The cannons on the shores are constantly firing at the small boats filled with refugees trying to land on the Italian coast. In 1996, the Italian artist Antonio Riello created Italiani Brava Gente, a game in which the player could destroy Albanese refugee boats. It was not a simple remake of the classic arcade game Space Invaders with a twist. It introduced a new genre altogether.
The game’s title, Italiani Brava Gente, literally “Italians are good people”, is a “mission statement” that was used by populist politicians on television to describe how good and tolerant italians were toward people from other cultures. However, Riello did not agree with this hypocritical, populist stance, and used it ironically. The historic context behind the game is surprisingly current: In the late Nineties, hundreds of illegal refugees originally from the Balkans, and especially Albania, reached Italy on boats. The government saw the refugees as aliens invading a country and “destroying” Italian culture just like the aliens in Space Invaders erased entire cities. Players must stop the invasion. Italiani Brava Gente is remembered as one of the first attempts to deliver a political statement through a video game. The goal of the creator was to use games as a form of artistic expression rather than mere entertainment. Italiani Brava Gente is also an early example of a serious game dealing with political and social issues.
Antonio Riello, Italiani Brava Gente (1996)
The Mediterranean is once again the scene for boat refugees trying to reach Europe in overcrowded, fragile boats from Turkey and Libya. Desperate people invest their money hoping to find a better life. Theirs, however, is a dangerous game without extra lives, bonus levels, and replays. After a friend drown trying to reach Greece, an anonymous Syrian refugee developed Refugee Mario, a machinima created with a modified Super Mario game. The video shows a Syrian Mario trying to reach Europe. Mario picks up his suitcase and begins his journey to Europe. During his travels, he must collect coins to pay smugglers and bureaucrats, avoid Hungarian border guards, and cross the dangerous sea, until he finally can haul the European flag and reach the safety in the refugee camp.
The media have often tried to describe major events in history with help of text, photo and film. Who does not remember the image of the dead three-year-old boy Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on the beach, in 2015? An image that was reproduce in traditional and social media and creating an alarm call about the refugee catastrophe in Syria. But the media are changing. Fewer and fewer people read newspapers. Fake news spread through social media make it harder for serious journalism to reach an audience. For the past few years, journalists have tried to use games to find new readers and create a novel context for news. Known as “newsgames”, these games deal with issues as diverse as elections, terrorism, wars, and human catastrophes. In Newsgames: Journalism at Play (2010) Ian Bogost and his colleagues argue that videogames “simulate how things work by constructing interactive models; journalism as game involves more than just revisiting old forms of news production.”
The problem with simple games build on familiar concept as Italiani Brava Gente and Refugee Mario is that they often are very shallow in their context. They are easy to play and could quickly create awareness of a serious issue. At the same time, the risk is that players see the game as entertainment and never develop a deeper understanding about the complex conditions. Thus, the ludic experience does not help them to get a better grasp of a situation.
But videogames could have that persuasive effect that Ian Bogost describes in Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2007) when he writes I want to suggest that videogames have a unique persuasive power. [...] videogames can also disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world, leading to potentially significant long-term social change.
A videogame that fits into Bogost description is Escape from Woomera (2004), produced by a team of Australian artists, journalists, and game designers. Woomera was the name of immigration and detention center in Australia. The game is more complex than the aforementioned examples and tries to provide a layered narrative and more complex context around the game. In the game, which is built on the Half-Life’s engine, you play Mustafa, an Iranian asylum. After his parents was killed by the Iranian secret service he paid smugglers to take him to Australia. After his boat crashed in the Ashmore Reef he is taken into custody and imprisoned at the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre. When his request for asylum is denied and he realizes that he is about to be repatriated to Iran, he plans his escape from the camp. The game mechanics use the format of the point-and-click adventure game. The players is Mustafa: her goal is to explore the fenced camp and talk with other immigrants to find out which is the best way to escape from the camp. A meter tracks Mustafa's hope and by completing different task you increase your hope to escape, but if you breaks the the camps rules or is caught by the guards the hop decrease. When the meter reach zero Mustafa loses all his hope and is deported. Game Over!
The possibility to change the players attitudes with videogames is also an conclusion that dr Gemma Sou, Lecturer in Disaster Management at the University of Manchester, has reached. In her essay “Trivial pursuits? Serious (video) games and the media representation of refugees” (2017) which appeared in Third World Quarterly, she argues that serious games focusing on refugees “are able to mobilise intellectual agendas which challenge the de-contextualised representations of refugees typical in traditional media. As such, they challenge players to critically reflect on the complexities of refugee experiences and politics, thereby presenting a potential to move away from grand emotional discourses of pity and compassion.”
Darfur is Dying (2006) is another example of a serious games about refugees. The game focused on the 2.5 million refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan and the genocide that took place in the area. Like Escape from Woomera, the game is based on serious research and was developed in cooperation with humanitarian aid workers with extensive experience in Darfur.
In the game you have to choose a family member from one of the refugee families to collect water from a nearby well. Your task is to bring water back to the village and to avoid patrols from the janjaweed militia. If you are caught you are informed what happened to the family member and have to choose another. The chance to succeed with the task is based on gender and age. After you have returned with the water your next task is to use the water for crops and build huts. Your goal is to survive in the camp for seven day and keep the water level at a steady level.
As an activism game, Darfur is Dying also uses virality as a distribution model: players can invite friends to play the game, send messages to President Bush and create petitions to raise awareness about the situation.
In the past few years, the number of games about refugees has skyrocketed. The conflict in Syria and other places, and the use of smartphones and tablets connected to Internet have made it easy to create and spread these kind of games to a wide audience. Here are some examples:
Abdullah Karam, Path Out (2017)
Abdullah Karam’s Path Out is an RPG created with a Final Fantasy retro style and let the player experience how it is to be an Syrian refugee escaping from the civil war to neighbouring Turkey.Similarly, That Day We Left, is a 3D adventure game, mixing gameplay with narratives about the experience about being a refugee from Syria. In the mobile game Bury Me, My Love, the player must help Nour, a Syrian refugee, in her quest to reach Europe.
No matter where you fly from the border will be a main obstacle and challenge to overcome. Perhaps the most controversial border is the one that separates Mexico from the US, as the Trump administration's goal to build a giant wall to block the immigrants demonstrates. The Texas artist Gonzalo Alvarez has therefore created a video game which focus on the situation on this ongoing tragedy. “Borders is a political art game created not only to exhibit video games as an art form but to portray the dangers Mexican immigrants face in order to give the next generation a better future” says Alvarez.
Border was inspired by early indie games such as Papers, Please (2013) and stories told by Alvarez' parents who crossed the border as immigrants. The game is evocative of vintage arcade games with its 8-bit graphics. In the game, the player must cross the desert, tackle border patrols, hide from helicopters and collect enough water to avoid dehydration. When the player dies, a skeleton is left in the desert. Little by little, the desert fills up with bones, a morbid reminder that several players died trying to enter the USA, a symbol of all the migrants who failed to reach the promised land. The desert is a cemetery.
Rewell Altunaga’s Elegia (2015) is another example of a work whose goal is to acknowledge the plight of refugees that died while trying to reach their goal. Developed with the violent videogame Battlefield 4, Elegia exists both as a VR experience and as a machinima. The spectator is immersed into a stormy sea, below a wall of dark and sinister clouds. The Cuban artist wanted to remind the viewer about all the men and women that tried to escape from Cuba in fragile rafts, over dangerous waters, to reach Florida. For many decades, Cuba has been an isolated microcosm, but in 1994 Fidel Castro decided that the army would not any longer stop people from leaving the country. The result was the Balseros-crisis when the shores of Cuba was filled with improvised boats and desperate people trying to leave with any means necessary. It is estimated that around thirty thousands people left Cuba during this years but it is unclear how many died during their journey to find a better life.
Rewell Altunaga, Elegia, 2015, digital video and interactive VR experience
Since the mid-Nineties, when Antonio Riello released Italiani Brava Gente, several artists, game designers, and journalists have been using serious games to raise awareness about the dire conditions of refugees around the world. For journalists and NGOs, videogames can become an important addendum to traditional media, one that can reach a new audience and add an element of interactivity to current events that are usually experienced passively, on tv screens, in a detached mode.
Interview from 2009 with Antonio Riello about "Italiani Brava Gente" by Mathias Jansson: https://www.gamescenes.org/2009/11/interview-antonio-riello-italiani-brava-gente-1996.html
“Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames”, (MIT Press, 2010) by Ian Bogost
“Newsgames: Journalism at Play”, (MIT Press, 2012) by Ian Bogost (Author), Simon Ferrari (Author), Bobby Schweizer (Author)
“Trivial pursuits? Serious (video) games and the media representation of refugees” by Gemma Sou, published 2017 in Third World Quarterly
“Escape from Woomera” Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_from_Woomera
Mathias Jansson is a Swedish art critic writing about Game Art and New Media Art. He has published books with interviews and essays about the history of Game Art like ”Everything I Shoot Is Art”, Link Editions (2012) , "The Pioneers of Game Art: From ArsDoom to SimBee" and "Game Art Around the World: From Japan to Cuba". He has frequently contributed to different blogs and journals as DigiMag , Furtherfield , HZ-Journal, Art 21 Blog and Gamescenens.org. For more information, click here.