Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to Smuggle Truck, a new game coming to iPhone, iPad and the Web in March from fledgling independent game developer Owlchemy Labs. It's pretty much what it sounds like. The player controls an old pickup truck crammed full of Latino caricatures, and attempts to drive across rocky terrain without too many people bouncing out. Every so often, a swaddled newborn baby shoots skyward out of the truck, indicating that an expectant mother has given birth. Like with "anchor babies," get it? Players get points for catching a baby as it lands, but it's not required. Levels are completed by jumping over the border fence; as the border is crossed, the American flag is hoisted to fireworks, in an homage to Super Mario Brothers.
Clearly, the game trivializes the reality of our current immigration policy, in which every year sees hundreds die on the border, hundreds of thousands deported, and countless others torn away from their families, held in detention centers, or held in indentured servitude.
I firmly believe that the language of art should be held to a looser standard than the language of policy or pundits; art is meant to act as the subconscious of a society, and as such, it needs room to offend and get pushed back into definition. I'll also take on any film critics who say video games aren't art. Even the simplest video games, especially the simplest video games, have a unique power to communicate at levels explicit and implicit. They're in our pockets, in our brains, and in our relationships, in ways that other art mediums never were. It's powerful stuff.
So how is Smuggle Truck using its power?
Back in 2008, human rights group Breakthrough released ICED, a video game illustrating the United States' broken immigration system by putting players in the shoes of young undocumented immigrants. Smuggle Truck has no such greater goal; its politics and moral philosophy seem wholly drawn from late-night South Park reruns.
This is offense for offense's sake, without much consideration for what Chris Rock calls "applying pressure upward," and it's nothing new. As Julianne Hing wrote at the Atlantic recently, enforcement- and incarceration-focused policies have made the border even more dangerous than before; 2010 saw the deaths of a record 378 people trying to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S., even as total immigration numbers have dropped. Also in 2010, the Obama administration deported a record-breaking 393,000 people. Is the butt of Smuggle Truck's joke anyone other than poor Latinos and migrant rights activists, neither of whom have ever been in a position of power? Doesn't seem like it.
Smuggle Truck's dearth of novel perspective probably has a lot to do with the open-to-all-but-not-really nature of the independent game scene. Indie game development has the same strengths and weaknesses as the Internet in general. That's a small, homogenous, and thoroughly recognizable network of people. Taken as an averaged group, they aren't lower-class, they aren't Latino, they aren't female, and thanks to the DREAM Act's failure, they almost definitely aren't undocumented. There's a reason why so few apps are made from the perspective of the Transborder Immigrant Tool; indie game developers, like all artists, create art from their lives.
Does this mean Owlchemy's crew is racist? Absolutely not; they just intended to make a fun, irreverent game, and they succeeded. But intentions and impacts are two different things, and we see daily how media imagery impacts immigrant communities. A video game has power over its player and its subject matter --and with that power comes responsibility.