Immigration Debate Finds Itself In Play

Immigration debate finds itself in play

Advocacy groups are using video and board games to advance their agendas and influence public opinion.
By Anna Gorman, Times Staff Writer
July 9, 2007

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.

“It's difficult to sort of rock the boat without vilifying anybody,” said Schutz, a computer science student.

Rafael Fajardo, one of the University of Denver professors who headed the project, also created a pair of video games on the issue: La Migra and Crosser, both part of an exhibit that opened in Merida, Mexico, last month. In La Migra, the player is an immigration agent who decides whether to stop people from crossing the border. He becomes Agent of the Month if he stops enough migrants from crossing and gets a pink slip if he lets too many pass.

In Crosser, modeled after the classic game Frogger, the player tries to cross a river along the border before encountering immigration agents and getting sent back to Mexico. He encounters various items on the river, including a cat, a dog, a tire and a cadaver.

“The underdog is made into a hero through the game,” Fajardo said. “That will put some audiences in an uncomfortable position.”

Clark Davis, an English professor at the university, has played Crosser with his 10-year-old son, an avid video game player. “Having a son who had grown up in this video game culture, I hadn't seen anything that was substantive,” Davis said. “I didn't know this whole genre existed.”

There are also board games about the U.S.-Mexico border, including two by Texas Tech University assistant professor Francisco Ortega. In Crossing the Bridge, which uses a board that looks like a highway, players try to smuggle people and drugs into the U.S., which they exchange for money and can use to buy weapons or gasoline to smuggle back into Mexico. They risk getting caught by customs and having their cars, merchandise or passports taken away.

The games are another way to generate conversation and debate among family and friends, Ortega said. “If you want games for children, just go to Toys R Us,” he said. “If you want something more in-depth, you can find other options.”

Though the goal is to educate a wider audience, the games will probably reach only young people, said Harry Pachon, president of USC's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. But, he added, players may include Caucasian students who might not have given immigration a second thought. “What this does is open up the world of the undocumented,” Pachon said.

Eric Ceja, a Cerritos College student and distributor of a bilingual board game also called La Migra, said he believes immigrants and their children will be good customers. Ceja said he sold several copies of his game at Los Angeles' Olvera Street during a Cinco de Mayo event.

A La Migra player tries to cross into the fictional town of Santa Banana, washing dishes or cars to fund the journey. The player spends money to call home and stay at El Cheapo motel, while trying to avoid trips to Garbajo City Jail and Coyote Town.

Some games are overtly anti-immigrant, including one called Border Patrol, in which the player tries to hit a drug smuggler, a Mexican nationalist or a “breeder.” The objective, according to the online game, is to “keep them out at any cost.”

Immigrant rights advocates say those games are unnecessarily violent and objectionable.

“I think they trivialize the issue,” said Jorge Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.

Chris Byrne, contributing editor at Toy Wishes magazine, said games about immigration may be attractive for one-time use, but will have long-term appeal only if they are easy to learn and, most important, fun.

“For family game night,” Byrne said, “people are going to reach for Cranium before they reach for these games.”