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Interview: Owlchemy Labs Talks  Smuggle Truck 's 'Newsgame' Controversy

Interview: Owlchemy Labs Talks Smuggle Truck's 'Newsgame' Controversy

February 16, 2011 | By John Polson

February 16, 2011 | By John Polson
More: Indie

[As Boston-area indie Owlchemy Labs releases a playable demo of its 'newsgame' Smuggle Truck on Kongregate, the creators have been talking to Gamasutra about the controversy over the web and upcoming iOS game's U.S. immigration-centric content.]

As the Smuggle Truck story page explains, the game "...was inspired by the frustration our friends have experienced in trying to immigrate to the United States. With such a troublesome issue being largely avoided in popular media, especially video games, we felt the best way to criticize it was with an interactive satire."

The goal in Smuggle Truck is to get as many immigrants across "a fictional border" by navigating a truck across a bumpy terrain, and large media outlets such as Fox News have taken the statements of a New York Immigration Coalition representative and negative Facebook comments on Owlchemy's page and given them high-profile coverage.

Interestingly, a number of the complaining organizations are pro-immigration, and believe that the game trivializes the plight of immigrants.

In a local Fox report, Eva Millona of Massachusetts Immigrants & Refugee Advocacy Coalition said, "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."

Smuggle Truck was originally prototyped during a Boston game jam dubbed "Immigration Jam" in August 2010, but Owlchemy hasn't stopped with just a game jam. The team is meeting with multiple immigration reform groups in Massachusetts to help create a productive discussion about the topic.

In addition, Owlchemy stated they are actively engaging pro-immigrant group Student Immigrant Movement and have also talked with Steve Kropper, co-director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform. "If Smuggle Truck makes more people talk about the issue, democracy will take care of solving the problem," said Kropper.

The team has since avoided responding to any interview requests regarding the backlash, other than a public statement that "we want to create a game that is fun to play but also stirs up discussion on ways to improve the problematic immigration system in the United States".

But founder Alex Schwartz spoke to us about what's happened so far and how they're hoping their title can make a difference:

What were reactions and outreach for your game from websites, platforms, and publishers?

When we hit the front page of TouchArcade (before the newspaper and TV spots started to hit), we were contacted by a couple of major iOS publishers. After lots of discussion, we decided to self-publish, both to stay close to our indie roots and to begin to build our brand.

We also received offers from people who wanted to help create the game's music or trailer, but we already had those positions covered. Other than that and the normal influx of job applications and the like, we didn't see too many strange requests come out of the woodwork.

Has the media changed the opinion of the game for anyone who has played it or seen it previously?

I think players will draw their own opinions of the game once they play it instead of buying into the more sensationalist media hype.

Has Apple communicated with you since the media scandal?

Apple is very tight lipped in general, so I'm sure they won't comment on the game until it's submitted. As for whether we think we'll be approved by Apple, we're confident that our final presentation of the game will properly reflect the satire and that it will be judged as such.

Would the game be more or less fun without the immigrant gimmick?

What we've gathered from tester feedback is that the mechanics are fun and challenging. What happens to be drawn on the sprites for the items in the back of the truck doesn't change the gameplay in any significant way. It does however augment the message and the theme, which can affect a player's engagement with the game.

People joke about changing the contents of the truck by sending us comments like "Hey, if you don't get approved by Apple, just change the truck cargo to drugs, or ammunition." Personally, I would be interested in seeing how the press reacted to that, as in, is one type of smuggling any more or less politically correct than another?

How much of this is a cleverly orchestrated play for attention?

We expected press to pick up on the game. We also knew that people would remark on the concept and spread the buzz. It's been our public intention all along to bring the issue of immigration reform to light and to kickstart the process of getting people discussing it.

How does your team feel about the immigration issue?

There are major issues with the current system in place for legal immigration. It requires serious reform. We feel that with reform, the pressures that drive illegal immigration can be lessened, and more people will have a legal choice when it comes to immigration.

As for the details and specifics of the reform process, we're currently working with multiple immigration reform groups in Massachusetts to figure out how to best focus the discussions toward relevant reform topics.

What other games can you think of that have tackled any social issues in the past?

Well, apparently Angry Birds is about suicide bombing New York.

Was a web-based version always planned for Smuggle Truck?

Once we decided to create a level editor for the game that would act as a platform for the game launch, we started planning what features we'd want. We wanted a chat system, a level sharing system, and one central location for accessing the web version of the level editor.

After looking around, we realized Kongregate already supported all of these features and the timing of the Unity Game Contest couldn't have been better. A web-based version gets the game into the hands of the players so they can judge it for themselves.

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