Like many activist games, Escape from Woomera is hard to play. For one thing, the game, developed by a team of art activists, game developers and investigative journalists, is unfinished. Released on May 7, 2004, one year after the closure of the detention centre that bears its name, the game’s aim was to respond to the media blackout around asylum seeker detention, and to use the interactive medium to foster empathy. It’s a mod—short for “modification”— of the 1998 first-person shooter, Half-Life. Escape from Woomera is played from the perspective of an Iranian refugee detained at the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre. Facing deportation to Iran, and certain death, the game begins when his visa is rejected, and he decides, in the face of the failure of due process, that his only option is to escape. It is available for free download from the game project site, and in the decade and a half since its release, it has been widely shown through exhibitions performances, arts festivals, gaming events and activist events across the country. During Melbourne Knowledge Week, it will be shown at Return to Escape from Woomera hosted by theatre group Applespiel, in a performance event that seeks to raise awareness.
One of the game’s lead designers’, Ian Malcolm, aptly described it as “a dull, but worthy experience.” The game’s layout replicates the layout of the centre, and the player ranges around grey portable buildings that seem so unadorned they must be temporary, red dirt stretching on without relief. Talk to a guard, talk to a fellow refugee, find an object, check your options. In its unfinished state, suspended in time as a 16-year-old prototype, it isn’t actually possible to escape the camp and win. Woomera does not seek to give the player a sense of access the intimate experience of the protagonist’s internal life; rather, it replicates the frustration and monotony of a system that refuses to work. For those of us who have been involved in art activism surrounding the illegal incarceration of refugees, the feeling is painfully familiar; over a decade and a half, the options presented—or not presented—to Mustafa remain largely unchanged. In light of the 45 deaths on Manus and Nauru, including 24 confirmed suicides, the title of the game takes on a more morbid tone.
In fact, one the dull horrors of playing Escape from Woomera in 2019 is the ways in which it is clear that the issues it illuminates are the same, if not patently worse. Its attempt to foster empathy with a character trapped in a failing system now permeates the technology of the game itself, and with each exhibit, the game’s ability to express alienation in form and delivery, not just content, is reinforced. It stands as a judgement of Australia that the game needs little update to be relevant. Mustafa has waited three months to have his humanitarian visa application rejected, when in 2019, the average length of time a refugee spends in detention is 511 days. Some of the centres may be different, some of the atrocities new—for example, while Woomera saw lip-sewing, suicide, and hunger strikes, nobody set themselves on fire, surviving the initial incident only to die due to lack of appropriate medical care, but the detention centres on and offshore come out with the same stories, time after time, too, and the options offered the refugees are just as limited.
This is a lesson that only grows more pertinent with each exhibition of the game. Technology ages too – the control scheme of Escape from Woomera feels outdated, the graphics are hard to parse. Even Half-Life itself was re-released the year after Woomera came out. What does it mean to exhibit a game like this, that is unfinished, that gets harder and more alienating to play each year? The heartbreak that Escape from Woomera illuminates is how little more need to be said for the game to be relevant. Sixteen years on, and neither major party has a coherent and actionable policy for this mounting humanitarian issue. Playing Woomera now summons the ghost of every slogan, every circular conversation: bring them here; not in my backyard; save Eaten Fish; fuck off, we’re full. Australia’s treatment of refugees isn’t a past mistake, and Woomera is situated in the past in name alone. It is a paradoxical relic of a political era that is yet to end. What better comment to make on a draconian system whose willing dysfunction has only worsened over the intervening decade and a half? Woomera closed in 2003, and the site has re-purposed for Defence activities, serving as an adjunct to the nearby RAAF Woomera Range complex. Manus and Nauru were evacuated in 2018. Though of course, Morrison has proposed reopening the Kiribati detention centres, and refugees detained onshore have no clear sense of when, or if, their visas will be processed. The game insists on showing us that we haven’t moved on.
So how do we finish escaping from Woomera? A benevolent lawyer, public outcry? Awareness isn’t enough, but as Simon Vaugn of Applespiel put it, “this is what we can do.” For now, Mufasa remains suspended in time. Short of urgent political reform and humanitarian intervention, I don’t know how we can offer him more options.
Attend Return to Escape from Woomera, Tuesday 21 May – Saturday 25 May, 6.30pm to 9pm in the Hub, or learn the hows and whys of games criticism with writer, arts worker and co-editor of quarterly literary publication The Lifted Brow, Jini Maxwell. Friday 22 May, 3pm to 5pm.