Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Those who've been wondering where the Escape From Woomera website has gone can take note that it is now accessible through a new domain: escapefromwoomera.com. Some nasty opportunist is currently cybersquatting the .org version.

And while we're on the subject of things EFW, below an article that I wrote in 2003 - mainly to archive it because it's never been online until now and as such has been impossible to make reference to. I initially wrote it for an Australian left journal called "Seeing Red" and then used it to give my anonymous speech (via voice synthesiser) at Free Play 2004 (the Australian indie games' conference).

Here it is in its speechified form:

Another (Game) World is Possible

Last night in his keynote talk, Harvey Smith told us that games can change the world. He said that we must ignore the cynics and believe in games as an art form that has enormous potential; that the work of game developers today, as early pioneers of this art form, will be poured over and analysed in decades to come.

I think this is absolutely true.

I would also add that the future of game development isn't set, that game developers today have an historic cultural and social duty to consider how they are shaping the future of our art. And if we are to contend that games are more than just toys and are in fact an emerging art form, we are contending that games are by nature political and that, consistent with the history of every other artistic or expressive medium, the future of the game medium will be shaped by struggle.

From control over the ideology of game content to control over game production – these are some of the battlefronts in the present and future war being waged in the world of videogames. The political nature of the videogame and the game industry cannot be denied, though widespread denial is in the interests of some powerful forces.

To create games is to create culture, in the context of cultural struggle. I believe it is important to engage in this struggle.

What follows is something I originally wrote with the intention of interesting a somewhat conservative left in the political potential and reality of games. Because I am unable to attend this panel in person I find myself recycling this piece with a very different audience in mind. Nevertheless, here it is.

Activists often use the slogan “Another world is possible”. This slogan implies a great deal about the barriers we face in trying to agitate for revolutionary change. We feel the need to point out, in an almost truistic fashion, that it is in fact possible to change the world, in spite of all appearances – appearances fostered by those in power with an interest in maintaining the status quo.

How do we convince people of the theoretical existence of this “other possible world”?

We point to fleeting glimpses of a divergent future that are sometimes thrown up in day to day struggles, we raise open minds through the discussion and dissemination of theory and history. The left also has a proud tradition of teasing the popular consciousness with the possibility of other worlds through the creation of alternative culture – with, for example, events like the Reclaim The Streets parties today, and historically works of art, film and literature that acquaint their audience with social and political possibilities by way of the imagination.

But what if we took that slogan literally for a moment: “another world is possible”. What if we were able to actually simulate those other possible worlds; worlds in which history was 'actively' participated in, and future struggles rehearsed? This is what the medium of the videogame offers.

As the influence of game culture grows, games will become an important cultural weapon in the class war. They are already being used indirectly in the service of imperialist ideological hegemony, and even the United States' military are making games for the mass market.

But this medium isn't limited to being a one-way conduit for ideas. Games can show that the status quo is mutable, and that a divergent course of events is conceivable. As more of the real world is simulated in the virtual domain, social reality is copied into game-state: a malleable set of abstractions to be played with. As Julian Oliver from our (Escape From Woomera) team once put it: through our ability to simulate the real, we can give people the means of developing a toolkit of ideas for breaking the rules of the real.

There is nothing unusual or new about including 'serious' subject matter and contemporary social conflicts in the context of gameplay. Play has historically had an important social role as a “safe” context in which to rehearse real challenges and conflicts. It is a naturally evolved tool in the preparations for war. Although the parents who sue game publishers on the basis that “games incited my son to steal cars and shoot his classmates” are misguided, I agree with them on one thing: games are powerful stuff.

I don't agree, however, with the soft left commentators who decry the violent and conflict-based nature of some videogames and say that gamers should instead be fed a steady diet of the adventures of cutesy anthropomorphised animals. Let's not retreat into fluffy la-la land when it comes to youth culture in a time of war and social injustice. Let's exploit the dangerous, subversive side of games and drag them kicking and screaming into the service of left political discourse.

It's about time we staked a claim on this cultural territory. In answer to games like “F/A 18: Operation Iraqi Freedom” let's make games called “Operation Defend Iraq: Defeat the Occupation”. Hezbollah have already documented their military campaigns against the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon in their PC game “Special Force”, and Palestinian kids throw virtual rocks at Israeli tanks in the Syrian-developed game “Under Ash”.

These ideas have helped provide the context for my involvement with the game project Escape From Woomera.

With Escape From Woomera we hope to provide a space to engage with political ideas in a new way: in this case by inviting players to assume the character of a refugee to 'live' through their experiences and take on the challenges they face.

The Australian state and their mercenaries Australasian Correctional Management have gone to extraordinary lengths to deny the public and the media access to immigration detention centres. We took this as a provocation, a challenge. ACM may be able to stop people leaving the camps with photographs, but they can't erase the memories of their victims. The government won't let the public see what it's like inside? Fine. Let's just create a virtual model of the place and invite the public to 'step' inside and find out for themselves.

While we passively consume Hollywood's tales of white man heroism and historical rewrites of war-time adversity, here in our backyard we house the unsung heroes of the turn of the 21st century, the ones who have bravely continued to fight oppression and injustice long after they arrived in the so-called “Free World”. I'd like to think that some future society, with the benefit of hindsight, would at least come to recognise these people for the heroes they truly are, instead of the cowardly opportunists they are portrayed as in the mainstream media. If we want to help effect change in the here and now, however, the fictional tales of refugees throwing their children overboard from boats must be met right now with refugees' own true stories of their experiences in Australia.

In April 2003 the Escape From Woomera project was granted $25,000 to design and prototype a first person 3D adventure game. Currently we are finishing the prototype, which we will use to attempt to acquire further funding. Unfortunately, games cost a great deal more than $25,000 to make, and in the current arts funding climate for new media and with the federal government's bullying of the Australia Council over the funding of our project, the prospects of public funding for a project like ours aren't favourable.

Despite my optimism for the potential for games as tools of cultural resistance, I recognise the limitations of what we are doing. For me, Escape From Woomera is more “immersive propaganda” (my term) than a piece of “tactical media activism” (a fashionable term for a form of cultural resistance). I can't help feeling that labelling our project as a form of activism would seem like a passive-propagandist excuse for opting out of 'real' activism. Hopefully with Escape From Woomera we will be able to inspire gamers to act in the real world, for it's this world that must be changed.

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