Observatory Case

Return to Escape from Woomera


The video game Escape from Woomera was created in 2003 by a collective of developers, artists and journalists. It aimed to give players a sense of what life was like in an Australian asylum detention centre. Since journalistic access to these sites was severely limited, the collective used testimonies of former detainees to model the Woomera detention centre in virtual space. Players take on the character of Mustafa, who escaped from Iran after the torture of his parents and whose asylum claim has just been denied. To win the game Mustafa must find a way to escape, while maintaining his levels of hope. Only methods and techniques attempted by detainees in real life are allowed in the game. If his levels of hope fall too low, Mustafa is deported and the game ends.    

“The game was one of the first depictions that Australians got of what it was actually like inside a detention centre – and it was a game, it wasn’t an undercover journalism exposé” – Rachel Roberts, Applespiel

At the time the game generated large amounts of press coverage, drawing condemnation from Philip Ruddock (then Minister for Immigration) and a host of refugee and human rights representatives (Golding, 2013). At least part of this reflected the choice of a playful medium to platform serious and critical content, in what turned out to be an early example of what are now called ‘serious’ games.

Between 2018-2020, theatre artists Applespiel revisited the game as part of a series of participatory performances, riffing on the live format of e-sports tournaments. The piece was entitled Return to Escape from Woomera. While individual audience members would take turns to play the game on a large projection screen, performers would lead the rest of the group through a series of facilitated discussions and reflections about the history of the game, and the current state of asylum policy. Each event featured a different panel of former asylum seekers, commentators or researchers that were able to reflect on the previous 15 years.

Asking former asylum seekers to return to traumatic testimonies was not a decision taken lightly by the theatre collective but became part of a shared process of reflection on how current and historic policies have tended towards the repression of non-white communities including refugees and Indigenous Australians.

“These are policies put in place by a white Australia; these are policies that we benefit from. They are from governments that either we, our parents or grandparents have voted for. There is a white obligation to look at this part of our history and this part of our present.” – Rachel Roberts

Transformative creative practices:

The retrospective nature of the performance raises critical questions about the ability of creative practice to make meaningful social change. Although the game was highly successful in bringing visibility to the situation of asylum seekers at the time, Rachel Roberts from Applespiel reflects on how conditions are actually worse today for asylum seekers than in 2003. Over the last 15 years there has been a revolution in the role of video games in society, yet a total stasis in asylum policy.

“we would have audience members who remembered going to rallies in 2002-2004 really thinking, “this has got to change, this will change, this is outrageous, this is such a violation of human rights” and their disillusionment now 16 years later…and having that sit in the room…you are confronted with how little power you have and with how resilient these structures are.” – Rachel Roberts, Applespiel

The performances also introduced younger audiences to the game for the first time and asked them to examine their position on an asylum regime that is deliberately obscured. The act of returning to Escape from Woomera (rather than making an entirely new piece) enables the struggle for refugee rights to be seen as part of a longer movement for change. However, the experience of creating the piece has also shown Roberts the limitations of creative practices.

“it hammers home this feeling that the art we make isn’t going to change anything. It might have some impact on the way someone thinks about something, but it will never be enough. That’s not art’s fault, art does what art can. The systems that we are trying to change are too resistant to being transformed. It’s very easy to get disheartened by thinking – there’s this huge issue and I want it to change and I have this expressive tool that helps me connect to other people, and help people to connect to each other and hopefully even provide new perspectives and create actionable ways forward – but it will never be enough to create mass change.” Rachel Roberts

This poignant reflection highlights the courage that is required to care about something without any medium-term hope for political change. For Applespiel, continuing to meet and talk about refugee rights marks for the historical record that somebody cared enough to bring connect people and to ask them to think differently about human rights.

Connections to sustainability:

Applespiel’s performance does not address sustainability issues directly, but it does speak to key questions about the forms of change that art can (and cannot) engender. Since climate change is widely predicted to trigger an increase in extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heatwaves, many researchers expect this to act as a driver of forced migration, though significant data gaps remain (see IOM, 2020 for an overview). 

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Project credits:

Developed for and premiered at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October 2018, and also shown at Arts House Melbourne in 2019, and Canberra Theatre Centre in 2020.
Lead artists: Applespiel (Nathan Harrison, Emma McManus, Rachel Roberts, Simon Vaughan), Dramaturge: Paschal Daantos Berry, Technical director: Solomon Thomas
Lighting and set designer: Emma Lockhart-Wilson


“There were moments where you were watching and having to reflect on what decision you’d make in the game. Then you were brought back to reality by the fact that someone on the panel said, “I made that decision and it landed me another five years in detention”. The multi modal element of that was really transformative.” – Lizzie Crouch, nominator