Playing the Migration Game

The title of this post probably sounds metaphorical, but it isn’t. I really did spend Monday to Friday last week in Berlin, playing a game that could perhaps best be described as a cross between Capture the Flag, Dungeons and Dragons, and Model United Nations.

How did this come about? A bit randomly, as these things do. I quit my job last summer, and in the intervening months have been doing a combination of work on Hiraeth, web design and marketing for Tony’s new business, freelance projects, taking the Dutch classes I’ve been putting off so long, and brushing up on my reading skills in Latin and Arabic for grad school. This flexibility meant that in mid-January when I saw the application pop up in one of the dozens of work-related Facebook groups I follow, I thought, yes, I actually could feasibly spend a week in Berlin in March doing this somewhat vague but intriguing thing relating to migration. I filled out the application then and there, with no real idea of how likely it was that I fit the profile they were seeking, or in fact what it was I would be doing there if I did. I was somewhat surprised a few weeks later to receive an email congratulating me on being selected.

Concrete information about what the game would be like was thin on the ground, both in the original project description and in the subsequent information packet I was sent, which mainly contained logistical information (e.g. vegetarian/vegan food was to be served, and we had to arrive by train rather than plane, both for carbon-related reasons). In fact, for the first couple of days even after arriving, the other participants and I still had little idea of what playing the game would entail. I didn’t know if I would be memorising lines, playing some complicated form of hide-and-seek, or putting on a VR headset. I am pretty sure this mysteriousness was intentional, since it succeeded beautifully in building up a dramatic degree of suspense for myself and the other participants.

Speaking of whom, the word “diverse” doesn’t even begin to describe the composition of this group of 40-odd people. A dozen or so were administrators and facilitators, who come from migration-related nonprofits in Italy, Romania, Germany and the Netherlands, and have been working together on this 3-year EU-funded project for a year and a half already. The rest of the “participants” (read: guinea pigs) were also drawn largely from residents of those four countries, but most of us were from somewhere else originally: Burundi, Iran, Peru, Syria, California (me) and tons of other places. Most, if not all, work in fields relating to migration. I’m pretty sure I was the only native anglophone; there was a Canadian, but she turned out to be a TCK who had moved there from Korea in middle school. Among other things, it was an interesting window on the use of “my” language (although I feel less and less proprietary about it these days) as a lingua franca in action.

We were all housed together in dorm-style bunkbeds in a sort of commune in northeast Berlin, fed three square meals of the aforementioned vegetarian-vegan food per day (they cautioned us not even to bring meat on the premises), and scheduled into group activities from morning till evening. Here’s the entryway of the venue, so you can have a mental picture:

We spent the first two days doing get-to-know-you activities, or, you could say, bonding with one another and dissolving normal boundaries of social convention and personal space. I don’t come from a background in informal education or simulation learning, so this was strange, and at times uncomfortable for me. However, I have to say it was effective; after a dozen packed hours of musical chairs, swapping articles of clothing, jumping up and down together, etc., we all knew each other’s names and were soon happily sharing intimate details of our personal histories.

Finally, it was time for us to get an orientation about the game we had come here to play. We were briefed on the essentials of the game-playing mechanism, the boundaries of the game space (which encompassed a couple of floors of the building, as well as a significant outdoor area), and the fact that improvisation was encouraged. After the orientation on general game play, we each received a packet about the character we would be playing. Some of us ended up being migrants (from many different backgrounds, with varying degrees of privilege), and others were immigration officers, border guards, journalists, NGO-workers, and all the other players you might expect in a real-life migration drama. We weren’t allowed to spill the beans about our character to other players before the game started.

I won’t spoil any of the details (in case you end up getting lucky enough to experience the game for yourself), but we each had goals we were trying to accomplish, which could be helped or hindered by other players in the game. For us migrants, the experience involved finding and visiting many “stations” along our journey in the hopes of completing essential paperwork, acquiring employment or language skills, etc. On the other side, the workers in the various stations got a taste of the sheer complexity of steps involved, institutional challenges, and the role that prejudice, stereotypes, and even apathy play in migration processes and outcomes.

The sheer complexity of this three-hour role-play simulation game impressed me mightily. As a child of the 80’s, I confess to somehow having missed out on playing Dungeons and Dragons; but I have watched Stranger Things. This migration game had no dungeon master; nobody to guide you along or explain things as you went. It was sink or swim. If you didn’t stay on your toes and use your ingenuity every moment, you had no chance of completing even half of your allotted tasks, and could fall into various unpleasant pitfalls along the way.

The organisers purposely gave each of us a role dissimilar to our real life experiences. For the first time in my life I got an experiential taste of what it’s like to face racism, lack of passport privilege, and all the other advantages I take for granted every day. I never realised how much I just assume that the things I want are possible, or that I deserve to move wherever I want and feel welcomed and wanted at least most of the time.

Even more surprising to me was the sheer immersiveness of it all–how easy it was to suspend my disbelief, fall into my roll, and most of all, feel intense emotions way out of proportion to a game, but very much in line with the life-and-death reality of the experiences the game portrays. Interactions with the other characters felt authentic, as we shared our backgrounds, swapped advice and stories, or played out disturbingly realistic power dynamics. And whoever designed this game has spent at least as much time in immigration-related government offices as I have, and probably under much more high-stakes circumstances; the “stations” along the way were such faithful reproductions I was hit by a wave of anxiety as soon as I walked in the door. When–over halfway through the game–I managed against all odds to get my asylum application approved, I sat down and cried from the sheer relief of it–until I had to get up and run down the stairs to accomplish my next goal. (Although running was dangerous, because it attracted the attention of the police, and I had no white privilege or American passport to fall back on in case of misunderstandings.)

Almost as crucial as the game itself were all the conversations it engendered, and the many ways we debriefed and processed the experience after the fact. We found out what had happened to the real-life humans upon whom our characters were based. We shared our own personal stories of migration, and how they related to the game. We deconstructed the role of government institutions, NGOs, the media, and individual prejudices in the migration issues that are playing out right now across the globe.

In the end, I feel like I truly have walked for just a bit in the footsteps of a migrant (a much less privileged migrant than myself), and gained a deeper understanding of so many aspects of the individual challenges they face, as well as the massive institutional barriers that make their lives so difficult, and their dreams often so unattainable. Would I love for every member of parliament, Brexiteer, and most of all Donald Trump to be invited(/forced?) to play this game? Oh, YES. But I also think the project’s more modest goals of getting it into formal and non-formal educational settings for both youth and adults in various European countries will go far in developing awareness of complex migration issues. I look forward to the success of this game and hope it will inspire similar initiatives.

The experiences of last week were unforgettable. As well as the uniqueness of the game itself, I was blown away by the privilege of spending this much quality time with a group of truly magnificent human beings who are so committed to positive change in the world. I left feeling inspired by their stories and work, and re-committed to finding more ways to translate my beliefs into concrete action. I will carry the emotional impact of the migration game with me into my future personal and professional encounters, as an experiment in empathy and an impressive example of the extraordinary things that are possible through imagination, passion and collaboration.

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