“We played with them like they were tamagotchis!” Reflections on Ethics and Difference While Playing The Migrant Trail

by Hugo Santos, Lucinda Saldanha, Sofia Castanheira Pais, and Pedro Daniel Ferreira

The Migrant Trail (MT) is a single-player online game about the lives of migrants and border patrol agents on the US-Mexico border. The game was developed in 2014, and it was part of The Undocumented campaign, which investigated and promoted awareness of the causes and effects of migrant deaths along the Arizona-Mexico border. We are invited to play, either as a migrant or as an agent, and the objectives of the game are determined by that choice. As a migrant, the player must cross the border and get into the United States. In the process, he or she must purchase supplies (water, clothes, and so on) and manage other variables while trying to make the journey successfully. To make it more difficult, border patrols roam the area, requiring the player to choose paths that avoid patrols or double back to escape capture. On the other hand, someone who plays as a border patrol agent must drive and search for groups attempting to cross the border. However, in this role their objective is not simply to capture as many migrants as possible but also to give migrants proper care and prevent deaths and injuries, so this player must manage his or her time in order to make these decisions.

Regardless of the underlying intentions, the pedagogic possibilities of the game are innumerous, and research at the University of Porto has been exploring these possibilities. As part of the project JoSeES—Serious Games in Higher Education—we organized 10 workshops involving 73 participants from the academic community in Porto, Portugal. Each workshop (12 hours in total, divided into 4-hour sessions) involved a mixed group of 6 to 10 students, researchers, and lecturers from the University of Porto and Porto Polytechnic, male and female, from various fields of study (engineering, fine arts, multimedia, communication, natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities), engaged in different academic degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral), and between the ages of 18 and 66. In these workshops, participants played video games; discussed their experiences, perspectives, and views of the games (what they thought about them, what kind of civic or pedagogic opportunities those video games could facilitate, how they could be used in formal or informal educational contexts, and so on); and drew conceptual maps of what to consider when looking at the educational and civic qualities of serious games. Participation in the workshops was free and voluntary, and each group included people with different levels of familiarity with video games. The workshops valued open and active participation, which we encouraged by having participants play in pairs and by integrating frequent large-group dialogues.1

The video games covered various social issues, and MT was chosen to address immigration. It proved to be a valuable game for the message it brought and the debates it generated, which was apparent in participant comments about the way video games promote reflexivity and critical thinking. Like other games, playing MT provides an opportunity to discuss sensitive topics in an atmosphere where participants can educate others (peer learning), feel empowered to share their experiences, and critically examine their views. Susana, for example, said, “Those video games make us think about controversial issues” (workshop 3). The themes they discussed went from those most obvious, such as illegal immigration and anti-immigration discourse, xenophobia, racism, the way people treat each other, microagressions, and so on. Sometimes people drew parallels between their experience of the game and what they saw and experienced in their daily lives in academia.

One aspect of reflexivity relates to the idea that players put themselves in the position of others through MT. Some participants used the word “empathy” to describe the experience of interacting with the game, and a humanitarian perspective was perceptible from both sides—migrants and patrol—although they are frequently represented in opposition. For instance, instead of merely embodying a punitive role, those playing as border patrol agents could also provide aid to migrants, destabilizing the stereotypes of brutality and despotism through which they are often represented. The prologue describing characters’ stories and motivations informs players of the cruel reality of migrants’ lives and explores different types of emotions—sadness, pity, or even anger. When playing as a migrant, there are different decisions to make as well—such as what can be purchased and taken (clothes, medicine, drinks, and food), which items are most needed and will be easier to carry, and how to interact with people and address their needs along the way. Some dilemmas and decisions may be about which route to follow and how much risk should be taken; others are about what to do with people getting sick, slowing down the group, or in other ways compromising the chances of a successful crossing.

It was clear in this study that ethical decision making is one of the most visible skills elicited by the game. MT confronted participants’ perspectives and challenged them to make such decisions through processes of interaction in—and with—the video game. When discussing MT, participants debated these “ethical dilemmas,” including the choices they had to make based on the game’s narrative and the constraints programmed into it (e.g., how a player may move from one level to the next). Regarding whether or not to leave a person injured in the desert, knowing that this person may be arrested but that keeping them with the group could risk death for everyone, one participant noted, “It was awful. I couldn’t do it. We were playing with those lives. Of course, this is only a game, but it is also about real life!” (Vera, workshop 1). Such circumstances confront us with the need to position ourselves based on values and principles. As dilemmas they are complex situations for which there are, at least, two equally (un)acceptable possibilities of response, neither of which is clearly preferable, and each of which implies different courses of action and outcomes.2

The pedagogical potential of this game largely lies in its ethical challenges; however, MT was not immune to criticism by participants. The tension between a game being (or appearing) enjoyable, funny, or ludic on the one hand and being instructive or pedagogical on the other was noted. If for some participants this was less problematic, others were uneasy because the game addresses an issue that is too serious to be fun. This is, moreover, a challenge to the very notion of “serious” games and illuminates the dynamic between the playful aspects of a game (sometimes understood as necessarily enjoyable) and the message it may intend to bring (Saldanha et al. 2018; Santos et al. 2018).

One of the strongest criticisms was directed at the ways immigrants and their rights were portrayed with a clear emphasis on victimization. Some participants also noted that MT’s use of a minority could be seen as objectifying; they emphasized how much the video game banalizes the suffering of immigrants, even when it intends the opposite. One person regretted that “we are playing with them like they were tamagotchis,” that real stories and personas were converted into some kind of toy that players manipulate to amuse themselves opportunistically. It was what we called “the trivialization of suffering” and “the objectification of minority rights” (Saldanha et al., forthcoming; Santos et al. 2018).

The ethical representation of groups traditionally considered to be vulnerable has been a very sensitive issue in the world of video games. Kristian A. Bjørkelo and Kristine Jørgensen (2018) discussed the discomfort experienced in a live-action role-playing (LARP) game about asylum seekers. They question the extent to which it would be important to consult refugees about their own experiences or even involve refugees in the design of such a game. In the case of MT, the relative lack of information in the game about or links to an NGO, other organizations, or a call to action (even though the The Undocumented campaign offers, besides the game, a film and an interactive map) adds to this perception of objectification. Finding, facilitating, or promoting connections between in-game actions and current political issues could have made a difference in the way the game was experienced. Specifically, some participants pointed out how hard it is to change this reality and how the video game did not offer opportunities to do so, instead limiting itself to raise awareness by creating hard realities in which players learn by facing challenges as well as frustration and failure. Critical educational uses of video games (and video game designs) must therefore address the need to translate what comes from the gaming experience into concrete and material actions and participation in real offline lives and realities.

As education researchers, we believe MT can—as our results show—stimulate reflection on various civic and political issues, contribute to the widening of knowledge about different social contexts, and complicate discussions about current social justice matters. MT works as a rich stimulus for reflection and learning. Such objects can prove educationally powerful, but their limitations must also be considered. Regarding MT, two other areas of concern come to the fore: a liberal egalitarianism underlies the roles of migrants and the border patrol, suggesting they are in the same type of symbolic position (which they are not), and the lack of an intersectional perspective. Allowing people to play both as immigrants and as the police, placing these experiences at the same level, is powerful, since it destabilizes the tyranny often associated with the police by highlighting how their role may also involve protecting and caring for people. However, there is a risk of erasing the structural inequalities between different groups and how these differences translate into greater vulnerability for immigrants.

Intersectionality was also absent from the discussions in the workshops, and the game does not seem to encourage players to question issues that highlight the intersectional aspects of migration (and policing). Different forms of inequality connect, creating a system of oppression that reflects the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination (and privilege) (Saldanha et al., forthcoming; Santos et al. 2018). What is the place of women in the game? How could a gendered perspective or an analysis of class status or sexuality complicate the exploration of migration? These questions challenge us to bring the game itself into question, broadening the discussion of cultural and economic inequality and opening the possibility of engaging players in changing it, finding alternatives, and imagining some other possibilities both for the game and for the world we live in.

1 We collected data from workshop discussions, which was later transcribed and analyzed.

2 Many other games address ethics, offering possibilities for action and reflection in and through them, as the work of Karen Schrier (2015, 2017) illustrates well.

Works Cited

Bjørkelo Kristian A., and Kristine Jørgensen. 2018. “The Asylum Seekers Larp: The Positive Discomfort of Transgressive Realism.” DiGRA Nordic ‘18: Proceedings of 2018 International DiGRA Nordic Conference. Bergen, Norway, November.

Saldanha, Lucinda, Marta Pinto, Carla Malafaia, and Pedro D. Ferreira. Forthcoming. “Case Study: Unmanned.” In Learning, Education, and Games, vol. 3: 100 Games to Use in the Classroom and Beyond, edited by Karen Schrier. Pittsburgh: ETC Press.

Santos, Hugo, Lucinda Saldanha, Marta Pinto, and Pedro Ferreira. 2018. “Civic and Political Transgressions in Videogames: The Views and Experiences of the Players.” DiGRA Nordic ‘18: Proceedings of 2018 International DiGRA Nordic Conference. Bergen, Norway, November.

Schrier, Karen. 2015. “EPIC: A Framework for Using Video Games in Ethics Education.” Journal of Moral Education 44, no. 4 (November): 393-424.

— — —. 2017. “Designing Role-Playing Video Games for Ethical Thinking.” Educational Technology Research and Development 65, no. 4 (August): 831-68.

Hugo Santos, Lucinda Saldanha, Sofia Castanheira Pais, and Pedro Daniel Ferreira are members of the research team in the project JoSeES – Jogos Sérios no Ensino Superior: Impactos, Experiências e Expectativas (JoSeES – Serious Games in Higher Education: Impacts, Experiences and Potential), funded by FCT (Foundation for Science and Technology; ref: PTDC/MHC-CED/7182/2014) and taking place in CIIE (Center for Research and Intervention in Education). Hugo Santos has a PhD in education sciences and is currently a research fellow (hugosantos@fpce.up.pt); Lucinda Saldanha is a PhD student in education sciences (lucindasaldanha@fpce.up.pt); Sofia C. Pais has a PhD in education sciences and is an assistant professor (sofiapais@fpce.up.pt); and Pedro D. Ferreira, has a PhD in psychology and is an assistant professor, the JoSeES project coordinator, and corresponding author (pferreira@fpce.up.pt).