From Grand Theft Auto to World Peace: Can a Video Game Help Change the World? | Sudan

IIt was while fleeing the civil war in South Sudan that Lual Mayen’s mother gave birth to her 28 years ago. She had four children and was near the border with Uganda, in a town called Aswa. The trip was difficult; Mayen’s two sisters died on the way and he fell ill. No one thought he would survive.

“I can’t imagine what she had to go through. There was no food, no water, nothing, ”Mayen says. “I remember she said that she was not the only woman who gave birth on the way. Other women abandoned their children because they didn’t want them to suffer. But my mother thought, “This is a gift for me, I must keep it. “

Lual and his mother, Nyantet Machot. Photography: courtesy of Lual Mayen

Mayen’s mother traveled to northern Uganda with her newborn baby and reunited with her husband in a refugee camp which remained their home for the next 22 years. Mayen grew up there, and although life was a struggle, he was happy and grateful for what he had.

There wasn’t much to do, but Mayen says he found creative ways to be entertained. Then one day he got the chance to play the Grand Theft Auto video game, which mostly revolves around driving and shooting.

“While I was playing, this thought came to my mind,” he recalls. “In South Sudan, most of the population is under 30 years old. They were born during the war, grew up during the war. I saw conflicts every day in the refugee camp. I realized that if more kids in the camp were playing Grand Theft Auto, they might think that’s the way it is.

Mayen, until now, had never seen a video game and didn’t know how they were created. “I thought [they] fallen from the sky, ”he said. But, at that point, he decided he wanted to create a game that would encourage empathy and compassion, and promote peace and conflict resolution.

He had a laptop that his mother had saved for three years to buy it. He went to an internet cafe, downloaded online tutorials to a USB drive, and learned to code. After he created his game on a refugee’s trip, he used Bluetooth to share it with others in the camp.

He saw people like him and had “a crazy idea”. He decided to upload the game to his Facebook page with a message saying he made it in a refugee camp. The post caught the attention of people in the gaming industry who started contacting it, saying they liked the idea.

Mayen in the refugee camp in northern Uganda where he grew up.
Mayen in the refugee camp in northern Uganda where he grew up. Photography: courtesy of Lual Mayen

Mayen contacted Thorsten Wiedemann, artistic director of the international game festival A Maze, via Facebook. “I was impressed by his career and also by his mission,” recalls Wiedemann. “He had this idea of ​​bringing peace through games, which is just amazing because games are seen more as entertainment products.”

After discovering Mayen and his ideas, Wiedemann invited him to the 2016 festival in Johannesburg. “This is how everything changed,” says Mayen. “[After that] a game developers conference invited me to the United States, and from there I started working on my business.

In 2017, Mayen obtained a visa for the United States, moved to Washington DC, and founded his own company, Junub Games. Mayen helped his family, who had already made 10 unsuccessful relocation requests, relocate to Canada.

The game will launch on mobile next year, with a PC version to follow.
The game will launch on mobile next year, with a PC version to follow. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

In 2018, it won a Global Gaming Citizen Award, created by Facebook Gaming and the Game Awards to recognize people using the power of games to create positive change in their communities. Leo Olebe, who now works at Google but was the former global director of games for Facebook and remains a mentor to Mayen, says: “Lual received the award because he and his vision for games are pure and genuine. I don’t think you can find anyone more committed to making the world a better place because, in the worst possible way, they’ve seen their ailments firsthand. At every turn, Lual is a positive force for good.

Next year, Mayen will launch its video game, called Salam (peace in Arabic), which follows a family fleeing a war-torn country. It is based on the story of his own family. The player is responsible for ensuring that the refugee arrives at his final destination. Along the way, they must dodge bombs, escape kidnappings, and find food and water.

Mayen with his Young Activists Summit Award.
Mayen with his Young Activists Summit Award. Photography: courtesy of Lual Mayen

“My goal is to make people understand what this trip takes, what it looks like,” he says. “There are people, decision makers, who do not understand the journey of a refugee and how much he traumatizes people.

Mayen hopes a 16-year-old can play the game now, and then in 10 or 20 years can be in a position of power and understand what refugees are going through. “We have [tens of millions of refugees] across the world and each of them flees their country for different reasons, ”he said. “I decided to create games because they are a powerful tool for communicating an idea. “

The game will initially launch as a phone app, with a PC version coming later, and will be free to download. Players will need to make in-app purchases to purchase their character’s essentials such as food, water, and medicine to keep them on their journey. The funds will benefit real-life refugees through Junub Games’ partnerships with various NGOs. Mayen also wants to introduce a dashboard for players where they can give more, and see photos and thank you letters from the people they have helped.

“It connects the virtual world and the reality on the pitch so players understand that it’s not just about playing a game – they’re helping other people,” says Mayen.

Mayen started a foundation to teach 3D and animation skills to refugees.
Mayen started a foundation to teach 3D and animation skills to refugees. Photography:

His work on developing Salaam has earned him, in part, recognition at this year’s Young Activists Summit, organized in partnership by the UN and, an organization of media professionals dedicated to promoting coverage of social and environmental issues. Marina Wutholen, founder of the summit, says: “Her video game is a smart idea. It’s a modern, new, and cool way to help others and build peace and empathy.

Salaam wasn’t the only thing keeping Mayen busy. It is also developing a virtual reality game on conflict resolution, and a board game is in the works. During lockdown in 2020, he was at home with wifi and a computer, and imagining what life would be like if he was still in the refugee camp. He saw everyone working from home and wanted to replicate this for the people in the camps making sure they have internet access so they can learn skills and work.

With this in mind, Mayen created his own foundation to teach 3D and animation to refugees. He partnered with Origin PC, a computer manufacturing company, to supply computers to refugee camps. In December, the foundation sends three refugees to Singapore to participate in the Global Esports Games. He also plans to build data stores in refugee camps so that people can upload their photos and store them permanently.

Mayen says: “The talents are distributed evenly, but not the opportunities. We need to invest in the education of refugees. It is the most powerful tool that can change their life.

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