Challenging Assumptions: What organizing a game jam about refugees taught us
In November 2017, we organized a game jam where we invited refugee children to play with local children. Their mixed culture play inspired game developers to turn these playful elements into a digital game. Organizing this game jam however resulted in discovering something in ourselves that we did not expect. In this article, I will explain how our initial enthusiasm about our event slowly transformed into fear and apprehension – something that seemed unjustified in hindsight.
I’m chairman of Games [4Diversity], a Dutch foundation that aims to improve representation and inclusion of socio-cultural minorities in popular culture. We organize game jams, using controversial subjects as inspiration for creativity and new type of games. In the past years, we had religion, homosexuality and ethnic backgrounds as inspirational themes for game jams, challenging game developers to improve the representation of these themes in game culture and show how addressing these topics can enrich the game industry.
In Dutch society, like many European countries, refugees are discussed in media as a ‘problem’. In the midst of all the commotion and hysteria that is created, this group of people fleeing from countries like Syria and Afghanistan do not have a voice. They are unable to represent themselves and show the Dutch how much we have in common. We wanted to do something about this: showing that someone else’s culture can be an enrichment for our own, instead of a threat that undermines our culture.
We came up with the slogan Integration is child’s play – emphasizing that children are less interested in differences, but more likely than adults to connect to another culture or someone with a different physical appearance. We felt that play can transcend language barriers that exist between cultures. We can connect though play. Who would be better to show this as ‘owners’ of a country’s playful culture than children?
It is Saturday morning, 9:30am, and my stomach is a pit of unprecedented proportions. In merely thirty minutes, they will be here: 60 kids with a migration background. Are my preparations in order? Have I thought about everything? The pit slowly transforms into blind panic.
We invited Dutch children and children with a migration background to meet at de Neude square in Utrecht. We want them to play each other’s outdoor games, because we think that integration starts with children – and since children’s primary language is play, we could make mixed cultural games based on their playful culture.
An important aspect of our approach is that Games [4Diversity] tries to be as constructive, honest and positive as possible. This reflects in the game jams we organize, where jammers create inspiring, positive and respectful games.
Yet, when the arrival of the children approaches, I start doubting myself. Am I so naïve to think that we can bring children from mixed backgrounds together through play? I remember my friends, relatives and colleagues warning me: “these cultures differ too much!”, “you cannot make due without a translator”, and “you should be very careful with these children, they’ve been through so much!”.
Fear which I did not have at first seems to slowly take hold of me. I feel my stomach tightening and my head starts throbbing. Am I ready for this responsibility?
Play and chit-chat
It’s 10:15am: game developers and Dutch kids gather in anticipation of the arrival of the ‘other’ children. When they finally arrive, my friend Maike Flick (teacher and director) immediately takes charge by initiating the first ‘warming-up’ game. In minutes, everybody is frantically playing Anna Maria Koekoek (Peep Behind the Curtain). I am holding my breath. Will they like it? Will they respond different?
Nothing weird or scary happens. Instead, rather typical behaviour emerges from this play between cultures: children argue about the rules, they cheat and stretch the boundaries of the game. It is fun, everyone is playing and laughing. After 50 minutes we enter the game jam building. People chat, play games or watch others play. It feels like a typical family day out. Children run around, parents drink coffee and developers explain the games.
I feel comfortable and happy. My initial fears seem unjustified. Actually, they feel ridiculous in hindsight. Talking and playing with refugees does not seem to differ much from talking to people when I am traveling abroad. It’s the usual chit-chat and friendly banter you’ll find everywhere. It is not grandiose, not difficult, and certainly it is not frightening. It’s just saying hi to someone.
Why did people warn me for this? Why do people feel that talking to someone from another culture is difficult, even frightening? More importantly, why did their fear become mine? I am still contemplating this thought.
Behind the scenes issues
However, not everything went smoothly during the game jam. First, the Dutch are never late, and we forgot that other cultures, especially families with little children, don’t have the same perception of time as Dutch event organizers and participants. Because of that, everything else was late as well. It wasn’t a big deal, however, the 4 hour decrease of development time could have meant some intense crunch time for game developers. Gladly, most developers decided to create a smaller, more focused game than they would normally aim for during a game jam.
Second, the Dutch are used to the cold. This does not apply to the people invited to the play session. Within an hour of playing outside, the families were shivering and we had to squeeze them in our quickly overcrowded game jam venue. Organically, all kinds of small and new games were initiated. Visitors seemed to feel more comfortable with sharing their own games in smaller groups inside instead of the cold outside. In fifteen minutes, everyone was playing together and visitors brought in their own folklore gameplay.
Unfortunately, we had no budget for an interpreter. Moreover, due to organizational and privacy reasons, we did not know until a few days before the event which languages and nationalities would show up. We expected families from Syria and Afghanistan, but we welcomed refugees from all kind of places. Gladly, most of the children spoke Dutch. As a result, they acted as mediator to the parents. It were the children that helped us connect. People played a lot of games that involved posing and clapping hands. Most of the games had a strong physical aspect to it, where players needed to socially connect on various levels without having to speak. This was very inspiring to us as organizers, and it created a friendly, yet slightly chaotic atmosphere.
The limited budget created problems with our thank you gifts to the children. We couldn’t afford to buy gifts. Thankfully, a toy manufacturer provided gifts, which we wrapped and brought to the jam. The gifts were different in price, size and attractiveness: among other things, we received a 30 euro board game, 25 cent plush balls and a book about the boyband One Direction. The looks on the kid’s faces was priceless when they saw wrapped gifts, but giving each kid a different item did cause some tears and frowns.
We could not afford the travel expenses for families to return the next day either. Sadly, this meant that almost none of the refugees were able so see the games they inspired to make.
A practical issue we encountered was the fact that we didn’t get permission from their residences to film or photograph them, which resulted in little footage. We offered the children that did not want their picture taken a ‘no photograph’ sticker. We put this sticker on their clothes and this worked reasonably well. However, while shifting through our photographs and video recording, we had to delete an awful lot of great pictures. It must be noted that this issue is not culturally different from Dutch culture, it has to do with the age group we were working with, yet it was another unexpected issue we faced.
Lastly, the level of trauma with these families, sadly, was clear from time to time. One could see sadness in some people’s eyes, it appeared to show in the way the parents constantly kept their eyes on their children, and it seemed apparent in the way visitors explored their environment. It made us a little nervous. We did not want to treat the visitors as victims, nor did we want to ignore their past sufferings. The fact that the parents loosened up after a while and even engaged in the play put a smile on our faces and illustrated the connective power of play.
Overall, I know, there are some barriers that hinder conversations about tough subjects. Obviously, there are some cultural differences as well, but the usual conversation, the common topics, and the obvious ways to connect on a social and human are not hard at all. Play presented us with an alternative communication practice and brought us closer together.
In the end, the game jam was a success.
We applaud ourselves, we applaud the families that had the courage to experiment with something they had never heard of, and we applaud the developers for spending their time on this subject.
People are just people (no matter where they come from or what their background is), and people like to be welcomed. No alphabet is needed. All we need is mutual understanding, empathy, and especially respect. With these elements in mind, no theme for our game jams will be too bold or too much. We will continue to embrace all kinds of topics and we embrace everyone through our playful endeavours.