Video game prompts charges of 'eco-terrorism' from oil pipeline advocates

A screenshot from
A screenshot from "Thunderbird Strike."
Thunderbird Strike website

Updated: 5:22 p.m. | Posted: 10:30 a.m.

The politics of a proposed oil pipeline across northern Minnesota have grown so contentious that even the release of a video game has stirred up controversy.

"Thunderbird Strike," a new game developed by current Michigan State University professor and former Duluth-based Native American artist Elizabeth LaPenseé, allows players to symbolically destroy oil pipelines and other infrastructure. It was partly funded by a Minnesota state arts grant.

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Industry groups argue the game encourages "eco-terrorism," and a Minnesota legislator said he will introduce legislation designed to limit state funding to similar projects in the future.

But the artist and the regional arts group that funded her stand by the project, which they argue does not condone violence and uses imagery to inspire players to think about important issues.

The game depicts a mythical Native American figure called a "thunderbird" that gathers lightning that can be used to either revive creatures or destroy trucks and oil infrastructure, including a pipeline that's also depicted as a snake, using hand-drawn images and stop-motion animations.

In an email, LaPenseé said she created it "with the hope of passing on stories about thunderbirds facing off against a snake that threatens to swallow the lands and waters whole."

"The game is a representation of stories from my community and certainly does not encourage eco-terrorism," she said.

But Toby Mack, president of the Energy Equipment and Infrastructure Alliance, said his group is concerned the game could inspire users to do damage to actual pipeline infrastructure.

"We don't think there's any place for this kind of material being out there," he said. "The consequences of somebody committing an act such as you can on the video game is just horrific."

The game doesn't specifically mention Enbridge Energy's proposal to replace and expand its existing Line 3 pipeline with a larger line along a new route that would nearly double the amount of oil it carries through northern Minnesota from the Oil Sands region of Alberta, Canada.

That proposal has been the subject of growing protest from tribes and Native American groups opposed to the pipeline crossing land near reservations where tribal members hunt, fish and gather wild rice. State regulators plan to make a final decision on the pipeline in April 2018.

But the game begins by showing the route of existing oil pipelines from Canada to the Great Lakes region, and ends with the message "no pipelines on indigenous land."

Contractors work on a replacement for Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline.
Contractors work on a replacement for Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline near Superior, Wis., just east of Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

The Duluth-based Arrowhead Regional Arts Council provided a $7,000 fellowship grant to LaPenseé last year for the project. Nearly half that amount was funded by a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is funded by a sales tax approved by Minnesota voters.

Executive Director Drew Digby said the remainder came from the state general fund, and a grant from the McKnight Foundation. He said he stands by the grant, awarded to a rising star in the Duluth Native American art scene with great credentials.

"She did exactly what she told us she was going to do," Digby said. "And unless we wanted to get into examining the political sides of every artist, that's just a rabbit hole that I don't think anybody wants the state to get into."

Digby said regional arts councils have limits on political activity, and do not fund projects that advocate for a specific political candidate, or for or against a piece of specific legislation. "We would never fund a project that we believe would advocate violence," he added.

Still, state Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, said he plans to introduce legislation that would prevent "abuse" of Minnesota arts and cultural heritage revenue, by increasing oversight of the Minnesota State Arts Board and requiring projects to be completed in Minnesota.

"Common sense would tell you our arts dollars should be spent on programs that serve some purpose to the state of Minnesota, not on an out-of-state video game that blows up oil pipelines," Gunther said.

Meanwhile, LaPenseé said she had received violent threats, including death threats, since the controversy erupted.

"It's just striking and horrific that people would look at art and decide they don't like the political content, and threaten an artist," Digby said.