7 Great Games About Immigration

Several games of late have not only been introducing us to the stories of refugees and immigrants but challenging us to actively affirm their human dignity.

Written by Gamechurch Writers

A Note from our Editor-in-Chief:

GameChurch.com exists to highlight creativity in the fastest growing artistic medium today—videogames. Perhaps more than that, I like to think that we exist to highlight humanity, goodness, beauty, and truth in games. 

My tenure as editor-in-chief of GameChurch.com seems to have providentially coincided with something of a renaissance in game design. At GameChurch.com we’ve sought to highlight the spiritual side of this renaissance. While we might not go so far as to say that games have the power to change the world, our writers would confess that games have shaped their perspective in good, truthful, beautiful, and life-affirming ways. One particularly important subject games have shaped our thinking on is immigration. Several games of late have not only been introducing us to the stories of refugees and immigrants but challenging us to actively affirm their human dignity. 

We aren’t a political site—we do not publicize our political opinions but we do feel obligated to point out games that mesh with the life and values of Jesus, who we happen to dig . . . a lot. Sometimes that endeavor feels political, and what you are about to read might feel that way to you. I assure you that is not our intent, these games have simply been helping us understand our neighbors better and we think that is an important step toward the kingdom of peace and love that Jesus talked about.  – Drew Dixon

 

7. 1979 Revolution: Black Friday 

(Android, iOS, PC, Mac)

I still want to be “a missionary to Iran,” but for now that mission is listening to the stories of others.

 

I wanted to be a Christian missionary to Iran. Truth be told, I still do, but it’s not exactly the same brazen and childish desire I had in 2009—when I searched for a Farsi teacher and a way to go to a nation at odds with America since before I was born. I can’t hide the fact that I come from an Christian background—one that champions the foreign missions and “bringing the Gospel” to the farthest reaches of the globe—but my love for Jesus collided with the horrid things things that my “Christian Nation” did to alienate, corrupt, and oppress Iran.

While well intentioned, I now see these longings as a childish dream compared to the beauty of that dream realized in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a game that humanizes, honors, and lovingly-bridges the gap between Iranian and American cultures. Made over the course of four years, 1979 Revolution uses an all-Iranian-American cast of voice-actors to give testimony to the revolution that severed the relationship between our countries. The game’s director, a New York resident and native Iranian, Navid Khonsari, fled his homeland at the age of ten after the titular revolution. His first-hand experience (paired with the collaboration of countless other Iranian-American artists) has turned into this first episodic installment that invites Western audiences onto the revolutionary streets of Tehran armed only with a camera.

I realize how foolish, arrogant, and just plain ignorant I’ve been to assume that I am poised to alleviate the tension and suffering of the Iranian people. I didn’t and still don’t know enough about the religious and cultural complexities of the Iranian people (and what’s been endured from all sides), but 1979 Revolution has given me invaluable and humbling insight. The game captures a harrowing true experience full of love, pain, and suffering that preaches better than I ever could, simply by existing and telling true stories. I still want to be “a missionary to Iran,” but for now that mission is listening to the stories of others. -M. Joshua Cauller

 

6. Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire 

(PC, Mac, Linux)

Peter Castle turned to his medium of choice to give voice to displaced, Arabic-speaking refugees.

 

Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire casts us into the role of a Muslim refugee woman—albeit one well-removed from Earth. Her planet has long outlived the space age and has been thrust back into the dark ages, where old traditions are one of the few sustaining aspects of life. Unfortunately, war has come. And Tahira is forced to take what’s left of her people, and find safe harbor.

Sadly, it turns violent. Any allies who fall in battle are permanently lost, and every dangerous encounter goes far further than what even the most experienced tacticians may be ready for (myself included).

Tahira was inspired by Syrian refugees: more specifically, Australian developer Peter Castle’s life-changing stay in pre-war Syria. In that excursion, Peter was taken by the extreme hospitality, generosity and kindness he enjoyed at the hands of Syrian strangers. So when the country broke out into war, he progressively lost-touch with his new Syrian friends: forced to fear the worst. Peter Castle turned to his medium of choice to give voice to displaced, Arabic-speaking refugees.

You can listen to our conversation with Tahira’s creators, Peter Castle and Tom Cox about the game’s design inspirations here. -M. Joshua Cauller

 

5. Cartlife 

(PC)

. . . I wanted to make a better life for the game’s characters. At its best, that is what the American experiment is about.

 

The most memorable aspect of Cart Life was how terrible I was at it.

I was too slow serving customers, I gave people incorrect change, and I didn’t accurately calculate how long it would take me to get downtown for a court hearing in which my character was to argue for joint custody of her daughter. The list of things I did wrong in Cart Life is longer than what I did right. In that sense, Cart Life is one of the most realistic games I have played. It sets before the player the difficult nature of work and family, the inevitability of failure, and the hope of a brighter future.

While not explicitly about immigration (only one of the three playable characters is a recent immigrant), Cart Life is very much about the American Dream and how much more difficult it is to achieve for some than for others. Cart Life prodded me to want the American Dream to be true for others. I found myself wanting to be better at the game, wanting to improve the livelihood of its characters.

One of the greatest appeals of video games is the accessibility of improvement. Cart Life stands out, however, by motivating players to improve for selfless reasons. I wanted to improve not to feel better about myself but in order to achieve stability and for others. At its best, that is what the American experiment is about, the promise a more hopeful, less painful life for people like Melanie, Vinny, and Andrus. -Drew Dixon

 

4. Pong: An Immigrant Story 

(Arcade, Atari)

Without the efforts of the United States to allow a fleeing family a home among its citizens, there’s no way to be certain that video games would have had the success that they enjoy today.

 

Video games are meant to experience new places and enter into stories that we never could in real life. Whether saving the planet as a hedgehog, exploring the ocean as a dolphin, or jumping down pipes as a plumber, none of these things would be possible with the simulated experience that video games offer. In the past decade, we’ve even seen games that put us in the shoes of other human beings—their struggles during war or just everyday life.

However, none of our favorite video game moments would have been possible without the creativity and talents of a war refugee.

Born in 1922 to Jewish parents in Germany, Ralph Baer was expelled from school at 14 years old because of newly instated Nuremberg Laws. His parents feared what was to come and successfully emigrated to the United States. Working as a engineering specialist throughout his life, Baer created the first working video game console in 1966. He sold it to Magnavox in 1971, who renamed it the Magnavox Odyssey. This caused Atari to take notice and release the first arcade machine—Pong. The rest is history.

Without the efforts of the United States to allow a fleeing family a home among its citizens, there’s no way to be certain that video games would have had the success that they enjoy today. -Daniel Motley

 

3. Banner Saga 

(PS4, Android, Xbox One, iOS, PS Vita, PC, Linux, Mac)

. . . it challenged me to recognize how easily we can fall into the trap of seeing people as obstacles to our comfort rather than image-bearers deserving of our love and care.

 

Banner Saga is set in a Nordic inspired world where the gods have died and the sun has mysteriously stopped in the sky. The end times are upon you and an old enemy rises up in the chaos. Villages are being pillaged and it is your task, as the reluctant leader of a caravan to lead your people to safety.

In order to do this you need to keep your four main resources in balance with each other. “Supplies” dictate how many days you can travel or rest before you begin to starve. “Morale” dictates how well your heroes perform in battle. “Renown” is the battle-won currency that you use to purchase supplies, items and level up your heroes. Finally, “Fighters” are the number of battle-ready non-playable characters in your caravan. A lack of one can and will directly affect another—a vicious cycle that makes it almost impossible to keep things from falling apart.

As these resources became more difficult to juggle, I began to change from the kind and understanding leader wanted to be into something much more methodical and cold. I was judging the refugees and suffering villages I came across on their usefulness to me, rather than on their plight. It wasn’t until nearing the end of the game that I realized that how far I’d fallen, when one of the main characters I loved confronted me about my behavior and presented me with the choice to either continue as I had been or repent for my callousness.

At that moment I was struck; the connection I once had with the people with whom I fled destruction had gradually diminished as swathes of people joined me and my responsibilities grew heavier. I began to treat them far more like cattle in order to better deal with the consequences of some of my most terrible choices. The refugees in my care had become burden, not my charge. Banner Saga is one of the most helpful games I have played about immigration because it challenged me to recognize how easily we can fall into the trap of seeing people as obstacles to our comfort rather than image-bearers deserving of our love and care. -Jamie Roberts

 

2. Papers, Please 

(iOS, PS4, PS Vita, Linux, Mac)

Papers, Please gives you a glimpse into the stories of the countless refugees who are simply looking for hope, and the lengths they go to pursue it.

 

Papers, Please asks players to take a cold, hard look at the desperation and difficulties of people fleeing hardship in one country and seeking opportunity in another. After assuming the the role of a citizen of Arstotzka, a fictional authoritarian regime, you are placed in charge of a security booth on the border. It’s your job to check passports and paperwork to ensure that only citizens and those with official permission are allowed to enter.

What’s amazing about Papers, Please is the amount of storytelling that takes place in each encounter. You meet people from all walks of life as they pass over their credentials. You’re on the receiving end of their desperation and fear as you scan their documents, their anger if you reject them, their humiliation if you subject them to an invasive search, and their adulation if you allow them to pass.

My family and I can relate, if only mildly, to their plight. We moved to Denmark in August 2015. While my children and I are dual American and Danish citizens and could simply show up, my wife had to undergo an extensive immigration process in order to be able to stay. The amount of paperwork is staggering and it’s easily one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in our lives, but we had family and friends, in Denmark and the US, helping us every step of the way. Refugees often have none of the support systems in place that my family had and are now facing even more stringent requirements in their search for a better life. When I think about the emotional, physical, familial, and spiritual strain they are forced to endure compared to my own, my heart breaks.

Papers, Please gives you a glimpse into the stories of the countless refugees who are simply looking for hope, and the lengths they go to pursue it. -Lasse Lund

 

1. This War of Mine 

(PS4, Android, Xbox One, iOS, PS Vita, PC, Linux, Mac)

This War of Mine is constantly reminding us of the human cost of war on the victims found in its crosshairs.

 

This War of Mine is a point-and-click game where you take control of a collection of refugees trying to survive in the middle of a war zone. Each day you’ll be trying to build the equipment you need from scraps you’ve scavenged and each night you wander into the city to face snipers, soldiers, and bandits who will shoot or assault you on sight.

Naturally you might assume that the situations your characters face are exaggerated. It’s a game after all. These scenarios, however, were adapted from experiences from actual refugees who lived through the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia—they are certainly adapted to facilitate an interesting play experience, at the core of each is a truth that someone lived out in the midst of that war zone. You learn the dangers of trusting strangers on the street—they might be bandits. You feel the tension of wondering how you are going to feed your people when everyone is sick and exhausted and supplies have dwindled. No matter what state your characters are in, someone still has to go scouting. There are no potions or power-ups that fill your character’s’ stamina meter. This War of Mine is constantly reminding us of the human cost of war on the victims found in its crosshairs.

It’s important to remember that This War of Mine gives us only a glimpse—the horror of living in a wartorn country is far graver. The game did, however, help me grow in empathy for the refugee. Who knows what they’ve seen? Who knows what atrocities they witnessed, or even had to do simply to protect their family through the journey. And yet, in this game there are moments of hope in the tragedy. There is opportunity for kind neighbors who share food, or friendly faces willing to help you find the goods you need to survive. It is this hope that empowers you push through the hurt—the hope that eventually you don’t have to fear anymore. -Mike Perna

  • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

    The conclusion of Revelations is that humanity ever stumbles to a future of greater sin, horror, destruction and death. And then comes an inescapable end. But along this dark path, we can be kind, helpful and generous to those in greatest and most urgent need.

    Conflict-related immigration, etc. and refugee settlement is a messy business. The incidence of immigrant-related rape and molestation of Swedish young women and female children is just one example of new immigration issues. I’m wondering if we’re going to see games that come to grips with that.

    A game about surviving in Aleppo in 2016 would be interesting. I, myself, enjoyed my time in Aleppo. That was back in 2000. Interesting to me, I had a job offer to lead an internet and media company in Aleppo just before the war broke out. Fortunately, it fell through. Or I would be dead.

  • Drew Dixon

    Wow. Thanks so much for sharing Stan.