, how applications like platforms, portals, and games are designed to create a specific user experience. This ‘environment of expected use’ (Light et al., 2018) can reveal a company’s vision, operating model, and governance for how they intend to generate profit from users. 

For example, a digital asset store may have a vision to democratize 3D content creation but create tiered access to its resources through its registration system. A mobile game may have a free-to-play operating model but encourages users to pay for additional resources by designing almost-insurmountable challenges. And, a social media platform may take a hands-off approach to censoring political content but frequently bans grassroots organizations for violating its terms-of-use. Examining the environment of expected use can uncover how knowledge is structured and made accessible to users. Essentially, the walkthrough method focuses on what these applications do, not what its creators claim they do.

Figure 2: Screenshot of the technical walkthrough that reveals the knowledge hierarchies of the Unity Asset Store’s menu system.

The ‘technical walkthrough’ (Light et al., 2018) is the walkthrough method’s central data-gathering procedure, which involves step-by-step observations and documentation of an application’s screens, features, and activity flows. The use of the technical walkthrough will vary from application to application, but there are four ‘mediator characteristics’ (Light et al., 2018) that indicate how an application configures user interactions:

  • User interface arrangement: the interactive buttons, menus, and icons that guide users through the application (e.g., the ‘Start’ button on a game menu);

  • Functions and features: the compulsory activities and requests made by an application on the user (e.g., the ‘Creat an account’ and ‘agree to terms-of-use’ functions to use a social media platform);

  • Textual content and tone: the knowledge hierarchies that shape use (e.g., placing the ‘United States’ as the first option in registering your location)

  • Symbolic representation: the use of colour, fonts, and branding to evoke ideal scenarios of use or an imagined user (e.g., the use of blue and pink to indicate gender binary).

Together, these mediator characteristics can reveal some of the hidden aspects of an application’s interface. By applying a specific theoretical framework, like decolonial theory, the walkthrough method can be used to identify and document how colonial infrastructures of knowledge shape our everyday lives.

Decolonial Walkthrough Activity

For this decolonial walkthrough activity, we will examine the Unity Asset Store, which contains a variety of 2D, 3D, audio, and animation assets for making XR and 3D applications in the Unity Editor,--an all-in-one digital tool to create applications, like digital games. Decolonial theory provides a lens through which to study the control mechanisms of knowledge production like the Unity Asset Store’s interface. Pay close attention to the Asset Store’s interface, including its screens, buttons, and menus. Systematically trace key actors, such as icons, headings, and descriptors, producing a collection of data by generating detailed field notes and recordings, such as screenshots, video and audio recordings, and notes of one’s thoughts while performing the decolonial walkthrough. This involves attention to the applications materiality, including the actions it requires and guides users to conduct, and imagining how users would perceive the Asset Store’s interface and assets. It also involves drawing on decolonial research skills, recognizing indicators of coloniality, such as how the application constructs conceptions of culture, gender, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, class, and the ‘ideal’ user.

Some questions to explore when examining the Asset Store are: 

  • What are compulsory activities within the Asset Store?

  • What are the social hierarchies within the menu system?

  • To whom and which types of users is this knowledge accessible?

  • What is considered a “legitimate” asset within the Asset Store?

  • Whose epistemologies, such as histories, languages and memories, are considered important enough to archive in the Asset Store?

  • What knowledge or assets are privileged within the Asset Store?

  • Who are the creators of these assets, where are they located geographically, and why did they create them?

As you explore the Asset Store, make sure to document your process by taking screenshots, jotting field notes, and recording any features with audio-visual content. Some assets and topics to take a closer look at include:

  • Types of food and cultural cuisine

  • Types of buildings and architecture

  • Types of technology 

  • Types of everyday objects or cultural artifacts

  • Types of music and sound effects

  • Human models, skins, and ethnic features

  • Human voices and spoken languages

  • Use of language to describe objects in asset descriptions and metadata

  • Search results using generic terms

This list is by no means exhaustive, but is meant as a guide to create discussion on how coloniality is replicated and maintained in XR and 3D applications, such as the Unity Asset Store. As the Unity Asset Store is updated with new content, knowledge structures, and technical infrastructures, instructors and students may find that some of the examples above are no longer applicable and can develop fresh topics and assets to pay closer attention to in their discussions of coloniality in knowledge infrastructures.

Figure 3: Screenshot of the search for “food” assets in the Unity Asset Store that privileges Anglo-American food groups and cuisines in search results.

In addition to looking at the XR and 3D applications like the Unity Asset Store, the decolonial walkthrough approach can also be adapted to other web, software, and content interfaces and platforms, such as: 

  • Streaming platforms for film and television

  • Smartphone app stores and applications

  • Digital collections and exhibitions

  • Game platforms and games

  • K-12 learning platforms

  • Digital asset stores for use in cultural products

  • E-book platforms

  • Online marketplaces and storefronts

  • Social media platforms

  • Catalogue and metadata records

Instructors looking to adapt the decolonial walkthrough for their lesson plan may find the descriptive terminology of a library catalogue record like Library of Congress Subject Headings, the metadata and cover images of streaming platforms for film and television like Netflix, or the gameplay of a strategy-based conquest game like Civilization VI to be more appealing avenues of investigation into the structures of coloniality. Whichever direction instructors take, it's important to reflect on how colonial epistemologies tend to control knowledge production and how to recognize them in our everyday knowledge infrastructures by using critical approaches like the decolonial walkthrough.

Suggested Readings

  •  Alexander, Jacqui M. and Chandra Talpede Mohanty (eds.). “Introduction,” Feminist Geneologies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. Routledge, 1997, pp. xxvii-xxiv.

  • Cotera, María E. “Nuestra Autohistoria: Toward a Chicana Digital Praxis.” American Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 3, 2018, pp. 483-504. doi:10.1353/aq.2018.0032.

  • Dawson, Catherine. A-Z of Digital Research Methods. Routledge, 2019.

  • Dei, George J. Sefa and Meredith Lordan. Anti-Colonial Theory and Decolonial Praxis. Peter Land, 2016.

  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constancy Farrington Harmondsworth. London: Penguin, 1967 [1963].

  • Foucault, Michael. The Archeology of Knowledge. Tavistock Publications, 1972.

  • Harding, Sandra. The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader. Duke UP, 2011. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822393849 

  • Light, Ben, Jean Burgess, and Stefanie Duguay. “The walkthrough method: An approach to the study of apps.” New Media & Society, vol. 20, no. 3, 2018, pp. 881-900. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1461444816675438 

  • Mignolo, Walter D. and Catherine E. Walsh. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Duke UP, 2018.

  • Pérez, Emma. “Queering the Borderlands: The Challenges of Excavating the Invisible and Unheard.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 24, no. 2/3, 2003, pp. 122-131. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3347351 

  • Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.” Nepantla: Views from South, vol. 1, no. 3, 2000, pp. 533–580.

  • Risam, Roopika. New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. Northwestern UP, 2019.

  • Rogers, Richard. Digital Methods. Sage, 2013.

  • Rogers, Richard. Doing Digital Methods. Sage, 2019.

  • Yao, Christine. “#staywoke: Digital Engagement and Literacies in Antiracist Pedagogy.” American Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 3, 2018, p. 439-454. doi:10.1353/aq.2018.0030

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