Pro-refugee computer game sparks controversy

Issue 

BY ARUN PRADHAN

"[Computer] games are potentially the most subversive media forms of our time", Kipper, the initiator of Escape from Woomera, told Green Left Weekly. Drawing on first-hand testimonies, media reports and government documents, this unique game concept strives to represent Woomera detention centre in virtual reality. It has already received positive responses from past and present detainees.

Using her "gaming name" to maintain professional anonymity, Kipper's aims are clear: "We aren't just about making a media splash, we are going to create a game that people play and that systematically documents every racist nuance of the asylum process and the institutional racism of Australia's immigration policies."

Actively involved in refugees' rights activist groups, Kipper's ambitious vision began just weeks before the Tampa crisis in August 2001. Her idea recently became the topic of national debate after she received a $25,000 pre-production grant from the Australia Council. Federal minister for immigration Philip Ruddock was quick to condemn the Australia Council, which he claimed had "lended its name to the promotion of unlawful behaviour".

"I would have thought that locking people up in breach of international law is the real crime", Kipper told GLW. She noted that many computer games portray "illegal acts", pointing to the best-selling PlayStation game, Grand Theft Auto III, in which players steal cars, act as hitmen and sleep with prostitutes. "The real difference is that our game injects something that is socially progressive", Kipper said.

Kipper was not surprised when some refugees' rights groups, including the Refugee Council of Australia, supported Ruddock's criticism, claiming that the game would "trivialise" the plight of refugees. While acknowledging that various groups would always pursue different tactics, Kipper felt that such criticism exposed a prejudice against youth culture.

Kipper told GLW that Escape from Woomera is to be a "multi-strategy" game. "Players will need to employ various escape and survival strategies", Kipper explained, including working through bureaucratic and legal channels or "breaking out in the tradition of stealth-based adventure games... it obviously won't be Quake style!".

"Ideally it will promote empathy with the plight of refugees and allow people to make choices under difficult circumstances", Kipper said. Rather than focusing on refugees as victims or criminals, Kipper hoped that the game would reflect their heroism.

Jody Betzien from Refugee Action Collective in Melbourne has welcomed the initiative. "The sentiment for justice is growing and that is reflected in plays, books, documentaries and now computer games. Each initiative helps get the truth out and push more people into action."

The opportunity to work on a game free of corporate agendas has had wide appeal and the team behind Escape from Woomera includes several of Melbourne's most established gaming professionals. Kipper is confident that the game will be completed despite the need for more funds.

[More information about the game will soon be available at <http://www.escapefromwoomera.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, May 14, 2003.

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