John Gaudiosi, Contributor
I’ve been covering video games and technology for 20 years
4/13/2013 @ 11:12AM
Tax Evaders Video Game Sheds Interactive Light On Corporate Greed
Protesters had something to do as they gathered in 10 cities like New York, Baltimore, Seattle, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Tampa, Gainesville and Hawaii from April 10 through Tax Day, April 15. That’s because there were giant projections on the sides of corporate buildings like Citibank allowing them to use a Wii controller or Kinect for Xbox 360 to battle corporate greed virtually.
Tax Evaders, which is also available to play for free online at www.taxevaders.net, is a humorous take on Space Invaders that offers more than just the chance for a high score. With the nation busy making last-minute preparations for the IRS tax deadline, this original game is literally shedding light (through projection technology designed for Occupy Wall Street) on one of the problems this country faces because of corporate loopholes and a government controlled by special interest groups.
Gan Golan, coordinator of the national project, talks about what’s wrong with our current tax loopholes and how gaming can be used to raise awareness for important issues in this exclusive interview.
Where did the idea for a video game come from?
I like to use popular culture to help get a message across, particularly sports and games, where the issue of fairness and playing by the rules are ever-present for the viewer. This underscores the incredible unfairness of how corporations have distorted our economic and political systems. Last year I was working within Occupy Wall Street and created a fake baseball team to go after super wealthy corporations who did not pay taxes, called The Tax Dodgers, where every player was a corporation, like GE, Verizon or Boeing. We showed up to corporate headquarters and did performances for the crowds on the street. That became popular to the point where we were actually contacted by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and one of our uniforms was then put on display. That actually happened. After that, I was trying to figure out a new way to bring these same issues to light and that’s when I realized that maybe the only thing as popular as sports, were video games.
What role do you see gaming playing today as a call to action for consumers?
I think sparking political conversation through popular culture gives us the ability to have conversations about serious issues in new ways. So I like to work with the things they consume already, comic books, sports, video games, to raise questions about our economic system on a fundamental level. Gaming allows the player to inhabit a new identity and actually embody that role for a while.
How did you go about creating this game?
As I was watching the game being projected onto the side of Citibank’s building in Manhattan with a whole crowd of people, I was totally mesmerized. I was just in awe at how many people it took to make that moment happen. It was quite an operation. First, I reached out to The Yes Men, and they connected me to a brilliant ‘radical game designer’ named Paolo Pedercini, or Molleindustria. I already had the basic concept: a space invaders parody where the player would be an everyday person, or crowd of citizens, defending social security, health care and housing from corporate tax evaders, but Paolo took it to a whole new level. He totally revamped the gameplay so that as you blasted the evaders, who were trying to escape, revenues would fall out of them and replenish our public services. It was a brilliant twist, and he designed an original, smooth gameplay around this. Then I found a great indie game pixel artist, James Biddulph, and sound designer Ashton Morris. Everyone was working at below cost because they believe in the project and its goals.
Meanwhile, I had been talking to my friends at The Illuminator, a guerilla projection team that emerged from Occupy Wall Street, and the idea expanded from there. On the first night, we had projection teams in New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and Baltimore all projecting the game onto corporate Tax Evaders’ buildings and giving everyday people on the street a chance to blast them. It was public art, but it was also pre-figurative politics. People could see themselves more easily taking these corporations on in real life.
Our public debate needs a major course correction. The obvious needs to be said: Why we are even discussing cuts to social security before we go after these corporate tax evaders who are taking hundreds of billions out of our budget. Nearly $100 billion a year is lost to corporate tax dodging. Cuts are threatening the very fabric of our public institutions, from health care, to housing, to education, even airports, at a time when the banks who created this economic crisis are making record profits, other multinational companies are making a killing, all while paying a smaller and smaller share of taxes. The rest of us pay our fair share. That’s hard, particularly when so many of us are struggling, but we do it because we know that that’s what keeps our society running. We believe in the Common Good. Meanwhile GE pays less than we do. That strikes me, and most Americans, as grossly unfair, and a sign of how distorted our economic system has become. It also underscores the fact that these companies are rigging the game and bending the rules in their favor. For every dollar they spend on lobbying, they get $200 back in tax cuts and the right to use loopholes and tax havens. That’s a staggering return on investment, made by buying off our elected representatives. What they’ve done is only legal because they’ve paid off the lawmakers.
What technology are you using for gamers to play on the sides of buildings around the country?
We’ve integrated a pretty broad array of existing technologies, which we try to use in new, innovative ways. The illuminator projection in NYC made a name for themselves projecting “We Are The 99%” in public spaces, and the idea has spread nationally, so there are project teams in multiple cities now. They have a van where the projector pops up out of the back. But this is the first time they were all doing a national coordinated Night of Action. All told we have projection groups in five cities and overpass light brigades in another seven from Hawaii to Tampa.
The projection group in NYC played the game against a Citibank building using a Wii controller, so the player could stand across the street and blast the evaders on a huge screen. The projection group in Baltimore used an Xbox 360 Kinect to play the game on the wall of a Bank of America, so as people moved in space and pumped their fists, the crowd of angry people in the game shot people power at the evaders.
We integrated a twitter bomb feature into the website so after you play the game you can blast them for real. It shoots tweets at the Tax Evading corporations pretty quickly at taxevaders.net/blast-em
The US loses nearly $100 billion a year due to corporate tax evasion. (US PIRG http://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/Picking_Up_the_Tab_2013_USPIRG.pdf)
If GE alone had paid its fair share of taxes for one year we could have hired over 500,000 teachers, or provided 33 million kids with immunizations. (Americans For Tax Fairness http://www.americansfortaxfairness.org/files/GE_PR_final.pdf)
That’s just one company.
How do you hope these events will impact the current government loopholes for big multinational companies when it comes to taxes?
Tax Policy is a mind numbing issue for most people. It’s not sexy. But it’s a place where basic issue of fairness, and crucial life and death issues are decided. Who gets educated or who doesn’t. Who gets medical care or not. Who among us pays to keep society running and who thinks they are too rich to have to pay anything.
How can gamers get involved in this cause?
Games are a great place to tell stories, exchange ideas, and challenge the prevailing ideology. It can be a pre-figurative place, where we can witness ourselves taking the kinds of actions we need to take in the real world. So, let’s make those games and play those games. Of course, don’t just be a good gamer, be a citizen. This is a democracy, so if you see injustice being done in your name, put down the controller and take the damn streets. Right now, the corporations and their paid employees in government are already playing a game, they just won’t share the controller. They are not going to give it to us. We’re going to have to rip it out of their hands.
What type of attendance do you expect at the cities you’re holding these events at?
We were projecting the game on the side of Citibank and had a nice crowd of about 50 people constantly gathered in NYC. People cheered when the player did well, and booed when the corporations won. It was quite an event.
If successful, how might you use gaming in the future for other causes?
Gaming is a media, not a genre. Like filmmaking or novel writing, you can use it for anything. Unfortunately, just like those other media, it remains largely in the control of institutions with little imagination and a deep abiding interesting in maintaining the status quo. We can create games that challenge them on any issue.
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