Goldsmiths Design Festival 2017: Refugeoly

At this year’s Goldsmiths Design Festival, alumnus and current studio manager Vinny Montag presented “Refugeoly”, a game based on Monopoly and designed by Vinny and his collaborator Jon Halls. The purpose of the project is to provide the player with a simulation of the difficulties refugees go through in their journey towards a safe haven. You can now watch the full presentation online:

But why Monopoly? What is the purpose of the game and what kind of reactions does it hope to get from its players? Vinny and Jon explain in more detail:

Vinny: The objective of this project is to create awareness about the situation of thousands of people living in a dramatic situation, people that have not chosen to leave their countries of origin, but simply have to flee in order to save their lives. We do not have a specific target audience for this project, in fact we have played Refugeoly with all kinds of people, of all ages and of different status. We have experienced many kinds of reactions. The hardest one is possibly when we have played with children, some of them left the game halfway through, telling us that it is impossible to win and why is this happening…For other people that had not idea of the circumstances that a refugee has to go through, the game was simply the best way to be in the shoes of a refugee.

How do you manage to simplify such an issue enough to fit into an accessible game, without falling into the trap of trivialising a serious topic?

Vinny: We were very careful about how to talk and explain this topic. For us, the hardest part of the project was research. Through some volunteer friends working in refugee camps of Greece and Turkey, we managed to have Skype interviews with a number of refugees from different countries and they were telling us about their journeys from Afghanistan, Syria or Kurdistan. These stories are so real, so dramatic that they would make anyone cry. We have just portrayed those stories in the form of a game for the public, and we made it accessible by using a game (Monopoly) that everyone has played once. Another reason for the game to be based on the Monopoly is the fact of money. To leave a country in conflict and reach Europe you need lots of money, the refugee will have to pay constantly, to border police, the mafia, pay for food and shelter.

How easy is it to “win” the game? How do you think the player’s experience of “winning” or “losing” the game can translate into empathy for real-life difficulties? Do you think “winning” too easily could result in minimising the plight of refugees?

Jon: The game rests entirely on luck. Fate can give you a fortuitous roll and you can land on the right squares and be transported far through the game. However, we have found that those rare experiences where the person wins quickly leaves them feeling cheated, as though they expected it to be harder and watching their companions struggle actually makes them guilty. This odd situation creates empathy in a different way than intended.

This exploration of winning and losing then reveals itself as an educative process, where the player continually questions what reality each square reveals and how accurate they are. When they continually go backwards or give out money, they question its accuracy and this adds to the experience. By questioning the game rather than accepting it, the reality becomes real to them.

How do you think design projects like this one can help achieve change in the refugee crisis in the long run?

Jon: Narratives are incredibly important to our acceptance of reality. When we believe a good story, we adhere to that truth, and in that understanding we as creatives can create a narrative that speaks to the audience. This is what we have done by designing a first person game, wherein the opportunity for the individual to experience the narrative creates a connection that means they cannot ignore the reality that is going on without thinking of their own experience. This game therefore creates empathy, and as empathetic creatures we have shaped the world for each other.

By adhering to this faith in humanity and connecting each other through design, we believe that our innate goodness will come through and the individual will take part in their own manner to help out. While we are not able to change the world through a game, we hope that it creates the stage from which change can come.

What other contemporary issues do you think could be tackled through a similar approach?

Jon: By focusing on creating experiences and narratives that can connect the individual to the situation, we believe that this format is highly transferable. This is also because Refugeoly relies on money as a key part of the game, and as we move steadily further into a completely monetised society, money warps everything.

We could translate the game into a whale migrating past oil rigs, fishing nets and searching for reduced foodstocks along the way, or into the experience of a disability benefit claimant trying to make ends meet as he tries to navigate the government bureaucracy. So long as the story translates a narrative that can be followed, the format is limitless. This again speaks of empathy, and if the individual can see a situation where empathy and money clash, then design can lead towards a solution.