Thursday March 16, 2017

Texas man creates video game about the perils of crossing the U.S.-Mexican border

Gonzalo Alvarez poses next to a arcade-style installation of his video game Borders, which he created with the help of Jon DiGiacomo and Genaro Vallejo Reyes.

Gonzalo Alvarez poses next to a arcade-style installation of his video game Borders, which he created with the help of Jon DiGiacomo and Genaro Vallejo Reyes. (gonzzink.com)

Listen 6:29

Story transcript

Borders is surprisingly pretty for a video game about trying crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without dying of thirst or getting shot by border agents.

"I didn't want it to be dark and gritty. So it t looks a lot like the retro games you played a lot back in the '80s," Gonzalo Alvarez, the game's creator and illustrator, told As It Happens host Carol Off.  "I wanted the imagery to kind of be approachable for anyone to be able to play."

Despite the pixilated and pastel aesthetic, the game's actual content is anything but light. In it, the player must weave their way across the border into the U.S. while avoiding deadly obstacles. 

Along the way, you must pick up water bottles to stay hydrated. If your water metre runs out, your character will die of thirst.

And you have to to hide in the bushes to avoid being spotted by U.S. Border Patrol agents patrolling the area by foot and helicopter. 

Borders Water and Clothes

In Borders, players must pick up bottled water to keep their hydration metres full or they'll die of thirst. (gonzzink.com)

"I left a lot of objects along the ground. So you'll find clothing. You'll find Teddy bears, dresses, undergarments — so those items kind of give a narrative that there was someone there before and suggests all the other problems that happen upon crossing the border," Alvarez said.

"Getting further in the game, you start seeing dead bodies in the pool of water. You start seeing dead bodies with bags over their heads. And you just start seeing a lot more dark imagery by the time you get close to the border."

Borders Horrors

The closer you get to the United States, the more you'll come across dark imagery, like bodies with bags over their heads. (gonzzink.com)

Alvarez, 23, was born in the U.S., but both his mom and dad crossed over from Mexico. He drew on their experiences to design Borders.

His father first made the journey alone in 1987, according to the Washington Post, and was granted citizenship under an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants.

Three years after arriving, he returned to Mexico, where he met his wife Eva Alvarez and returned with her. It took his mother three attempts to get across, Alvarez said. She is now a permanent resident.

"They were the ones that actually had to do this," he said. "So they would always tell me these stories of all the hardships that they had to go through."

He vividly remembers hearing about the time his mom was caught by border agents and detained for an entire day, causing his father to worry he'd never see her again.  And the time his father happened upon a skeleton in the desert. 

"So when you die in the game, via dehydration or the border patrol catching you, it actually drops a skeleton where you died," Alvarez said. "So once you start the game over to try to play again you'll see a skeleton exactly where you were the time that you played before."

skeletons

When you die in Borders, the game drops a permanent skeleton. (gonzzink.com)

In the arcade-style installation Alvarez has set up at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where he is a student, there are more than 800 skeletons so far. Like many who die trying to make it to the U.S., they are unidentified.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, 322 people died crossing the border in 2016 and 6,915 have died since 1998. Activists say the actual numbers are much higher. 

Borders Fail

Borders simulates the experience of crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S., a journey that kills hundreds of people every year. (gonzzink.com)

Alvarez believes in the power of video games to generate empathy in players by putting them in someone else's shoes. 

His is the latest in a long line of so-called  "empathy" games, which use their narratives and underlying mechanics to evoke powerful human emotions.

This War of Mine, for example, puts you in the shoes of a civilian trying to escape a conflict zone. In Papers, Please, from which Gonzales drew inspiration, you play an immigration officer approving or denying applicants on the border of a 1980s authoritarian state.

"With video games you have interactivity and I feel like that interactivity allows a person to actively participate in whatever they're doing," Alvarez said. "I feel like video games are powerful in being able simulate experiences."