Ponderance

(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

Joe Boughton-dent, Donkey John, and the role of political simulation games in Australia

Wednesday, October 06, 2004
In August this year, an Australian political simulation game saw Prime Minister John Howard hybridise with a 1980s split-screen verison of the Donkey Kong video game and Donkey John was born. In an effort to drawn attention to the Howard Government's ridiculous and unjust stance on the oil fields "shared" with East Timor, social justice campaigner Joe Boughton-dent, with the help of a few dedicated programmers and designer, developed and launched Donkey John. Below is an interview with Joe, detailing the origins of the political simulation, its inspiration, and the Joe's take on the role of political simulation games in Australia.
Interview with Joe Boughton-dent, producer of Donkey John

Tama: Joe, thanks for taking the time to talk about the development of the Donkey John political simulation game. Could you please explain the genesis of Donkey John; who came up with the idea, who put the simulation together, and who or what body paid for the development?

Joe Boughton-dent: In May 2004 I was contracted to do some work helping to co-ordinate the Timor Sea Justice Campaign in Sydney. The Campaign aims to pressure the Australian Government into changing its hardline position in negotiations with East Timor over maritime boundary negotiations.

As a new country East Timor does not have maritime boundaries with any of its neighbours and the sooner it establishes these borders the sooner it will have access to revenue from oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea. The country desperately needs the money so it can begin to rebuild infrastructure levelled by Indonesian backed militias.

The oil and gas negotiations involve complex legal arguments but can also be seen as a a clear-cut question of justice. Under international law East Timor has a legitimate right to a larger share of the resources in the Timor Sea. At the time I began working for the Campaign, the Australian Government was refusing to acknowledge the validity of East Timor's claim.

I felt the best way to gain support was to simply alert people about what was going on. There wasn't really a need to convince anyone of the merit of East Timor's case because it speaks for itself - the disputed oil and gas resources are a lot closer to East Timor than they are to Australia. If it was possible to raise general awareness of the issue I was confident the Howard Government could be put in a situation where it was called on to defend a fairly indefensible position. Donkey John was one of the first ideas I came up with for getting the message across in a simple and appealing form.

The initial idea came to me during a solo car trip from Canberra to Sydney. I've done the drive many times and as I don't have a stereo to sing along to, my mind often wanders during the drive. I started thinking of possible cartoons that could express what was going on in the negotiations between Australia and East Timor, and eventually I stumbled across the word play of Xanana Gusmario. Once I had the fictional blend of the Italian plumber and the East Timorese President the rest wrote itself.

In the mid-eighties I spent a lot of time playing the hand-held game on which the Donkey John parody is based. Funny enough, the first time I clocked the score on the original game was at some political event my activist parents had dragged me to. I think I was about seven.

Anyway, once I had invented Xanana Gusmario there was only ever one format for the game - an internet based parody of the original hand-held game, with Prime Minister John Howard filling the role of the angry, barrel throwing, monkey.

I decided to keep the project separate from my coordinating work with the Timor Sea Justice Campaign as I was unsure of what would come of the idea, and I didn't want to be soaking up the limited resources available to the general campaign.

As such Donkey John was a side project that only became a reality thanks to the skills and generosity of two people in particular - Kaho Cheung, who did all the coding and design work, and Tom Spiers, who was responsible for the illustrations and splash screen. Both guys gave up a lot of time to take the game from a loose idea to a playable piece of online campaigning. Kaho, in particular, worked really hard to get the game-play right, giving it the infuriatingly addictive quality of the original.

T: Were you aware of other political simulation games (such as Escape from Woomera or the many, many US games centred around their upcoming Presidential elections? If so, do you have a favourite?

J B-d: I heard about the Woomera game when it got a bit of press as a controversial choice for an Australia Council grant. (I checked out the link when you sent it to me - very impressive) And I have seen the US games, of which my favourite is Bush Game, linked off the Punk Voter site.

However, I think my initial inspiration came from a site called Joe Cartoon. One of my workmates pointed the site out to me years ago, and since then I have spent endless hours enjoying its unique blend of cute animation and hill-billy humour.

T: After the initial launch and reception of Donkey John, do you believe the political message behind the game is being clearly received by people playing and discussing Donkey John?

J B-d: There are difficulties, of course, in monitoring what individual players take away from the game. The internet can be very one-sided that way. You put something up on a site and then others take it from there, interacting with the content in whatever way they choose. As a form of feedback I have become addicted to typing "donkeyjohn" into search engines, to check where the game has ended up and what people have to say about it. Something that stands out is that although there is no discussion forum on the donkeyjohn site, the game pops up in a lot of other online forums, and people are taking the chance to explain, or ask questions about, the politics behind the game.

As far as I'm concerned it's an ideal situation. Political campaigning like this is not meant to be a sledgehammer. Rather than preach bumper slogan soundbytes it aims to chip away at ignorance and apathy; to catch people off guard, get them thinking about what the oil deal means to East Timor and what they can do to affect the situation.

However, that's not to say we were totally above a few bumper sticker moments of our own - the loadscreen was designed as a gateway to the game that shouted the main political points and also hinted at some to the subtler stuff to follow.

Is the message missing the mark? I don't think so. The feedback I have indicates people like the game and enjoy the parody. And considering it was put together for only $33 (for the domain name), the site has gained a fair share of publicity. As far as I know it has been covered in Sydney's main papers, on radio, streetpress and popped up on websites based as far a field as Europe and the US.

T: Do you believe that political simulation games such as Donkey John will become a substantial and lasting part of the process of getting across political messages in Australia? Would you consider making another political game to explore/express ideas centred around another political cause.

J B-d: A few years back it looked like the Australian Democrats were going to play a substantial and lasting part of the Australian political process, so you can't take anything for granted really. Seriously though, online games are just one way of passing on a political message. The real battle is to engage people's imagination when it comes to politics, get them thinking, talking and taking action on issues that, if given the opportunity, they really do care about. Personally I think such a goal is too big an ask for a simple internet game. The real power to engage rests with our political leaders, their ability to offer leadership and capture the imagination. I used to think it didn't really matter who the Prime Minister was because, in terms of day-to-day living, the role is far removed from my daily experience. However, over the past six or so years I have seen reconciliation drop off the national agenda, a republic fall by the wayside and innocent kids locked up behind razor wire in the desert. And what happened to beating climate change? Being a leader should encompass more than just having the top job, and managing to keep it.

Games, songs and other examples of creative political expression are outlets that reflect frustration with the way things are and a desire for change. I am optimistic that the ballot box will catch up, but in the meantime these are just some of the ways we can keep ourselves sane, and entertained.

T: Was the use of the split two-screen handheld game style a specific reference to the 1980s and the international era of conservatism in which these style of games were popular? (If not, what did inspire the design choice)

J B-d: The game and watch split-screen style was not a direct comment on the conservatism of the era, but it is linked. The particular design for Donkey John says more about the age of those involved in putting the game together than it does about Thatcher, Reagan and the pre-statesman, pro-eyebrows, 80s version of Howard.

Thanks to the programming skills of Kaho we were able to put together a game that has a bit more to it than a lot of the simple animations that have emerged in the 2004 Australian election. And looking at Escape from Woomera, the genre is going to go a lot further, which is great. If you can combine a few good ideas I think it helps engage a wider audience. Lets hope the politicians pick up on that one.
For more information on Joe Boughton-dent's Donkey John, check out an audio interview here from SBS Radio (from 23rd Sept 2004).

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