Eleven years ago a group of developers made a prototype for a game that shone the spotlight on Australia’s shame.
Escape from Woomera, a first-person point-and-click game in which players tried to break out of the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Center (better known as the Woomera Detention Center), made its way around the world, and the Australian government – despite its best efforts at limiting information and imposing a media blackout — couldn’t stop it. The news media had covered Woomera extensively. Many people had read or heard about it. Now they could play it. Here was a first-world country that was locking up asylum seekers for indefinite periods of time, keeping them in conditions so harsh it led to suicide attempts, hunger strikes, lip sewing protests and desperate attempts at escape, and word was traveling through a video game.
"Socially, people thought what we did [as game developers] was trash..."
After a series of highly publicized riots, accusations of human rights abuses and capacity issues, the center closed in April 2003, a year before Escape from Woomera launched. But that wouldn’t be the end of Australia’s controversial policies on immigration and asylum seekers, nor would it be the last of Escape from Woomera.
By the developers’ own admission, the game hasn’t aged well. Made in 2003 as a mod of the popular first-person shooter Half-Life, it’s something of an eyesore by today’s standards. But 11 years on, with the Australian government now exercising a policy that sees asylum seekers processed offshore with no hope of resettlement in Australia, perhaps Escape from Woomera hasn’t dated that much.
"We find ourselves in the same situation today with a media blackout and a government that would prefer to not discuss something that desperately needs discussion," said Helen Stuckey, former curator of the Australian Center for the Moving Image who has included Escape from Woomera in her past exhibitions. So, Stuckey says, clunky graphics aside, the game may be more relevant today than ever before.
HELL YEAH IT’S A GAME
Katharine Neil led the development of Escape from Woomera. Like most of the Australian developers on the project, she went uncredited because she worked in the video game industry and didn’t want to risk her job. Neil told Polygon Escape from Woomera served two main purposes: One was to criticize the government and raise awareness of what was happening in the detention centers. The other was to prove that it could be done through a video game, and that the medium would not dilute or trivialize the message.
"Socially, people thought what we did [as game developers] was trash," Neil said. "A lot has changed, but I think a lot of people forget how looked down on we were. Even game developers at the time would not even imagine they could do anything worthwhile or meaningful in a creative sense, that they could change the world.
"One of the big, controversial things about making this into a game was the accusation that we were trivializing the subject matter. I wanted to confront that head on. I wanted to say hell yeah, it’s a game. Hell yeah, this is meant to be fun. Let’s have an argument about it if you object to it, and we did have those arguments. They were arguments I knew would be raised and that I wanted to raise."
The arguments came well before the first line of code was written. Escape from Woomera received scathing criticism from then-Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock, who said Australia’s principal arts funding and advisory board’s decision to fund the project "reflect[ed] poorly upon the Australia Council and its judgement, that the organization should lend its name to the promotion of unlawful behavior." Refugee NGOs also jumped on board, criticizing the project and its developers for trivializing such a serious issue. Critics accused the developers of creating a crime simulator.
"What was annoying was people believed that if it was a game, it couldn’t be serious," said Escape from Woomera’s lead game designer Ian Malcolm. "I do remember initially when a lot of ideas were being kicked around there were notions of points and things like that, and I was very much against that from the start. The idea that there’d be some kind of points system or fantasy empowerment where you gave the refugees weapons to shoot their way out — that was never on the table.
"Could there be a game that actually makes you think at the same time? Yes."
"I think we took it more seriously than the people who were criticizing us for any perceived lack of seriousness."
The goal of Escape from Woomera wasn’t to create edutainment or, as Malcolm puts it, "a dull but worthy experience." It wasn’t intended as art that just so happened to use the medium of video games, or a political message with interactivity. "I believe in games," Neil said. "Could there be a game that actually makes you think at the same time? Yes. Films can do it. Novels can do it. Television can do it. So that was my explicit goal."
This in itself was controversial for its time, according to Helen Stuckey. The concept of the indie game developer barely existed, and most games were designed for commercial purposes. Games with a message — especially a political message — were few and far between.
"I think what was really exceptional about Escape from Woomera is so much of the team consisted of professional game developers, and they really came with the attitude that they were making a game at a professional level," she said. "What they really wanted to achieve was something as polished as a commercial game with the conceit of a depth of experience that actually addressed a more serious subject matter.
"They wanted to make a game. They were concerned about what would keep players engaged. They were thinking about the audience as game players."
THE "FUN" IN BEING DETAINED
Despite the development team’s insistence that they were taking the subject seriously, going so far as bringing on investigative journalist Kate Wild to help them with research and sourcing material for the game, the developers still faced backlash and skepticism. One of the main points of contention was the use of the word "fun." Neil was determined that Escape from Woomera would be a fun experience, but what was "fun" in the context of an asylum seeker in a detention center? Mario Kart was fun. Tetris was fun. Did painting Escape from Woomera with the same stroke of "fun" do the subject justice? Another point of contention was the word "game." Pokémon was a game, as was Bejeweled. The medium wasn’t known for tackling serious, complex issues. Was it capable of handling such a heavy subject?
"My main definition [of fun] was having it be engaging, and that it present a series of challenges that you wanted to complete and, in doing so, you were awarded in some ways," Malcolm said. "We wanted it to be based on sound gameplay mechanics. The challenges players faced compared to a lot of games were quite subtle and the rewards were more muted, but they were certainly there."
"In real-life there were really heroic escape stories."
Malcolm referenced games like Looking Glass Studios’ Thief, which repurposed the notion of the first-person shooter to something where players could use violence, but if they did, the outcome was generally worse than if they’d used stealth. In any case, no one in real-life ever escaped from Woomera through the use of violence and, realistically, it was never an option for most detainees. In taking the subject seriously, the developers chose to depict what was real.
Escape from Woomera didn’t present any power fantasies. The stories and situations presented in the game were grounded in events that actually happened. And as it turned out, the conditions and circumstances Woomera detainees found themselves in led to the kind of ingenuity often seen by characters in video games.
"Surviving in a place like Woomera, you had to have your wits about you," Neil said. "You weren’t just sitting around looking sad. In real-life there were really heroic escape stories. Many of them were foiled, but they involved digging tunnels, stealing wire cutters, smuggling things through the post – there was some really ingenious stuff."
Missions and tasks players had to perform were based on accounts of things detainees actually did. People got messages in and out of Woomera by cutting flaps into tennis balls, putting notes inside, and slinging them over the fence to people outside. There were stories of people smuggling sim cards and mobile phones through bags of washing powder. Some people tried to tunnel out, some tried to use disguises. Many of these were almost pure adventure-style game mechanics.
"There was such a wide, open landscape for us to draw upon in terms of real-life situations," Malcolm said. "We were always very keen that none of the escape methods for the final game were to be fantasy methods, so no one ever broke out through the use of violence."
The game allowed players to find ways out via legitimate means, but this was an unlikely scenario. Asylum seekers had been known to be detained for up to two years only to be sent back to where they came from where they risked facing persecution for leaving to begin with.
"The idea was it should be incredibly difficult to escape," Malcolm said.
The game was meant to capture the reality of the plight of the asylum seeker. There was no fantasy. There was no easy way out. In the prototype created, players couldn’t actually escape from Woomera. Instead, it focused on sub-tasks, goals and experiences within the game environment, which conceivably would contribute to the escape of the players in the final game. Successful completion of those tasks resulted in the most positive outcome within the prototype: the sliver of hope that escape might eventually be possible.
Escape from Woomera was never made into the full game the developers had envisioned when they started work on the prototype. The team couldn’t secure the funding to make a full game, so the version of Escape from Woomera that was released to the public for free was something between a prototype and a proof of concept. But even in its small and incomplete form, the game communicated two very big messages.
"That games can look at serious ideas was the biggest message it sent," said Stuckey. "It also made people aware of Woomera at a time when there was a real effort by the government to keep Woomera out of the media."
Artist Stephen Honneger, who now runs his own independent studio Space Dust, was responsible for recreating Woomera in the game. The environments he crafted, which were based on reference images, stock footage, maps of the detention center and drawings detainees had done of the actual camp, were the closest some people came to seeing the conditions of Woomera.
"The biggest challenge was getting enough reference imagery at the time, because around 2002-2003, journalists and photographers weren’t allowed inside the facility, and Google Maps wasn’t really around, so you couldn’t even get decent satellite imagery," Honneger said. "We kept the arrangements of the buildings pretty close to what we thought they were. Things seemed to change quite a lot because there was a lot of portable housing. We also tried to get the materials and the feel of the surfaces as close as possible, but again, it was hard to tell without actually going there."
The game world was filled with characters the player would encounter. These characters were based on real detainees, although the developers often combined the stories of multiple people into one. By interacting with them, players would learn of their stories and obtain information to aid their escape. To the corner of the player’s screen was a Hope meter. Completing certain tasks that moved the player toward their goal would increase their hope, but being exposed to many of the situations in Woomera would tend to have a cumulative negative effect, so players were always trying to fight against it.
"Working on the game was a very emotionally draining experience..."
Negative outcomes were entirely possible, and there were ways players could "lose." Being caught by guards doing anything prohibited or suspicious resulted in increasingly extended periods locked in isolation. If a player’s Hope meter ran too low, it could lead to severe depression, a catatonic state, or an unsuccessful suicide attempt, after which the player would be forcibly deported back to their country of origin where they would presumably be tortured or, most likely, killed.
"Any notion that we were treating this lightly was a bit of a false assumption," Malcolm said. "Working on the game was a very emotionally draining experience because we were exposed to a lot of material that people didn’t see – some of it leaked by guards, others from detainees. We were very careful."
Eleven years on, Escape from Woomera can still be downloaded and played. On reflection, the developers accept that it wasn’t the most fun game, it certainly wasn’t the best-looking game, and there was a lot more they could have done with it. But it’s a game that’s still remembered, that’s still talked about and, sadly, still relevant.
"The horrible thing is nothing's changed," said Honneger of Australia's current position on asylum seekers. "If anything, it's gotten worse, so I do believe it's still relevant. The title of Escape from Woomera or the notion of it is more powerful than the actual game."
Both Malcolm and Neil wonder if the response to the game would have been different if it were released today instead of 11 years ago. Perhaps the media wouldn't have been so scathing. Perhaps more people would have been open to the idea of a video game having something serious and powerful to say. Regardless of whether critics viewed the game as a success or failure, or how many people played the game, or what the government thought, they're glad they did it.
"I’m proud of what we did," Malcolm said. "I’m proud I was involved with it."