Lual Mayen has become a well-known figure in gaming during the past six months after he was named a Global Gaming Citizen by Facebook at The Game Awards in December. Now he wants to translate his fame as a refugee-turned-game-developer into support for a game about peace.
Mayen launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 for Salaam, an endless runner title that shows the plight of refugees fleeing from violence. He spent 22 of his 24 years in a refugee camp, and now he is making games.
Mayen spoke at our GamesBeat Summit 2019 event in April in a fireside chat with Leo Olebe, head of gaming partnerships at Facebook, and I interviewed him at the Game Developers Conference in March after he gave a moving talk there.
He tells his story well. He said that in November 1991, a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army slaughtered a couple of thousand civilians in his home town, during the Second Sudanese Civil War. His parents fled by foot. In 1993, they arrived at a place near the border of Uganda for displaced people. Mayen was born on the way.
“In 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan and everyone was very excited,” he wrote on the campaign page. “But war broke out again, killing over 300,000 people and displacing 2.5 million others. My relatives who returned were all killed during the war. There was no peace in South Sudan because of the continued fighting and never-ending cycle of war. Our only hope was to continue our lives as refugees.”
While growing up, Mayen tried to do what he could to lift himself up. He saw a computer at a ID station and told his mother he wanted to get one. She saved money for three years to get him one, and he cried when she presented him with a $300 laptop. He was the only person in the camp to have a computer, and he walked three hours to an internet cafe just to charge it.
With the computer, he discovered video games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. He decided he want to make them. In the camp, he built a mobile game called Salaam.
“After launching Salaam in a refugee camp, my story was discovered by several of influential game developers, media companies, and programs supporting peace-building efforts. Months later, I was granted a visa to travel to the United States to build games that create impact,” he said.
Now he lives in Washington, D.C., and he has formed his own company, Junub Games. He is working on a board game, Wahde, for those who don’t have enough money to play digital games. And he is working to launch Salaam on more digital distribution networks, including on Facebook Instant Games. The goal is to debut it at The Game Awards.
The game starts with a caravan of refugees making their way to safety. The setting is peaceful, but then the sound of gunfire is heard. The crowd goes quiet, and your character has to flee. In the game, you have to run for your life. Mayen refers to it as a “high-tension runner game.” You have to find a place of refuge and avoid hazards like a fork in the road or a lion in the grass.
Players will learn about hardships that refugees experience on a daily basis: hunger, dehydration, malnourishment, sickness, and lack of resources. By educating players about the harsh conditions that millions of refugees endure every day, the game will place players in the shoes of another who is less fortunate and showcase the power of empathy.
When a player’s character runs out of energy in the game, the player will have the ability to continue running by purchasing supplies such as food, water, and medicine. Each time a player purchases food, water, and medicine in Salaam, supplies will also be sent to a refugee in the real world.
So far, he has received help from Facebook Gaming, Vlambeer, Global Game Jam, WeWork Labs, The World Bank, A MAZE, Celestial Games, American University, Oculus, League of Geeks, Peace Tech Labs, BBC, Al Jazeera, Santa Monica Studios, Games For Change, Train Jam, VentureBeat, Interactive Entertainment South Africa, and many more.
“Thank you so much for all of your kindness. I would not be here today without you,” he said. “The team at Facebook has been so helpful in helping me fulfill this dream, but I will need resources to finish building, testing, and launching my game.”