A video game developed by a Michigan State University assistant professor supports "eco-terrorism" by enabling players to zap imaginary oil pipelines with lightning bolts, an industry group said Wednesday, although the designer countered that it's not meant to incite violence.
"Thunderbird Strike" is based on an indigenous cultural figure called a thunderbird, said Elizabeth LaPensee, who led the project. It traces the bird's path through areas of Canada and Michigan where oil production and transport have inspired protests. Players can earn points by firing lightning at snakelike pipelines, trucks and other oil industry structures.
It can be downloaded from a website that says players will protect the earth "with searing lightning against the snake that threatens to swallow the lands and waters whole."
It may be just a game, but could lead to disaster if even one user is inspired to vandalize an actual pipeline, said Toby Mack, president of Energy Builders, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for builders of energy infrastructure.
"We call on Michigan State University to pull the plug immediately on this taxpayer-funded political campaign and reject any so-called educational program designed to encourage eco-terrorism or other bad behavior," Mack said.
The game's website previously said it had been developed "in affiliation with" the university's Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab. The wording was changed Wednesday night to read, "With gratitude to Michigan State University."
LaPensee said in a phone interview she deleted the reference to the lab to clarify that she and collaborators had produced the game independently, not as a university project. She said she began working on it a year before joining the university's Department of Media and Information in 2016 and did not use the lab's equipment or funds. The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council in Duluth, Minnesota, provided a grant that covered some of the costs, she said.
"Thunderbird Strike" is intended as a work of art and a tool for educating people about how oil development has damaged the environment, LaPensee said.
"It certainly is not encouraging anyone to commit eco-terrorism," she said, adding that people should play it before passing judgment.
While players can hurl lightning at oil equipment, they also can target people and animal figures with the purpose of bringing them to life, LaPensee said.
"It's optional whether or not you attack oil structures or you focus on activating animals and people," she said. "The game never tells you what your choice should be."
The game recently was named best digital media work at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.
Statement from Michigan State University spokesperson Jason Cody:
“MSU is aware of the video game created by professor Elizabeth LaPensee, who developed the game as an independent project and not as part of her work for MSU. Per the professor, the game is intended to educate people about oil development and the environment, and it is not advocating for anyone to commit eco-terrorism.”