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New video game letting users destroy oil infrastructure comes under fire

Screen shot from Thunderbird Strike.

DULUTH, Minn. — A video game has drawn the fury of the oil industry for its depiction of a user-controlled mythical bird destroying oil infrastructure on its path from the tar sands of Alberta to the Great Lakes.

The game's creator, Michigan State University professor Elizabeth LaPensée, says it is meant to raise awareness of the reasons indigenous groups oppose pipelines such as Enbridge's Lines 3 and 5.

It was paid for in part by Minnesota taxpayers through a $3,290 grant provided by the state Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund, which is derived from a state sales tax. The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council kicked in additional money to bring the total grant to $7,000.

Thunderbird Strike, a PC-based game, lets users control a thunderbird and send lightning bolts to trucks, refineries and pipelines, which disappear when struck.

LaPensée told the energy news website oilprice.com she hopes the game "will bring awareness to pipeline issues and contribute to the discontinuation of Line 5," which runs from Superior to Ontario and under the Straits of Mackinac. Resources on the Thunderbird Strike website encourage visitors to learn about pipeline projects and speak out against them.

She told The Associated Press the game was created independent of Michigan State University, and its equipment and funding.

LaPensée, who is Anishinaabe, Metis and Irish, was a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy's Research for Indigenous Community Health Center in Duluth last year when she released the game Honour Water, an "Anishinaabe singing game for healing the water."

"We're just at such a critical state of crisis about water and about pipeline expansion and ongoing issues of toxicity in the water," she said last year. "We're just at a point where everyone wants to do what we can, and this is one of those situations where the payoff is getting the songs out there."

Oil industry advocacy groups such as Energy Builders have spoken out against the game, warning Thunderbird Strike will incite violence against oil infrastructure.

Arrowhead Regional Arts Council Executive Director Drew Digby said the Duluth-based group "would not fund a project we believe would encourage violence," and added that "it is not our job to judge the political content."

He said it is the artist who has been receiving threats in the wake of the game's publicity.

Some of the best-selling video games of the past decade have been based around the graphic wholesale slaughter of (virtual) human beings; Thunderbird Strike does not depict explosions and allows users to revive animals as well as dispatch pipelines and trucks.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, if you look at games with violence in them, this would be on the 1 side," Digby said. "Art itself often has a point of view, and our job is to provide a level playing field for that."

Erin Roth, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute of Minnesota and Wisconsin, said that while the industry supports peaceful protests and demonstrations, the game went too far.

"We have enough violence in this country, and there's enough violent video games that incite people to do violent acts," Roth said. "Our industry is appalled that Minnesota taxpayer money partly funded this."

Roth urged the Legislature to check its accountability for how Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund money is spent.

State Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, reacted quickly by stating Thursday, Oct. 26, he would sponsor legislation that "provides needed clarifications to Minnesota's arts funding laws."

"It's disappointing to learn that our tax dollars were used by someone who not only moved out of our state but on a project that has zero benefit to Minnesota," said Gunther, chairman of the Minnesota House Legacy Funding Finance Committee.

Digby responded: "I really hope people don't want us to censor artists for their point of view — that would be really wrong."

The oil industry itself often is the recipient of tax incentives and public support.

Thunderbird Strike was unveiled at the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto and won Best Digital Media Work over the weekend. Meanwhile, tensions continue to rise over pipeline projects in the region.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission canceled public hearings about Enbridge's proposed Line 3 project in St. Cloud on Thursday after "logistical and safety issues related to numerous events being held at the convention center," according to a news release.

Protesters put an early end to Line 3 hearings in Duluth last week after chants of "shut it down" overtook normal proceedings.

Wells Fargo in downtown Duluth took extra security measures earlier this week to keep out protesters who seek the bank's divestment from pipeline projects, after a group of protesters entered the bank's lobby on Monday.

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