Last week, racism against Aboriginal Australians in digital spaces plumbed new depths as news came out of an online game included killing of Aboriginal Australians as a game plotline, awarding the players for successfully killing them.
The game has since been removed from Apple and Google Play store but not before a huge backlash in the news and social media against it.
In this briefing, we look at the incident in detail and try to glean some learnings for the future. Our briefing:
1) Gives background on the game including why it was inappropriate
2) Discusses the response to it in the media and civil society
3) Discusses the response of Apple and Google Play Store
4) Discusses the larger ethical questions at hand
Survivor Island 3: A Background
Last month a new video game was released on Apple’s iTunes App Store and Google Play store called Survival Island 3 – Australia Story. It was developed by Kristina Fedenkova and retailed at $4.49.
The game’s theme was surviving in Australian outback and building a home, growing food, hunting wild and dangerous animals, and fighting with Aborigines. This included “searching for the natives”, as the game described it, before beating to death an Aboriginal man with a stone axe. The participant was rewarded food and weapons for successfully killing him.
The screencaps promoting the video game also included one which said “Beware of Aborigines”.
To make matters worse, the game was sold with a PG+ rating by Apple making it suitable for children of 12 years and over.
The contents of the game have been discussed at length on New Matilda.
Media & Civil Society Response
The game came to light when Georgia Mantle, a woman of the Gadigal Aboriginal community that originally inhabited the land we call Sydney, came across it last week. She started a petition on Change.org for the game to be removed from the iTunes App store and Google Play store.
“By shooting ‘dangerous Aboriginals’, this app makes us inhuman, it re-enforces racial violence, lack of punishment for white people taking black lives, it makes fun and sport of massacres and Frontier violence,” wrote Mantle.
The petition quickly gained momentum, with several news media reporting on the game and the petition (Read New Matilda, Sydney Morning Herald, news.com and ABC online on the subject).
More than 60,000 people signed the petition and reviews lambasting the game flooded the online game stores.
Response of the game stores
Over the weekend, the stores removed the game but it hasn’t apologised or explained why was the game was made available in the first place.
Apple’s terms of application for developers states that: “We will reject apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court justice once said “I know it when I see it.” And we think you will also know it when you cross it.”
As we can see, the games stores have allowed themselves wide berth to decide what is and what is not acceptable behavior or content for a video game.
In response, the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said in a statement: “I am appalled that anyone would develop such a so-called ‘game’ and that any platform would carry it.” He further added that he was inquiring into the circumstances of the game’s release, and reviewing other games by the same developer.
Ethics of Online Games
The case of Survival Island 3 clearly illustrate how global companies based out of the US and elsewhere aren’t always the best judge of what is culturally inappropriate in different local contexts.
For many in the Aboriginal community, the cavalier killing of their people is a very real part of their history. This history has been officially recognized, and as a country we are still coming to terms with it. The community itself continues to pay the price for the long oppression of its people. Even today, it is marginalized and falls way behind other communities on economic and health outcomes. Moreover, it is still subject to racism and discrimination within the wider Australian community.
With this background, the game only manages to hurt and offend the community by making light of a very painful history for them. Moreover, it damaged already fraught relations between the Aboriginal Australians and others in our community.
However, this context or painful history would be lost to Apple or Google, who control what content is made available on their interfaces. The Australian government, on the other hand, has little influence on their decision-making. Which is why, a loud public call by the civil society, is the only way to get global tech companies to remove hurtful and offensive content.
Dr Andre Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute commented that, “The companies who sold this, Google and Apple, need to tighten their review of games to ensure those promoting hate are not permitted. Another issues is that programmers, including game developers, need to be aware of the social implications of the technology they create. There is an ethical responsibility for software developers not to harm people. Working on games which normalise racism and glorify genocide raises serious ethical questions.” Dr Oboler serves as a Distinguished Visitor for the IEEE Computer Society and has given talks around the world on the ethical responsibility of software developers when it comes to issues of racism and online hate.
We congratulate Minister Fifield on his strong statement against the game, and the decision to review other games by the same developer. However, we would like him to use this as an opportunity to start a dialogue with the global tech companies on setting stronger and more transparent guidelines on what kinds of games will be made available on their interfaces and hold them accountable for it.
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