ICED / Breakthrough / PC
ICED, a game developed by non-profit group Breakthrough, has you play as one of five immigrants from various parts of the world, most of whom have come to the United States on some sort of a visa or through other legal channels, but through one rather ridiculous bureaucratic situation or another are now in 'undocumented' status. The game plays like a cross between Grand Theft Auto, Pac-Man and a labor studies class at UC Berkeley, and the goal seems to simply be to survive for a set amount of time without being collared by Homeland Security and sent to a Detention Center.
The game drops you off on the streets of an urban setting, reminiscent of part of Chicago or New York. The goal is initially to move about the map and pick up as many "dots" as you can. Each of these dots contains an "event", where you are presented with either some sort of illegal activity, or asked a trivia question about immigration laws. Choosing the wrong answer puts "Homeland Security" agents out on the streets, who walk random patrols. If one spots you they give chase, and if they catch you, you move on to the second portion of the game, which is the Holding Facility. This grim scenario is the same as the city sequence in that you have to track down dots, except the dots are now mostly info-bits about the various injustices of detention and deportation, and they are also harder to find and access. You also have an omnipresent 'suicide' option at this point, where you can choose to simply be deported from the country and end the game. Presumably, if you hit all the dots in the Holding Facility you get to go back out on the streets and try again, but I was never able to actually do it as there were a few that seemed impossible to access.
Immigration is such a hot-button, argument-and-flame-prone issue right now that I really don't want to delve into personal opinion or particulars of the arguments, so I'll just stick to how effective it is as a game, and how well it presents its case.
Sheerly as a game, it's almost worthless, little better than a PowerPoint presentation. Choosing a character has no effect whatsoever on gameplay short of giving you a different appearance (and apparently serving as a vehicle to emphasize that all different nationalities, including Asians and white Eastern Europeans, go through immigration issues). The movement and engine is that of a very simplistic FPS with no controls except to move and look around. Whoever programmed the 3D engine was apparently fairly amateur and did a sloppy job, as it is graphically very simple yet taxes a 2 GHZ processor with 512 MB of RAM so much that it's impossible to move about except by looking down at the ground while walking. The "moral questions" that it raises always seem to involve some low-level criminality - it's not difficult to figure out that boosting a car or tagging is going to get more police after your ass, so these questions come off as a bit pointless, and really serve only as an opportunity for propagandizing. The police are also slow, predictable and easy to avoid - if you carefully navigate the dots without making dumb choices, a fleet of officers are sent after you anyway and you have to dodge increasing waves of them for five minutes, but by walking up to the subway platform you are safe as no one bothered to program them to recognize stairs apparently. The Holding Facility is no better in this regard, and even a bit worse since, as I mentioned, certain dots you are supposed to hit seem impossible to reach (perhaps this was an intentional point?).
As to making its case - the game presents many factoids about mistreatment and general bureaucratic and legal issues that certainly bear further investigation. However, I have to wonder if this game is really going to inspire anyone who is not already invested in the issue to go out and do further research, particularly when as a game it is so clunky and tedious. I get the sense that the resource investment that was put into this might have worked out better, or been more effective, as a documentary, or perhaps even an animated movie using machinima. The focus on petty criminality struck me as odd - I understand that immigration in this country often means living in poverty, sometimes for extended periods, and this puts one in greater contact with low-level crime and temptation, as well as sometimes causing people to do illegal/immoral things that they otherwise wouldn't. Asking you whether or not you want to boost a car for a joyride, or buy drugs, however, just seems kind of strange and trivial, and I don't see what it does to help the designers intentions.
Ultimately, I think ICED might serve decently as an introduction to the debate for young children, or those so oblivious to what is going on around them that they are completely uninitiated (a lot of gamers fall into this category). If you are already aware that the immigration process in the United States is problematic, and that injustices and inhumanities and bureaucratic craziness sometimes happens to immigrants, I don't know what this game really does to expand on that. Nor do I see how it will convince those adamantly opposed to "illegal immigration" to change their minds about anything. And to top it all off, it really isn't any fun to play at all. I like to see gaming used as a platform to raise questions about social justice, but shouldn't we be taking advantage of the unique interactive properties of the medium, the unique relationship that the player has to the narrative? ICED would have really just worked better as a Youtube video - it doesn't incorporate the "gaming" content in a really significant or meaningful way. It's a beginning, I guess, but if Breakthrough and similar groups want to go this route and have it work for them, they have to get better at simple fundamental good game design - strong rhetoric alone is not going to cut it.
Ayesha got captured. Who fights next?