Learning Between Classes, “Bury me, My Love”: A Mobile Game about Syrian Migration, Empathy, Triumph and Tragedy


David Seelow, Ph.D.©

Americans know precious little about Syria. Maybe we have seen some pictures, intermittently, on the national news, but our collective understanding of the country and its national crisis remains as distant as the country’s geographic distance from our main land, and yet, crossing borders consumes our news when it comes to Mexico. If the Syrian refugees are not crossing our border, and few are, then we can, as a country too easily push the tragic plight of these refugees (over 11 million since 2011) into the background of our thoughts.

“Bury me, my Love” seeks to bring awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis to a more global audience, in the first instance Europe, but America as well. It is one of the few works of interactive fiction that I can honestly say works well. In general, I find interactive fiction- whether hyper texts or text adventures, poorly written and non-engaging. This story finds the perfect vehicle in mobile phones to tell a story about people always on the run. As a texting adventure, as opposed to text adventure, the texting feature of cell phones delivers the story.

The story unfolds as a conversation between a Syrian refuge Nour as she leaves her bombed out home in Homs for the safety of Europe, and her husband Majd. A cell phone works so well because the flow of a text conversation encounters numerous interruptions that a personal conversation does not. The story mimics real time conversation and the player experiences the time of texting and, consequently, through the passage of days. Different players will experience different time lags. My journey lasted from March 4 to March 19, or just over two weeks. The actual game play might be two hours, but the need to wait for responses turns that two hours into two weeks increasing dramatic tension and suspense. Sometimes Nour must stop conversation to spare her phone’s battery, sometimes out of exhaustion, and other times because of a dangerous situation she encounters on her trip across Turkey to Greece and farther. These moments of forced stoppage create a genuinely visceral response in the player/reader. I dislike texting, but I found myself wanting to know if Nour was safe and checked my phone more often than usual to see if Nour was Online, and therefore whether I could resume the conversation in the role of her husband. A novel may end a chapter with suspense, but you flip the page for the next chapter. In this mobile game you cannot move the screen forward until the protagonist is online. Waiting is an integral part of one of the game’s mechanics.

The writers, Pierre Corbinair and, to a lesser degree, Florent Maurin tell the story effectively by representing an authentic conversation between husband and wife.1 Often the conversation includes teasing, and humor that give the couple a strong degree of authenticity. As the player you must chose, at select moments, Majd’s response to a situation. Your response has an immediate impact of the story’s progress and eventual outcome. In fact, there are 19 possible endings to this story and that variety makes for great re-playability.

The art work is sparse, but vital to the story. Occasional images interrupt the conversation to give a concrete sense of the characters’ reality. For instance, a picture of Nour showing off her painted nails gives the reader dramatic relief and makes him or her smile at Nour’s silly, but real pleasure amidst the danger of her journey. Maps provide another important visual anchor to the story. One day Nour reports she has found a map on the internet to help her navigation, but Majd texts the authentic map showing the minefields and imminent danger she faces

Map Showing Minefields

The fiction is modeled to a degree on a nonfiction report by Lucie Souiller that appeared in Le Monde, “Le voyage, d’une migrante Syrienne a travers a fils Whats App,” about a young Syrian girl named Dana’s perilous migration to Germany using a conversation app, but expanded to make Nour’s journey more generic for a larger potential audience.The authors juxtapose the humor and affection the married couple display for each other with the genuine ordeal Nour must overcome to reach safety. In my initial game play, she had to take a boat designed to transport 9 but that ended up carrying 40 resulting in several drownings, a frequent consequence of the Syrian Civil War. She had to deal with thieves, the ever-present danger of potential rapists, extreme hunger, extreme fatigue, and the uncertain intention of armed smugglers.

Conversation between Nour and Majd

 As a player, the fear you feel for Nour while playing her anxious husband is palpable.

My path took me from Homs, Syria by rickety boat to Turkey, across Turkey to the Greek Ise of Lesbos then on to the Greek mainland through Serbia to eventual safety in Croatia. But the story is far from over. What will happen to Nour now? Integration of refuges into other countries is fraught with problems of discrimination, unemployment, poor hosing, language barriers and much more.2 Furthermore, will she ever see her husband again? The game is a kind of middle passage that opens the door to larger questions of migration, dislocation, assimilation, humanitarianism, global responsibility, or, in other words, the REFUGEE CRISIS writ large in capital letters.

Learning through Mobile Games

Teachers and professors are increasingly faced with the dilemma of students’ cell phones in the classroom. The phones are virtually sutured to the students’ bodies today and they usually present a distraction to student learning and annoyance for the instructor. Nonetheless, they are powerful computers and educators need to find innovative ways to have students use these devices. A mobile game like “Bury me, my Love” provides a perfect solution. Students can play the game as they move between classes during a public-school day or between days in a college setting. I find the game most useful in a high school and maybe middle school where students spend a long block of time in a school environment every day. Settings can turn off notifications, but I think allowing students to respond as they see fit also has educational value. In this fashion, learning as an ongoing journey can occur as students navigate their day punctuated by Nour’s navigation of a much more perilous life-threatening journey. Conversations will spontaneously occur in hallways, the lunch room or on the bus, in addition to the classroom- and that can be any classroom, but especially English, and Global Studies or political science classes. As students experience Nour’s day to day events on an hour to hour basis they cannot help but develop a more empathetic feeling towards refuges which can spark further investidation of the Syrian Civil War.

The game should be presented in historical context with some up-front learning about the genesis of the civil war. Instructors can use whatever credible sources they feel are most helpful to the class, but I have two strong recommendations.  The UNICEF site can be a wealth of learning resources. You can find statistics, first hand stories and a humanitarian context for the crisis. UNICEF also drives home the effect of the tragedy on children (#ChildrenofSyria) and that can have the biggest impact on your students. You can mix in some of the heart wrenching video clips from CNN or the BBC with newspaper clippings (i.e. links to current stories on the crisis, and topics like: what happens if a border, say Jordan, is closed? How do host countries react to refuges? How does one adjust to a new culture? How does one survive the journey? What happens to the family members left behind? What can be done about the use of chemical weapons? What ethic choices are involved as one leaves home? What is the responsibility of privileged regions like the United States or Europe toward such Humanitarian crises?).

My second recommendation would be to spend a class talking specially about Homs, Syria.3 It is the third largest city in the country and the home of the character Nour. The city has a rich heritage stretching back some 8,000 years, and, like with Iraq, Americans and American students are largely unaware of this extraordinary heritage and how much of what we know as western civilization springs from the cultural fountains of the middle east. This lesson needs to occur before game play and should include photographs of Homs before and after the start of the civil war. This glorious city has been laid to waste and seeing these dramatic images will give a deep, meaningful and empathetic context to why Nour must leave Syria, and the sadness she must feel upon her departure.

The game also allows for interesting historical based lessons and comparisons. For instance, a focused discussion on internally displaced people-homeless, but remaining in their homeland, migration- from the American south to Chicago, and, most relevant now, the plight of children. Intense opposition to the current administration’s practice of separating families at the Mexican border provides a link to family separation in Syria. Finally, the wonderful 1980s film El Norte (Nava, 1983), which tells the moving story of a Guatemalan (native Mayan) brother and sister escaping the terror, discrimination, oppression and out right murder of their people for the anticipated safety of California.

There are many many entry points into the current Syrian tragedy, but for me, the mobile game “Bury me, my Love” is one of the best and potentially most effective learning interventions for middle, high school and even college students.

Notes

1.The lead writer Pierre Corbinais has an excellent blog post about writing this game on Gamasutra, “’Bury me, my Love’: tips for writing a game that feels real,” 2/05/2018.

2.The United States’ government’s acceptance of Syrian refugees has been poor. Part of our collective failure has to do with threats, fears and misconceptions about Muslim countries, in addition to the extra vetting demanded by our Post 911 climate, but the number of Syrian refuges here remains unusually low given the magnitude of the crisis. For reference see, “The U.S. Has Accepted Only 11 Syrian Refugees This Year,” Deborah Amos, NPR/parallels, April 12, 2018, and a brilliant, in depth feature, “Why Is It So Difficult for Syrian Refuges to Get Into the U.S,” by Eliza Griswold, The New York Times Magazine, January 20, 2016.

3.There are many sources for images and stories about Homs, but one possibility is this article in The Atlantic, “Syria’s City of Homs, Shattered by the War,” Alan Taylor, May 14, 2014.

Game Information

“Bury me, my Love” is a mobile game for both iOS and android designed by The Pixel Hunt and Figs in cooperation with co-producer ARTE France and published by Playdius Entertainment, released September 19, 2015. I downloaded for $2.99 and played on my iphone.

 

 

 

 

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