Smuggle Truck : Offensive Money-Maker or Political Comment?

9 02 2011

controversy (noun): dispute, argument, debate ; controversial (adj): liable to provoke controversy

tasteless (adj): insipid, tactless ; tactless (adj): accidentally offensive

Crossing Borders & Boundaries in a single App.

Over the course of my life, I have been fortunate to experience my fair share of “I was there” moments, passages of time that are remarked upon around the water-cooler or appear as discussion points in the media after the event.

On the whole these experiences have been concerned with watching sport or by listening to music – seeing a much-maligned striker score a hat-trick, Rene Higuita performing the scorpion kick to save a certain goal, watching the Olympic 100 meters final through the lens of a camera, Metallica playing their only gig without Lars Ulrich (he went to hospital with “personal issues”). I wasn’t in Paris when Diana died, was in London on the day of the bombings, wasn’t allowed to go to Live Aid in 1985 and had a ticket to see Nirvana in 1991 in New Zealand but missed them (in the week BEFORENevermind‘ was released) as I was unable to drag myself away from the pub I was in to walk to the venue.

Flashbulb moments in pop culture that allow me to tell stories to anyone who wants to listen.

But I have never been present at the start of a controversy. Until now.

This week, the forthcoming iPad/iPhone game “Smuggle Truck: Operation Immigration” has come under fire for supposedly making light of the perilous means of transport that some immigrants are forced to endure to reach the Land of the Free. Developed by Boston-based Owlchemy Labs, the game has achieved public consciousness through its depiction of a truck filled with immigrants being driven at speed through a hazardous landscape with the player scoring points dependent on the amount of people left in the vehicle at the end of the level.

Opinion has been divided between those who find it tasteless and offensive (seemingly in the majority) and others who see it as a valuable tool in raising awareness of immigration issues and the possibility of immigration reform.

Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrants & Refugee Advocacy Coalition was reported as saying that “Last year 170 human beings died crossing the border.It’s disgraceful that anyone would try to make money out of this tragedy by making light of it in a game.” Patricia Montes, executive director of Latino immigrant advocacy group Centro Presente,agrees and stated that “I don’t think that people who are trying to emigrate into the U.S. think they are part of a game. They do it because they are desperate.

But to criticise Owlchemy Labs for creating a gaming experience that some consider as tasteless/tactless doesn’t tell the full story. Alex Schwartz (co-founder of the Company) has gone on record defending Smuggle Truck and the amount of press that has been generated by the game justifies its creation.

This is our way of bringing more attention to the immigration problem, which we think deserves more light,’’ Schwartz said (as reported in various media outlets and blog sites), “I don’t see why an iPhone game can’t comment on topics that are serious. A political cartoonist can make this kind of statement. Why can’t a game developer?’’

The thing is, I know for a fact that Immigration to the USA isn’t a game.

I have been through it, filled in hundreds of forms asking the most personal of questions, had to have a medical that wasn’t just about being asked to cough when holding my testes, been interviewed, provide documentation to prove that my relationship with my spouse was genuine and generally be interrogated about my intentions.It took six months to be processed and then I was granted a two-year Conditional Residence Through Marriage – which means that in April I have to send in more forms, be interviewed again and pay over $500 for the privilege to ensure that I can continue living my life in the country that I am happy in.

And why do I care so much about this “tasteless and horrible joke” of a game? Because I was there when it was launched into the world.

Team Controversy develop Smuggle Truck

Smuggle Truck was born out of a weekend GameJam in Boston last August. A group of developers, artists, musicians and one writer/blogger (guess who?) got together to build games in a specific time-period that were purely based upon immigration issues. It kicked off at 10.30 am on a Saturday and the aim was to produce a playable demo by 5 pm on the Sunday evening.

On that warm day, Owlchemy was a company in concept only and ST was one of five games created that day by the talented developers who were present – my contribution was limited to drinking coke, eating pizza and trying not to get in the way of serious coding – including the very playable ‘SuperMegaImmigrationOffice2000’ which simulated the various hoops that you have to jump through to enter the country by legal means.

Even in its most basic form, Smuggle Truck was easy to play but difficult to master. The physics required to ensure that the speed of the vehicle over the undulating landscape didn’t mean that you lost all of your passengers meant that success was measured not in completion but in achieving the goal with the maximum amount of individuals carried over the finish line. Much like the inexplicably popular Angry Birds, the game had an addictive quality that ensured that the player would continue to improve his score and reach the next level.

What Smuggle Truck is trying to point out is that it knows how difficult it is to cross borders when you don’t have the right paperwork or family members that can vouch for you. In my opinion, the game isn’t poking fun or making light of the trials and tribulations that immigrants have to go through to start their new life in the USA, rather it shows the determination and desire (and hardship) that people will display to be able to follow their dreams.

America is a land of opportunity, a country that will reward those who work hard and seek to achieve a standard of living that may not be possible in their country of birth. Immigration isn’t just about crossing borders, it’s about wrenching yourself free from the shackles of a nation that may not be able to provide for you and your family. When the waves of immigrants came across from Europe in ships – the majority of them in the bowls of a vessel for weeks at a time – and set foot on Ellis Island, they were welcomed with open arms and the promises of a better life. Every year 75,000 Green Cards are up for grabs in a Global Lottery and there always a significant number of people who apply each time hoping that fortune will smile upon them.

Successful and democratic nations are a beacon for those who have experienced true poverty and even political oppression. Not just the United States but countries in Western Europe continue to attract individuals who seek to better themselves and who deserve the opportunity to be able to compete with those who don’t understand how lucky they are. In December, 28 asylum seekers drowned off the coast of Australia after the overcrowded boat they had been travelling in sank. They were looking to start again and paid for this desire with their lives.

Smuggle Truck may seem to be just a game but it goes deeper than that. It has ignited debate and brought attention to the fact that for many there is no other way to cross the border.

For those who just see it as a frivolous depiction of a serious subject, there is probably nothing that can be said by Owlchemy Labs that will consider them to think otherwise – “This ‘game’ pokes fun and trivializes the harsh reality of our current immigration policy that leads to people putting their lives at stake and embarking on dangerous border crossings.” (Thanu Yakupitiyage of the New York Immigration Coalition).

But when the President of America addresses this problem in his State of the Union Address by saying that he is prepared to “protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows,” then it is obvious to this Resident Alien that by putting Immigration Reform into the context of an Apple-endorsed app can only increase the discussion and not trivialize the situation.

Now if you will excuse me, I have an I-751 Form to complete before April 22nd.




16 responses

9 02 2011
Tweets that mention Smuggle Truck : Offensive Money-Maker or Political Comment? « Limeyview --

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Yilmaz Kiymaz and Eric Holsinger, Dave Bolton. Dave Bolton said: LIMEYVIEW #smuggletruck by #owlchemylabs has ignited some fierce debate, should I stoke the fires of controversy – […]

9 02 2011

Thanks for this well stated and well informed feedback on the Smuggle Truck project. I hope that those putting energy into criticism of the game and personal attacks will realize that they have the spotlight. I would choose to use my 15 minutes to let the best parts of my message shine and help the cause. The alternative is to be remembered for keeping a game that they hadn’t even seen out of the app store.

Issues that need to be discussed are taking a back seat to political bickering. It’s crucial that the short window of attention is used to find the shared message and increase awareness of that instead of infighting.

9 02 2011

Thanks for your feedback. Of course that is the most important part of this debate, the fact that these comments are being made by people who only THINK they know what the game is about as opposed to those who have actually played the game whilst it is in development.
Immigration will always be an emotive issue. I come from a small island that has had very open borders for many years and was lucky enough to grow up in a multi-cultural society. Immigrants have enriched the fabric and culture of the UK, irrespective as to how they arrived in the country.
Hopefully ST will allow reasoned debate to continue and not just be used as a reason to criticize the gaming industry again.
Thanks again for taking the time to read my thoughts


10 02 2011
David Nunez

We’re watching this develop very closely. We’ve done work w/ Alex before and know that this game came from generally a good place.

I grew up on a border town in the south. My grandparents immigrated via covered wagon all up and down New Mexico, established schools and a lot of jobs for their community and eventually had land stolen by our government. Nevertheless, when they died, they were very proud of both their cultural heritage and citizenship. My uncles are still in the El Paso area creating museums and rehabilitating some of the poorer communities.

In general, our country was made into a better place as a direct result of extremely difficult, desert immigration by my immediate ancestors.

But that was a LONG time ago. There weren’t “minutemen” back then or reams of paperwork standing in the way… Different kinds of deserts to cross.

Make it easier for people with good intent to contribute and i’m happy.

I didn’t find the game offensive. My bigger concern is whether or not Apple will find it so (or at least find dealing with external pressure so).

Fwiw.We wrote a blog post about in-app purchases and content moderation via Apple:

10 02 2011

Thanks for your feedback David. I have posted some more thoughts in my reply to Leo @ Dejobaan above. I agree with your concern over whether Apple will use the excuse of external pressure to deny Owlchemy the chance to place the game before a bigger audience and hope that sanity will prevail – if ST is offensive, then a game where you play as a man-eating shark gaining energy through eating swimmers borders on the line of tasteless!

Btw – love “Different kinds of deserts to cross”, I may have to steal that for another blog!

10 02 2011
Ichiro Lambe

I have a line in my own game dev notes that reads “Implement Dave Bolton mode.” I’ve long since forgotten what that entailed, but I believe that Smuggle Truck could benefit from it.

10 02 2011

It could be a coding instruction that allows the gameplay to go through a period of incompetence and that, however skilled the player is/believes himself to be, the game will degenerate into an inability to get any further. A message should flash on screen that says “throw controller @ wall now”. It could be a way of ensuring that you don’t have to bother making any more levels whilst fooling the player into believing it is his own failure to master the game that will not allow him to the nirvana of achievement.

Just a thought.

10 02 2011
Leo Jaitley

Dave, as someone who has been jumping through the same immigration hoops as you for a decade, all the while maintaining legal status, I applaud your post and the overall sentiment. I wish some of the people who have been tearing Owlchemy to shreds took a moment to really understand what the game is about AND maybe play a game – really any game!

10 02 2011

Thanks Leo. Knowing what it takes to actually achieve legal status in the USA is something that many people don’t understand. I was talking with Dan @ Lantana yesterday and he was shocked to discover that I need to complete further forms – within a mandated 90 day window – to ensure that I can stay in a country where I own property and am actively seeking to find employment. The trials and tribulations that people go through to make a better life in another country can only be appreciated by those who have experienced it. ST isn’t making fun of those who choose to enter the country through illegal means but asking questions as to the process involved.

It is too easy for certain minorities to believe that this game targets a certain section of society but the fact remains that immigrants (legal or otherwise) are trying to increase their chances of making a better life for themselves in a land that prides itself on being one of opportunity. I hope that the controversy surrounding ST doesn’t give Apple an excuse to ban it, without elements of popular culture asking the questions, then the majority of people are happy to live in ignorance of the real world.

10 02 2011

Great article! I can only applaud the efforts of folks in the entertainment industry who use their creativity to shine bright lights on huge social issues that effect so many…the calcified approach taken by our publicly elected officials on issues like immigration needs a major jolt by the PEOPLE and entertainment like what Owlchemy provides is the very BEST way to cast attention to the everyday American that isn’t glued to CNN, Fox or news in general…

I only wish that gamers like Owlchemy would tackle other big issues such as Clean Energy and Climate Change in a similar creative manner – think how many game levels one could attain trying to keep the ocean from rolling over our homes, polar bears from invading our backyard barbecues or evading winter storms that dump 5 feet of snow!

10 02 2011

Glad you liked it, it has actually made these last two days the highest viewed in Limeyview’s short history. Am going to ensure that we move the gaming agenda re clean energy forward and will be speaking to some people again over the next few weeks. Watch this space!

10 02 2011

That sounds terrific Dave – and not surprised about your increase in traffic – that is a damn good read…

22 02 2011
Beat Down

This one is just plain offensive.

I think it’s a shame that these people are making a $killing$ with this issue. An iPhone game that glorifies the fact that people die while they search for a better way of life? GIVE ME A BREAK!

But as bad as this seems, this game is not the first one creating all this controversy. Last month the very first “controversial” iPhone game was released, the one who started this entire dilemma, JOSE COMES TO USA.

23 02 2011

So let me get this straight, Beat Down.

Smuggle Truck, which uses a vehicle to transport illegal immigrants across the border is offensive because it “glorifies the fact that people die while they search for a better way of life.”. Jose comes to the USA is about two lovers who meet on the internet is OK? You claim that Jose has a storyline – as I don’t own an iPhone I haven’t played the game – but it seems to me that having been turned away at the border by her father (who presumably isn’t keen on Jose turning up to date his daughter), he then decides to make his way across just so he can go to the prom. I find it hard to see a difference in these two games. One uses a vehicle, the other claims to be all about true love.

Both games are making a statement. Both games are trying to bring the discussion about immigration reform and the reasons why so many people are willing to take risks to be in the USA to a wider audience. Do you really think that the creators of Smuggle Truck sat down and said, “lets make a game that glorifies death but make it full of funny latinos”? I can tell you that they didn’t because I was sitting watching them develop it. At no point was the depiction of illegal immigrants meant to glorify death!

If you want that kind of game experience why don’t you pick up a copy of multi-million selling FPS Call of Duty! Or better still, sit and watch Titanic and watch as the hold containing with Irish and European immigrants “searching for a better life” fills with water and they drown.

I find it offensive that people who were born and live in this country have no real idea of how lucky they are.

23 02 2011
Beat Down

Oh by the way davidjbolton, this game is just an Offensive Money Maker !

Like I said before,
Try Jose comes to USA, this game actually has a story line.

1 04 2011
January 2011 Meeting – Owlchemy Labs — Boston Indies

[…] us could know that we would soon see harsh preemptive criticism aired in the press, with thankful defenses of purpose from the community, followed by a strong showing as a selection of the PAX East Boston Indies […]

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