Why you should care
This is a small window into what it’s like to flee persecution.
Garabed Khachadour had just 48 hours to create a video game about freedom. He was competing in a tournament against seven other teams of developers hoping to win support to further develop their games. Khachadour, who is Lebanese-Armenian, based his game on his great-grandmother and his grandfather, the only two survivors from their village during the 1915 Armenian genocide. “My grandfather was just an infant at the time,” says the 24-year-old. “I thought, why try to speak about the experiences of others when I have my own family history to talk about.”
That was last November. Khachadour’s game caught the eye and support of the tournament’s host, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF), based in Potsdam, Germany, which seeks innovative ways to promote liberal values worldwide. On May 2, Mayrig: Paths to Freedom — a game based on the Armenian genocide that doesn’t expressly say it’s about the event (until the player reaches the end) — launched on Android, Apple and PC. It’s an eye-opening journey, accompanied by historical photographs and traditional Armenian music, that thrusts the player into the shoes of a refugee fleeing for her life.
Mayrig (which means “mother” in Armenian) follows a woman’s escape from the genocide in Anatolia. Narrated in the first person, the game requires the player to make harrowing choices. Right from the start, the player must decide: Rescue a baby from a raided village or flee. Each decision leads to one of six storylines based on carefully researched and historically accurate events. The player eventually encounters all of them — the game is designed to be replayed until all scenarios have been explored.
This is a game about actual lives and actual people.
Carmina Khairallah, Mayrig writer
Yet despite being a game about genocide, Mayrig isn’t a gorefest. Neither the game’s creators nor the FNF wanted to sensationalize the violence that killed approximately 1.5 million people. Writer Carmina Khairallah says she approached the storylines with the utmost respect for survivors. “This is a game about actual lives and actual people,” she explains. Scenes are narrated, with text accompanying harrowing photos, among them one of a river that thousands of Armenians traversed to escape the killings, and soldiers standing next to a pile of skeletons and skulls. At the end, there’s a brief history of the events that inspired the game.
But beyond the genocide, Mayrig’s larger purpose — a goal echoed by both Khachadour and Khairallah — is to highlight the ordeals that refugees from any given conflict face. The obvious parallel is the ongoing crisis in Syria, which has produced the highest number of refugees in the world. There are more than a million Syrians in Lebanon, where they comprise nearly a quarter of the population. With many of the refugees fearing reprisals from the Syrian government, some refugees may wish to stay in Lebanon, just as Armenians did decades ago.
Mayrig isn’t the only interactive game that tackles refugee persecution. Bury Me, My Love (2017), for example, captures the plight of Syrians escaping to Germany. But Mayrig provides a wider lens, exploring themes that recur in most conflicts, according to Johannes Mieth, who oversaw the project with the FNF. For instance, the protagonist hides her identity to survive — a common situation for refugees fleeing their country. “We tried to talk about issues that repeat themselves,” Mieth explains. “We tried to connect the past to the present.”
The free game is available for download in English and Arabic — with plans to soon release an eastern Armenian version. What you won’t find is a Turkish version: Turkey denies that the mass killing of Armenians was genocide, but Germany officially recognized it as such in 2016 — a move that angered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The FNF didn’t want to antagonize Erdoğan again, according to Mieth. He adds that while Mayrig doesn’t refer to Turkey outright, there is no question that the game is about the Armenian genocide. “Our purpose isn’t to provoke Turkey, but to broach timeless and relevant issues,” Mieth explains. “The message we are sending is that something happened 100 years ago and something similar is happening today.”
With dire refugee situations throughout the world, Mayrig is a timely, evocative game to play. Offering a rare and provocative window into the experience of forced migration, it’s also a resounding call for empathy.