The Video Game That Humanizes the Refugee Crisis

March 10, 2020

Lual Mayen spent 22 years of his life in a refugee camp.

A Sudan refugee who grew up dodging falling bombs, facing starvation and watching friends be conscripted into the army, he’s now CEO of Junub Games—and he’s using his life experiences to make video games that focus on peace-building and conflict resolution.

“I want the people of the world to understand what it takes for someone to become a refugee,” says Mayen. “People don’t understand the situation refugees face or what it took for them to become refugees. My parents had no food or water. They had to run from bullets. My sisters died along the way. So I’m making a game to help people understand the challenges that refugees face.”

Mayen was a newborn when his parents fled the South Sudan for Northern Uganda, walking 225 miles to escape. He was too young to remember the trip or the death of his two sisters, but knows the story well.

Mayen drew from those experiences when he created the initial version of his game, Salaam, while living in the refugee camp. The game’s story lets players live the life of a refugee, avoiding bombs, finding water and searching out energy points, as they journey from a war zone to a peaceful life. (He’s in the process of recreating it and upgrading it for a larger release in 2020.)

Salaam was originally developed so children in the camp could understand the concept of peace. Because Internet was not reliable there, he would distribute it to other refugees via Bluetooth and WiFi sharing. One day, he had a crazy idea to upload it to a Facebook page. That’s when the world took notice.

“Players feel something they’ve never felt before in a game,” he says. “The empathy part of it is it helps you understand that this is happening in real life. It’s creating a change of mind.”

The game does more than let people better understand the plight of refugees, it lets you help them directly. Any money players spend in Salaam helps benefit actual refugees, thanks to Junub’s partnerships with charity organizations.

“People feel like they can be part of the solution,” says Mayen. “If you run out of water in the game, then you don’t have the energy to run.” (Buying water in the game funds water for real life refugees.)

While Salaam will certainly have some immediate benefits for refugees, Mayen says he’s actually using his video game to play the long game. His ultimate goal, he says, is to not only raise awareness, but to make people more empathetic to the plight of people who face these conditions, with a goal of long-term change.

“Today’s high schooler… in the next 10 years, they’re going to be in the position to make policies and make changes that can help,” he says. “I’m planning for the next 20 years and hoping Salaam can change the mindset.”