Jan 2, 2010

AIGA XCD Student Showcase: Erik Peterson’s Qeej Hero

Peterson reviews “Qeej Hero,” his new game concept and interface design.

The relatively fresh Hmong Diaspora in the United States has been forced to adapt quickly to American culture. The generation of Hmong people that fought in conjunction with the CIA in the jungles of Laos is now battling to preserve elements of its heritage in the suburban cul-du-sacs of California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.


Through visual, verbal, and musical poetry, the Hmong Diaspora has defended traditional cultural heritage and synthesized new forms of aesthetic production outside their homeland. The tradition of oral storytelling is combined with abstract needlework “flower cloths” to form representational “story cloths,” the ancient practice of chanting poetry (kwutxhiaj) flows through hip-hop songs by urban youth, and the age-old wind instrument, the qeej (pronounced GHENG), is integrated into B-Boy dance competitions.

The qeej is an important instrument with a 4,000-year history and ties to Hmong language and funerary rites. Incongruously perhaps, I decided that contemporary trends in Hmong-American transcultural design called for a video game starring the qeej. Along with a small team of Hmong-American college students / qeej players from St. Paul and videogame programmers based in Chicago, I am designing a game called Qeej Hero.

In the vein of the wildly popular karaoke-style games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Qeej Hero will cast the qeej into the spotlight usually reserved for the guitar in the American pop-culture industry. In addition to teaching basics about the qeej instrument and its songs, the game will also facilitate Hmong language instruction. The traditional qeej, a bamboo wind instrument, has six onomatopoeic pipes that create tones, which directly relate to the tones of the Hmong spoken language. Geared to 2nd and 3rd generation Hmong-American children and teens, players manipulate a plastic qeej-shaped controller, pressing color-coded buttons to enact the tonal songs, which mimic the real instrument. Early levels of game play introduce the six tones of the Hmong/Qeej language, proceed to integrate one low and two high drones, and finally introduce complicated notational combinations and wordplay.

Qeej Hero retains the spiritual integrity of the qeej by programming only “entertainment” songs (qeej ua si) into the game. The game will be entertaining enough to be played by the general population, but also retain a cultural specificity that targets Hmong-American youth and teens. Extending the reach beyond American players, the Beta version will facilitate Internet play between Hmong cousins from Laos to Lacrosse (WI). Consultation by the Hmong-American community and qeej masters will assure that Qeej Hero is produced with utmost respect to Hmong tradition and history, while still being fun to play. The entertaining quality of the virtual qeej should encourage more youth to learn how to play the actual instrument, but moreover it will replace the guitar as the paragon of musical achievement.

Novel representations of Hmong traditional aesthetics are the key to invigorating the Hmong-American culture for the youngest generation, creating tangible links to the older generation, and compelling non-Hmong American audiences to grow in their cultural understanding. The tie that binds traditional Hmong music, storytelling, and textiles is a tactile and encompassing sense of poetry. This embedding of tones in text and speech in music will be carried through in Qeej Hero as a prototype for culturally specific transnational videogame design.

Erik Peterson, “Qeej Hero,” interface and controller design, and game concept © 2009.
Image Credits:
1) Qeej Controller Prototype, Erik Peterson
2) Keng Lor Teaching the Qeej, Chris Roberts for Minnesota Public Radio website
3) Qeej Hero Interface, Erik Peterson
4) What is Qeej Hero?, Erik Peterson

Erik Peterson, University of Illinois at Chicago
AIGA XCD was honored to have Erik Peterson as one of its breakout session speakers during the AIGA National Conference. He is a graduate student studying art at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  His work intervenes in the interstitial spaces of the public realm, both physical and social.  Art works such as Self-Serve Soft-Serve, a municipal pipe that pumps frozen yogurt, and Snow Machines, a set of snowball-making molds installed in empty signpost anchors, engage issues of value, authenticity, adaptive reuse, and play.  As an Americorps member serving in the Florida State Parks in 2005, Peterson inaugurated and branded the now annual canoe and kayak race, the St. Johns Paddle Battle, and in 2006 illustrated Colorful Comrades, an alphabet book written by a recovering brain-injury patient.  Peterson is currently working with community leaders to develop a Hmong-American version of Guitar Hero® using their ancient reed instrument, the qeej.


  • Wow! What an incredible idea;) It’s a great way to get the younger generation to have fun as well as learning and keeping traditions. Guess one of the difficulties I see is that there are plenty of qeej masters, therefore it can be difficult to select a varies of songs. Will this be a console game? What console and where can I find a copy? Love the idea and can’t what until it’s out.


  • Guitar hero is a great hobby, we now have typical family nights as a group and play.

  • I was reading this article and find it very informative. I admired the writer’s effort as he beautifully selects the most appropriate words for his post. The choice of his words has made this article unique and interesting. While reading this article I was feeling that I can completely understand the theme of this article and writer has written exclusively for me or for my school of thought.

  • It is very exciting to see our qeej instructor from the Concordia University, St. Paul Hmong Culture and Language Program, on your site, albiet these boys are about four years older now and still playing qeej and instructing other young Hmong boys (and girls) to play. Our program has a year around program two Saturdays a month and a two week summer camp, this year July6-August 6, 2010, on the Concordia University, St. Paul campus, welcome around 500 K-12 children and youth to preserve their culture through storytelling, gardening and the arts.

  • Wow ! its an great idea by applying the new thoughts for young generation by which they can fun as well as keep the tradition awake!

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