Game takes aim at 'boat people' strife

21:27, Nov 13 2012
DANGERZONE: A game about African refugees is being adapted into an Australian version.

Could a video game placing players in the shoes of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia help change opinions about "boat people"?

Jens Stober, a game designer and PhD student at RMIT University's GEELab campus in Karlsruhe, Germany, is trying to find out.

He is creating a video game in which players can assume the roles of Australian border guards or foreign refugees.

His Melbourne RMIT supervisor expects sparks to fly, and online activist group GetUp has already voiced its support of his game, with national director Sam McLean saying it could be very effective if made in a way that "humanises asylum seekers and demonstrates their plight".

The upcoming game and others designed for education and social good will be discussed at the Games for Change conference, hosted by RMIT in Melbourne later this month.

Stober received death threats and was briefly arrested in Germany in 2010 when he released a multi-player, first-person shooter game called '1378'. The number is the length in kilometres of the so-called "death strip" that divided East and West Germany during the Cold War.


In that game, players can be either border guards or refugees fleeing the East German communist regime. The ability of guards to shoot fugitives caused outrage among victims' relatives.

A reconciliation group said it was an unacceptable "ego-shooter" game, and a victims' group said the game made a mockery of them. (The communist regime lasted from 1949 to 1989. Hundreds of East Germans were killed trying to escape the country.)

Stober followed up with another game last year called Frontiers, which tackles the modern-day European refugee issue. Again, players can be either refugees - this time Africans - or border guards.

The game features the main migration routes to Europe with settings including the Sahara, Iraq, the Netherlands, the woods of Slovakia, the Ukraine and the beaches in southern Spain.

Again, players could be either refugees – this time Africans – or border guards.The game featured the main migration routes to Europe with settings including the Sahara, Iraq, the Netherlands, the woods of Slovakia, the Ukraine and the beaches in southern Spain.

Media reports claimed Stober's games encouraged and rewarded players to massacre refugees, but he claimed they actually penalised players for shooting, and that the main aim was to educate people about political issues using game mechanics.

"You can have a gun, you can use it, but if you use it you will lose points and lose the game," he said.

The players who were refugees must cooperate to evade the border guards while the guards tried to arrest them.

Along the way, the game dished out educational factoids designed to provoke deeper thought about the issues.

"We integrated interviews and a lot of photos, videos and data about the European conflict and about the border situation directly into the game," Stober said.

The 1378 game has been downloaded 750,000 times and Frontiers about 50,000.

Stober said he was in the research-phase for the Australian asylum-seeker game and planned to launch it next year.

He said he was interested in "how games can change the world or change opinions or help form opinions", adding that schools had used his older games to help spark discussion about the issues.

"It's not my aim to promote some kind of scandal, it's just to provide some information for people that are not that deeply into this topic... The games are addressed to a generation that I think doesn't have a lot to do with this topic yet," Stober said.

Stober was reluctant to discuss the Australian game's mechanics, but said the player roles would be border guards and refugees, as in his previous games.

He said detailed background information would be provided, but said he was unlikely to include weapons.

Dr Steffen Walz, Stober's RMIT supervisor and the chair and co-lead curator of the Games for Change conference in Australia and New Zealand, said he expected the Australian game to cause controversy.

But he hoped Stober's game would help Australians who were opposed to refugees to realise that "many of them don't have the chance to apply to 'queue' because there was no queue, and the places they come from are war-torn and bloody".

Dr Walz said he could not understand why the debate was so toxic in Australia given the relatively minuscule numbers of unauthorised arrivals by boat, and the fact that the country was built by migrants.

"These poor people on those boats are basically substitutes for another discussion, and that is what kind of society does Australia want to be in the future?" he said.

"Is it an open society, is it a society of migrants that are proud of where they're coming from, or is it a closed society of islanders?"

Dr Walz says other "games for change" he has seen include Peacemaker, about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and a United Nations soccer game for developing countries addressing violence against women. More examples can be found on the Games for Change site.

"We want to demonstrate that games are maturing ... and you can address issues other than shooting people in the face [in a game] - which can be fun," Dr Walz said. "But 'games for change' are broadening games as a cultural form."

Sydney Morning Herald