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New Video Game has Players Take Role of Illegal Immigrants

  • Brad Linder

There are millions of people living in the United States in violation of U.S. immigration laws. Some have crossed a border illegally, while others may have violated the terms of their visa without even knowing it. An immigration advocacy group in New York has produced a video game that lets teenagers walk in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant trying to avoid deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a government agency known as ICE. As Brad Linder reports, critics say the game doesn't play fair.

When he was five, Javier's parents came to New York from Mexico with visitor's visas. They decided to stay and build a better life for their family, and when their visas expired, Javier became an undocumented immigrant. "They say we're illegal aliens," he says with a trace of anger. "But I'm more American than most of the kids I go to school with. After 15 years, to me, America is my home."

Javier isn't real. He's a character in a video game called ICED, which stands for "I Can End Deportation." But his story is based on real stories gathered by Breakthrough, the New York-based non-profit behind the video game.

Players can be one of five characters, including an asylum seeker from Haiti, a student from Japan, and two green card holders, from Poland and India.

ICED is a bit like the popular game Grand Theft Auto, but instead of stealing cars, players answer questions about U.S. immigration policy as they walk through a 3D version of New York City.

Game co-designer Heidi Boisvert says you can pick up points in the game by doing good deeds like volunteering at a soup kitchen or planting a tree. "But what you start to realize is that you lose more points for the negative actions. And so even if you're an active participant in your community, it becomes very difficult for you not to get into level 2, which is 'Detention Center.'"

At the Detention Center, a guard runs down the rules: "OK, listen up. No pencils, no nail clippers, no plastic knives, no plastic of any kind. Paper, paper clips, hair pins, do-rags, shoelaces, zippers, nothing except the threads on your back."

Ultimately, there's no way to avoid detention in ICED. And when you get to the end of the game, you can be kept in jail, released, or deported. But the outcome is always random, regardless of the choices you make during the game.

That's often how America's immigration policy works, according to Breakthrough's director Mallika Dutt, a U.S. citizen who was born in India. "The due process issues in our immigration system are leading to the deportation of people without hearings," she says. "They are leading to gross punishments for minor, minor crimes. And they're leading to punishments for crimes that people may have committed 10 years ago for which they may have paid a fine. With ICED, we hope people will understand how important it is to restore due process to the immigration system."

That's serious material for a video game targeted at kids and young adults. But two 11-year-old kids in Harlem seem to enjoy playing it. At one point, they stop to consider this question: Myth or fact? Nearly half of all undocumented immigrants now living in the U.S. entered the country legally. "I think that's a myth," says one. His friend shakes his head and points to other information on the screen. "Probably a fact, see?"

While the younger boys play, 18-year-old Siran Purter looks over their shoulders. Purter says he never really thought much about what it would be like to be an undocumented immigrant until he saw the game. Now, he says, he thinks he knows. "When you're undocumented, it's hard for you to live a regular life and keep a low profile. Then at the same time, you have to put food on the table, and keep yourself healthy, keep yourself under a roof and provide for your family."

But some people are concerned that the game is teaching the wrong lessons. Heather Mac Donald, with the conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute, calls it 'unbalanced. "It is not providing an explanation for why we have immigrant laws. And why it's important to enforce them."

She says ICED is a propaganda information campaign, part of a larger effort to influence the public debate over immigration. "It's just one of many ideological [arguments] that the advocates of illegal immigration make to try and persuade people that there's something unfair about immigration laws and that people have a right to enter the country illegally and then once they're here to claim the right to be treated the same as somebody who's entered through legal channels."

Mac Donald says if she was going to design a game that deals with immigration issues, she'd want it to address the effect of illegal immigration on jobs, crime, and health care. But she admits the game might not be much fun to play. "It's hard to imagine a video game that would support law enforcement. Or explain the centuries-long development of respect for the rule of law that is the basis of Anglo-American civilization. That's a hard thing to get across." She doesn't expect ICED to affect the immigration debate any more than what she calls "open borders" propaganda from other groups.

But Breakthrough has big plans for the game. It's available as a free download from the web, and the game has been downloaded thousands of times since it was launched in about mid-February. Breakthrough also plans to release a social studies curriculum for teachers who want to use the game in a classroom, although no teachers have committed to using it yet.

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