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How This Firstborn Employee Is Using Donkey Kong to Take Aim at Trump

‘How High Can You Get?’ is a video installation that plays off the old school video game, replacing Kong with Trump and Mario with a Mexican immigrant

How This Firstborn Employee Is Using Donkey Kong to Take Aim at Trump

Advertising is an inherently international business. Accounts cross borders and talent in tow with them. As a result, there’s a constant battle to get visas, and one such place in which it’s got trickier to attain such a thing is the United States. Much of President Trump’s rhetoric since getting into office has been centred around immigrants - the ‘Muslim ban’ being a stark example - and naturally this community is feeling it deeply. 

Camilo Vargas, an Associate Designer at Firstborn, decided to use the agency’s annual Art Show at The One Club to take aim at the Trump administration, particularly at their attempts to limit immigrants entering America by trying to instil a sense of fear. He created a video installation called ‘How High Can You Get?’ that featured a large brick wall with built-in screens that plays off the old school Donkey Kong video game but features an animated Donald Trump as Donkey Kong – or in this case ‘King Kong’ - and a Mexican immigrant in the role of Mario. Instead of the traditional video game, where Kong throws down barrels after kidnapping the princess to prevent Mario from rising through the level, Vargas’ version has Trump throwing things like angry tweets and his hairpiece, carrying messages of hate that ‘Mario’ must beat down and overcome to climb over the wall.

LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with him to find out more. 


LBB> I think the world is pretty aware on a general level what’s going on with Trump right now, but what are the issues that inspired you to create ‘How High Can You Get?’
 
CV> As an immigrant in this country, it’s been a challenging year. America used to be seen as a place that offers foreigners freedom and opportunity, but now the current leadership openly promotes xenophobia and racism. They have taken several measures to stop immigrants from coming here to seek refuge. Especially in our industry, where so much talent comes from all over the world, the red tape they have put up to stop visas for skilled foreigners is upsetting. I wanted to take action using my skills as a designer to send a message.
 
LBB> A big pushing point for you was the administration’s attempts to limit immigrants entering America by trying to instil a sense of fear - can you tell us more about that?
 
CV> Overall, Trump uses fear to manipulate, but this has been especially effective when it comes to immigration. Just this week, he tweeted fake stories to create more hate towards muslims, building on the travel ban he tried to execute earlier in the year. He also continues to threaten deportation and still wants to build a wall, making current immigrants in this country afraid. Like many, I came to the US two years ago from Colombia because I wanted to pursue my own ‘American Dream’ and work with the best design talent. I feel compelled to speak my mind and take part in this conversation in a positive way.
 
LBB> Can you tell us about some of the stories and issues that you’ve been hearing about / experiencing? 
 
CV> I am friends with a lot of Mexican and Latin American immigrants who are here because of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — and some don’t even have that protection. Every single day they wake up not knowing if they can stay. They’ve lost their sense of security. Even those who already have work visas and are up for renewal are now being asked to offer additional evidence of their success and expertise so they can stay.
 
LBB> You’re targeting the issue in a really playful way - why was that the right approach? 
 
CV> It’s a serious situation so I didn’t want to create something that would make light of it, but I did want to make something that was hopeful. The installation shows immigrants in control, actively beating out racism and xenophobia. I wanted to show that we can overcome these barriers and challenges with creativity and action. People who pursue their goals will always try to cross borders, climb walls and face the deepest fears they have.    
 
LBB> What inspired the play on Donkey Kong? Was it a bit of a lightbulb moment? 
 
CV> I was on the subway and the idea just came to me. I thought of the game’s tagline ‘How High Can You Get’ and just thought it was the perfect metaphor.
 
LBB> You’re playing off an old school video game - technologically, how does it work? 
 
CV> Once I had the idea I didn’t have that much time to execute, so I relied on after effects to do both the illustrations and the animations for making a demo. Aesthetically, I matched the game exactly, but technically, it’s not interactive yet — it is a video experience using two iPads. I did two compositions in After Effects and put them together in two different screens, and then just synched the animations.

LBB> You’re hoping to launch it as a full video game in 2018 - what platforms would it be available on? How are you looking to make that happen? 
 
CV> Right now, I’m mostly focusing on building more assets and playing around with the Unreal engine to figure out the exact game mechanics. I’m also reaching out to other game developers and students to partner with to bring this to life. In the past, I’ve started several side projects that I didn’t complete because I am a perfectionist. My goal here is to have fun, yet find perfection and eventually get something up on the internet. It’s too important of an issue to give up on.
 
LBB> Initially it was created for Firstborn’s annual Art Show at The One Club, but you’ve since taken it to the public outside the agency office. What kind of reaction did it get? 
 
CV> The response was really positive. A lot of New Yorkers are fed up, so I think they appreciated that this was a funny commentary on a toxic situation. People immediately thought it was an interactive game, and tried to touch the iPads, so that was good feedback that this could potentially grow beyond the installation.
 
LBB> Overall what are your aims for ‘How High Can You Get?’
 
CV> I want to continue to create a dialogue. The current administration and its negative impacts on immigrants seem more manageable when we can all talk about it and express our feelings. I really want to build the game so I can share the idea and actively contribute on that dialogue.
 
LBB> Any parting thoughts? 
 
CV> I recently read this book by Paul Arden called Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite. There  was a quote that really stood out to me. It said, “When things go wrong it’s tempting to shift the blame. Don’t. Accept responsibility. People will appreciate it, and you will find out what are you capable of.” In my case I don’t know how to make a video game, but I am going to do it. If you want to get involved in the project, reach out to me at camilo.vargas@firstborn.com