Image: Elizabeth LaPensée
Guess what: Some old people came out and claimed a video game promoted violence again. On Thursday, Minnesota state Senator David Osmek said Thunderbird Strike—a video game where players control an Indigenous thunderbird and destroy pipelines while restoring the natural environment—is "an eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds."The game—which won the award for best digital media at the ImagineNATIVE festival in Toronto last weekend—was created by Elizabeth LaPensée, an Anishinaabe, Métis, and Irish games developer, and assistant professor of media and information at Michigan State University. She told Motherboard in an interview earlier this month that the game is intended to advocate for the removal of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac in the Great Lakes.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Toby Mack, the president of the Energy Equipment & Infrastructure Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based energy organization that advocates for pipelines, said the game was "designed to encourage eco-terrorism."
Mack told me in a phone interview that he hadn't played the game himself (he said he didn't want to risk downloading software on a company computer). Instead, he read reviews, saw screenshots of the game, and looked at the game's website in order to come to this conclusion."A video game that depicts that kind of activity has the potential to encourage or plant the idea that that's something somebody should do, that's our concern," he said.Osmek, a Republican, told Motherboard in an email he stood by his "Angry Birds" comment. He further added the game looks like it was "programmed on a Commodore 64, circa 1985," and called for the funding Lapensée received from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council—amounting to under $4,000—to be investigated. Osmek says the money was supposed to be spent on Minnesota projects, and Lapensée works as an assistant professor (in his email to me, he put "professor" in quotation marks) at a Michigan university."If there was any fraud committed, I am pretty sure we have some legal means to recover that money," he wrote.In a Facebook post, LaPensée said that she finished the work in Minnesota before moving to Michigan, and encouraged her followers to send letters of support to the arts council. She emailed the following statement to Motherboard:
"As a resident of Duluth, Minnesota, I applied for and received the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council Artist Fellowship Grant, which provides support to assist artists with setting aside time to pursue activities that will allow them to pursue their artistic goals," she told me in an email. "I completed all assets of the game outlined in the grant proposal while living in Minnesota. The game art textures were created from photos taken in the region. The game reflects the importance of the wellbeing of the waters in Minnesota."This is, again, a game in which you control a mythical bird, and the cutscenes show people advocating for clean energy sources, not attacks and destruction. But I guess lobbyists and politicians are nervous about that, too.Update: This article has been updated with comment from Elizabeth LaPensée.Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Osmek as a state senator in Michigan. He is a state senator in Minnesota.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.