Escape from Woomera

One Man's Web > Politics and Ethics > Australia and the refugees >  Escape from Woomera
June 1 2003

At two years old we confiscated our son's gun made from a stick.  He went off, constructed a gun from Duplo, and came back and shot us both.  There is something about violence in our nature. At the age of 16 he is strongly anti war.  Yet he plays violent computer games incessantly. They often sicken me, and they are a contradiction of his own beliefs. 

I recall as a young teen, without computer games, spending hours constructing battles on the cement of my bedroom floor with WW11 soldiers. And at the same time I was espousing an anti-Vietnam position, and planning to be a conscientious objector, I would hunt barefoot with my Dad's rifle in our scrub for hares.  Perhaps it an evolutionary development thing. Just as our embryos seem to reflect the morphology of previous species, so our moral and ethical development must go through a period of warlikeness on the way to a greater maturity. It would be fair to wonder if some of us don't make it very far!

The current computer game involves stealing cars and driving around a thinly disguised Miami engaging in less than savoury activities.  My son is laughing himself silly, because you listen to the car radio as you drive.  The stations, including Vice City Public Radio are what we Australians would call a giant "piss-take," with a prolonged send up of conservative America, including campaign adds for a politician called Shrub.

Which brings us to Australia.  Here, The Australia Council, the Federal Government's principal arts funding and advisory body, has just made a development grant to a computer game.  It's called Escape from Woomera, and involves playing the part of a refugee seeking to escape from the now defunct Woomera Concentration Camp (euphemised by the Australian Government to "Woomera Detention Centre.")  Minister against Refugees Ruddock has exploded.  Comedian Shaun Micallef recently showed a picture of the Boomerang Galaxy on his show... allegedly the coldest place in the universe... "except perhaps for here," he said, and held up a photo of Minister Ruddock.  Well, when the news of the game came out, it got very hot under Ruddock's collar.

NineMSN reports "Mr Ruddock and refugee groups lambasted the game's creators for encouraging people to take part in illegal activities and trivialising the plight of asylum seekers."

The game's researcher said "Escape from Woomera was merely taking activism on the issue of detaining asylum seekers to a new medium."

"We have expressed the concern of refugee groups in a medium people are not used to, a more modern medium."

The Arts Minister has demanded an explanation from the Australia
Council. Port August Mayor, and cracked record, Joy Baluch has condemned the game, while "Apart from making a mockery of Australia's mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers, Mr Ruddock said the game reflected badly on the Australia Council for promoting unlawful activity."  Link live at 1/6/2003

A number of refugee groups have also condemned the game on the basis that it trivialises the suffering of refugees incarcerated in the camps.  I'm not so sure.  While kids are working out their violence, let's have them see some of the bad side of society.

Green Left Weekly notes

Green Left Weekly, May 11

"[Computer] games are potentially the most subversive media forms of our time", Kipper, the initiator of Escape from Woomera, told Green Left Weekly. Drawing on first-hand testimonies, media reports and government documents, this unique game concept strives to represent Woomera detention centre in virtual reality. It has already received positive responses from past and present detainees.

"I would have thought that locking people up in breach of international law is the real crime", Kipper told GLW. She noted that many computer games portray "illegal acts", pointing to the best-selling PlayStation game, Grand Theft Auto III, in which players  steal cars, act as hitmen and sleep with prostitutes. "The real  difference is that our game injects something that is socially progressive", Kipper said. 

The games site is at Among its FAQ's are the following (which I have edited.)

Q: Wouldn't making a game on this subject trivialise something that is a very serious issue? Isn't it the height of bad taste?

A: We're attempting to create a play–space in which people can have access to and engage with this issue in an unprecedented and unique way. We're serious about the issue....  When non–gamers think about videogames they often confuse content with form. Just because some of the most high–profile commercial games might be considered "bad taste" for their 'gratuitous' use of violence and no brain content it doesn’t follow that the interactive nature of the videogame medium itself is a barrier to representing serious issues. Early films were predominantly slapstick comedy and pornography – but no one today would deny that the film medium itself is robust enough to carry challenging content......

Believe it or not, the truth is we're sick and tired of games that create heroes out of professional killers and US marines. For us, refugees are some of the greatest and most legitimate heroes of our time. And we're not prepared to hold back and leave this facet of their story untold because the lives of these remarkable individuals collectively constitute an 'issue' so serious that it is supposedly 'untouchable'.

Q: But isn't this game the height of bad taste?

A: Well, that seems to be implying that we're trying to make a joke – a joke in poor taste. And actually, you could say that by consciously making accessible a fully immersive experience of an environment that has been deemed strictly off limits by the powers–that–be is the height of political satire. But no, that’s not true; the height of political satire was when the eighteenth century Irish writer Jonathan Swift suggested that the English solve the problem of poverty in Ireland by simply encouraging Irish peasants to sell their children to the rich as a tasty alternative to pork. Interestingly, 'A Modest Proposal' is considered the greatest piece of political satire in the history of English literature – and not a 'bad taste' trivialisation of the plight of the Irish. 

To be honest, I find computer games boring.  I just don't get them.  But lots of kids do.  And if they're going to play, then I like the fact that in this game at least, there is also some message with the content that goes beyond the usual shoot everything that moves style.  The problem for Ruddock and Kemp etc is not that the game is wrong, or bad taste.  The problem is that the game will be too true to life.  They are really reacting from fear about the truth of our illegal and inhuman behaviour in Australia.  Jan

© Jan Thomas