SEATTLE — “No one chooses to be a refugee” is the slogan that the United Nations is using to promote its simulation app, “My Life as a Refugee.” The app’s page on the U.N. website continues on to say “every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.”
Although the app is classified as a game by the U.N. and in the App Store, the cause is more educational than simply earning points. It’s an educational app, based off of experiences of real refugees according to BBC, and is meant to make users ask the question “If I were in their shoes, what would I do?”
The app features three characters: Merita—a recently widowed mother of three hoping to escape civil war, Paulo—a fifteen-year-old whose dreams of becoming a doctor are put on hold when he must escape becoming a child soldier, and Amika—a mother whose outspokenness about women’s rights leads to torture and an attempt to escape.
Each story asks you to make different choices, such as whether or not to leave your village or stay to care for your wounded brother. Or in another story, whether or not to live in a refugee camp or find work and shelter in an unfamiliar city. The story’s outcomes change depending on the choices you make, resulting in multiple storylines and outcomes for each character. In my experience as Merita, I was lucky enough to find my daughter after being separated from her for ten years. However, as Amika, my choice to be smuggled by land left me broke and stranded in the middle of the desert, forced to “start over.”
Every page of the story presents facts on displaced persons and refugee aid processes from information provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The background behind each character includes real pictures of hospitals, cities and refugee camps worldwide. Once a user learns the fate of their character they are prompted to learn more through a link to the UNHCR main webpage.
Research has shown the power that storytelling can have on changing our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors towards different causes. Paul Zak of the Harvard Business Review claims that “as social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness.” According to his article “Why your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” researchers in his lab discovered the chemical in our brains called oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown kindness.
Oxytocin enhances our sense of empathy, motivating our cooperation with others. Empathy is important for humans as it allows us to understand how others feel, even if we have never been in their situation. Additional research by his lab has shown that “character-driven stories” increases the creation of oxytocin in our brains.
Subjects in Zak’s tests were asked to watch sad short films. The amount of oxytocin measured in the brain of subjects after watching the film predicted how willing they would be to help others by donating to a charity associated with the narrative.
President Obama has also tried to put a human face on the plight of refugees. PBS covered his 2015 visit with refugee children in Myanmar who had been cleared for future resettlement in the United States. “They’re just like our kids,” the president argued, and further noted that policies that would turn a blind eye to the plight of any refugee would not be “representative of the best of who we are.”
This story telling aspect of the My Life as a Refugee is a part of the UNHCR’s effort to personalize the refugee struggles. The choices players are forced to make in the app are due to circumstances out of their control and the outcomes of these choices are unpredictable. This instability is not just a game for refugees — it’s a part of their everyday lives.
Although My Life as a Refugee was released in 2012, its relevance is clearly noted in the current stories we witness in the news every day. I finished all three character stories in about 15 minutes, but the struggles refugees face last far beyond that. The app reports that about two-thirds of the world’s refugees have been in exile for more than five years, “many of them with no end in sight.”
My Life as a Refugee is powered by the concept of making choices. Shedding light on the suffering and resiliency of refugees presents the global community with a choice between inaction or advocacy on behalf of the 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons around the world.
– Taylor Resteghini