Eco-terrorism? Anti-pipeline video game under fire for putting lives at risk, group says

An assistant professor at Michigan State University created a game that allows users to destroy imaginary oil pipelines -- something one energy industry group claims is tantamount to taxpayer-funded encouragement of "eco-terrorism."

The game, which was paid for in part by Minnesota taxpayers via a grant, allows players to wipe out pipelines and machinery, but the developer says it doesn’t advocate violence, FOX17 reported.

MSU assistant professor of media and information Elizabeth LaPensee, the creator of “Thunderbird Strike,” says the game is only meant to be artistic and educational.


MSU assistant professor of media and information Elizabeth LaPensee denied charges the game encouraged "eco-terrorism."

“It certainly is not encouraging anyone to commit eco-terrorism,” LaPensee said, adding that people should play for themselves before passing judgment.

But Toby Mack, president of Energy Builders, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for builders of energy infrastructure, says it supports illegal behavior, such as vandalizing a pipeline that could endanger real lives.

"We call on Michigan State University to pull the plug immediately on this taxpayer-funded political campaign and reject any so-called educational program designed to encourage eco-terrorism or other bad behavior," Mack said.

In the 2D side scrolling game, users control a thunderbird – a symbol from Native American cultures used by pipeline protesters, such as those who camped out to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline – to gather lightning and destroy as much of the oil industry’s machinery and pipelines as is possible, in order to score more points.

Between levels, players view different videos featuring various graphics, with one showing “No pipelines on Indigenous land” in a speech bubble or on a sign held by protesters.

The game’s website has several calls-to-action, asking users to “speak up against pipelines on Indigenous land” and “divest money from banks.”


Players view videos between levels that feature slogans such as "No pipelines on indigenous land."

The oil and gas industry is described as having an “insatiable greed” which caused the Indigenous people to cry out “for the return of the thunderbird people and their searing lightning.”

According to the Associated Press, the website previously said it was developed “in affiliation with” the university’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab, but has since changed to read, “With gratitude to Michigan State University,” as well as thanking the voters of Minnesota for support through a grant.

LaPensee said she deleted the reference to clarify that the game was independently produced, as she began working on it before she joined the university’s Department of Media and Information in 2016, but did use funds from a grant from The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council in Duluth, Minnesota.


LaPensee told Motherboard “Thunderbird Strike” was specifically made to advocate for the removal of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, which carries oil from western Canada to eastern Canada via the Great Lakes.

Michigan State University did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Caleb Parke is an associate editor for You can follow him on Twitter @calebparke