the sewer transnationalists

The Sewer Transnationalists models the cross-border issue of sewer infrastructure repair as a cooperative board game.

The goal of the game is to repair all the sewers in the border region, a goal that can only be accomplished if the players work together. Each character represents a stakeholder in the issue: the IBWC (bureaucrat), the security state (border agent), the border resident (maintainer), and techno-solutionists who can only provide short-term solutions (engineer). If games are models of a real-world scenario, critical games emphasize the issues central to that scenario. The practice of critical making implies that the process of creating this model (building the game) is itself knowledge production. Creating the game has proven to be a generative form of research-creation; it has helped me analyze and synthesize the key issues within this border problem and find ways to intervene in these issues with a playable model. 

The Sewer Transnationalists sets cooperation as the starting point – a fact that is not the case in real life. This is the game’s first point of critique. We have arrived at the current dire situation for waste disposal across the border because of the lack of cooperation between various stakeholders. The game makes the case from the start that cooperation is essential. Its second point of critique is to model through gameplay the barriers to cooperation imposed by geopolitical divisions: the lack of funding for transnational agencies such as the IBWC and the mobility restrictions imposed by the border itself. The limited funds in the game and the restrictions of the characters’ mobility across the dividing line are the two main impediments to the players achieving their goal before it is too late. These procedural features confront players with logistical hurdles inherited from a non-cooperative form of border thinking.

For this critical game, I “re-skinned” the cooperative game Forbidden Island. Mary Flanagan calls “reskinning” the practice of taking the same mechanics of a game but changing its “skin”, i.e. the aesthetics and symbols, to convey a critical message. The basic game mechanics from Forbidden Island are also present here: every turn, the possibility of water rising is an imminent threat and players must work together to complete their goal before the board is flooded. However, in this reskinning, I inverted one of the key ideological underpinnings of Forbidden Island to emphasize the sustainability concerns of The Sewer Transnationalists. In the former game, players need not worry about the island flooding as long as they collect all the treasures and escape on time. The game follows a colonialist mentality of resource extraction and general disregard for native lands. In the critical re-skinning put forth by The Sewer Transnationalists, the main goal of the game is in fact to prevent the flooding from happening. This shift demands an ecological reorientation: it asks players to think about the setting as necessary for their own survival. There is no way to escape and let the environment deteriorate. Winning is impossible if the vitality of the environment where players interact is compromised.

The first version of the game has been published in the “Making Games for and about Social Justice” issue of OneShot: A Journal of Critical Games and Play. Development of the ideas for this game took place during the “Patching Default Settings: Radical Feminist Gameplay” workshop series organized by The Studio for Mediating Play.