Games are often frivolous distractions from the real world, but a group of students from the Netherlands want to use the medium to learn more about horrifying events in Syria.
Refugen is a new PC game that puts players in the role of a 13-year-old refugee boy named Sayyid who must survive the horrors of an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) occupation. The developers call it a survival game, and you must decide how to react to events to either save your own life or to save your humanity. ISIS is a group of militant Islamists that have taken over control of certain areas in Syria and Iraq. Refugen does not have a release date or price at this time, but you can download a test version for free.
This is the latest example of games trying to tackle serious subjects, and the developers have made it clear that their intention is to educate and get people thinking. Refugen joins other politically minded games like Endgame: Syria, Sweatshop, and Papers, Please. These are smaller releases from developers who want to elevate the subject material covered in gaming.
As Sayyid, you must go about your daily life as the ISIS occupation rages around you. Violence will break out frequently, and it’s up to the player how to respond to it. You can either choose to keep your head down, stay quiet, and let the militant forces hurt or kill people you know, or you can choose to intervene. To fight back, you — as the player — must actually scream into your PC’s microphone. Doing so emboldens Sayyid to take action and enables him to fire a weapon.
But everything comes at a cost. Fighting eats away at Sayyid’s soul, and hiding causes trauma as he watches his peers die.
Despite the dark material, the developers said they want to make parts of the experience fun. I asked them to explain why.
“Using gaming as a platform to create awareness is possible and effective, we believe, but the game needs to be ‘fun,'” one of the student developers told me via email. The creators wish to remain anonymous. “The ‘fun’ part in this game is that the player cannot shoot if they don’t scream into the microphone. Screaming in real-life to shoot in the game makes the experience deeper, because you are actively involved in the game with your voice. You’ll feel more for your character when it reacts on your voice.”
Check out an early look at the game in action below:
The United Nations has said that ISIS is responsible for war crimes. Last year, human-rights group Amnesty International released a report that found ISIS is responsible for ethnic cleansing on a “historic scale” in Northern Iraq. And it’s that experience that the students want to get across.
“We’ve seen child soldiers fighting on the front line, used as couriers, spies or guards,” the developers said. “Child soldiers as human shields, suicide bombers. Child soldiers can be anything except for a child. That is why you cannot shoot all the time or escape all the time. You’ll get either traumatized by events or get blinded by anger. In both cases you’ll have a hard time as a child refugee in Refugen.”
The students explained that they fear for their safety, as some people may find the material offensive; this is why they asked to remain anonymous. They pointed to the terror attack against the editors of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France, but they also want people to focus on the message and not on the authors.
“Because of the recent terror attacks on freedom of speech [in Paris], we’ve decided to bring this game out anonymously,” the developer said. “The most important thing in this choice was that we didn’t want to put ourselves on the foreground but rather the message that this game carries. Which is creating awareness for inequity and excessive violence in ISIS-occupied areas by using games as a platform.”