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November 11, 2017

Anti-Pipeline Video Game Accused of Encouraging Terrorism

Eliza Racine

The fossil fuel industry keeps looking for roundabout ways to demonize anti-pipeline activists, and now the catch-all scapegoat of “terrorism” apparently now applies to video games, too.

Thunderbird Strike” is a PC game created by Michigan State University professor and Anishinaabe-Métis mixed woman Elizabeth LaPensée. The user plays as a thunderbird flying over Enbridge’s controversial Line 5, which coils in the shape of black snake from Alberta’s tar sands to the Great Lakes region. As a sacred being with the power to revive and destroy, players have the ability to bring dead caribou and buffalo back to life, or strike lightning at oil equipment and construction however they please. The game’s website also provides resources on how to take action against fossil fuels—from divestment to organizing water walks—and will also be available for iOS and Android devices this December.

Energy Builders, a pro-pipeline advocacy group, took offense to “Thunderbird Strike”, and in a recent press release, called on MSU to pull the game for allegedly depicting “domestic terrorism” while being funded by taxpayer money. Along with calling on MSU to shut the program down, Energy Builders president Toby Mack also insists that Congress, NASA and the National Science Foundation end any public subsidies of the MSU computer lab until “this overtly political activity has ended.”

Despite these claims, “Thunderbird Strike” was actually funded through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. LaPensée and her collaboratorsworked independently from the university on the project. Similarly, LaPensée and her team were well within their legal right to create the game within this context. Their labor, in fact, was named best digital media work at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

Energy Builders attempts to qualify this outrageous attack on freedom of speech in their press release, with President Mack stating, “we’re all for freedom of speech at public universities, but a computer lab financed in part by NASA and the National Science Foundation should not be supporting an effort to stop safe and modern infrastructure development.”

It is clear that Energy Builders is more concerned in distracting from the controversy of pipelines and blindly promoting jobs and “affordable energy”, than any actual danger coming from a free PC game.

“It certainly is not encouraging anyone to commit eco-terrorism," says game creator LaPensée in the Mankato Free Press, stressing the importance of choice in the game. “It's optional whether or not you attack oil structures or you focus on activating animals and people. The game never tells you what your choice should be.”

It is far more likely that the label of “terrorist” is being used to protect profit, not only for groups like Energy Builders, but also the politicians who line their pockets with oil money.

Unfortunately, Energy Builders’ ridiculous attack on Thunderbird Strike is just one of many instances of people associated with the fossil fuel industry trying to silence climate change activists and misusing claims of terrorism to do it.

When Energy Transfer Partners hired the private mercenary group TigerSwan to surveil, infiltrate, and target opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) last year, their communications also described water protectors as terrorists. Tigerswan, an organization created by the U.S. military’s global war on terror, painted #NoDAPL as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component” akin to jihadist fighters in the Middle East. The fact that the two are being remotely compared to each other is outrageous enough, but even more so is the fact that legitimate criticisms of DAPL were met with such extreme violence, despite that the water protectors being unarmed and peaceful.

Then there’s the 84 U.S. representatives calling on the Department of Justice to see if the domestic terrorism law would cover attacks on energy infrastructure such as the #NoDAPL protests of the past year. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Colorado representative Ken Buck argued that purposefully damaging the pipeline would pose a threat the environment and civilians living nearby. However, it is clear that pipelines already cause damage on their own due to poor quality assurance, their carbon emissions, and their inherent threat to sources of clean water.

It is far more likely that the label of “terrorist” is being used to protect profit, not only for groups like Energy Builders, but also the politicians who line their pockets with oil money.

In the 64 years since its construction, Line 5—the pipeline at the center of “Thunderbird Strike”—leaked 29 times and spilled more than a million gallons of oil. Ironically, in pointing out the controversial nature of this particular video game project, Energy Builders indirectly acknowledge that there are major problems with pipelines. If Line 5 was “safe, modern, and secure” like Energy Builders’ website suggests fossil fuel projects are, then what reason do they to call on MSU to avoid it as the subject of a game?

Moreover, these claims of terrorism are nothing more than inflated assumptions, as LaPensée points out, as the game never tells you when or whether to strike the pipeline or revive animals. “Thunderbird Strike” is a project of indigenous media makers, a tool to educate about the damaging effects of pipelines, and part of a resource package to prevent further spreading of the black snake across our continent.

“This is meant to mirror the great land-devouring snake, and it’s hard [to see] the shape of the pipeline and its effects on our communities and walk away thinking it’s just about jobs or economics,” said LaPensée in an interview with The Verge. “This is about the extinction of Native species and communities.”

“Thunderbird Strike” is a creative form of resistance against the fossil fuel industry, intended to educate on not only on the damaging effects of oil infrastructure nearby communities and wildlife. Education on controversial issues through a video game isn’t terrorism, and it’s beyond absurd to call it such.