Shooter video games seek to 'humanise' refugees

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 on Thursday and Friday.

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 also worked with Austrian game developers goldextra on 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.

Media reports claim Stober's games encourage and reward players to massacre refugees, but he claims they actually penalise players for shooting, and that the main aim is 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 says.

The players who are refugees must cooperate to evade the border guards while the guards try to arrest them. Along the way, the game dishes 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 says.

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

Stober says he is in the research-phase for the Australian asylum-seeker game and plans to launch it next year. He says he is 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 says.

Stober is reluctant to discuss the Australian game's mechanics, but says the player roles will be border guards and refugees, as in his previous games. He says detailed background information will be provided, but says he is 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, says he expects the Australian game to cause controversy.

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

Dr Walz says 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 says. "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."

The story Shooter video games seek to 'humanise' refugees first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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