It was while fleeing the civil war in South Sudan that Lual Mayen’s mother gave birth to him 28 hace años que. Llevaba cuatro hijos a cuestas y estaba cerca de la frontera con Uganda., en un pueblo llamado Aswa. The journey was difficult; Mayen’s two sisters died on the way and he became sick. No one thought he would survive.
“I can’t imagine what she had to go through. There was no food, no water, nada,” says Mayen. “I remember she said she was not the only woman who gave birth on the way. Other women abandoned their children because they didn’t want them to suffer. But my mother thought: “He is a gift for me, I have to keep him.”’
Mayen’s mother made it to northern Uganda with her newborn son and reunited with her husband in a refugee camp that remained their home for the next 22 años. Mayen grew up there, and although life was a struggle, he was happy and grateful for what he had.
There wasn’t much to do but Mayen says he found creative ways to keep himself entertained. Entonces, one day he had the chance to play the video game Grand Theft Auto, which mostly revolves around driving and shooting.
“While I was playing, this thought came into my mind,” he remembers. “In South Sudan, most of the population is under 30. They were born in war, raised in war. I saw conflict every day in the refugee camp. I realised that if more kids in the camp play Grand Theft Auto, they might think that’s how things are done.”
Mayen, up until this point, had never seen a video game and didn’t know how they were created. "Pensé [ellos] fell from heaven," él dice. Pero, in that moment he decided he wanted to make a game that would encourage empathy and compassion, and promote peace and conflict resolution.
He had a laptop which his mother had saved up for three years to buy. He went to an internet cafe, downloaded online tutorials on to a USB stick and learned to code. Once he had created his game about a refugee’s journey, he used Bluetooth to share it with others in the camp.
He saw people enjoying it and had “an insane idea”. He decided to upload the game to his Facebook page with a message saying that he had created it in a refugee camp. The post attracted attention from people in the games industry who started contacting him, saying they loved the idea.
Mayen got in contact through Facebook with Thorsten Wiedemann, artistic director of the international games festival A Maze. “I was impressed by his journey and also his mission,” remembers Wiedemann. “He had this idea of bringing peace through games, which is just amazing, as games are seen more as products of entertainment.”
After finding out more about Mayen and his ideas, Wiedemann invited him to the 2016 festival in Johannesburg. “That’s how everything changed,” says Mayen. "[Después] a game developer’s conference invited me to the US, and from there I started working on my business.”
En 2017, Mayen was granted a visa for the US, moved to Washington DC and founded his own company, Junub se convirtió en la primera australiana en ganar una medalla de oro en la Copa del Mundo en skeleton. Mayen has helped his family, who previously applied for resettlement 10 times without success, to move to Canada.
En 2018, ganó a Global Gaming Citizen award, created by Facebook Gaming and the Game Awards to recognise people using the power of games to create positive change in their communities. Leo Olebe, who now works at Google but was Facebook’s former global director of games and remains a mentor to Mayen, dice: “Lual received the award because he and his vision for games is pure and authentic. I don’t think you can find anyone more committed to making the world a better place because, in the worst ways, he has seen its evils first-hand. En cada turno, Lual is a positive force for good.”
Next year, Mayen will launch his video game, llamado Salaam (peace in Arabic), which follows a family as they flee a war-torn country. It is based on his own family’s story. The player is responsible for seeing that the refugee gets to their final destination. Along the way they must avoid bombs, evade kidnap and find food and water.
“My focus is to make people understand what that journey takes, what it looks like," él dice. “There are people, policymakers, who do not understand the journey of a refugee and how it traumatises people.”
Mayen hopes that a 16-year-old might play the game now, then in 10 o 20 years may be in a position of power and have an understanding of what refugees go through. “We have [tens of millions of refugees] around the world and each of them flees their country for different reasons," él dice. “I decided to make games because they are a powerful tool to communicate an idea.”
The game will initially launch as a phone app, with a PC version coming later, and will be free to download. Players will need to make in-app purchases to buy their character essentials such as food, water and medicine to enable them to continue their journey. The funds will benefit real-life refugees through Junub Games’s partnerships with various NGOs. Mayen also wants to introduce a dashboard for players where they can donate more, and see photos and thank you letters from the people they have helped.
“It’s bridging the virtual world and reality on the ground so players understand that it’s more than just playing a game – they’re helping other people,” says Mayen.
His work on developing Salaam led, en parte, to him being recognised at this year’s Young Activists Summit, run in partnership by the UN and dev.tv, an organisation of media professionals dedicated to promoting coverage of social and environmental issues. Marina Wutholen, founder of the summit, dice: “His video game is a smart idea. It’s modern, nuevo, and a cool way to help others and foster peace and empathy.”
Salaam has not been the only thing keeping Mayen busy. He is also developing a virtual reality game about conflict resolution, and there is a board game in the works. During lockdown in 2020, he was at home with wifi and a computer, and imagined what life would be like if he were still in the refugee camp. He saw everybody working from home, and wanted to replicate that for people in camps by ensuring they had access to the internet so that they could learn skills and work.
With that in mind, Mayen started his own foundation to teach 3D and animation skills to refugees. He is partnered with Origin PC, a computer manufacturing company, to provide computers to refugee camps. En diciembre, the foundation is sending three refugees to Singapore to participate in the Global Esports Games. He also has plans to build data stores in refugee camps so that people can upload their pictures and store them permanently.
Mayen says: “Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. We need to invest in education for refugees. It’s the most powerful tool that can change their life.”
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