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City on the run ( on Banoptikon videogame)

Ilias Marmaras


The following paper is a description of a project that took place the last three years, a project that attempts to simulate in the form of a videogame the results of a research. The research examines different aspects of current migrational politics and several issues that are generated from the power relations between migrants, “locals” and authorities, which are weaving and constructing the European canvas of this new struggle field. The central axis of this struggle concerns the digitalization process of migration flows and consequently, the transformations that affect the different actors and the urban territories.

Keywords: migration flow; ICTs; digitalisation; digital deportability; control mechanisms; networking


A major issue of debate in the social/political struggle field is the digitalisation of the mechanisms of control and surveillance. These mechanisms present an interesting contradiction; although they are based on machines and devices, they appear –mostly- “invisible” and “immaterial” to those they are applied on. Taking this into consideration, the videogame was considered for the particular research program as the most appropriate medium which could not only visualise these mechanisms and their unexpected and confusing results but it could also simulate the different situations involved. Videogames can be either media or games, but sometimes they can be both. When used as media, they may carry an idea from one place to another while when used as games, they can establish a set of conditions within which humans play. Any meaning or message that comes out of the game can be generated by players, and sometimes it might even contradict the game's original design. The first question that was posed was: To which extent can a 3D videogame serve as a tool in order to simulate the perplexed condition that we come across when we face the new / hybrid forms of surveillance and control applied on migration mobility?


What we face here is a situation of “bodies in mobility” and the “internalization of tracing”. “For bodies in mobility, the greatest threat appears to be the possibility of being digitally fingerprinted in a precise and accurate manner; in a way that fingerprints will be traceable in different databases all over Europe and a hit would force them to return. Digital fingerprinting becomes a much more significant threat than physical arrest or imprisonment, precisely because it is internalized. Bodies in mobility under this threat learn that they should constantly avoid any procedure that may lead them in front of this possibility, including the chance to apply for asylum, to go to the hospital or register their children to school” [1].

We come against a new state of being, that is a co-existence of a physical body with its virtual dedoublement. If the average user of the virtual spaces, the inhabitant of today’s hybrid city , chooses to deal with different forms of “existence” and shifting identities, a migrant not only is obliged to do so, but in addition he has to carry this multiplicity all the time on his own body everywhere she/he stands or moves. The migrant is not simply a subject of “anytime control” but a body that has to maintain the potential of movement and at the same time be “fixed” as a butterfly on the canvas of a database. For migrants or at least for many migrants, the primal aim “to find a city to live in” [2] (in the meaning of a permanent place of stay) is diverged to a nomad lining on roads and movements. Or, else we need to consider databases as a domicile address,,, without forgetting that this could be turned into an advantage for migrants; Eurodac’s database is based in Luxemburg, the richest state in Europe.

But, if the bodies in mobility are really surveyed and controlled via the fingerprinting methods – as imposed by the Eurodac accord [2] –, then we could also say that the migrants carry the borders on their fingers. This in its turn means that the limits between cities and non-urban areas (like the passage at Evros River in the Greek-Turkish border) are blurred. And to a further extent, for migrants, regardless if they enter a geographical border or they walk at the streets of a European city, by carrying the borders on their fingers they are under the constant threat of “digital deportability” [3].

In the Banoptikon videogame the actors are constantly on the move while feeling uneasy,, just like it happens in real life. They are threatened by being deported at any time and as the research case studies showed there is a rather unclear situation regarding the efficiency of the digital mechanisms of control. One wonder: do we face surveillance mechanisms or intimidation tactics? “Much like Bentham’s Panopticon, which may be empty, one never knows if the digital mechanisms of surveillance are in fact working properly, if data will be lost, or unsuccessfully registered in the system. In other words, one never knows if the gesture of fingerprinting is in fact an empty gesture” [4].

An avatar at the Border zone which is one of game’s levels, confirms the paradox of the results of fingerprinting by saying: “I have been fingerprinted and the others who were with me were ‘fingered’ on paper. I was too. But I do not know why, maybe because the print of my fingers was not good enough or anything. I also had to stick my fingers into a small machine with a glass to put my fingers on. I know that most of the fingerprints do not matter so much. I know two Sudanese people, who made it a week ago over the Adriatic Sea to Germany. We were all together in the prison of Pagani a year ago. Obviously, there was no problem with their fingerprints in Germany. People never tell that they come via Greece. I do not know if you did well by not asking for asylum or not. In any case, none seems to know”.

In the gameplay, there is a starting point -The River passage - and a desirable end - the Euro-city-. This structure corresponds to the stereotype that most of the inhabitants of the E.U territory share. It corresponds also to the desires of the migrants. But this “reading of the gameplay” is just an epiphenomenon. The players realise that actually there is no safety; there is no final shelter for most of the migrants most of the time. Even if they swift identities -in the game the user’s avatar swifts identity in some cases- they are under the threat of being controlled, exposed, having to take the migration road once again. As migrants in the game are heard saying: “Walking will become the law, and collectivity the code”.


Fifteen years ago, when migration started becoming an urgent problem for the Greek state, several detention camps -for some the right name is concentration camps- appeared, located mostly in the eastern islands of the Aegean Sea. Recently, and under the pressure of the crisis and the social-political buzz for the recuperation of Athens’ centre, more camps have been built at the periphery of the city. Most of them are structures insufficient to host human beings, -in some cases more than a hundred persons are crammed in twenty square meter cells- but they are well equipped with CCTV cameras, digital systems of control and communication, digital machines for fingerprinting and data transfer to the central data base in Luxembourg.

This new condition, that tends to become a “permanent state of exception” leads to the question: Are the detention camps parts of the city? One could argue that detention camps are mechanisms of control, which intervene in the migration flow. In fact, what the detention camps are doing is to decelerate the migration flow. And this is not happening only by the physical imprisonment of the bodies but mainly by the process of fingerprinting. Camps , both physical and digital, are at the same time traps that aim to re-territorialize -literally- the “flight” of the swarm of “migration birds”.

In the game there is a simulation -based on the material offered by the team of the No Borders Organisation- of the famous – inactive today - camp of Pagani at Lesvos Island. Back to late 90’s, this camp, situated a few kilometers from the island’s capital, was among the first places –if not the first one- that the digital system of fingerprinting was installed. An avatar in the game describes the impact these technologies had on the uninformed and confused migrants.

“I was fingerprinted here in the camp with others. We were not told anything. There was no translator. I have not seen anyone. There were boys in the camp who spoke English and told us to go quietly. I had no information on fingerprints. It was the first time. I was afraid. I said, why did they take my fingerprints if I have not done anything? I did not understand why”.

The player in the game that “listens” to the migrant avatar is simultaneously informed through a notification card that: “We call the moving body of migration, which is legible (instead of intelligible) and literally to be 'read' by machines the embodied identity of migration. However, such identity is not a result of the initial enrollment. Technically speaking it becomes even more clear that the identity of a migrant is achieved only when it comes to a situation of producing a hit within Eurodac, because in the language of programming “identification” results from a one-to-many search via pattern recognition algorithms in an established database. Thus, the embodied identity of migration within Eurodac is deeply and by definition linked with the establishment of a body that Epstein calls the “foreign body” and the “risky body”[5].


“Theorising cities as flows or urban spaces as networks is nothing new. The architecture of the cell is no longer relevant to the everyday lives of cities. Although the centre of Athens is invested with symbolic power by the discourse of migration, migrant mobilities defy this logic of the centre or of centralisation.” [7].

Athens’ city centre appears as a central node in the gamespace design. This is based not only in the fact that Greece and especially Athens have radically changed in the last years, but mostly in the ways that these changes appeared and continue to appear. In other words, in Athens changes didn't happen in a rational mode, following a form of “proper” urban evolution as it might have been the case for other European cities; on the contrary changes occurred under extreme pressure and conditions that often involved radical technological changes, population bouleversements and even natural, social and political disasters.

In the game, the down town part of Athens appears as a center only to be deconstructed as such. The networking “nature” of the material migration flow and the representation of the digitalised life of the city dwellers (that live a “life on the screen”, a life that goes along the different networks of communication) is present everywhere. The main question that concerned us in the development of the gameplay for this essential level was the following: Which are the relations between the city as a structure and the different actors, both of which are considered as game elements in the game? Taking into consideration that migration is primarily an unbounded social movement, the game simulates the area of Athens within a larger terrain of flows and mobilities. Different groups / actors move in an environment that looks more as a screen rather than a physical space. The movement of the avatars is hypnotic , a reference to the bizarre images of people walking in the “real streets” wired to their smartphones, talking to invisible listeners or looking at the screens of their digital devices. The space has huge video-screens embedded broadcasting footage that break down the architecture of narration.

In the interior spaces of several buildings, some avatars that simulate sex workers, talk about the use of ICTs in their jobs. Information flow on education and religious matters or intercultural conflict and dialogue show the interconnections between the migrant’s countries of origin, the transit spaces (like Athens) and the destination countries. “Wide access to ICTs has become particularly significant. In host societies, this technical aid has generated new forms of improvised and informal social integration, which often make up for the shortcomings of institutions. Thanks to ICTs, individuals who are separated from their family can not only maintain occasional contact with their place of origin, but also take part in family decisions and events” [8].

A sex worker (in the game) states clearly that: “This business cannot exist, I don’t know how it would exist without the technologies. Then I would’ve needed to do something else... How can you, how would you, it’s not possible. I think nobody could do without it. OK, maybe without the Internet easier than without the phone. The phone is no. 1 in these things. Then the Internet... This is what I think; nobody could work without a phone”. In another case, a young Muslim explains how Internet strongly influenced his religious life. “For me, new media were the way to learn about Islam. I was not born as a Muslim, but chose for the Islam. And when I was considering the Islam, I went on the Internet. That was my entrance to Islam”.

After all, to quote Deleuze: “When we need to keep at a distance the forces of chaos knocking at the door, we draw a transportable and pneumatic territory. If needed, I will catch my territory on my own body, I territorialize my body.” [9] The digital devices is that very kind of ritournelle, which allows one to reterritorialize oneself when the forces of chaos are knocking at one’s (door) life.


Intercultural conflicts and identity production fights, are taking place everywhere. Power and counter- power structures are formed and dissolved in both physical and virtual space. Consequently, the hybrid spaces are also spaces of conflict between ICTs and “old non-flexible structures”. But then, the question that arises is: Which are the perceptible forms of the game affected by power and counter-power?

“The city is the main site of contestation and cultural/identity-conflicts. It is the space for the formation of political identities. Both sides fight over the definition of the urban space as either internationalist, multicultural and cosmopolitan or as one of contamination, ethnic alienation and annihilation. Or, to put it differently, is the city an open cosmos or a closed, militarised, and secured zone of ethnic cleansing?” [10]

As mentioned earlier, the conflict is taking place in both the urban space and in the digital networks. Putting aside the mainstream media that are under the control of either the state or the corporate powers, for most of the actors the battlefield is set in the spaces of the social media. We know from previous social and political events, like the ones of December 2008 in Athens, that the first medium that reproduced the news of the murder of the young adolescent Alexis Grigoropoulos, which provoked the revolt, was Twitter. Indeed, a crucial part in communicating the riots was the hashtag #griots. The December 2008 riots were a true social revolt, but they had a more decentralized form and were organised in a way that the status quo did not recognize or acknowledge them.

On the web, the revolt took place in a much more structured manner; it was differentiated from the rhetoric of the status quo of the mainstream media, which refused of course to respond to their demands. According to the Economist, the Greek riots prompted the discourse around a new era of networked protest. And it seems to be so for many people because mobile phones and blogs, through which real-time communication is achieved, proved to be a weapon more efficient than Molotov cocktails. As a blogger wrote at the time: “What has been witnessed is a form of internet hyper - Darwinism in which the forces of change which usually take years, have been compressed into a time frame measured in weeks.”

But to which extent is this new form of struggle and “openness” achieved for Greek protesters applied in migration flows and intercultural conflicts that follow? “In Greece we know that migrants do not have any agency in the public sphere and they are mediated. Their discursive contributions are limited to migration issues exclusively. This is often reduced to mere accounts of their experiences, as they are not asked for their personal analyses or opinions towards social, political, cultural, or economic issues. There is actually no institutionalised recognition of migrants in Greek public discourse and they are mainly excluded from networks. Migrants are mostly criminalised, degraded, or victimised. They have little chances to “talk back” even online, as right wing groups threaten or/and terrorise migrant participants in online discourses. Even in anti-racist discourses, migrants are almost invisible since they have no active individual speaker roles. They are suppressed in hidden in grassroots online forums, too. Migrants use online media mainly for personal purposes. Anti-racist groups use Internet platforms only selectively and for the distribution of information. There is little to no communicative interaction between migrants and anti-racist movements. This severely limits the possibilities for migrants to step out of their invisibility. (Interestingly, despite their potential to have fluid online identities, users tend to reproduce racialised and gendered identities on the Web).” [11]

In Banoptikon, in the simulation of the gamespace of Athens down tow, the player experiences the absence of the participation of migrants as political subjects that claim and use technology in order stand up for their rights. In other words, the player realises the exclusion of migrants from the communication networks in which racial and anti-racial situations and struggles are taking place. In the game’s dialogues, migrants “talk” about the use of ICTs as tools for the amelioration of their bonds with family, for educational and religious purposes or as tools that serve a better work condition. But they never –or very rarely- appear to use the new technologies to organise their struggles for political and social rights that could result in better living conditions.

There is a dialogue in the harbor of Igoumenitsa town, which is one of the main exit gates for migrants to Italy. The dialogue, inside the game, is taking place under a video screen that broadcasts a pogrom situation that occurred there in 2011. A group of migrants is playing football in an area close to the harbor, until locals supported with anti-riot police forces attack them. “We were playing football, we were calm. They attacked us with rocks. Some of us also they throw them to keep them in distance. Then the police came and helped them; the police was using gas and somethingother, like big balls. And after they changed all the truth. They have camera. They make video. They changed the whole story. They show them enjoying down with their music-party there and we attacked them. They changed everything. Okay, they don’t want to help us. But to lie like this! They put it in the Internet to show the entire world to say: Don’t accept them! If you take them they will make problem. There must be truth in the world, because they don’t tell the situation, they give us wrong pictures. Because we the people here, we don’t have cameras, we don’t have TV to produce pictures about our situation here”.

But this is not a complete picture of the relation that “bodies in mobility” hold with technology and networking. As everyone that finds herself in a state of emergency, migrants invent their own tactics and their own form of networks. We could call it Ad hoc networking. “Ad hoc networking is what forms a constant threat for destabilising the regular network. Control and surveillance, for instance, count and aim to expand and reproduce the regular operation of the network: they need to make sure that first of all, authorised users should have unhindered access to the network, that data flows don’t fail, that unauthorised users or data (viruses or hackers) don’t disrupt the network. Ad hoc networking exploits the weaknesses of the regular network in order to create discontinuities, breaks, cracks within it” [12].


Banoptikon tries to simulate social and political situations referring to migration flow, which are taking place inside cities, networks, rural areas and above all to human bodies. Bodies are the subjects on which old and new technologies are applied and therefore they still remain the basic topos of the battlefield. As Brouno Latour states back in the 80’s: “It is an agonistic situation, a power struggle or warlike situation, in which “the one able to master on the spot the largest number of well aligned and faithful allies will win” [13]. Or to put it differently, in this specific case what we are facing, the melting point between bodies on the move on one hand and digital technologies of control on the other can be located; that is a situation where the body becomes data, and thus subject to control, while the same time the data are materialised and become bodies.

“So, precisely because the migrants carry the border, because they embody the border – especially in the form of their fingers – they cannot entirely cross it. However, what they do is to transgress the border at the same time as incorporating it. Only in this way they re-territorialise the border and they push it deeper into the European territory and they challenge the limits of Europe.” [14]


[1] V. Tsianos & Br. Kuster, “Border Crossings”,

[2] Talking Heads - Cities.

[3] V. Tsianos & Br. Kuster, “Border Crossings”,

[4] V. Tsianos & Br. Kuster, “Border Crossings”,

[5] C. Epstein, Charlotte,,“Embodying Risk: using biometrics to protect the borders”,in: Louise Amoore and Marieke de Gloede (eds), Risk and the War on Terror, London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

[6] N. Kambouri & P. Hatzopoulos,“Athens is no longer a cell (if it ever was) but an interconnected network. “, unpublished

[7] N. Kambouri & P. Hatzopoulos,“Athens is no longer a cell (if it ever was) but an interconnected network.”, unpublished

[8] D. Diminescu, M. Pajnik, D. Parsanoglou, Th. Priftis,“Information and Communication Flows”,

[9] G. Deleuze, “Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle”, in: L 'autre journal, n°1, 1990

10] A. Karatzogianni, O. Morgunova,, N. Kambouri, O. Lafazani, N. Trimikliniotis, Gr. Ioannou,“Intercultural Conflict and Dialogue”.

[11] N. Kambouri & P. Hatzopoulos,“Athens is no longer a cell (if it ever was) but an interconnected network.“, unpublished

[12] N. Kambouri & P. Hatzopoulos,“Athens is no longer a cell (if it ever was) but an interconnected network.“, unpublished

[13] B. Latour, “Visualization and Cognition: Thinkingwith Eyes and Hands”, in: Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Volume 6, 1986

[14] V. Tsianos & Br. Kuster, “Border Crossings”,

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