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Posts Tagged ‘Smuggle Truck’


In one of the first detailed interviews he has given since learning that his controversial SMUGGLE TRUCK immigration game was banned from Apple’s App Store, Alex Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs admitted that that the initial uproar about the game earlier this year was “merited,” but he is still determined to showcasing the game in the market.

Owlchemy released a statement last week about Apple’s ban and how the game company plans to sell the game via PC and Apple non-app versions. Also, a variation of the game called SNUGGLE TRUCK is available at the App Store.

We interviewed Schwartz via email today. Here is what he had to share:

Alex Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs

FB: Did Apple give you a specific reason as to why they banned Smuggle Truck?

AS: Our communications with Apple are unfortunately under NDA so we cannot discuss the reasons for the denial other than the fact that the rejection was based on content.

FB: Why did you create an adapted version of Smuggle Truck called Snuggle Truck?

AS: Smuggle Truck was denied from the App Store due to content reasons. Snuggle Truck was our way to get the fun and excitement you see people experiencing in our gameplay trailer to the App Store.

FB: Most Latino organizations we know only (particularly Being Latino and Latinos in Social Media) were and have been extremely critical of the Smuggle Truck game. Was this criticism merited, in your opinion?

AS: I think the criticism was merited back when the initial news broke in early February. When the stories came out, all that was available for people to judge our game was a 20-second teaser trailer and a few screenshots. The game was approximately 20% completed. I think it was easy to assume based on the premise of the game that we were creating a hateful game, without having a proper window into the backstory, the reasoning behind it, and a proper showcase for the satire. Once we were able to get closer to a final version of the game and have tested it in players hands, we’ve received quite a bit of support for publishing such a satire.

FB: When you released Smuggle Truck earlier this year, you said that part of the reason was because you had friends who have had and were having major frustrations with the immigration process in the United States? Can you share more general details (without naming names) of those problems they experienced?

AS: As you mentioned, our friend chose to remain nameless due to the fragility of his status in the country. To sum up the issues broadly, our friend wanted to come to the U.S. to develop video games, had a U.S. college bachelors degree but no family living here. Without a full time job to get an H1B, and without enough proof to substantiate an O1, it appeared that there were no legal ways to immigrate. Even though he/she had plans to begin a startup, the proposed Startup Visa would not have applied due to the harsh requirements for investor funding. They can’t talk about their status currently, and it’s quite sad that it’s so common to be secretive about ones own immigration status for fear of further investigation by authorities, but rightly justified.

FB: You said that you believe this country needs comprehensive immigration reform. How does a game like Smuggle Truck fit into the debate?

Smuggle Truck definitely doesn’t address specifics on ways to reform immigration. Smuggle Truck also doesn’t impose a viewpoint on the issue of illegal immigration. The one major point that it addresses is the absurdity of the wait times for citizenship, as displayed in the Legal Immigration Mode. If you’re not familiar, this is a mode in Smuggle Truck where the player can sit in a waiting room for 19 years as a timer counts down to the point at which they can obtain a green card. See this chart below for some of our inspiration:

FB: Smuggle Truck recently won a local award in Boston? What was it for and why did you win it?

AS: We were chosen as finalists in the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX East) Boston Indie Showcase. The PAX conference chose three independent games that rose to the top by the criteria of innovation, fun, technical excellence, or otherwise displayed that they stood out from the crowd in some significant way. Here thousands of attendees were able to play the game and the results were fairly unanimous – people enjoyed the game and they “got it” once they picked it up. With the forest (read: Canadian) smuggling levels and the legal immigration, it was very apparent to players that they were experiencing something oozing with satire.

FB: Do you still stand by the fact that Smuggle Truck is not a controversial game that has offended many US Latinos? What would you like to say to the people who have criticized the game?

AS: Not at all, the game is most definitely controversial. Many of the criticisms of Smuggle Truck boil down to an ideology that believes a game cannot talk about a subject like immigration. The misconception that interactive games can only work with fun, happy, light, and airy subjects is something that we as game developers need to address, whereas film has had decades of experience in that realm. We’ve definitely learned that satire is something that requires ample context and in an interactive medium like games, it requires you, in some cases, to experience it for yourself. The original press pieces about Smuggle Truck back in February definitely did not get a chance to see that angle nor the more structured satire included in the game, such as our Legal Immigration mode. To those who criticize the game, I challenge you to try out the game. Subtlety is sometimes lost when viewed from afar.

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Ah, Smuggle Truck. The new game that takes a bunch of immigrants across the Mexican border is facing some heat and probably earning more publicity because of it. On February 8, I wrote to Alex Schwartz, the head of Owlchemy Labs, the makers of the app. I asked him the following five questions:

  1. You said that this app is a satire and was developed because of your friends’ frustration with US immigration process. Where are your friends from and what problems have they encountered?
  2. What do you say about the criticism from immigration groups that call this app tasteless?
  3. Are you aware of the violence and killings of immigrants in the United States? Do you think your app is only fueling fire to this issue?
  4. Do you still intend to market this app given the controversy it has caused?
  5. Is this just a publicity stunt to get you attention to your company and your products?

The immediate response I received read as follows: “Hello, Thanks for contacting Owlchemy Labs. Our PR firm will get in touch with you soon regarding your inquiry. Until then, please see our story page and blog for more information.”

On February 11, Owlchemy Labs issued a press release. It began:

Because of the volume of requests from media, we would like to release the following statement regarding “Smuggle Truck”, the new iPhone/iPad game being released in March, 2011.

“Smuggle Truck” was created to raise awareness of the issues surrounding legal immigration. We’re operating under the definition of satire which states, “First, make them laugh. Then, make them think.” This week, huge numbers of people have begun discussing immigration in prominent channels. We feel that we’ve achieved one of our major goals in creating this game, which is to get people talking about the issues surrounding legal immigration and how it can be reformed.

The release contain FAQS that the company answered. Here were the answers they provided:

Question 1.) Why was this game made?

The idea for the game was a reaction to the frustrations we felt as our friends struggled through a long and winding immigration process. We understood that creating a satire would be the best way to bring the issue to light and kickstart the process of getting people discussing immigration reform.

Question 2.) If you wanted to start a meaningful discussion, why not make a serious game instead of a satire? It could be a game about the paperwork maze the player has to go through to to get a visa.

This was our first thought, but elected to go with satire instead. We predicted that by approaching the issue from the complete opposite side, we would be able to reach many more people and make a bigger impact. There are lots of dry campaigns for immigration reform, but you don’t usually hear about them. In fact, you wouldn’t be reading this if we had gone that route.

Question 3.) What points, politically, are you trying to make? Are you pro/anti-immigration? Are you pro/anti illegal immigration?

There are major issues with the current system in place for legal immigration. It requires reform, at the very least. We don’t want to preach our views like many serious games attempt to do. We just want to be a catalyst for the discussion of change.

Question 4.) What do you have to say to those who believe this is in poor taste? Don’t you care about those who died trying to cross the border illegally?

If we didn’t care about those who lost their lives struggling to immigrate, we wouldn’t have created this game. “Smuggle Truck” has sparked a debate, and this discussion wouldn’t be happening right now if some feathers weren’t ruffled.

Question 5.) Do you think this will be approved by Apple?

As always, Apple makes the final call because it’s their own closed platform. However, we’re confident that our final presentation of the game will properly reflect the satire and that it will be judged as such.

Question 6.) The game has started some serious discussion regarding immigration, but has also provoked some racist and negative comments. How are you dealing with these comments?

“Smuggle Truck” has indeed encouraged quite a bit of thoughtful discussion, and has also (not unexpectedly) brought about some less-than-useful discussion. We’re currently working with a local immigration reform group in Mass to discuss how best to drive the discussions toward a focus of relevant reform topics. Stay tuned for more information regarding that initiative.

When I received the press release on February 11, I asked Schwartz via email: “Thanks for this but will you answer the questions I sent you three days ago? I would like comment on that.”

Today, having not heard form Schwartz, I emailed him the following: “When will you answer our questions that we submitted last week? We would like to report the piece and will run it (I get about 1,000 visits a day) without your comment. Thanks!”

Schwartz replied to me an hour later and said: “Hello Julio, Unfortunately we we receive too many personalized questions to be able to respond to them all. Sorry.”

No need to apologize. Just answer the questions, Alex.

People need to read REAL answers not those of a PR company. You claim you were inspired by the struggles of real friends and their experiences. You should talk about them to add more credibility to your intentions.

You are a GAME company, not a political organization. Quite frankly, you’re actually taking advantage of the immigration issue by profiting from it. While people die and families get broken, you get your downloads. Nice exploitation. If you were really interested in impacting change and awareness, you should create ways to help the voiceless tell their story. Take your technology to do something positive and proactive, not just make a game of it.

You don’t even address our questions about immigrant killings, and that says a lot in my eyes.

And, by the way, the immigration issue has been part of the mainstream media for a while. We don’t need a “satire” of a serious issue to raise awareness.

What we need are better answers and honest ones. Please answer the specific questions we asked you.

In the meantime, we are just going to say that you offered “no comment.” Press releases don’t count when specific questions are being asked. You cannot control this message, especially since your company’s intentions and plans is doing more to harm the immigration issue than help it.

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