The Adelaide City Council has come under fire after releasing a map for popular video game Minecraft that members of local Kaurna community say erases them from the landscape.
The map is one of two released by the Council as a way to engage young people. The first invites players to recreate Adelaide in 2021 after the pandemic and the other to rebuild Adelaide from 1836 – the moment of colonisation.
It is this second map that has caused issues, as it invites players to rebuild the city on an empty world where the grid-layout, as designed by British-Malaysian officer Colonel William Light, has already been super-imposed into the landscape.
While the Kaurna people are acknowledged as the traditional owners of the land, there are no structures to represent Indigenous habitation and there is no additional information provided about sites, histories or meeting places.
Since being uploaded in April as a way to engage young people, the map has been downloaded hundreds of times – though several prominent members of the Kaurna community told NITV they had no idea it even existed.
When contacted for comment, the Adelaide City Council’s Marketing and Communications Associate Director Kathryn Calaby said in a statement the map was designed by a university student who had been participating in a four-week work experience program.
“The City of Adelaide leads the way on reconciliation and has done so for a long period of time. We are proud of our city’s Kaurna heritage and we were one of the first councils in Australia to sign a Reconciliation Statement in 1997,” the statement read.
“The City of Adelaide has also implemented a number of other important reconciliation initiatives including a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and achievements in Rundle Mall during NAIDOC week each July.”
Senior Kaurna man Micky Kumatpi Marrutya Obrien was not impressed, saying the first he heard about it was when contacted by NITV leaving him disappointed at the total lack of consultation with community.
Yet blame, he said, doesn’t lie with the student but with the Council.
“What support did they give this student? How did they brief them? Who had oversight? Did you think about what an opportunity this might be? Why didn’t you get them the chance to speak to the advisory group? What was the person’s knowledge of our history?” Obrien said.
“Did they have knowledge? Or did you just give them a map and say ‘lay this out for us?’ Reconciliation is about correcting the wrongs that people have made. It’s not just about acknowledging the wrongs.”
The biggest disappointment, Obrien said, was in the framing of the task and the total failure to include any additional history.
For example, Obrien says Colonel Light consulted with Kaurna elder Mullawirraburka when he draw up plans for the city, going so far as to incorporate symbolic elements of the kangaroo and emu into the design of its streets.
He added that there is also no mention of the Letters Patent that established Adelaide and which recognised the sovereignty of the local Aboriginal people. These documents called for their inclusion in the city’s construction but were ignored after they arrived late, causing Aboriginal people to be excluded and dispossessed of their land.
All of which raises interesting questions about what might have been had they been followed.
“It might have been good to see a harmonised world, and see what people can create when they come together, rather than automatically build a colonised, Christian-valued world,” Obrien said.
“Otherwise you have really eliminated the Aboriginal people, as you can see in the initial part of the landscape, it’s already designed in Colonel Light’s vision. There’s no Aboriginal people on the landscape.”
Digital terra nullius
Without this historical context, Karl Wirra Telfer, Senior custodian for country, described the initiative as creating a “digital terra nullius”.
“It’s typical,” Telfer said. “I don’t know who was consulted on this, but it’s the first I heard of it. Anything to do with country should require consultation.”
Telfer, who is a descendant of Mullawirraburka, has played a prominent role in reshaping Adelaide City Council’s approach to its relationship with Aboriginal people since 1997. He was responsible for pushing for initiatives like the creation of Adelaide City Council’s Reconciliation Committee and the dual-naming of places like Tarndanyangga, or Victoria Square.
“They should be talking about the history and laying it out,” Telfer said. “It could have had more information, so it’s not just saying: here’s a grid. It’s all smashed out. Build. Because that’s what they’ve done here and also what they did at the time of colonisation.”
“It shouldn’t be on us to teach people their history.”
South Australian state Greens candidate Major Moogy Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri elder whose mother was a Kaurna woman, said the lack of information extends right through to how violence was “built into” the city.
“People talk about the parks, but what they don’t know is that they are the distance of a rifle bullet,” Sumner said. “Who do you think they were aiming at? Do [the players] know that? That’s why the parks were set up, so if they fought they could judge the distance for how close the Kaurna came so they could shoot them.”
Dr Rhett Loban, a Torres Strait Islander man and researcher with Macquarie University who studies video game design, said games that dealt with colonial histories always run the risk of handling it badly but often this can be overcome with a little imagination.
For instance, Dr Loban’s research has shown the majority of players, when confronted with something interesting or unexpected information, will go and research it further on their own.
“These games are powerful tools for learning,” Dr Loban said. “Maybe in this task, they didn’t capitalise on the rich history that was there beforehand. That could have been integrated into the task."
“When you play a historical game, some players want to recreate history. But sometimes they also want to play out the counterfactuals or alternate histories. You could go back to see what could have been, if there was an opportunity to do things differently.”
“Players [here] could recreate the original build site but there’s also enormous potential to recreate it in the opposite way.”
And with a rich history to draw from, the failure to take any of it into account drives at the heart of Jack Bucksin’s frustrations.
The Kaurna and Narrunga man who has been working to reclaim and revitalise the Kaurna language said that for many a computer game might be silly or meaningless, but it has the potential to be a powerful tool for learning – or reinforce old, long-dead ideas.
“We’re not so much like the eastern coast, where it was full on, where people came in and massacred people. Here it was done in a passive-aggressive way where it’s more subtle and sly. That’s what this brings up,” Buckskin said.
“You know, sometimes it will be like Aboriginal people are on the forefront showcasing the state and country with our art, our language, bringing the money to the state and economy with tourism. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, we’re still controlled and left behind.”