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Immigration debate finds itself in play

Advocacy groups are using video and board games to advance their agendas and influence public opinion.

July 09, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

The video game plays like this: You are a Mexican illegal immigrant, an Indian green-card holder or a student on a visa from Japan.

As you navigate through New York City, you make risky decisions along the way. At a subway turnstile, do you jump or swipe your card? At a corner store, do you pay or shoplift? If you make bad choices and lose points, you can win others by attending immigration rallies or taking English classes.

But watch out: If an immigration agent pops onto the screen, you go straight to a detention center and face possible deportation. You've been ICED -- a twist on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration laws.

As the national debate over immigration continues, advocacy groups are trying a new medium -- video games -- to promote their agenda and influence public opinion.

ICED, for example, was produced by Breakthrough, a New York-based human rights organization, to highlight the arbitrary nature of immigration laws.

"Games are really good at exploring complex issues, and what issue is more complex than immigration?" said Suzanne Seggerman, president of Games for Change, an organization aimed at supporting new uses for digital games. "They are also great at promoting a single point of view.... A game can allow for a new perspective and, in some cases, new conviction."

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he wasn't surprised that advocates had turned to video games to sway public opinion. But he doesn't think they will be successful.

"This is not an issue where people are on the fence," he said. "Everybody is familiar enough with the issue that they have staked out a position already."

Immigration isn't the only serious topic being addressed by groups advancing a particular position. Political candidates have also used games to reach voters. Starbucks recently partnered with an environmental organization to create a game about global warming.

Developers, students and professors have created games about other topics to raise awareness and promote change. Darfur is Dying simulates a Sudanese refugee camp where refugees try to get water without being attacked by militias; Airport Security allows screeners to inspect passengers for prohibited items.

"It has really become a national movement," said David Rejeski at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "There are really creative people that understand that this is a very important medium that could be used for much more than entertainment."

Though their commercial market is limited -- most of these games are available for free online or exhibited at educational conferences around the country -- developers say they hope that will change.

The MacArthur Foundation recently awarded a $1.1-million grant toward the development of a school in New York that would use games to teach core subjects. Through so-called serious video games, students can role-play and solve problems, said Connie Yowell, the foundation's director of education.

"Games can be a prototype for curriculum in the 21st century," she said.

Breakthrough worked with about 100 New York City high school students to create the ICED! I Can End Deportation video game, which was presented at the Games for Change conference last month and will be available for free online this fall. The target market is high school and college students.

"Especially for the age group below 35, online media has become a very central part of their lives," said Mallika Dutt, Breakthrough's executive director. "If we want to engage with these constituencies, we have to engage in the method and tools that make more sense to them."

The nature of these video games reflects how designers have matured and become more politically aware since the days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders, said Jamil Moledina, executive director of the Game Developers Conference.

"They are in their 30s, they are having kids of their own," Moledina said. "They have an evolving sense of priorities."

Students at the University of Denver plan to release a video game called Squeezed, created with a grant from mtvU and Cisco Systems and designed to raise empathy for migrant laborers. The player takes the form of a tree-hopping, bandana-wearing frog who leaves home to seek work abroad as a fruit picker.

The fruit is squeezed into juice for the virtual economy, and the frog can either spend his juice earnings on himself or send them to family members back home. If relatives don't receive enough juice, they send bad news, the frog's "despair" meter rises and he picks less fruit.

Porter Schutz, 22, said the team members held very different views about immigration reform but all agreed that farmworkers were vital to the U.S. economy. He said they wanted to create a game that was edgy and could change people's perceptions but wasn't too heavy-handed or one-sided.

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