Gen­er­a­tion XX

How videogames can uniquely set sen­si­tive nar­ra­tives, like an asy­lum seeker’s jour­ney.

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I was study­ing for a Mas­ter of In­ter­na­tional So­cial De­vel­op­ment at the Univer­sity of New South Wales in 2005, I at­tended what was then called a Refugee Court of Tes­ti­monies. Peo­ple were in­vited to tell an as­sem­bled au­di­ence some of what they had wit­nessed be­fore, and while, seek­ing asy­lum. Many had seen their fam­ily and friends harmed, mur­dered or ab­ducted, as well as want­ing to dis­close how fright­en­ing, and poorly re­sourced, refugee camps can be. De­spite my own life be­ing com­pletely re­moved from these dis­tress­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, I very much wanted to lis­ten to what peo­ple had to say.

Games in­clud­ing Dragon Age and Tahira: Echoes of the As­tral Em­pire tell sto­ries of dis­placed peo­ple, but fic­tion is just that. Most play­ers can ap­pre­ci­ate the drama, the twists and turns, with­out hav­ing to ac­tu­ally worry about the char­ac­ters. They’re not real. Re­cently, how­ever, de­signer Ab­dul­lah Karam, in­vited me to play an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal game about leav­ing Syria that he is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing with Causa Cre­ations. It wasn’t like play­ing fic­tion.

At the court we were asked not to share de­tails be­cause the sto­ries, and their telling, be­longed to the peo­ple. Path Out is a re­minder of why this is im­por­tant. By mak­ing a game, how­ever, Karam is able to de­cide, and con­trol, how to en­gage his au­di­ence him­self. Path Out’s free demo, which is cur­rently avail­able on, in­cludes video com­men­tary, where he speaks over the ac­tion to pro­vide ad­di­tional con­text. Karam says, “It was odd to see a de­pic­tion of my own life and then crack jokes about that. But that’s the Syr­ian way. Stay light, even in the dark­est mo­ments.”

“It’s not just my story. It’s a com­plex po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion we couldn’t ig­nore.”

Karam has also em­braced the op­por­tu­nity, af­forded by in­ter­ac­tive me­dia, to com­bine what did hap­pen with other pos­si­ble out­comes. At one point, you’re asked to make a dan­ger­ous choice and his com­men­tary ex­plains that he was never ac­tu­ally in this sit­u­a­tion, it’s more of a global rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Karam says, “It’s not just my story. It’s also a com­plex po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion that we couldn’t just ig­nore. And I ac­tu­ally lived in a mod­ern build­ing, but we made it look like one from Aleppo’s now al­most de­stroyed old town. Dis­crep­an­cies like this are com­mented upon to make these trans­par­ent for play­ers.”

Be­ing able to see Karam’s fa­cial ex­pres­sions, and access a vis­ual im­pres­sion of how he feels, cre­ates a unique and un­usual en­gage­ment with con­tent, too. His im­pe­tus to leave Syria is told not only through di­a­logue with his par­ents, who are char­ac­ters in the game, but also in ret­ro­spect, as his com­men­tary ex­plains why his likely fu­ture in Syria, given a range of un­con­trol­lable cir­cum­stances, is un­ac­cept­able to him. It’s help­ful to hear his per­spec­tive on is­sues you wouldn’t ex­pect the av­er­age nona­sy­lum seeker to un­der­stand. And then, at other times, the game­play con­trib­utes to mak­ing his ex­pe­ri­ences highly re­lat­able.

In par­tic­u­lar, there’s a level where the char­ac­ter is left alone in a waste­land by his un­cle’s friend and you have to nav­i­gate with a small light, avoid­ing troops and land­mines, scal­ing rocky out­crops. I felt ap­palled that a young per­son would find them­selves in this sit­u­a­tion. It was chal­leng­ing to play, both as a game and be­cause it was re­ally scary. The video of Karam pops up and he ex­plains how dif­fi­cult it was to trust the peo­ple help­ing him, es­pe­cially if they wouldn’t al­low him to use his phone’s GPS as they trav­eled, for ex­am­ple. He also says, “This isn’t funny any­more,” ev­ery time you die. No, it’s re­ally not.

I am aware that, on this page, I’ve in­con­sis­tently re­ferred to the pro­tag­o­nist as Karam, a char­ac­ter, me and you. This blur­ring of iden­ti­ties is an­other way we share ex­pe­ri­ences through games. Karam says, “We wanted to cre­ate some­thing ex­cit­ing, walk­ing the thin line be­tween knowl­edge trans­fer and en­gag­ing the play­ers.” In­ter­est­ingly, the de­ci­sion to make Path Out hap­pened over “a good Syr­ian break­fast” with de­vel­op­ers from Causa Cre­ations, who Karam met af­ter ar­riv­ing in Aus­tria and while seek­ing to im­prove as an artist. The team were able to access grants re­lated to artis­tic and cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties.

Karam con­cludes by telling us that he en­joys rac­ing games, Coun­terStrike: Global Of­fen­sive and oc­ca­sional indies, like Party Hard. “I wanted to reach out to gamers and let them ex­pe­ri­ence what a fel­low gamer had to go through. There is an ar­ti­fi­cial di­vide in some peo­ple’s mind, gen­er­ated in the me­dia, re­in­forced by pol­i­tics, but there is so much more that brings us to­gether. We lis­ten to the same mu­sic, wear the same clothes and play the same games.” Path Out is a rare in­sight into a real per­son’s dif­fi­cult jour­ney. I’m glad to have played it and to have ap­pre­ci­ated Syr­ian humour, too.

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