Fifteen years ago, a group of Australians made Escape From Woomera: a politically explosive video game that put players in the shoes of a refugee held in immigration detention. For Liveworks 2018, artist collective Applespiel are bringing it back with an Esports twist. We caught up with the team ahead of this cultural intervention to pick their brains about their interest in Esports, and what motivated them to revisit the controversial video game.
Why, as artists without lived refugee experience have you decided to bring this controversial video game back into the spotlight and use it as the foundations for a new work?
We’ve been working for a while towards making an extravagant stadium show about eSports, but the idea was missing an angle or element to make it distinct from…well, a stadium eSports competition. After chatting to Jeff Khan about our idea, he showed us an article about the 2004 video game Escape from Woomera and said “what do you think about this?” Looking at the game now really drives home how much attitudes towards gaming have developed since the early 2000s, and sadly how Australia’s asylum seeker policy (and significant attitudes from the public) have only become even more draconian and even less humane.
As a group we don’t have any lived refugee experience, but as Australians we are all complicit in the treatment of those coming to this country fleeing persecution and war. Detention has been a political football for all of our adult lives, and a defining way in which our nation engages with the rest of the world.
Something that we’ve been able to do with some success in the past is create performative frameworks that allow experts to speak – we are very happy to concede that in areas like this, our voices are hardly the ones that need to be heard. We think Escape From Woomera will provide a foundation that can spark new and important discussion from vital voices.
You have been collaborating with the original creators of Escape From Woomera along with Asylum Seekers Centre, and human rights activists. What has been involved in this?
We knew from the start that we couldn’t undertake this project on our own and so one of the first things we did was reach out to the original creators of the game and potential partners who are working with asylum seekers. It was surprisingly easy to reach one of the original Escape From Woomera team, Katharine Neil, who was super generous with her time and keen to chat about the project. The Asylum Seeker Centre also came on board quite quickly and have been equally generous with their time and expertise.
It’s quite a difficult process as many people we’d love to speak to or involve are actually prohibited from doing so. People who are currently seeking asylum in Australia may want to speak out about our policy, but it’s not really possible for them because it could have a negative impact on their claim for asylum. It’s frightening that people cannot speak out about policies that directly affect them, but that how our policies impact on people. Equally, for people who have been detained, it’s not necessarily an experience they want to relive so we’ve been careful in how we’ve approached people.
Can you tell us a bit about your interest in eSports and why you have included the eSports commentary element in the live-gaming experience?
eSports is this incredible meeting place of digital and live spectacle – a stadium of people watching a bunch of kids play a computer game, following the digital action on a massive screen. It’s an environment where micro movements create massive action, and young introverts find themselves thrust into international celebrity. As an industry in infancy, eSports is clinging to traditional sports narratives as it finds itself attracting huge audiences and bemused attention from traditional media. Prize moneys often register in the millions of dollars, and a recent international event was streamed online by 126 million people. There’s a huge amount of people engaging with this growing world, and we think that’s worth exploring.
Bringing eSports commentary into Return To Escape From Woomera is a chance for Applespiel to do something very dear to their hearts: talk, for a long time. We’ll be sharing the mic with a range of people from the arts and activism. The commentary desk is a way for us to bring the game Escape From Woomera into the space, and into 2018. There are challenges that arise here in applying an eSports commentary format to a game about Australia’s cruel refugee policies – when does satire become too hurtful? When does playful become callous?
How is Return to Escape from Woomera informed by your broader practice?
Applespiel has always been interested in exploring cultural mythology, and in particular how cultural mythologies are constructed and propagated. There are two mythologies we want to examine in Return to Escape From Woomera. The first is the story of an activist piece of art, a wildly controversial video game (from well before the era of serious video games) funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and the uproar that it caused when people got wind of the subject matter. The second is a bigger myth – the myth of Australia ‘the lucky country’, the land of mateship, the place where children are locked up in island prison camps because their parents tried to find a life free of danger. That myth is reinforced by distance, by bureaucracy, and by silence. Occasionally that myth is punctured, the light comes through and we’re faced with the truths that we as a nation have been complicit in upholding – we see the violence of offshore detention for a few seconds before rushing to patch up the puncture because it’s too hard to see. Recent examples for us include Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2018), Eva Orner’s Chasing Asylum (2016), and The Wheeler Centre’s podcast The Messenger (2017). But even if we don’t rush to patch up that hole – what is the use in sitting with the reality of our treatment of Asylum Seekers? Does it create change? Perhaps there’s a third mythology for us to explore – the noble activist being able to affect change with their outrage.
What are you hoping to achieve through The Return To Escape From Woomera?
We hope that through looking back at Escape From Woomera we might be able to reflect on what has changed and what has remained stagnant in our society. What conversations, ideas and technologies have moved forward, and how can we move towards change for those areas that remain unchanged over the last 14 years.
We hope that an audience member will beat Escape From Woomera in front of a supportive, cheering audience, and that all currently detained refugees and future seekers will be welcomed into this country by a supportive, cheering Australia.