Originally published in Dunk volume 1, issue 4 (January 2013).
On its release in 1996, id Software’s Quake instantly revolutionized the first-person shooter genre of video games. Featuring terrific graphics and fast-paced gameplay, Quake offered an engaging break from the plodding likes of Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. Perhaps most importantly, Quake pioneered the frenetic online multiplayer experience that is now considered an essential component of practically all first-person shooters worth their salt. The online culture of fan modifications, or “mods”, in which Quake enthusiasts designed their own spin-off titles, also added to the unique character of id Software’s masterpiece. Team Fortress was introduced within a few months of Quake’s 1996 debut, and provided a class-based capture the flag system that garnered immediate attention and praise. Like its parent Quake, Team Fortress thrived on the creative energy of ordinary fans, and quickly assembled an impressive collection of maps for gamers to choose from. Buried within this diverse range of maps was a bizarre creation called “border1”. Although never quite as popular as capture the flag staples like “2fort4” or “rock2”, “border1” was a modest success, and easily provoked interest based on its oddball concept alone, which exploited American fears of illegal immigration. By allowing gamers the vigilante fantasy of mercilessly “solving” illegal immigration through cartoon violence, “border1” trivialized the social factors responsible for the issue and dehumanized those desperate enough to attempt crossing the border.
“border1” portrayed an idealized border crossing between Mexico and the United States of America surrounded by rocky hills, with a single stretch of highway cutting a narrow path right down the middle of the map. Players were free to choose from three different classes: the Border Patrol, Hispanic Immigrants, and the MiB. The Border Patrol were charged with keeping America safe through the ruthless slaughter of the Hispanic Immigrants attempting to cross into the United States, and were equipped with rocket launchers capable of reducing any would-be illegals into a dripping pile of mush. Hispanic Immigrants attempted to safely make it to the American side by boarding a truck that would periodically appear on the map and begin slowly approaching the border crossing. Since the meagre possessions of the Hispanic Immigrants included no protection beyond a crude axe, the MiB were tasked with escorting them across the border alive, in a strange development decision inspired by an early scene from the Men in Black film. At the end of each round, points were awarded to the Border Patrol and MiB based on their respective kill tallies, as well as to any Hispanic Immigrants who managed to run the gauntlet all the way to American soil.
In the simplified moral universe of “border1” right and wrong were perfectly clear: illegally crossing the border made you a criminal, and the penalty for breaking the law was death. No exceptions. This was Thunderdome with a passport. “border1” incorporated racism and xenophobia right into the very essence of its overall design, allowing fans of Quake and Team Fortress an outlet for any latent prejudices that might otherwise get discouraged by egghead teachers preaching naïve values like “peace” and “tolerance” at school. There was no sympathy here for the grinding poverty and social inequality that frequently motivated risking it all and fleeing to the United States, as depicted in Gary Paulsen’s heartfelt young adult novel The Crossing. Instead there was only the indiscriminate force of a rocket launcher. In “border1”, the Hispanic Immigrants even looked identical to each other, making it all the easier for the Border Patrol to fulfill their patriotic duty by lighting up their faceless victims like the Fourth of July. The immigrants no longer appeared human, and instead became the targets of a deranged Nativist bloodlust that turned the truck promising to carry them to a better life into a turkey shoot. But what’s the life of an illegal immigrant compared to the solace of knowing our borders are secure? Besides, there’s always plenty more where that came from, right? “border1” assumed that its fans would all reach the same extreme conclusions to these and any other nagging questions that may have started to plague their consciences as they kept playing and the body count only kept rising.
By reducing the complicated issue of illegal immigration to a basic formula of right and wrong while offering its own brand of vigilante justice, “border1” played to the racism and xenophobia of macho gamers eager to “purify” the United States through the redemptive power of the rocket launcher. The real shock of “border1” was that it envisioned a scenario that doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore. In many ways “border1” ably predicted the violent rhetoric surrounding illegal immigration, not just in the United States, but also in Canada and any other country where Nativist citizens are mobilizing to defend an imagined and usually fictitious sense of their nation’s “true” cultural identity.