Immigration video game part of new genre that lets players delve into social, policy issues

MIAMI
A Japanese computer science student fails to take a full
load of university classes and loses his student visa. A 10th-grade Indian girl
is detained because of a high school essay she wrote on the Department of
Homeland Security.

These are two of the characters in “ICED!” a new
video game that invites players to step into the shoes of foreigners who run
afoul of the U.S.
immigration system. It is part of a burgeoning genre of video games that
examine major social and policy issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict, the situation in Darfur and the Electoral
College.

“The game allows you to get into the body of a person,
so you can experience what they are going through. There are very few
opportunities to get that perspective,” said Mallika Dutt, head of the
nonprofit Breakthrough, which produced the game and uses new media to highlight
social issues around the world.

“ICED!” a play on the acronym for the Department
of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office is scheduled
to be available for free download next month. It differs greatly from games
like “Border Patrol,” which popped up on the Internet last year and
exhorted players to kill illegal immigrants as they entered the country.

“ICED!” seeks to show how immigration laws passed
in 1996 expanded the number of crimes that can trigger deportation and limited
immigrants’ rights to appeal.

Players try to avoid deportation by keeping a low profile
and performing community service. Shoplifting or jumping a subway turnstile
loses points. Lose too many, and your character ends up in a federal detention
facility.

“You can get a lot out of a game, more than from film
and other media in some ways, because you are actively engaged rather than just
a passive consumer,” said Suzanne Seggerman, head of the nonprofit group
Games for Change.

Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency was
confident players would recognize the game is fiction.

“ICED!” gamers can become a Mexican high school
graduate whose family overstayed its visa, or a Haitian war veteran who faces
deportation when he turns to alcohol and crime after returning from Iraq.

In the first level, players keep a low profile in a city
vaguely resembling New York. In
the second level, they must navigate an immigration detention center.
Programmer Heidi Boisvert estimates the game can take 10 to 30 minutes to play.

Boisvert and Natalia Rodriguez came up with the idea in
graduate school and approached Breakthrough about helping them develop it. Boisvert
said they didn’t talk to immigration authorities, but they did speak to
immigration experts, attorneys and advocacy groups, as well as their target
audience of voting-age teens.

All of the characters they chose were based on real
situations, including the case of a 16-year-old New York girl from Guinea who
was accused of planning a suicide bombing and detained for six weeks in 2005
before the charges dropped.

Steven Camarota, head of research at the Washington-based
Center for Immigration Studies, questioned the value of a game that focuses on
individual cases rather than the complex issues surrounding immigration. While
the U.S. immigration system is flawed, it is also one of the most generous in
the world, said Camarota, whose organization favors strict enforcement of
current laws.

“Any reasonable person should say your immigration
system should always be tempered with mercy and justice,” he said.
“But it’s like anything else. What exactly do you gain by looking at a
small aspect of the debate?”

Louis DeSipio, a University of California, Irvine, political
science professor and immigration expert, believes players do gain something.

“It’s very important, especially for younger people, to
understand the diversity of American society. It’s easy to assume that everyone
is like you,” he said. “A game like this can show that.”

But unless they want to preach solely to the converted, such
games need widespread distribution something most nonprofits like Breakthrough
lack the resources to do and to be part of a larger outreach campaign, he
added.

That was the thinking of “PeaceMaker” creator Asi
Burak, whose game allows players to act as both Israeli and Palestinian leaders
as they seek to diffuse tension in the Middle East. It is one of the few such
games to be sold commercially, including on Amazon.com. Burak claims it has
sold thousands of copies in 60 countries at $20 per download.

Burak said he conceived “PeaceMaker” as a way to
promote empathy between the two sides. To his surprise, those who played were
more excited about finally understanding the broader Israeli-Palestinian
conflict.

Even if such games can explain political and social issues,
they are only effective if they are fun to play, he cautioned.

“It’s like a film,” he said. “If it’s not
good, it’s going to bore the audience.”.

On the Net:

Games for Change: http://www.gamesforchange.org/

Breakthrough: http://breakthrough.tv/

PeaceMaker: http://www.peacemakergame.com/


– Associated Press



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