The videogame Banopticon has been under development since January 2010, and completed by April 2013. The project is part of the E.U research program MIG@NET, coordinated by Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences (UPSPS), Centre for Gender Studies and includes partners from seven European countries as:
University of Bologna, Department of Politics, Institutions and History, Symfiliosi (SYM), Cyprus, Fondation Maison des sciences de l'homme (FMSH), Paris, University of Hamburg, Institute for Sociology (UHH), Utrecht University, Department of Media and Culture Studies/ Graduate Gender Programme (UU), The Peace Institute, Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies (PI), Ljubljana, University of Hull, Department of Humanities, UK.
A major issue of debate in the social/political struggle field is the digitalisation of the mechanisms of control and surveillance (Border Crossing, Social Movements, Intercultural Conflict and Dialogue). And though these mechanisms are based on machines and devices, they appear -mostly- "invisible" and "immaterial" to those they are applied on. In order to find a way to visualize these mechanisms -and often their unexpected and confusing results on the involved actor- the idea of using the media form of a videogame that could simulate the different situations and disseminate them to the public, was considered promising.
It was based on the idea that videogames can be either media or games, but sometimes they can be both. Because used as media, they may carry an idea from one place to another. And as games, they can establish a set of conditions within which humans play. Any meaning or message that comes out of the game is generated by the players, and was not necessarily envisaged in the game's original design.
The introduction in the game, takes place in a European bar where an immigrant woman narrates -facing the avatar of the user (a migrant as well)- her story of migration from Africa to Europe. The narration ends with her prompting the migrant (user) to tell his own story, at which point the user is transferred to the entrance level of the game: the Border Zone.
The first question that was posed regarding the research on the field of Border Crossing was:
In which extent a 3D videogame may serve as a tool in order to simulate the perplexed condition that we come upon when we face the new/hybrid forms of surveillance and control on migration mobility?
The user finds her/himself in a border zone that is a simulation of the Evros River passage, on the Greek-Turkish borders. Notification cards inform the user of the two options the user has: either surrender to the border police and, by doing so, has the possibility to request for asylum, either try to avoid them and reach a car (VAN) at the other side of the bridge. The user is also informed that if "seen" by the FRONTEX policemen he/she will be arrested and fingerprinted.
In Banoptikon the actors are in a constant move and in uneasiness, the same way they are in reality. They are exposed in deportability at any time. The case study researches indicate a rather confusing situation regarding the efficiency of the digital mechanisms of control. A result that leads one to wonder: do we face surveillance mechanisms or intimidation tactics? "Much like Bentham's Panopticon, which may be empty, one never knows if the digital mechanisms of surveillance are in fact working properly, if data will be lost or unsuccessfully registered in the system. In other words, one never knows if the gesture of fingerprinting is in fact an empty gesture" [Tsianos&Kuster- Border Crossing].
If the user chose to surrender or if the police captures her, she is transferred to another game level, that of "The Detention Camp". (See below) If she chose to "escape" then she follows an itinerary, she has dialogues (gets info) from other avatars and finally gets into the VAN. Then she changes level and moves to "Athens Down Town".
As mentioned earlier, in the gameplay, there is a starting point (The River passage) and a desirable end point/destination (the Euro-city). This structure corresponds to the stereotype that most of the inhabitants of E.U territory share. It corresponds also to the desires of the migrants. But this "reading of the gameplay" is just an epiphenomenon. The player realises that actually there is no safety; there is no final shelter for most of the migrants most of the time. Even if they swift identities (in the game the user’s avatar swifts identity in some cases) they are under the threat of being controlled, revealed and the possibility to take the migration road all over again is not negligible. As migrants say: "Walking will become the law, and collectivity the code".
Detention camps are mechanisms of control, which intervene in the migration flow. In fact, what the detention camps are doing is to decelerate the migration flow. And this is not happening only by the physical imprisonment of the bodies but mainly by the process of fingerprinting. Camps (physical and digital) are at the same time traps that aim to re-territorialise -literally- the "flight" of the swarm of "migration birds".
In the game the Camp is a simulation -based on the material offered by the team of the "No Borders" Organisation- of the famous -inactive today- camp of Pagani at Lesvos Island. Back in late 90’s, this camp, situated a few kilometers from the island's capital Mitilene, was among the first places -if not the first one- where the digital system of fingerprinting was installed. An avatar in the game describes the impact these technologies had on the uninformed and confused migrants.
The user will notice that the playable avatar in the Camp appears as a woman and it is different than the male migrant that starts the game. This happens for two reasons. One is to keep certain naturalness in the gameplay. (A migrant avatar that circulates freely in a camp may appear a strange situation). The second reason is to give a hint to the user about the different identities and personas that migrants use in order to avoid being captured and arrested or to transverse borders. In addition, one could think of the shifting identities in the Internet and the social media. This is a phenomenon observed in both migrants and "locals", although for different reasons.
In the Camp, as the user explores the space, she will listen to different stories, be informed about the process of fingerprinting, the stay conditions in the Camp and of other issues concerning migration. From the Camp the user can be transferred to Athens Down Town area.
Athens’ city centre appears as a central node in the gamespace design. This is based not only on the fact that Greece and especially Athens have radically changed in the last years, but mostly on the ways that these changes appeared and continue to appear. In other words, in Athens changes didn't take place in a rational mode, a "proper" evolution mode for a city’s transformation, as maybe is the case in other European cities, but under extreme pressure and conditions that very often included a process of radical technological changes, population bouleversements and even natural, social and political disasters.
In the game, Athens Down Town appears as a center but only to be deconstructed as such. The networking "nature" of both: material migration flow and the representation of the digitalised life of the city dwellers (that live a "life on the screen", a life that goes along the different networks of communication) is present everywhere. The question that concerned us in the development of the gameplay for this essential level was which are the relations between the city as a structure and the different actors, both of which are considered as game elements in the game.
Considering that migration is primarily an unbounded social movement, the game simulates the area of Athens within a larger terrain of flows and mobilities. The city centre is designed rather as a dystopia. The current crisis is mapped on the walls of the buildings in forms of slogans and graffiti. Gentrification operations are taking place in the centre defining also, the social, political and cultural frame context of daily life. Different groups / actors move in an environment that resembles more a screen than a physical space. The centre is the area where most of the migrants try to live and where most of the cleansings and violent acts take place. In the game, video-screens are embedded in the space broadcasting footage that breaks down the architecture of the narration. The movement of the avatars is hypnotic referring to the bizarre images of people that walk in the "real streets" wired to their smartphones and talking to invisible listeners or watching at the screens of their digital devices.
In the interior spaces of several buildings, some avatars that simulate sex workers, talk about the use of ICT’s in their jobs. Information flow on education and religious matters or intercultural conflict and dialogue show the interconnections between the migrant’s countries of origin, the transit spaces and the destination countries.
In the everyday reality of Athens, intercultural conflicts and identity production fights are taking place everywhere. Powers and counter-powers structures are formed and dissolved in both physical and virtual space. Consequently, the new hybrid spaces that are generated in the town are also spaces of conflict between ICT’s and "old non-flexible structures". But then, the question that arises is: which are the perceptible forms of the game that is taking place between powers and counter-powers?
In Banoptikon videogame, in the simulation of the gamespace of Athens Down Town the player experiences the absence of such participation of migrants as political subjects that claim and use technology to help them stand up for their rights. In other words, the player faces the exclusion of migrants from the communication networks in which racial and anti-racial situations and struggles are taking place. In the game’s dialogues, migrants appear to "talk" about the use of ICTs as tools for the amelioration of their bonds with family, for educational and religious purposes or as tools that serve a better work condition. But they never -or very rarely- appear to use the new technologies to organise their struggle for political and social rights that could result in better living conditions.
However, Athens centre level is not only an arena of conflicts, crime and racial attacks. Migrant’s communities create and hold "islands" of hope like a school or a mosque, where the user can be informed about the issues concerning education and religion status of migrants as well as the use and the influence of technology on their daily lives.
According to the gameplay, if the user meets the police she risks to be transferred at the Camp or if, in the contrary, she meets a smuggler she can get "papers" and then move to the Harbour.
The Harbour (a simulation of the harbours of Igoumenitsa and Patras, is the exit gate to Italy and Europe. The narration is based on interviews done by the research team of the Border Crossing WP. The goal of the user is to collect essential information on the conditions of living in this area and to find the boat (a ferry) that leaves for Italy. The risks of daily living are considered high (it is well known that locals are hostile to the migrants and very often aggressive, to the point of organizing even pogroms. So, there is a danger for the user to be arrested and find herself back to Athens.
There is a dialogue in the harbor of Igoumenitsa town, which is one of the main exit gates for migrants to Italy. The dialogue, inside the game, is taking place under a video screen that broadcasts a pogrom situation that occurred there in 2011. A group of migrants was playing football in an area close to the harbor until locals, supported by anti-riot police forces, attacked them.
“We were playing football, we were calm. They attacked us with rocks. Some of us also they throw them to keep them in distance. Then the police came and helped them; the police was using gas and something other, like big balls. And after they changed all the truth. They have camera. They make video. They changed the whole story. They show them enjoying down with their music-party there and we attacked them. They changed everything. Okay, they don’t want to help us. But to lie like this! They put it in the Internet to show the entire world to say: Don’t accept them! If you take them they will make problem. There must be truth in the world, because they don’t tell the situation, they give us wrong pictures. Because we the people here, we don’t have cameras, we don’t have TV to produce pictures about our situation here”.
This level simulates a European capital (a mix of several European cities), which is the city that migrants try to reach. There are dialogues and cards that inform the user about religious and educational issues, and the role that migrants hold in these. The narration is based on the Religious, Education and International Conflict and Dialogue WPs showing the ways and the problems of integration. But still there is the risk of deportation according to the Dublin II agreement, as a policeman can check the "papers" of migrant/ user and if not "correct" send him back to Greece (Athens or The Harbour).
The videogame Banoptikon, aspires to simulate social and political situations referring to migration flow, which take place inside cities, networks, rural areas and above all to human bodies. Because bodies are the subjects on which old and new technologies are applied and therefore bodies remain the basic topos of the battlefield. As Brouno Latour states back in the 80’s: "It is an agonistic situation, a power struggle or warlike situation, in which the one able to master on the spot the largest number of well aligned and faithful allies will win". Or to put it differently, in this specific case what we are facing is the melting point between bodies in move on one hand and digital technologies of control on the other. A situation where the body becomes data, and thus becomes subject of control, but at the same time the data are materialised and become bodies. As the team of the Border Crossing state:
"So, precisely because the migrants carry the border, because they embody the border -especially in the form of their fingers- they cannot entirely cross it. However, what they do is to transgress the border at the same time as incorporating it. Only in this way they re-territorialise the border and they push it deeper into the European territory and they challenge the limits of Europe".