The art gallery at taxpayer-funded Lamar University in the southeast corner of Texas hosted an art installation last week consisting of a retro-style, stand-up-cabinet video game which offers players the opportunity to play as an illegal immigrant illegally sneaking across the border separating the United States and Mexico.
The creator of the video game art installation, called “Borders,” is Gonzalo Alvarez, reports the University Press, the Lamar University newspaper.
Alvarez’s video game vision became a reality with the help of programmers he met in New York City at IndieCade, an independent gaming festival, last year.
“I’m an artist, so I know nothing about programming,” Alvarez told the University Press.
When he got back to campus, he got back in touch with the programmers he met “and we sat down for a seven-day game jam.”
Players of “Borders” play as a sombrero-festooned illegal immigrant who attempts to enter the United States illegally while stealthily jumping into cactuses to avoid border patrol agents and helicopters. The sombrero-wearing illegal immigrant must also stay hydrated.
Every time a player dies, that death becomes incorporated into the world the game as anonymous skeletal remains.
The more times players die in the game, the larger the total number of skeletons grows.
“The goal was to publicly install this game and have as many people as possible play the game to expose them of what its really like to cross the border while building up a mass grave of skeletons,” Alvarez explains at a webpage about the game.
“As you move your water meter will slowly drain and must pick up water bottles to refill it. The desert is a hot place so many die of heat exhaustion and people really do leave water jugs behind for those trying to cross the border so it was the perfect game mechanic to place in. The only goal is to make it to the end of the level, which is the border, but it definitely is not easy.”
Spoiler alert: Players who get all the way to the end of the game without dying get to see a city glimmering before them.
“This installation is intended to provide players with a new perspective on the lives of immigrants and to present the video game medium as a powerful art form,” Alvarez says. “Coming from a traditional education in fine arts, I have been able to hopefully conceptualize something meaningful and translate it into a video game, which has its own rules.”
“I went with pixel art style, because of its minimalism,” Alvarez told the University Press. “You can’t really tell what it is — but you can tell what it is — and that ambiguity allows players to portray themselves in the character without necessarily seeing the character as an entity.”
“It’s supposed to be more whimsical, but have a darker meaning behind it,” Alvarez also said.
The game also has a political aspect.
“It also came out of the kind of speech about what’s kind of going on with America at the moment, especially with Trump’s presidency and all this kind of avocation for a bigger wall — to kind of try to state a message about who you really are trying to keep out, and what they’re dealing with — maybe help some people see it differently,” Alvarez told the student newspaper.
Alvarez is a first-generation American and the first person in his family to attend college. His parents are immigrants from Mexico who are now citizens, he said.
Aspects of “Borders” come from stories his parents told him about the perils of crossing the border between the United States and Mexico.
“My mother actually got caught a couple times,” Alvarez told the University Press.
You can download a version of the game here to play right in your own home.