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By Sean Nicholls April 30 2003

It's a dose of virtual reality that the Immigration Minister could probably do without: a computer game in which players try to escape from Australian detention centres has received $25,000 in federal funding.

The game, Escape from Woomera, will be modelled on four of the country's most contentious detention centres. It received the money from the Australia Council, the federal arts funding body, last month. The council has defended the grant, saying it was impressed by the merits of the application. But the minister, Philip Ruddock, most certainly was not. “The decision reflects poorly upon the Australia Council and its judgement, that the organisation should lend its name to the promotion of unlawful behaviour,” Mr Ruddock said yesterday. A ministerial spokeswoman added that the office would be contacting the council to “express a fairly firm view about the allocation of [its] resources”. But she said the minister did not have the power to withdraw the funding. The game's creators plan to reproduce the exact conditions within the centres at Woomera (now closed), Baxter, Port Hedland and Villawood. Television footage, press and radio reports, and the recollections of former detainees and employees will be used to mimic the layout and daily life in the centres, down to meal times, the way guards communicate with each other and “episodic violence”. Players will be challenged to escape using the means at hand - digging tunnels, scaling fences or via the efforts of refugee action groups or sympathetic lawyers.

“We expect people to be upset,” said one of the game's creators, who requested anonymity. “But there's been a lot of focus on the victimhood [of detainees] and we really want to focus on the bravery and heroism of these people.” She said the project was also a reaction to the Federal Government's policy of restricting media access to detention centres: “They don't want people to know what it's like, and we do.”

Michael Snelling, the chairman of the council's new media arts board, which funded the project, agreed there was “some irony” in one arm of government funding something critical of another but insisted it was a strong application. “We're well aware the project could be controversial. But we would be guilty of not doing our job if we didn't fund something that met all the criteria and ranked competitively.”

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The videogame is the most rapidly evolving, exciting, subversive and feared cultural medium in the world today. It's akin to graffiti on the cultural landscape. As such it is ripe for an injection of interesting and progressive ideas that can effect social change. We are a team of game developers, digital artists and media professionals, committed to the videogame medium - not merely as a vehicle for conceptual new media art or profit-driven entertainment - but as a free, independent art form in its own right. The creation of Escape From Woomera is part of a larger goal: the rise of a counter-culture of developers and gamers who create and engage with game art outside the mainstream corporate industry.

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