It was clear to Steffi Domike of Squirrel Hill that 2001's USA PATRIOT Act, quickly passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, represented the erosion of American freedoms.
"The more I learned about it the more frightened I became about the implication of the act," says Domike, 51, a Chatham College assistant professor of art and design. "It contains provisions that rewrite to a frightening extent the common-law system in this country ... under which people have certain kinds of rights -- to face their accuser, to free speech, to a lawyer, [and] not to be subject to search and seizure without a warrant and probably cause -- things that we as Americans take for granted, that this is what it means to be an American. The Patriot Act is beginning to erode these rights, actually legalizing the targeting of certain populations for removal of those rights."
What wasn't clear: How to convey the implications of the act's hundreds of pages, plus the many existing laws it amends, to a public perhaps not aware enough -- or wary enough -- of the law. So she and local lawyer Lisa Freeland put up $8,000 to design and manufacture The Patriot Act Game, a Monopoly-style board game in which players aim to own nothing but their own continued civil liberties while the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded "Threat Advisory" continues to rise -- and cost them. A miniature roll of duct tape marks the progress of the "threat."
The Iraqi "Most Wanted" playing cards made notorious (and popular) by the federal government, says Freeland, were an inspiration of sorts. "You either had to laugh or cry," she says. "We decided that it was probably better to get people engaged in a way that was fun than in a way that was heavy-handed."
The object of the game is to end up on the "Free Parking" of this game, Freedom Corner, the Hill District landmark that's just about the only Pittsburgh-specific part of this game.
Every player gets a dozen Freedom Fries -- the game's version of money -- to start. Players who roll higher numbers on the dice initially are awarded red, white or blue game pieces to move around the board, which offer pointed advantages over players with a black, brown or yellow piece. This division highlights not only the Bush Administration's demonizing of the opposition, Domike says, but the xenophobia and racism inherent in some of the PATRIOT Act's provisions.
All of the squares highlight possible consequences of the law. "You do not yet have tenure at the private, liberal arts college. You censor your work. Skip one turn," says another game square. Or: "Your luggage is searched as you enter the country from Canada. Political pamphlets are found. Pay two Freedom Fries to the bail fund." Monopoly's "Jail" square warns "No visitors allowed"; The Patriot Act Game's "Jail" updates that to "No lawyers or visitors allowed." Individuals can't make their bail unless all players agree. And, Domike adds, "Most people don't end up with enough to bail themselves out of jail."
Instead of "Chance" and "Community Chest" cards there are "Justice," "Surveillance," "History" and "Protest." The "Justice" pile includes several "Go To Jail (indefinitely)" cards and a "Snitch" card that players can hide until the moment the threat level reaches red, at which time they can actually prevent fellow players from reaching Freedom Corner. A sample "Surveillance" card: "After speaking around the country against the USA PATRIOT Act, you find your video collection is out of order. Secret search? Don't know. Can't find out. Pay three Freedom Fries in case you are arrested."
The remaining two card types use the historical to ask the rhetorical: "Hero or terrorist?" asks each "History" card of everyone from Jesus, Rosa Parks and U.S.-assassinated Chilean President Salvador Allende to John McLuckie ("Led the Steel Workers in Homestead, PA, in the 1892 fight against the Carnegie Steel Co. Charged with treason, murder and riot. Found not guilty, but blackballed by the industry. Pay two Freedom Fries to support free speech"). The "Protest" cards cast a similar shadow over U.S. anti-freedom laws going back to John Adams' Alien and Sedition Act through the 1917 Espionage Act, the House Un-American Activities Committee and Viet Nam-era anti-protestor actions and PATRIOT Act-inspired abuses today. "Dissent or terrorism?" each card says.
"All these [cards] are taken from true experiences or the way the law can play out," Domike emphasizes. "Our goal is to get people together and talking. The idea is to build a group consciousness about the act. It's about not being alone. Citizenship is a shared experience."
She hopes to encourage people, via an explanatory booklet included with the game or via the game Web site (gotrights.net), to seek further information on the act.
Her partner, Lisa Freeland, acknowledges that the game's most eager audience are those already familiar with, and angry about, the PATRIOT Act. Says possibly the game's first review, in the Weblog talkleft.com: "It seems to be pretty soundly researched, based on actual analysis of the Act and, more generally, some history of civil liberties issues. ... [I]t could be a good gift for the civil libertarians on your holiday gift list." Freeland has been encouraged by interest from some teachers -- including one in New York City -- who may use it in their classrooms.
So far, the game is only available at two stores: A Pleasant Present in Squirrel Hill and the Chatham bookstore. Perhaps a local nonprofit could use it as a fundraiser, Domike says. But she isn't worried -- she has time to make it popular. The PATRIOT Act is up for a renewal vote by Congress in 2005, so the game has a bit of a shelf-life.
"Unfortunately," Domike jokes.