Kiana Norton of Kotzebue received a special gift on her birthday this year: She became the first person off the road system to win the annual Alaska 529 scholarship account giveaway.
Norton, 23, plans to use the $25,000 in scholarship funding to help her achieve her dream of becoming a game developer. She wants to inspire players by creating unique characters, a space for gamers to connect to one another and a chance for them to build their own stories.
Alaska 529, the education savings program offered by the Education Trust of Alaska, announced this month that Norton won its scholarship account giveaway, which has been held over the past 12 years. All 14,000 Permanent Fund dividend applicants who chose to contribute at least half their dividend to an Alaska 529 account were entered in the giveaway, according to the Dec. 8 announcement.
Norton learned about the win nearly a month earlier — on her birthday, Nov. 12 — during a surprise Zoom session. For a student who is taking a gap year, it was big news.
“I was going through a really tough time at my current college, and winning this has taken a huge load off my shoulders and opened up a lot more options,” Norton said.
Norton is studying computer science at the University of Washington and wants to use her degree to build games that allow others to take the reins in building the narrative.
“With video games, it’s not just telling a story; there are so many little interactions that you can put in there that make it a story for somebody else to make up,” she said. “It’s just much more immersive.”
She explained that in one of her favorite games, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, players can “get your friends to get together on the same screen’' and “it’s just all about you and your friends going around in a caravan and exploring together. The fun part of that is the story that you make with your friends.”
Before Norton started playing games as a child, she learned to draw. Her mother works as a schoolteacher, and their house has always had “tons and tons of art supplies.”
“I was always doing art and playing around with paints or crayons because that’s the household that I grew up in,” Norton said.
In third grade, she remembered working with a big piece of paper that she glued on cardboard “to make it a little bit fancier” and drew “ladies in very fancy dresses, maybe princesses.”
“That would probably be the first time when I seriously started drawing,” Norton said. She also remembers math classes where she would finish assignments earlier than other students and spend her free time filling sheets of paper with colorful art. “Drawing was always fun for me, just because it was always so rewarding looking back at the paper and seeing something cool.”
For Norton, drawing is also an act of meditation and a way to think about her stories and characters. She described one of her inspirations, the character Grimoire Weiss in the game Drakengard. Norton explained that the character — a talking, all-knowing, floating book — doesn’t have the most heroic role but is memorable and lovable. Without making different facial expressions, Grimoire Weiss conveys charisma and character through motions and gestures.
As for the characters Norton creates, they reflect what Norton is thinking about or what she is going through in her life.
“The characters that I like to focus on are sort of mirroring what I feel at the time,” she said.
Norton was born and raised in Kotzebue, which is also where she currently lives. The pandemic hit while she was at the University of Washington, and she said she was happy to pause her campus life. Her move from Alaska to Washington did not go smoothly: She missed the cold and quiet of her Kotzebue home.
“My (dorm) room was on the corner of the seventh floor, on the side of the building that got the sunlight most of the day, so it got really hot in there and that attracted ladybugs and flies every single day,” she said. “Even when I was all alone in my room and just wanted to enjoy some quiet time, I would hear cars just in the distance and a low hum that almost sounded as loud as the airplane taking off in Kotzebue.”
Norton isn’t sure whether she wants to return to the University of Washington or choose another school to finish her degree. Fortunately, she can use her scholarship money to pay for any college, university or vocational or technical school that accepts federal financial aid.
“I am still considering my options,” said Norton, whose story — for now — remains open-ended.