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Games As Activism: Refugees' Stories In 'Bury Me, My Love'

by Ciaran Daly

 
"Every refugee is a human being, and it’s terrible that we live in a situation right now where it’s necessary to remind people of this very straightforward fact."
Nizip refugee camp, Turkey (Still: 'Bury Me My Love' dev. The Pixel Hunt)
Nizip refugee camp, Turkey (Still: 'Bury Me My Love' dev. The Pixel Hunt)

For years now, we’ve been fed a narrative about a refugee ‘crisis’. A crisis for whom?


It appears the lived crises of refugees - the very real and terrifying circumstances that sends people fleeing for their lives - have been transfigured, by some sort of magic, into a political 'identity crisis’ for a supposedly-liberal Fortress Europe and its far-right outriders in our newspapers and on our screens.


Hardwired into this vision of the Syrian diaspora are cold, hard numbers and figures, injecting emotional distance between the Western political imagination and the phantom which haunts it. Meanwhile, communities at Europe’s southern frontier, namely Greece, Italy, and Turkey, bear the brunt of ‘caring’ for the six million Syrian refugees, often with fences, tear gas, and brutality. Beyond the borders and the barbed wire all the while are children, running from one nightmare to another. Activists, journalists, and community organisers have made strides to humanise the struggle of some of the world’s most vulnerable people - the necessity of which is itself a tragic indictment of European morality.


First released in 2017 but now enjoying a second life on mobile gaming platforms, ‘Bury Me, My Love’ (named after a Syrian farewell saying) is a text-based adventure game co-created with Syrian refugees to tell the story of Noor, a young woman who makes the perilous journey on foot from Syria to Germany. Players wear the shoes of Majd, Noor’s husband, who communicates with Noor via WhatsApp and helps to guide her through her journey. What unfolds is an intimate story reflecting the lived experiences of thousands of refugees - and aims to put the humans forgotten in this crisis back at the forefront.


We caught up with Florent Maurin, the founder of The Pixel Hunt, the Paris-based developer which brought Noor's story to life. We discussed the ethics and challenges of Westerners making a game about refugees, as well as its political potential.

 

Related: Stories of migration with Salma Zulfiqar

 
Noor, the main character (Still: 'Bury Me, My Love' dev. The Pixel Hunt). A Syrian girl is illustrated wearing a life vest.
Noor, the main character (Still: 'Bury Me, My Love')

What inspired you to create 'Bury Me, My Love'?


“In 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, I encountered an article in Le Monde, telling the story of a Syrian migrant through her WhatsApp conversations. As a journalist, even though I was paying attention to news about the situation, I realised I had unknowingly built a very alien representation of what a refugee was. They were supposed to be different from who I was.”


“Looking through actual WhatsApp conversations, I realised they weren’t. They were cracking jokes and sending each other emojis, just as I would with my friends over WhatsApp. The only difference - and it’s an important one - is that three texts later, they’d be discussing life and death situations.”


“I thought, if I can be mistaken about this representation I have about young Syrian migrants, there are probably lots of other people who are mistaken too. If we, as Europeans, want to make the right decisions regarding immigration in the EU, we can’t leave the human factor out of the equation. I wanted to make a game about this human factor because of how important it is.”


How did you start developing the game?


“I contacted a French journalist, Lucie Silvere, who put me in touch with Dana - the girl from the Le Monde article. I told Dana I had to make a game about her story - not just her story, but about the thousands of different people trying to make it to Europe. She agreed to work with me and help me write the game to be as believable as possible with regards to her life experience. As soon as she was onboard, I knew we had someone with us who could make this very interesting.”


Why did you choose a WhatsApp interface to frame the game’s key mechanics?


“The first reason is the actual material we were initially inspired by. When you see the screencaps from the [Le Monde] article, you’ll see we did not invent much - if anything at all. I wanted the authenticity of the actual experience, and to convey that, respecting the tools that those people are actually able to use was, I thought, probably a good idea.”


“I really didn’t want to put players in refugees’ shoes. I thought it would be disrespectful to have them actually command an avatar and tell them to jump by pressing a button. It felt wrong to me. It felt more appropriate to put players in the position of someone who is not actually a migrant; someone who is not on the ground living through the situation."