Business

This video game lets you step inside the shoes of a refugee

Video game developer Lual Mayen, 25, who learned to code in a refugee camp after fleeing South Sudan, plays his new game at his home in Washington, D.C., US, January 7

Video game developer Lual Mayen, 25, who learned to code in a refugee camp after fleeing South Sudan, plays his new game at his home. Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Vanessa Johnston
Journalist, Reuters
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  • Lual Mayen fled South Sudan's civil war and learned to code in a refugee camp.
  • He's made a video game of his struggle with the hope it will raise awareness among young people - and save lives.

The goal of Lual Mayen’s video game is to survive the horrific ordeal of a refugee, an experience that his family knows well, but the 25-year-old developer’s ambition is to change the world.

Mayen, who was born as his family traveled 250 miles (400 km) to escape South Sudan’s second civil war, hopes his game, Salaam, will give players a better understanding of what it means to be homeless, hungry and on the run.

“A lot of people don’t understand the journey of a refugee,” said Mayen, 25, who and spent his first 22 years in a refugee camp in northern Uganda before moving to the United States.

“It was a journey of life and death,” he said, recalling family stories about bomb attacks, wild animals and how babies were abandoned by parents who could no longer care for them.

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Now head of his own video game company in Washington, Mayen believes that “gamification,” where participants make decisions unlike the passive experience of watching a movie, puts ordinary people in the shoes of a refugee.

Salaam, an Arabic greeting meaning peace, enables users who have never had to flee a war-torn country to take a virtual trek to a “peaceful environment” — if they can dodge hostile troops and find enough food and water.

Bridging the virtual and real worlds

While the game is free to play, when participants need to buy food, water or medicine for their virtual characters, they can make in-app purchases that will go to real-life refugees, he said.

“Salaam is going to be the first-ever game that is going to bridge the virtual world and the reality on the ground,” he said. “When someone buys food in the game, you’re actually buying someone in a refugee camp food.”

But Mayen also has a long game in mind, hoping that Salaam will enlighten today’s teens when they become the next generation of policymakers.

“When they’re making policy, they’ll already understand what refugees face, just through playing my game,” he said. “That’s actually how we change the world and how we can be able to use the industry for good.”

Growing up in a refugee camp, Mayen had never even seen a computer until one day, at age 12, he reported to the camp’s registration center.

“It was a moment that actually helped me to understand, wow, I want to use this one day,” he said.

Video game developer Lual Mayen, 25, who learned to code in a refugee camp after fleeing South Sudan, plays his new game at his home in Washington, D.C., US, January 7
Video game developer Lual Mayen, 25, who learned to code in a refugee camp after fleeing South Sudan, plays his new game at his home in Washington, D.C., US, January 7 Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

For the next three years, his mother, whom he made the main character in Salaam, worked tirelessly to stash away $300 to buy him a laptop, which he now keeps in a glass display case in his apartment.

His game went viral after he uploaded it to Facebook and caught the attention of the gaming industry. In 2018, he was named a Global Gaming Citizen at the Game Awards in Los Angeles.

“To be able to ... represent the continent and represent the game for social impact, it gives me so much hope,” he said. “It gives more refugees hope.”

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