Refugees welcome

Even with only four people the interview room feels crowded. Two stern, bearded men sit behind the desk, interrogating the young girl from Afghanistan sitting in from of them. She’s shrinking in her chair, while they bombard her with their mandatory questions, designed to ascertain whether she is telling the truth. Is she who she says she is? Is she telling the truth about her situation? What about her family? Where are they? How did she get her? How old did she say she was? The fourth person in the room is a lone guard. Eyes drifting from the interviewee to the glass door and the room outside.

In the freezing cold waiting room more refugees have gathered in two groups. All of them without shoes and socks, visibly uncomfortable and trying not to let it affect their relationship with others. They haven’t eaten for some time, and hunger is gnawing at them, but the cold seeping through the floor and through the windows is their most immediate problem. Those who haven’t managed to get a chair, try to stay in motion, sit on their floor crossing their legs, or stand on their feet, anything to mitigate the cold. There’s tension in the room. A conflict has been brewing in the room. Some of the men feel that the women aren’t respectul enough, and the women feel the men are being to bossy. This is not why they came here. The women came to get away from men who always think they know best. In the corner a young Somali boy holds his head, gently rocking back and forth anticipating the coming argument.

By the window a guard plays around with a cell phone behind his back. It’s about time to play the call to prayer and see what happens then.

We’ve done a LARP. A real honest to god Live Action Role-Playing Game.

Inspired both by the annual Norwegian Refugee game (Send your kids to camp today)  and by the computer game Papers, please (3909 2013), we wanted to do a game in the tradition of Nordic LARPS. This would also be an opportunity for us to explore discomfort within a game (ludic) setting. During the design process it was important for us to balance the fun of the game with the discomfort we wanted to subject the players to in order to create a “positive negative experience”. We decided to do it as part of the annual gaming festival in Bergen, Regncon, that this year took place at the Ny-Krohnborg school. 

We were restricted by our time and resources, this was to be done quickly, cheaply and simply with only to principal designers. We had a ot of help in the conceptualizing face from individuals such as Frank Wisnes and Erik Aarebrot, as well as a representative of the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights who chatted with us about what people are fleeing from, and where. We talked with as many people we could about the asylum process, about the interviews and about what’s going on in the world. We read news articles and reports. All this to make sure that the experience we were created was grounded in some form of reality. Neither physical (all aspects of the physical conditions) or procedural (bureaucracy) realism would be able to attain with the resources and time available to us. Instead we went for metaphors and tricks to emulate the situation. For instance, the process of seeking asylum is a long process, that stretches over years, and several interviews. The first interview would be with the police trying to ascertain if there is a probable reason for granting asylum, later the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration will conduct further conversation getting a more complete picture of the stituation. Only after this process can they reach a discussion whether an asylum seeker is actually granted asylum.

A Refugee being interviewed
A refugee being interviewed. The interviewers hide their papers behind school supplies.

We, however, have only a few hours to enact this entire process, and must recreate a sense of physical, social and emotional stress and discomfort. That also means we had to limit ourselves to just one interview session, though the interviewers were allowed and encouraged to bring back the applicants if they needed clarifications. Their objective was to figure out which three applicants they would allow into the country. Both these interviewers were given a background and a set of political beliefs that would inform the interview process and their decisions. They were also given instructions on the kind of questions they had to ask, what to look for, and who were suspected of being false.

The refugee players were given characters from different parts of the world where today’s refugees came from, and were given back stories based on news stories and real stories from refugees. These descriptons were kept short, between a full page and a page and a half. Primarily to keep the players from having to read too much (and the organizers to write too much), but it also had the secondary function of creating gaps and wholes that the players had to fill in themselves. There were intentional discrepancies between the amount of information they were given, and the questions they were being asked. They would have to think on their feet, doubting themselves and their information, causing the interviewers to doubt them as well. It is one of the tricks we used to emulate the stressful situation that asylum seekers go through in their interviews. They will struggle with the language, and they will struggle to bring up memories and draw a blank on simple things as they are asked again and again the same questions, at uneven intervals to keep them off-balance. In retrospect this would need be further balanced; the players should have more information, in particular about geography and culture, but still lack som fundamental answers and have to figure them out themselves. There is an element of discomfort to this.

To enhance the difficulty and heighten the level of tensions the players are all asked to speak in English, which is their second language. Meaning they all know and understand it, but they aren’t fluent in it and it requires more thought to use it. Again this is to increase the pauses, the awkwardness and, thus, the discomfort of the interview session.

Additionally, to emulate physical comfort, the refugee players were asked to remove their shoes and socks at the beginning of the game, and marched off to the class room being used as a waiting room. This had a great impact on the beginning of the game, because it set the stage immediately. It didn’t take long before the cold set in, and the players started to traipse around the room to stay warm. We had considered blindfolding while bringing them to the room as well, but a set of stairs made that impractical.

The refugees talking among themselves in the waiting room / classroom.

The game proceeded well, and towards a natural conclusion when the refugees who were granted asylum were announced, and the seeming cohesion between them all imploded in a discussion about dirty tricks. They really wanted to get in. All of them. But in the end they couldn’t. And in the end, those most ambitious were willing to do whatever it took to be chosen.

After the end, we wrapped the game up with an hour-and-a-half long debrief session that doubled as part of our study. During the debrief the players, both interviewers and the refugees, were able to air out their frustrations and thoughts on the situation. What made them uncomfortable, how did they feel about each other, what were their intentions, and so on. They all shared willingly about the discomfort, some even asked for more and had expected to be more or less tortured during the interviews.

As researchers we were left with a lot of data to pour over, and motivations to do it again. We know now where we can do more, and where we should do less. We have a structure in place and we know that it works. Now we can use our debrief, and the reports that players decided they wanted to do, and enhance the gameplay when and if we decide to do it again. Maybe with more players.

About Kristian Bjørkelo

PhD student attached to Games and Transgressive Aesthetics, performing ethnographic studies of gaming culture online.

3 thoughts on “Refugees welcome

  1. Hello,

    My name is Dasha and I’m a larper from Belarus. I came across this post when I was looking for larps about refugees experience. I’m working on preparing a study session about migration and refugees and we decided to do a simulation to let students better understand the experience of both sides: host country policymakers/citizens and migrants (especially refugees). I was wondering if it’s possible to look at the script of this larp and possibly run it. We have a 3hrs time slot and around 30 people who know nothing about larping. I would also welcome any tips and links to relevanct sources for inspiration. Thank you! 🙂

    • Thank you for your request! We are indeed planning to distribute a script here on the blog once we have run our second larp next weekend. However, as of now it is in Norwegian only, so we will need some time to translate it. But it will be done in not the far future, and then it will be made available here. Follow us on Facebook to receive a notification when it is!

      • Thank you for your reply! I could have a look in Norwegian as well, no problem, if you don’t mind sharing. Jeg kan litt norsk 🙂 At the moment I’m just looking for inspiration and exploring possible formats that have already been tested. The main challenge I have is the people who are not only new to larping but may aso be resistant and a bit scared of this non-formal education method, therefore I’m trying to do as much research as I can to figure out the appropriate way to organize this study session element.

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