From Representation to Experience
I am always looking out for games that handle race and ethnicity in progressive ways. Unfortunately, they are rare. Certainly we see examples of detailed character creation systems that offer myriad options for visualization, and fighting for broader representational options is important, but we almost never see games, especially in the mass market, that broaden representation from visualization to the actual experiences of people of color. At most we get games that take interest in race through fantastical proxies, like the elves in Dragon Age, or through problematic attempts at social commentary, like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which reduces the experiences of African Americans to 90s ghetto gangsta culture.
When I first heard about Smuggle Truck, however, it seemed like a departure. Created by indie developer Owlchemy Labs, Smuggle Truck is a side scrolling physics based game that has the player controlling a pickup truck full of immigrants. The goal is to speed through each level and cross the border fence at the end with as many passengers still in the truck as possible. This is made increasingly difficult as the levels progress introducing bumps, tunnels, ramps, and dynamite all of which jostle the car, sending the passengers sailing into the air. Rather than working against immigration, the player is tasked with successfully aiding it.
What interested me about the game was that it was ostensibly designed to have the player sympathize with the experience of immigration. This is something we don’t often get: a game experience that slips outside of the white norm, and the lives of whites to show us the lived experience of the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, Smuggle Truck, in trying to escape the often didactic and dry stylistics of most politically progressive edu-games, doesn’t succeed in making this experience intellectually effective. What we get is at best a lighthearted misfire of social critique, and at worst it’s flat out offensive.
Satirist or Troll?
While Smuggle Truck had been making headlines since earlier this year, I wasn’t made aware of it until Kill Screen ran an interview with one of the men behind game, Alex Schwartz. The interviewer, Danielle Riendeau, describes Smuggle Truck as a “biting satire of the American immigration system” and Schwartz explains how the idea for the game arose when a friend had difficulty emigrating to the U.S.. It’s clear that the purpose of the article is to counter the mounds of negative press the game had received leading to Apple refusing its release on iOS, and forcing Owlchemy to respond by re-skinning the game as the tongue-in-cheek stuffed animal filled Snuggle Truck.
In typically astute and level-headed fashion, Colorlines’s Channing Kennedy sums up the controversy well explaining that the game’s “dearth of novel perspective” is representative of a systemic ignorance within indie games to the often dire realities of minority experiences. From Kennedy’s perspective this is due to a lack of developer diversity. As a result, Kennedy argues the game is “absolutely not” racist, just a “fun, irreverent game” with nothing profound or interesting to say, and with a damaging “impact” on people of color and actual immigrants that, while not intentional, is still real.
I agree, but I want to take this opportunity to more deeply explore why exactly Smuggle Truck fails as satire, without relying solely on the cultural backgrounds of its creators. I want to go beyond identity politics because, while I am a dedicated advocate for diversity in game development, I also believe that anyone, regardless of background, can make a game that deals with race in a positive, productive, and progressive way.
Kennedy mentions South Park’s style of satire in relation to Smuggle Truck, and I think he makes an apt comparison. Satire is at its best when using ironic sarcasm in the service of political critique, exaggerating and parodying that which it seeks to undermine and subvert. Stephen Colbert’s outrageous and hilarious caricature of conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh is an obvious and particularly effective example.
South Park, however, is apolitical. The show lambastes equally all sides of any issue and is especially vicious when the target is itself deeply political. It’s effective, and certainly has struck a chord in an age of cable news, reality tv, the blogosphere, and internet anonymity which have seemingly eroded the possibility of truth and justice. In the logic of South Park, everyone, everything, and every cause is ridiculous and worth lampooning. The only crime is to take the world seriously.
But this isn’t satire; this is trolling.
Smuggle Truck tries to be Colbert and ends up as South Park. The reason: it’s aim is off. Instead of effectively parodying the inefficient, extended, impossible, and downright racist U.S. immigration system, Smuggle Truck ends up making fun of the border crossing experience, which itself is equal parts harrowing and horrific. Other than a smart but brief clickable gag on the menu system which shows a character in a DMV-like room awaiting his “legal” immigration 20 years down the line, the game does not effectively attack immigration through procedural critique. Videogames are well suited to the critique of complex systems and process through simulation so one could imagine a game that takes the state endorsed and managed process of immigration, and its attendant bureacratic evils, as the subject of its mechanics. I would imagine this being similar to Persuasive Games’ satire of airport security. Alternatively, a game could show us the trials of the immigrant experience, and the dire choices involved in making the decision to cross illegally. Here we can turn to another Persuasive Games offering, Diasaffected, which has the player serving customers at Kinkos and, perhaps, understanding the frustrations of customer service. Neither of these games is the typical dry and ineffective “serious game” that Owlchemy is clearly trying to get away from. These games are playful and fun, yet embedded within them is a clear and focused critique.
Smuggle Truck makes the fatal satirical mistake of comically exaggerating the very thing that must be taken seriously for fear of feeding into racism: immigrants. The speeding truck, floaty physics, cutesy “whees!”, joyful music, and cartoonish expressions on the characters work together to make the journey of the immigrants hilariously thrilling. At the level of process, the game is making a confused argument. Irony is certainly a key element of satire. You say what you don’t mean, and you say it in such a silly way that no one could take it as truth. (There are exceptions.) In this sense, Smuggle Truck is clearly designed without malicious intent. Its meant to make the border crossing silly in order to reflect back on how deadly serious it is. But it doesn’t work because even though Smuggle Truck deploys ironic satire, it targets an aspect of immigration, the experience of immigrants, which opponents to immigration themselves devalue and dismiss. In this way Smuggle Truck fits into the very framework it seeks to dismantle. Those who argue against an open border would take issue with a game that simulates in a satirically exaggerated way the racism of border patrol agents, but they would have no issue with a silly caricature of immigrants.
This brings me to my central point: for Smuggle Truck’s satire to work, its cartoonish fantasy of the border crossing experience needs to be grounded within the distorted and perverse psyche of xenophobes who might actually believe that border crossing is all fun and games. We need to understand that what we’re seeing is a window into the bizarre racist mind; we need the delivery mechanism of Colbert. Without this context, we’re left to erroneously displace that perspective on the designers themselves, and on the players who enjoy it. On this point, the release trailer for the game is a particularly troubling misstep. It cuts between footage of the game and players, who seems to be mostly be white professionals, reacting gleefully as they try to navigate the truck to the border. I am not saying these people are racist, but without a proper frame for the game content, it appears that they’re laughing at is the trials of immigration rather than the ridiculousness of racism.
Yet while Owlchemy’s satire is, in my view, ultimately misdirected and ineffective, I don’t want to completely dismiss it. Games that attempt political critique of racism and regressive racial politics are so rare that Owlchemy’s flawed effort is still worth something. However, that value lies more in our understanding of how and why this game’s satire ultimately alienates precisely those whom it aims to support.
Also published on Medium.