Let’s put this simply; migration is a large and complicated topic. There are many different aspects to it and there is no way I could hope to cover it all. Personal research from the designers is going to be essential for someone hoping to tackle this topic, so my goal is merely to discuss some of my ideas about how a serious game might be able to target migration as a theme. I should note however, that I am still in school for game design and I am certainly not an expert on migration.
To start things off, all games need to know who their target audience and what the purpose or goal of the game is. This is especially important for a topic that is as wide and as varied as migration. When determining the audience of your game, you need to decide between targeting immigrants or nationals. Immigrants, especially refugees, are likely to not have the same access to the resources commonly available in the host nation. This means that you need to consider how to reach this audience. Even if your audience has access, they may not have the time for a longer play experience. This presents more obstacles for designers who need to take the capabilities of the audience into consideration.
Alongside deciding who your audience will be, you need to determine what your goal is. As a result of what I’ve researched, I noticed that things tend to fall into a few different categories: policy, community, and economy. All three of these categories are interconnected and can have a big impact on immigration as a whole, but choosing one simplifies your game and gives you more focus. Although your game may still contain an aspect of the others.
Starting off with policy, you can probably imagine that it might be the most difficult aspect for a game maker to use if trying to make a game about migration. Policy, or politics in general, are not very appealing topics for most people. It can be difficult to grasp and take a long time to explain, but I do believe games could be the perfect medium to make policy easier to digest and understand.
Not many games focus on this, but Immigration Nation and Papers, Please both retain policy as a core aspect. The main difference is that Immigration Nation is kind of an awful game that just requires you to place people entering the country into locations based off of the rules. But Immigration Nation is targeted more towards children in school to promote awareness and teach some of the rules of becoming a citizen. So of course it isn’t going to be appealing to me or some other adult. And the game likely does accomplish its goals of promoting awareness in kids, but the question is, will that awareness stick around into adulthood when they become old enough to vote on the topic? In my opinion, it will not.
But Papers, Please is a little bit of a different story. It doesn’t focus on immigration policy like Immigration Nation does, but it is a core mechanic of the game. Your actions will determine what the rules for allowing people to cross the border the next day will be. It also isn’t target children. Its audience is much wider. It contains mature themes like that of corruption and captures the player’s interest with its challenge and constant pressure. Pressure built by wanting to follow the rules of the game, but not being able to support yourself or your family without breaking those same rules. Forcing the player to think critically about their decisions while under stress creates longer lasting lessons. Causing this, in conjunction with the themes of the game, you are more likely to draw an interest from the player to actually seek out information on these topics on their own.
Having an emotional connection for the player is probably the best way of getting people to become interested in something they may not normally like, but an emotional connection is good for any game, regardless of purpose. The same is true for helping the community aspect of migration. Helping nationals feel sympathy towards their new neighbors will help them to be more forgiving and understanding.
This isn’t necessarily the only way either. With the rise of e-sports, video game groups spring up quite often and always bring people together much in the same way any other sport would. In a book titled Outcasts United, the author describes helping a refugee children acclimate to their new lives while providing an activity for them to engage in. In that case, soccer helped to unite people and keep them out of trouble. This same idea could be applied to a game concept so long as the game and a place to play could be made easily accessible.
Games provide a potentially great opportunity for immigrants to become socially integrated, but there are other aspects of integration to consider a game to address. In an article published by Tomás Jiménez for the Migration Policy Institute, he considers the dimensions for integration to be broken down into language proficiency, socioeconomic integration, residential integration, political integration, and social integration.
Above I mentioned that you could use games to unite a community through video games which would help the social and language aspect of helping immigrants integrate. But addressing the economic side of immigration would likely come from a combination of bringing the community together and informing them of policy. During my research into how countries deal with immigrants, having a strong job market and workplace mobility are key elements. Creating a game to affect the job market is another obstacle that games may not be the best choice for tackling. So I would suggest attempting to go from a more indirect angle.
For instance, two possible solutions for how games can address the economic side of things could be to either create a game that teaches the benefits of immigrants on society, making sure that the game appeals to a wide audience base, or just using the funds produced by the game to directly contribute to assistance programs. I think a strategy game similar to the Civilization titles has a lot of potential to work, so long as there is an emphasis on immigration as a result of war or economies in the game that teaches people the value that migrants have for a society. And donating funds is a simple concept that can be applied to any type of game made.
Just as I first mentioned, this is not a small subject and contains no easy solution. Even with this (rather long) blog post, I can only mention a small aspect of how a game might be made for migration. This hopefully provides you with a decent starting point, but no matter what, be prepared to do plenty of research and remember, you game still needs to be fun. I am just one member of a team and my group’s blogs can be found linked below