by Gabriela Brenes
“We fail at understanding that some people may want more than surviving another day. […] Because it’s not us.”, writes Bruno Rodríguez on the Dev. Journal of “Kakuma: A video game about the refugee experience”.
The journey of a refugee is anything but predictable: national or regional policies might change overnight, public opinion is drastically altered by an external event, or nature renders you helpless while facing the Mediterranean Sea. One thing we know for sure: every choice has an effect, and all effect has a story. This is Kakuma.
Log into the refugee crisis
On a world map, you will find Kakuma in northwestern Kenya, sprawling across almost 10 square miles. Managed by UNHCR, this refugee camp is home to 180,000 people from more than a dozen African nations. Most of the refugees are Muslims from Somalia, or Christians from South Sudan. Other groups include Pentecostal Rwandans, Catholic Congolese, and Orthodox Ethiopians, some of whom have spent 20 years waiting to be resettled somewhere else. In fact, the name Kakuma –its origin unclear– is said to mean “nowhere”, but most importantly in terms of semiotics, that meaning has been culturally built in recent times.
On the gaming map though, you’ll find Kakuma in an emerging genre of video games designed to inspire empathy in players. Created by the Spanish storyteller Bruno Rodríguez, this game is about the journey of a refugee. Game-changing choices are based upon the very same life-altering decisions thousands of migrants must face every day.
And every gamer knows that more often than not, intuition – that highly trained gut-feeling that tells you when to jump, or where to look for a magic potion – is what gets you through the game. However, Kakuma plays by the harsh rules of being a migrant, and here, while intuition may have your best interest at heart, some people along the way will not.
This is perhaps the key about Kakuma, as Bruno comments: “The mechanics of a game can portray even more than the game’s story. […] When a game decides to use a set of rules instead of other available options, these rules are chosen to convey an experience. We hope to do the same with our game”.
How to play?
You start in the role of a refugee or a group of refugees, “trying to flee their initial location and reach a safe destination. There will be certain countries catalogued as safe havens and your goal is to reach one of them”, explains Bruno. You’ll be managing 3 resources: physical health, mental wellness, and money. And you’ll need to travel across several countries, always choosing your next step carefully. You can also stay in your country of origin, but at an undeniable cost. Nothing is for free, and no decision comes without consequences.
Allowing empathy to push our buttons
Games give you a platform to create immersion and engagement – a new level of empathy. “Empathy games”, a subset of what psychologists refer to as “prosocial” games, have thus expanded rapidly in the last few years. From text-based interactive fiction to sensory-immersive virtual reality experiences, these games focus on deeply personal encounterings, thus rushing the player through ever more difficult life milestones.
In an interview with Motherboard, Dr. Douglas Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, explained: “Games help you understand something outside of your normal experience, but that’s different from understanding someone else’s experience”. Project Syria is a vivid example: an immersive VR experience created by Nonny de la Peña, this reconstruction of the Syrian civil war surrounds players with the sights and sounds of Aleppo.
In Kakuma though, rather than your dexterity or your senses, your decision-making skills will be challenged. Sometimes you will find yourself in the crossroads of indolence or action, and sometimes what will define the outcome won’t be your choices, but your commitment to them. Decisions mark priorities, risks, identity, even accountability. And in this case: hope, a promise.
Let’s change the game
“Our goal is not to turn this game into a grief porn experience”, clarifies Bruno. “The goal is to make it easier to understand why some people may want to keep going after Turkey and not to spend the rest of their lives in a refugee camp. Or how difficult it is to answer the racist rant of someone asking why are you invading their country. Or how random and unfair is the result of any decisions in any point of the way.”
Recent studies revealed that playing a prosocial (relative to a neutral) video game increased interpersonal empathy and decreased reported pleasure at another’s misfortune (i.e., schadenfreude), which can contribute to improved social interactions. However, these investigations also concluded that the effects of playing video games indeed depend to a great extent on the content of the media being consumed.
The greater accessibility of prosocial thoughts in turn evoked helping behavior. Hence, committing to empathy in storytelling as a facilitator of exponential change is not just a challenge for Kakuma, is it? “There will always be an “other”, and there will always be somebody receiving the worst part. But if we can build a game that makes you think, that moves you and makes anyone rethink the ideas they have about refugees. If we deliver an honest game, we’ll have delivered.”, explains Bruno.