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A Conversation with the Developers of Escape from Woomera

Melanie Swalwell

Julian Oliver is the founder of the Melbourne games studio, selectparks (, which was commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image ( to create the game installation acmipark. Kipper is a member of the team developing the independent game project Escape from Woomera (, on which Oliver is also collaborating.

Note: Since this interview was recorded, the Escape from Woomera project has received $25,000 in funding from the New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council1. This is financing the development of a playable demo of the game. Further funds will be required to realise the proposed game in its entirety. Another important development has been the closure of the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, the remote South Australian refugee detention centre that was the focus of much protest. However, at the time of writing, the Australian Government?s policy regarding the detention of "asylum seekers" remains unchanged, and other IRPCs continue their operations around the country.

M: Can you tell me about some of the game art or hacks or mods or independent games that you each find inspiring and exciting?

J: One of the first ones that I saw that I really, really, really liked was probably Fucks-Eckermann?s Expositur ( It is pretty fantastic because it?s a bringing together of a number of different Austrian museums, all in the context of the Unreal Tournament engine. Essentially it?s a virtual knowledge space which uses the game as an interface for accessing the content of a huge number of museums. Passage through the work often means that you?re walking into a different space, or the physics will change, and you?ll be swimming and touching a fish, and that will transport you to another place, and you?ll find yourself in Freud?s maze. You?re actively accessing it, reading it through play, which works really well.

There?s also Velvetstrike by Schleiner, Brody & Leondre ( There?s a thing you can do in Counterstrike where you can make tags, you can tag around the walls. They?ve turned that into a critical exercise, and distribute tags as political messages that you can use in massive public arenas, such as in the middle of Counterstrike?s terrorist vs counter-terrorist battlefield.

And here, I?ve got a DVD?(rummaging around)

M: Clearly there?s lots of interesting and original work being done. What about you Kipper?

K: I?ve been somewhat slower on the uptake. I have seen some of this stuff. But I recently discovered, long after the rest of the world, Under Ash (, by a group of Syrian developers, who wanted to make something in solidarity with their brothers and sisters of the new Intifada. I?m not a pacifist, so I prefer Under Ash to the Velvetstrike idea. Before I found this I?d actually been thinking about the possibility of making first person shooters (based on current military shooters, like Ghost Recon, or Operation Flashpoint or Counterstrike), based on contemporary conflict scenarios, but acknowledging a war that is called terrorism by most of the world, the war against the occupation of Palestine. I think just that simple idea of switching the roles around ? who is the enemy and who are the good guys ? is, in itself, unprecedented and just brilliant. It?s not just a piece of conceptual art, it?s actually a playable game.

J: I find that really interesting too. The U.S. Army now has a game where ( you can try out for the army and graduate with points. Hit the ground and crawl over the barbed wire, and you can choose which side you?re on, interestingly enough. A game like Under Ash goes the other way, saying there is a very real enemy and it relates to a very real situation. Naturally it?s controversial that you can participate representatively in this way.

K: The significance of it for me, also, is that if Palestinian national liberationists think games are politically useful, if they think that games aren?t just trivial? If an important section of the world?s anti-imperialist forces and the Third World think that games are important, an important medium for their voices to be expressed, and useful in real world struggles, not just play-acting, but getting kids to play these games who do throw stones and do participate in a war, then I think that adds a lot of legitimacy to the medium. Like Ken Loach will make "Land of Freedom", and anyone who?s politically serious will say "yes, what a great film, I don?t necessarily agree with the exact politics of what he?s saying, but you know, that?s an important film." And now we?re at a position where people can take seriously games, and say "that?s an important game, that?s an important piece of propaganda: good propaganda, immersive propaganda."

J: In some ways it has a more foreboding potential, because of this intuitive discomfort that people have with games as a training by participation. So when they are used for political purposes, independent games or a sizeable chunk of independent games will inevitably have a direct impact on our socio-political landscape, as a kind of critical theatre.

M: I?d like to hear about your proposed game, Escape from Woomera. Can you tell me about the project? Then I?d like to go on to ask what you think the significance is of making a game about the situation of refugees in Australia.

K: Escape from Woomera is proposed to be a first person adventure/role playing game, based in the confines of the detention centre, as a sort of classic game-dungeon scenario. That?s part of the attraction from an aesthetic perspective. In terms of great escapes there?s Alcatraz and that?s kind of cool, and there?s Woomera, and that?s kind of cooler. Well, in games there?s Castle Wolfenstein, but this is a step up from Wolfenstein, this is scarier.

The proposal at the moment, which will probably change a bit, is that you will have a selection of characters to choose from, and you have a background history of where your character has come from and how you got to Australia, and you have to sort of battle the bureaucracy and try and survive day to day in the centre. The ultimate goal is to escape and you can, to some extent, choose your strategy, so we wouldn?t preference one particular strategy. We wouldn?t say "Right, here?s a gun, shoot your way out", for example. We will be keeping it as close to real life inspiration as possible because people have escaped, of course, using classic methods reminiscent of "The Wooden Horse", or "The Great Escape" in terms of their ingenuity.

When people claim that we?re just "sensationalising" these stories, asking "how is this going to educate about the plight of the refugees?", to some extent we are able to say, "look, we?re just using the material that?s there. We?re basing it on these inspired and heroic real-life actions." Other people have also utilised this material, like the online documentary "Long Journey, Young Lives" by Sohail Dahdal and David Goldie ( that the AFC funded recently. This is made from film footage of interviews with young Australian kids ? refugee kids ? and what it was like in their homeland. In contrast we are interested in focussing on the great game elements in these stories, and trying to make a game out of those, rather than trying to present all the information and points of view. Our aim is not to make an educational piece, but an immersive experience. People make games out of the Gulf War, people make games about bombing North Korea. Rather than try to make a documentary from this material, we want to make a game about what we find interesting.

J: But the tension is almost greater than in those other examples. Because it?s like, it?s like not being able to visit the house next door, not being able to see over the fence. There?s an inherent voyeurism in every game ? a game like Carmegeddon, for instance, or a game like Grand Theft Auto ? where you?re doing things that you couldn?t otherwise. These centres are something that we?re in a kind of public detention from. We don?t have access to Woomera, let alone its insides. Woomera, and detention centres like it, is not only strategically isolated to ensure it is harder to escape, but also to ensure the public will forget it?s even there. The inherent tension within this situation, in the country that you?re standing on, is that you don?t have access to this stuff. Escape From Woomera is all about taking a highly representative impression of life in a detention centre, mobilising it through public networks, and installing it onto people?s desktop computers inside their homes. Games are an ideal medium to engage with this kind of content, better than a documentary could ever be, because to play is to become a subject of the content. In this way Escape From Woomera is an opportunity to better understand what these people face inside, and to practice getting out.

M: One of the questions that such a project raises is that you can?t know in advance how people will use it. Players may find different resonances, perhaps ones that you haven?t thought of yet.

J: Well it?s going to be infinitely boring to just hang out there. It?s still a predicament, virtual or otherwise. So much of gameplay, particularly in adventure based games, is about "how do I get from here to the next part?" "How do I move from this situation to experience something else?" "How do I get out?" That?s the frustration that is logically embedded within so much gameplay, and is actually logically embedded within this real situation.

M: It?s a strange moment when art and life are overlaid.

K: I haven?t discussed this with Julian yet, but I hope that when we make the game, we can allow modifications of it. And I can make my own little modification that?s not very politically correct (laughing). We?ll make what we think we want to make and then people can go off and make their own slightly more subversive versions, re-skinning ACM guards if they so wish. I would like to make a game that we would like to mod ourselves. Where you can create your own fantasy in that space.

M: You never know, people might set up a little commune.

J: And plant veges.

M: Clearly, you?re not conceiving of this game as having any sort of automatic effect, in terms of suddenly generating mass empathy for refugees in this country. While it?s making a critique, you?re not envisaging its significance in simplistic terms.

K: I don?t think it will necessarily offer any answers, but I think that the videogame is a subversive medium in which you can say subversive things. People have their "Free the Refugees" graffiti stencilled around town, and this is a form of "graffiti-like" cultural resistance. I suppose it?s broad, but there is a certain demographic whom I think it would resonate with, and at least raise it as an issue in their minds.

M: Has there been anything done like this before, anything looking at whether games politicise people?

K: I don?t know of anything, apart from the Syrian example (with the exception of Flash-based stuff).

M: And apart from America?s Army.

J: I don?t know if there?s been anything done deliberately or consciously, but I?ve seen people choosing to politically bond together outside of the context of the actual game. Clan culture in massively multiplayer RPGs is a great example of this. Given an opportunity to experiment with something, to really have a go, it?s amazing how quickly people will do it. People really take to that stuff and invent a context for it, problematising an otherwise perfectly comfortable situation. And not only in relation to prescribed elements of gameplay.

K: Yes, the feeling of solidarity is important as well. Under Ash has a really terrible control system with no strafing (laughing) and it?s really frustrating. But blowing up virtual Israeli tanks was so cathartic. Unless you?re in Palestine all you can do is wear a kafieh in the street, and say "Israel out of Palestine". You?re not actually helping much by playing this Intifada game but there?s something about it?

J: There?s something funny about it too, that a bunch of people would see a situation to which they have no access as so desperate that they would virtually reconstruct it and promote an opportunity to tamper in it. That in itself is just so interesting to me, the deliberate creation of a play context to explore a real situation you otherwise could not access. It?s a huge amount of work, but clearly it?s providing a better means of engaging with content than film...

M: But isn?t that what you are also doing with Woomera?

K and J: Yes.

K: What I fantasise about, I?m not totally sure about it, but when the U.S. invades Iraq in the next month or so, I can?t be there with a gun, defending the cities or whatever, but it?d be amazing to have some online multiplayer game where you were virtually defending Iraq in solidarity, and kicking U.S. and British and Australian soldiers out. You could have clans ? "we?re the anti-imperialist clan, join our clan" ? somehow sort of mobilise people in the game context as well as try and politically mobilise people. Not by invading the game and co-opting it, like the Velvetstrike people (actually not the Velvetstrike people, but there was some other splinter group off that that suggested disrupting Counterstrike games and suiciding?)

J: There was the Friends one recently, where a group of people re-enacted a whole episode of Friends inside Quake 32.

K: You could just take the game as it is and turn it completely around. You?d say "We?re playing in the spirit of the game, it?s just that our guns are turned on a different enemy. We?re fighting against imperialism, we?re not trying to distract the game."

J: The other day I got into a lot of trouble on the fibreculture list (, for suggesting that at the end of the day MMP games were public spaces, in Canetti?s sense of the crowd, and that they would make very good sites for protest. If we?re not allowed to actually protest on websites in Australia, then let?s just take it into a game, take our very vocal concerns into a game. I got flamed!3 I was told that it was turning away subscribers and the moderators were saying they were very sorry, but to please stop it. There were people who were "protecting" games, saying that they were there to satisfy the existential needs of gamers and that they shouldn?t be used for anything else. It was very interesting. It was an attempt to exclude games from the cultural imagination.

M: Drawing lines between play and politics?

J: This is going to come up over and over and over again.

M: A sort of demarcation ? "This is games space and don?t you dare bring anything else into it"?

J: Yes. It probably got 40 posts on the thread or more. In some ways, it?s still being referred to.

K: The commercial industry is dragging the real world into games, already. Julian?s suggestion was extremely appropriate, because people are starting to live their lives, and have their social interactions in these MMORPGs. They?re not just games where you shoot something. It?s not like there?s some pacifist there who?s saying "no, no, war is bad, lay down your guns." And then you say "bugger off, we?re trying to have a game of Counterstrike." It?s quite different because these are games in which people hang out.

M: And chat, and fish.

J: I play a lot of MMORPGs. I really like them. One of the things I?ve been wanting to do for a while is a safari in an MMORPG. We?d dress up in safari clothes and have binoculars and look at the wildlife, meet the locals, and we?d have anthropologists.

K: These questions are especially pertinent now because companies have gotten into debating whether games spaces are public spaces. Everyone?s sort of reading Naomi Klein about how we have to reclaim what used to be town squares and our shopping malls and our public space. Is the internet a public space?

J: But is the game?s town square a public space? It?s similar to a state funded space. To me it?s an interesting question: just because it?s distributed on databases, it?s geographically bound as far as regulation of its content is concerned. It?s still [circumscribed] in that you aren?t allowed to do certain things there.

[Returning to the fibreculture debate about protesting in games, it is interesting on this point.] People were saying: "You can?t do anything that is not gaming; leave the poor gamers alone."

M: Do you think your interlocutors in this dispute are familiar with these games?

J: Well one of them claims to be, but the other one says if people want to come home from work and slaughter each other (and they clearly haven?t played a MMORPG, because that?s not what people actually do), then let them. (There are some disturbingly conservative new media commentators in Australia.) I found that really interesting.

K: It?s just like anything that is vaguely political, there are going to be people who will hate you.

J: These people want to preserve the media type; they?re basically standing in for the media type, trying to protect it from people doing alternative things with it, so the generic term ?game? isn?t somehow tainted or something.

K: Someone should protect the media type from the massive corporations, in the sense of corporate censorship, like Sony, for instance. If you want to make a Playstation game, first you have to somehow get on their developer?s programme. Then the game has to go through a strict approval process before they?ll allow it to be released on their platform. They can even decide ?we?ve had enough of that genre this year? for example and pull approval on a game, which potentially sends a small developer into crisis because they?ve invested so much into developing for that platform. And the console manufacturers have pretty clear ideas about the ?tone? of games they want their brand to be associated with, be it ?family games? or whatever. But of course in terms of political content?

J: Exactly. This is really interesting.

K: Of course that means that games can have political content as long as it?s political content that the console manufacturers and publishers don?t mind having their brand associated with.

J: If you look at almost any MMORPG clan home page, it?s full of stuff about clan histories and wars, and it?s all made up.

K: As long as it?s fantasy.

1 See also my short piece discussing the game, following the announcement: Swalwell (2003) "The meme game: Escape from Woomera", RealTime, 55, June/July,

2 The first "Quake/Friends" performance was on October 18th, 2002. It was staged in real-time online and in the Digital Media Studio of the University of Nevada, Reno. See

3 This discussion from November 2002 can be read at the archives, at