Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Serious Games: An Oxymoron?

A serious game is a game whose purpose is not primarily to entertain, but instead to solve a problem or sometimes, provide a simulation. In my exploration of the various "serious" games out there, I was surprised to find that there was even a game created by the UNHCR, the branch of the United Nations that works with refugees and other forcibly displaced peoples across the world. As I spend a lot of my time working with and teaching refugees who have been resettled to Buffalo, this piqued my interest right away.

Against All Odds describes itself as "the game which lets you experience what it is like to be a refugee." You pick a character and embark on a three-part quest, which includes fleeing persecution in your home country, crossing an international border, and finally starting life over in a new country. Depending on the decisions you make and your ability to evade those who are trying to harm you, you may or may not make it. The game is broken up into several segments and I played most of these, several of them multiple times. 

This isn't a game I would use with English Language Learners who are themselves refugees. Rather, I could see using it with American students learning about global issues. One part of the game that I particularly liked was an activity toward the end, during which your character walks around a mall trying to buy a cellphone and you hear people talking about you. Some people express suspicion, resentment and ignorance about you as a refugee and what you're doing in their country, while others have a more informed perspective and welcoming attitude. I think this activity shows particularly well the range of perspectives and attitudes towards the refugees who make their new homes in our country, and could be particularly helpful for building students' sensitivity to these new members of their community. 

One challenge serious games like Against All Odds face is to help players understand issues that are real and serious without trivializing them. For example, any excitement or adrenalin you might feel as you try to dodge the secret police while running across a dark city in Against All Odds is nothing like actually running for your life from people who are trying to kill you and your family. In the game when you make a wrong decision or get caught by the bad guys there are an infinite number of opportunities to start over. In real life there aren't. 
The last thing I would want is for students playing a game like this to walk away from it with the idea that now they know what it's like to be a refugee. (And, as you can guess, for this reason I'm not the biggest fan of the game's tagline). Instead, I hope that what a game like this could help students start to do is to imagine themselves in the shoes of these people who are coming to their country, and to realize that refugees are people just like them, except they are people who have experienced the unimaginable. 

I think this game would be a great jumping off point for a middle school global issues class about to begin a unit studying about world conflict or refugees. The game could be assigned to students for homework, and students required to write a journal entry about their game character's journey to allow the instructor to assess that the activity learning objectives had been met. This homework assignment could be followed up by a class discussion, and students could be asked to identify a specific part of the world or a specific part of a refugee's journey to do more research on and then share with the rest of the class. The unit could even end with a service learning opportunity at a local organization that works with resettled refugees.


  1. I agree with you that this game would not be a good choice for refugees, but might work well with the groups you have suggested.

  2. hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)