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Dev draws flak for making a game about resisting oil pipelines

October 30, 2017 | By Alex Wawro

October 30, 2017 | By Alex Wawro
More: Indie, Video

This month game designer and educator Beth LaPensee worked with collaborators to release Thunderbird Strike, a free PC game that asks players to act as a thunderbird protecting an island from encroaching black serpents which represent oil pipelines.

What's notable about that, as Motherboard reports, is the fact that a pipeline lobbyist and a Minnesota state senator are now calling out the game -- which features stop-motion animation and a cast of bright, fantastic animals -- as a call to eco-terrorism.

The game earned the "Best Digital Media Work" award at the ImagineNative indigenous artists festival earlier this month, and the criticism it's catching is a good example of the pushback devs should be prepared for when making games with themes or messages that might run counter to the interests of major powers.

"We call on Michigan State University to pull the plug immediately on this taxpayer-funded political campaign," Toby Mack, a representative of the pipeline lobbying group Energy Equipment & Infrastructure Alliance, told the Associated Press recently. "And reject any so-called educational program designed to encourage eco-terrorism or other bad behavior."

More recently, Mack told Motherboard that while he hadn't played the game when he made that statement, he had looked at images of the game, read reviews, and believed that "a video game that depicts that kind of activity has the potential to encourage or plant the idea that that's something somebody should do."

Meanwhile, Minnesota state senator David Osmek has also been criticizing the game, which was developed with the support of a ~$3,200 grant from the state. Osmek called Thunderbird Strike an "eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds" and used it as a springboard to criticize how the state awards grants; he later told Motherboard he thought the game looked outdated and suggested the state should investigate whether LaPensee had frauduently claimed the grant money. 

LaPensee -- an educator at Michigan State University -- told Motherboard that she previously reside in Duluth, Minnesota, during which time she applied for the grant, received it, and used it in finishing specific work on the game that was outlined in her grant proposal (including creating textures from photos taken in the region).

"As a resident of Duluth, Minnesota, I applied for and received the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council Artist Fellowship Grant, which provides support to assist artists with setting aside time to pursue activities that will allow them to pursue their artistic goals," she stated. "The game reflects the importance of the wellbeing of the waters in Minnesota."

Devs looking to learn more about the project should check out the website for Thunderbird Strike, which is slated to come to mobile some time in the future.

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