The Sewer Transnationalists

Juan Llamas-Rodriguez, University of Texas at Dallas

The Sewer Transnationalists Critical Essay [Download Link]

The Sewer Transnationalists Game Manual [Download Link]

The Sewer Transnationalists Game Board [Download Link]

The Sewer Transnationalists Game Cards [Download Link]

Social and Political Context

“There is a crisis at the [U.S.-Mexico] border. It is the border sewage crisis.”1 The words of Paloma Aguirre, council member for Imperial Beach, California, succinctly encapsulate a significant regional problem often overlooked in national and international discussions of the region. Crumbling sewer infrastructure across the borderlands has been a well-documented problem since the early 1990s, and it resurfaces whenever a spectacular pipe break results in sewage spillage aboveground. In December 2018, for instance, a pipeline collapsed and discharged about 68 gallons of raw, untreated sewage per second into the Tijuana River, eventually spilling into the Pacific Ocean at Imperial Beach. Border residents, including Aguirre herself, attest to the hazardous effects of depending on polluted water. Yet few outside of the border region are aware of this issue, let alone consider it at the level of a crisis. 

The impetus of state apparatuses to treat the international boundary as a site of policing, rather than collaboration, has cost the land and the living beings of the border region dearly for decades. This failure to cooperate has exacerbated multiple issues that are distinctly cross-border and regional. One of those issues is inadequate sewage disposal. Following the trade liberalization imposed by NAFTA, the southern border region saw the proliferation of maquiladoras, manufacturing operations that took advantage of the lessened import tariffs in the United States and cheaper labor costs in Mexico. The Global North outsourcing of production to the Global South is complicated by the fact that most of the Mexican side of the border is at a higher altitude than the American side. When heavy rains hit the south side of the geopolitical border, millions of gallons of sewage and industrial waste from Mexican factories overflow to the Tijuana River and run for miles on U.S. soil and into the Pacific Ocean.2

The need for physical repairs and changes to existing infrastructure is not a mystery. Experts have long detailed the range of actionable solutions, including extensive repairs to the International Outfall Interceptor (IOI), reforming the role of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), and reinstating funding to the North American Development Bank (NADBank). The main issue, then, is the politics attached to current frameworks for seeking solutions. Entrenched “state-thinking” leads to an impasse where the U.S. blames Mexico for the infrastructural problems and Mexico excuses itself by claiming it does not have the resources to fix them. National leaders remain uninterested in protecting the livelihoods of border residents and instead view the region as the site of conflict and division between nation-states.

The Sewer Transnationalists (TST) represents an attempt to model this cross-border issue as a cooperative board game. The goal of the game is to repair all the sewers in the border region, a goal that can only be accomplished if the players work together. Each character represents a stakeholder in the issue: the IBWC (bureaucrat), the security state (border agent), the border resident (maintainer), and techno-solutionists who can only provide short-term solutions (engineer). If games are models of a real-world scenario, critical games emphasize the issues central to that scenario. The practice of critical making implies that the process of creating this model (building the game) is itself knowledge production. Creating the game has proven to be a generative form of research-creation; it has helped me analyze and synthesize the key issues within this border problem and find ways to intervene in these issues with a playable model. 

The Sewer Transnationalists sets cooperation as the starting point – a fact that is not the case in real life. This is the game’s first point of critique. We have arrived at the current dire situation for waste disposal across the border because of the lack of cooperation between various stakeholders. TST makes the case from the start that cooperation is essential. Its second point of critique is to model through gameplay the barriers to cooperation imposed by geopolitical divisions: the lack of funding for transnational agencies such as the IBWC and the mobility restrictions imposed by the border itself. The limited funds in the game and the restrictions of the characters’ mobility across the dividing line are the two main impediments to the players achieving their goal before it is too late. These procedural features confront players with logistical hurdles inherited from a non-cooperative form of border thinking. 

The third point of critique concerns the undue emphasis on border enforcement at the expense of border sustainability. Transnational agencies such as the IBWC lack the necessary funds because the U.S. government chooses to spend far more on military technologies and border agents than on infrastructures vital to the lives of border residents. Impeded mobility across the border region because of the nation-state’s emphasis on closed borders likewise limits collaborative solutions by breaking down trust among border communities. The game acknowledges and comments on the undue attention given to “border security” concerns: there are Security Alerts and the Border Agent can put up gates at certain Sites, but these are ultimately useless for the goals of the game. In fact, the time and resources spent on addressing such security concerns would hinder players’ ability to complete the sustainability tasks on time. Unlearning the common sense association of the border with enforcement of divisions in favor of sustainable cross-border cooperation is a central aim of the game.

Theoretical Frameworks

In “Water Infrastructure Beyond Borders,” Paola Aguirre asks, “What if ecological features such as watersheds were to begin to define regional management sites instead of political boundaries?”3 Pursuing the political struggle to undo closed borders requires a conceptual reorganization: moving from thinking of the border as a state-to-state boundary to a region distinct from, yet connected to, such nation-states. Some border scholars have begun to propose regional-minded solutions: Matthew Longo’s “borderland citizenship” proposal opens a path for border dwellers to take control of the regional issues that affect them the most, including environment and waste management.4 This game joins in the larger critical conversation about how to make regional politics that matter in the day-to-day lives of border residents override the nationalists policies that endanger these residents’ well-being. 

In thinking through this project, I take heed of the critiques of speculative design projects that center on stylish pieces, encourage consumerism, and privilege “user experience.” Daniela Rosner critiques the “teleological view” of solutionist design principles that displaces discourses grounded in social concerns. The inclusion of the character of the Engineer addresses these critiques. Nowadays, it is common for politicians and industry leaders to treat environmental concerns as problems in need of a quick “tech fix,” yet critical environmental5 thinkers demonstrate the insufficiency of this approach for long-term viable solutions. In the game, the Engineer character allows some reprieve by installing Water Treatment Stations, but the long-term, time-consuming work of repairing infrastructure still needs to be carried out. As Rosner argues, a corrective to the solutionism prevalent in much design thinking is “staying with the trouble,” Donna Haraway’s formulation for methods that live with and between contradictions and breakdowns.6 Sewage proves to be a particularly generative fluid to stay with the trouble. 

The Sewer Transnationalists proposes envisioning the border region from its “dark underside,” the sites of precarious livelihoods and infrastructural ruin. As Rahul Mukherjee argues, “ruination is finally, and quite literally, a political project” of distributing waste, segregating 7 livelihoods, and demarcating productive spaces from forgotten sites. The process of designing alternatives in TST engages users in the logistical aspects of distributing waste and demarcating productive spaces. It asks users to consider ways of allocating resources, navigating geological features, and forging alliances to solve a communal problem with imperfect and partial information. In doing so, the project also encourages players to rearticulate the problem of sewage disposal as a regional one and encourages users to think through the implications of shifting scales of action. 

Players will note that the hero of the game is in fact the Maintainer. Scholars have long argued that the emphasis on innovation occludes the more crucial work of maintenance, repair8, and care that sustains the vital systems we rely on. The border region is no different in this regard. Innovation takes the shape of more sophisticated surveillance and policing technologies to enforce border restrictions. Such innovation ends up obstructing resources and taking time away from maintenance operations that would make the border region better for those living in it. In The Sewer Transnationalists, the Maintainer represents not only the worker making repairs but also border residents writ large, as in the stakeholders with most to gain from fixing the entire border sewage infrastructure. The other characters cooperatively support this goal by allocating money and resources, constructing temporary reprieves such as Water Treatment Stations, or attending to flooded areas. As opposed to other cooperative games (like Pandemic) where players can choose from a variety of roles for different gameplay opportunities, The Sewer Transnationalists decidedly makes the case that maintainers are necessary to solving region-wide infrastructural problems.

Game Design Process

For this critical game, I “re-skinned” the cooperative game Forbidden Island. Mary Flanagan calls “reskinning” the practice of taking the same mechanics of a game but changing its “skin”, i.e. the aesthetics and symbols, to convey a critical message.9 The basic game mechanics from Forbidden Island are also present here: every turn, the possibility of water rising is an imminent threat and players must work together to complete their goal before the board is flooded. However, in this reskinning, I inverted one of the key ideological underpinnings of Forbidden Island to emphasize the sustainability concerns of The Sewer Transnationalists. In the former game, players need not worry about the island flooding as long as they collect all the treasures and escape on time. The game follows a colonialist mentality of resource extraction and general disregard for native lands. In the critical re-skinning put forth by The Sewer Transnationalists, the main goal of the game is in fact to prevent the flooding from happening. This shift demands an ecological reorientation: it asks players to think about the setting as necessary for their own survival. There is no way to escape and let the environment deteriorate. Winning is impossible if the vitality of the environment where players interact is compromised. 

Although the gameboard of The Sewer Transnationalists is based on the geography of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Sector names are meant to emulate the items on lotería cards. Lotería is a traditional game of chance, similar to bingo, that uses images on a deck of cards. Each player has at least one tabla, a board with a randomly created 4×4 grid of pictures. One by one, the caller picks a card from the deck and announces it to the players by its name. The winner is the first player that shouts “¡Lotería!” right after completing a tabla or a previous agreed pattern. Many Mexican and Chicanx artists have appropriated the loteria aesthetics to comment on social and political issues. Likewise, educators have used the game to introduce popular iconography and ask students to interrogate the racial, class, and gender stereotypes influencing such iconography. I reference lotería10 in the Sector names to also draw on popular iconography about the border to label the board. In accordance with the game’s other critical interventions, introducing lotería naming conventions is also a way to rethink that game into a cooperative framework. Whereas traditionally the individual player’s goal in lotería is to draw cards that are on your board but not in those of others, the Sectors in The Sewer Transnationalists require players to attend to that area of the board together to collectively assess the damage. 

The game relies on the logic of fluid dynamics in its rules, even as players never directly interact with the sewage itself. As Lisa Björkman explains, fluids are particularly helpful to think with.11 For one, fluids flow downhill, subverting geopolitical hierarchies by reinforcing geophysical ones. In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border region, downhill runoff subverts the established power differential operating in the north-south distinction. Fluids also distribute pathogens in a way that refuses to respect social boundaries. That means both Southern California surfers and low-income border residents have stakes in finding solutions to this issue. In the game, this means that players must pay attention to the altitude of the region to figure out where to install the Water Treatment Stations. Finally, fluid distribution requires high-cost and labor-intensive transport infrastructure. Solutions require not only upfront forms of investment but also a regional commitment to infrastructure maintenance and repair. The game models this aspect, and the fact that the IBWC has been underfunded for years, by providing only a limited amount of funds at the beginning of the game. 

The intended audience for the game is primarily adults who like tabletop strategy games. While these gamers are used to the dynamics of tabletop games as having action, flow, competitiveness, and mostly “being fun,” re-skinning a game like Forbidden Island flips this on its head: from the excitement created by saving ancient relics and escaping just in time to the purported lack of excitement to think about the land and the communities that live in it. If playing The Sewer Transnationalists sometimes feels mundane or rote, that’s because it should be. The work of maintenance is not always fun or action-packed, but it is central to the survival of entire communities. The audience for the game is also meant to be border studies scholars who are used to thinking about actionable outcomes exclusively as policy decisions. This game offers another dimension for presenting information and engaging the general public with border issues. As detailed in the Context section, finding policy solutions to address this issue is not the problem. The problem is lack of collaboration. The Sewer Transnationalists represents one attempt at thinking through the dynamics of, and obstacles to, such collaborations. 

This game joins in the larger critical conversation about how to make regional politics that matter in the day-to-day lives of border residents supersede the nationalists policies that endanger these residents’ well-being. In order to instigate this conceptual reorganization, the game asks players to record all their action decisions, use of funds, and bureaucratic procedures. At the end of the game, the Daily Log functions as a site of reflection for the various steps that prevented or delayed the players from winning. It also allows users to rethink the structures of the board, including the map, as a way to improve their chances at solving the sewage problem. The major obstacle may turn out not to be winning the game (as in, fixing the sewage problem) but creating the conditions for which winning the game is possible at all. Following on critical design principles, the goal of the project is to engage users in thinking through the conceptual frameworks undergirding current solution attempts. The game itself functions, first, as a medium through which such frameworks can be tested and contested and, second, as a platform where speculative alternatives can be tried out. 

Ultimately, the goal of the game is not to propose that every border issue will be resolved if “we all just get along.” Instead, by playing and reflecting on the conditions that made winning or losing possible, the game provides an opportunity to think critically about how the border itself acts as an impediment to meaningful collaboration. The insights derived from playing this cooperative critical game could also end up applying to a myriad other cross-border issues.

Endnotes

1 Chloe Jones, “A Different Border Crisis,” Cronkite News, May 7, 2019, https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2019/05/07/mexico-arizona-border-wastewater/

2 Seth Mydans, “U.S. and Mexico Take On a Joint Burden: Sewage.” The New York Times, August 22, 1990, http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/22/us/us-and-mexico-take-on-a-joint-burden-sewage.html

3 Paola Aguirre, “Water Infrastructure Beyond Borders,” Scapegoat 6 (Winter Spring 2014): 203.

4 Matthew Longo, “‘Borderland Citizenship’ Could Bring Justice to Both Sides of Trump’s Wall,” The Nation, April 18, 2019, https://www.thenation.com/article/border-citizenship-mexico-us-deportation/

5 See, for instance, Tung-Hui Hu, “Black Boxes and Green Lights: Media, Infrastructure, and the Future at any Cost,” English Language Notes 55.1 (2017): 81-88; and Enrique Leff, “Political Ecology: A Latin American Perspective,” Desenvolvimento e Meio Ambiente 35 (December 2015): 29-64.

6 Daniela Rosner, Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018), 14. 

7 Rahul Mukherjee, “Anticipating Ruinations: Ecologies of ‘Make Do’ and ‘Left With’,” Journal of Visual Culture 16.3 (2017): 302.

8 See Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, “Hail the Maintainers,” Aeon (April 7, 2016), https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more

9 Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (MIT Press, 2009): 33.

10 Luis Genaro Garcia, “La Loteria as Creative Resistance: The Funds of Knowledge, Critical Pedagogy, and Critical Race Theory in Art Education,” Funds of Knowledge in Higher Education, edited by Judy Marquez Kiyama and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, 69-81. New York: Routledge, 2018. 

11 Lisa Björkman, Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 10.