How Games and VR Frame Refugee Issues

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Carne y Arena – Alejandro González Iñárritu © Legendary
Darfur is Dying and Food Force
In 2006, I visited the G4C Festival for the first time. In a break-out session, I initiated a conversation on games as a documentary medium. Drawing from the poetics of documentary, we discussed how docu-games mix ‘documenting’ and ‘fictionalizing’ elements to make Games for Change more attractive and persuasive for a game- playing audience (see my article ‘Reality Play,’ available on the G4C Resource Center website). At the Games Expo, I saw Susana Ruiz present Darfur is Dying (2006), a Flash-based browser game about the crisis in Darfur, western Sudan. Ruiz has stated that the game design was influenced by that of Food Force (2005), a game published by the United Nations World Food Program.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of both Darfur is Dying and Food Force for the development of the field of Games for Change. In a study initiated by G4C − Impact with games: A fragmented field (2016, see – the authors refer in a rather implicit way to both games: “Some of the big early examples came from surprising places, including student games launched by MTV [Darfur is Dying, JR] and passion projects from the UN World Food Program [Food Force, JR].” In 2010, I published my research on both games in a chapter called ‘A Taste of Life as a Refugee: How Serious Games Frame Refugee Issues,’ which is also available on G4C’s Resource Center website.

A Taste of Life as a Refugee
In this chapter, I examined how Darfur is Dying and Food Force frame refugee issues in ways that are medium specific. The starting point of my investigation was the conceptual framework of cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff, who theorizes the cognitive dimensions of politics. In order to increase our understanding of how both games frame political issues, I approached them from a ‘family values’ perspective. Contemporary American political discourse – maybe now more than ever − is divided between two different models of the family: a strict-father family model and a nurturant-parent family model. The democrat Lakoff favors a foreign policy based upon nurturant parent values, such as protection from harm, community building, caring, and responsibility. His descriptions of these values echo the goals of both games, I concluded.
In the second part of the chapter, I analyzed in more detail how both Food Force and Darfur is Dying involve players in these nurturant parent values in a medium-specific way. As a starting point, I took the definition of a computer game as developed by Jesper Juul. The basic rules of both Darfur is Dying and Food Force turned out to be clearly ideologically motivated ones: players can only win the games by supporting Darfuri civilians, or by completing six missions and, in doing so, helping to fight hunger. But I also argued that computer games are never unambiguous or one-way traffic. Games – like all media texts – are polysemic and, therefore, open to multiple readings. I showed that most players interpreted the game more or less according to the encoded ‘nurturant parent’ frames. But my research also made clear that some players criticized or denied the importance of the values incorporated in the two games.
Life as a Refugee: Games for Change
During my sabbatical year at the NYU Game Center (2017-2018), I – once again – did research on refugee and migration games, and on their shared goal to make a difference on an individual and community level, or even to influence society. Our engagement with this topic is now needed more than ever, given the political situation in both the U.S. and Europe. In the last few years, these games have encouraged support, sympathy, and action for a variety of migration and refugee issues: providing refugee children with game-based education (Project Hope), investigating the causes and effects of migrant deaths along the Arizona-Mexican border (The Migrant Trail), raising awareness about the complexity and risks of the refugee experience (Against All Odds), critiquing ever-increasing rules and paperwork for immigrants (Papers, Please), and providing immersive virtual-reality and role-playing accounts of the horrors faced by immigrants and refugees (A Breathtaking Journey, Carne Y Arena, A Day in the Life of a Refugee).
My research draws inspiration from game studies and political theory, and analyzes how migration and refugee games oppose today’s politics of fear by presenting optimism as a duty. I presented my research at a conference at Columbia University, under the title ‘Life as a Refugee: Games for Change’ 

Carne y Arena – Alejandro González Iñárritu © Legendary
At this very moment, I’m writing an article about the VR installation Carne y Arena (2017) by the Academy Award-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Based on true accounts by Central American and Mexican migrants – which is why it is called ‘a semi-fictionalized ethnography’ – Carne y Arena is a six and a half minute solo experience that allows viewers to thoroughly live through a fragment of the refugees’ personal journeys, basically their (and partly your own) confrontation with the U.S. Border Patrol.
I was able to visit the experience three times in Washington DC, to talk to local partners (the Phillips Collection and the Atlas Performing Arts Center), and interview people from the Emerson Collective, and Iñárritu’s producer. In my opinion, Carne y Arena is the best VR installation available in the field of VR for Change. While most other VR experiences struggle with the limitations of the medium – because of a lack of understanding of the possibilities of VR, a lack of financial resources, or both – Iñárritu and his crew have set a new standard for VR for Change.
Four elements seem crucial for Carne y Arena’s success. First, the real VR experience is enfolded by a prologue (the viewer is immersed in a waiting room, a kind of holding cell where refugees are kept at) and an epilogue (the viewer is in a room where you can read the actual stories of their lives), enabling you to gradually enter and withdraw from the state of fiction you’re in during the immersive experience. Both the prologue and epilogue also provide you with the refugee’s context and background details. Second, the way Iñárritu breaks with the film frame enables you not only to choose where and when to look, but also to choose the position from where you look at the events that take place in the virtual 360° space of the desert. You can hide behind the bushes, choose the side of the border patrol agents, or decide to (virtually) help a refugee mother and child. This makes Carne y Arena a multi-narrative space. Third, by alternating the perspectives between ‘visitor’ and ‘participant,’ Iñárritu ensures that your experience is neither too stressful nor too detached: the most important condition for an empathetic experience to take place. Fourth, this ‘virtual’ reality project is turned into a multi-sensorial and bodily experience of being in the shoes of a refugee. ”The body never lies,” according to Iñárritu. And that’s the way it is felt in this immersive experience…
Joost Raessens is chair of Media Theory and director of the Utrecht Center for Game Research, both at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. [email protected];;
You can visit Carne y Arena in Washington DC and Amsterdam, the Netherlands
For more information about Carne y Arena:
–Interview Iñárritu by LACMA director Michael Govan
–Interview Iñárritu on Art and Technology at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC
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Game to Grow: Esports as a Learning Platform

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The new North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) started as a regional league in Southern California and quickly garnered the enthusiastic support of teachers and administrators – and also drew in a subset of students that typically are not otherwise engaged in school.
Anthony Saba is Head of School at Samueli Academy, a public charter high school with two teams. He said, “Kids are going to game anyway, so creating a healthy atmosphere with academic accountability is a good thing. Research demonstrates a strong alignment between competitive engagement and in-school academics.”
In NASEF, coaching on game skills and team dynamics is provided by qualified near-peer mentors. Workshops offer in-depth training on topics like following a code of conduct, building a PC, shoutcasting, and analyzing gameplay.
Dr. Mimi Ito, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at UC Irvine, researches how young people engage with digital technology. “Esports provides a way for young people to hang out with their friends in a really active and positive way,” she said. She recognizes the amount of work it takes to get good at games like League of Legends (one of the platforms used by NASEF). “Students are engaged in 21st century skills and problem-solving, and they’re understanding how to connect their own problem-solving with a whole community of players.”

The ability to think creatively to solve problems and to work collaboratively and productively with a team will equip students for evolving careers in all STEM fields (not just those related to gaming).
“The League has been carefully constructed with an academic framework incorporating STEM, ELA, and social emotional learning, as well as Career Technical Education,” said Constance Steinkuehler, professor of informatics at UC Irvine, and leader of curriculum development and related research.
Through the spring 2018 season of the Orange County High School Esports League™, Steinkuehler and a team from UC Irvine evaluated existing and potential alignments between organized esports and school subjects, as well as social emotional learning. Early results demonstrate that students playing in this League developed individual emotional regulation, built good sportsmanship through teachable moments, and were motivated to attend class more and to focus more on homework.
NASEF has developed a new high school English Language Arts curriculum that leverages esports for interest-driven learning that relates education to the real world. “This is not a simple esports league that gives a nod to educational benefits,” said Steinkuehler. “Scholastic benefits are at the heart of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation. Kids not only love it – they’re becoming more engaged and better educated as a result of participating. Now that’s using gaming to grow!”
Specific questions can be directed to League leadership, and you can learn more about the League at
If you’re attending the Games for Change Festival, be sure to attend the panel discussion Game to Grow: How Esports Can Shape Student Success on Friday June 29.
* For video resources click here.
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⏰ 1 Week Left to Purchase Tickets for #G4C18 ⏰

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The Games for Change Festival is only 1 week away!

Register now to snag the last few spots in reserved sessions and a ticket to AU & HEVGA’s networking happy hour. 

Join AU & HEVGA’s Happy Hour
Receive an invitation to join #G4C18’s Happy Hour with American University Game Lab, Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA) and theEntertainment Software Association (ESA) on Friday, June 29th after purchasing a ticket to the Festival. Make sure to register to receive your Happy Hour invite!


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