BOSTON — A game developed by a Boston-based tech company that allows users to drive a truck full of immigrants through the desert and try not to have them tossed out is drawing fire from some immigrant advocates.
"Smuggle Truck: Operation Immigration," a proposed iPhone and iPad app by Owlchemy Labs targeted for release in March, lets players navigate through what appears to be the U.S.-Mexican border. As the truck drives over cliffs, mountains and dead animals, immigrants fall off the truck's bed. Scores are calculated by the number of immigrants helped crossing the U.S. border.
Developer Alex Schwartz said the idea for the satirical game came out of frustration friends faced while trying to immigrate to the U.S.
"We felt like this issue was kind of a bit taboo for games and popular media," said Schwartz. "So we wanted to build something . . . about this struggle that we could put into our work and our passion, which is making games."
Schwartz said the message that developers want to send out through the game – it's so tough to legally emigrate to the U.S. that it's almost easier to smuggle yourself over the border despite the dangers.
But Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrants & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the game is in poor taste and trivializes the seriousness of immigrants willing to risk their lives under a broken immigration system.
"Last year, 170 human beings died crossing the border," Millona said in statement. "It's disgraceful that anyone would try to make money out of this tragedy by making light of it in a game."
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville, Mass.-based Latino immigrant advocacy group, agreed.
"I don't think that people who are trying to emigrate into the U.S. think they are part of a game," Montes said. "They do it because they are desperate."
Schwartz said it wasn't the developers' intent to offend immigrants and their advocates. In fact, he said developers went out of their way to make sure the game's characters weren't stereotypical. "For example, one of the immigrants is a nerdy looking guy with a pocket protector," Schwartz said.
Schwartz said developers even have opened up the game to outside programmers for a contest to add suggestions and new levels. The winner gets to have his or her face on one of the immigrants in the game, he said.
The company also has been testing the game around Boston. "We'd go around to Starbucks in Boston and we'd kind of bring the game around our laptop and get feedback . . . from random strangers," said Schwartz. "The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive."
He compared "Smuggle Truck" to the popular game app "Angry Birds" – the extremely popular smart phone app where slingshot birds face battle with their enemy pigs.
Steve Kropper, co-director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, a bipartisan group that seeks immigration restrictions, laughed when he heard about "Smuggle Truck" and thought the "Angry Birds" comparison was accurate.
"In America, we are used to trivializing everything," said Kropper. "I think 'Smuggle Truck' will do to the immigration debate what 'Angry Birds' did to ornithology."
Smuggle Truck: http://smuggletruck.com