Lual Mayen was 15 years old living in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda when he saw a computer for the first time. Today, he uses his passion for technology to help provide aid to refugees living in camps.
His new game and mobile app called Salaam teaches players about life in refugee camps.
Mayen was born in South Sudan during the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War, a 22-year-long conflict that displaced nearly 680,000 people. He and his family fled the country in search of safety, according to CNN.
Mayen arrived at a refugee camp when he was a newborn and lived there for 22 years before moving to Washington, DC to work on his video game. Life in the camp was difficult for Mayen and his family as there were no educational opportunities, limited food, and crowded living conditions.
Salaam, the Arabic word for peace, puts players in the shoes of a refugee. The game is a “high tension runner game,” where the character runs from people trying to shoot or capture them.
“Our goal is to shine a light on the refugee crisis in Africa and across the world — there’s over 70 million displaced people living in refugee camps across the world,” Christ Fourcand, Mayen’s personal manager, told Global Citizen.
The player also has to keep the character alive by making sure they have enough food, water, and medicine.
“He wants people who are playing the game to feel the lives of living as a refugee: trying to survive, trying to get the basic necessities,” Fourcand said. “Things that people like us take for granted.”
Although the game is free to play, users must pay for their character’s necessities. Through a partnership with the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other NGOs, when players buy resources in the video game, the same items are delivered to refugees living in camps.
“What Lual's game does is it provides people engaging in that game an opportunity to contribute actual relief and assistance to refugees,” UNHRC Spokesperson Chris Boian told CNN.
Mayen hopes that Salaam will allow more people to feel empowered to support refugees.
“You don't have to be a charity to change the world. You can be an individual who is actually playing a video game, and you're helping somebody in a refugee camp,” he told CNN.
Mayen first learned how to code and build video games when he was still living in the refugee camp. Although his family did not have much money, his mother saved for three years so she could surprise him with a computer.
"I asked myself, if my mother can save $300 for three years to be able to buy a computer, 'How about me?'” Mayen told CNN. “If she was able to take us from a war-torn country to an environment of a refugee, I can also make it. It inspired me so much to start looking for ways to be able to utilize the product that my mother got for me."
In order to charge his computer, Mayen would walk three hours from the refugee camp to the UN basecamp every day.
One of Mayen’s friends introduced him to video games, but the violence in games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City concerned Mayen. He wanted his game to have a positive impact.
“His real ambition is to get the spirit of video games to reach people not only here in first- and second-world countries, but also create a link to help explore the refugee crisis through games,” Fourcand said.
A study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that interactive media like video games are better at building empathy than books or films.
In video games, players have control over avatars and are responsible for their actions, which is much more active than passively reading about a topic or watching a movie.
Mayen hopes that video games will enlighten today’s teens when they become the next generation of world leaders and policy-makers.
“When they’re making policy, they’ll already understand what refugees face, just through playing my game,” Mayen told News 18. “That’s actually how we change the world and how we can be able to use the industry for good.”
In 2018, Mayen was named a Global Gaming Citizen by the Game Awards for his video game’s emphasis on achieving global peace.
“It was literally a tremendous honor,” Fourcand said. “Lual never thought that his video game could be so profound and so pivotal.”