How Games and VR Frame Refugee Issues

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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