Play Digest: The World We Play In

In today’s climate of political strife, environmental crisis, and escalating international tensions, it makes sense that games offer an opportunity for escapism and fantasy. Increasingly, however, game designers and gamewrights are turning a responsive eye toward current events and drawing on them for inspiration. In this week’s link pack, we think about play globally.

Highly produced life-like games—and games based on historical events—are, of course, not new to the gaming world, but indie game companies and designers are using everything from world events to community activism to personal experiences to build meaningful, education, and empathy-building games.

The war in Syria has been rich fodder for distilling understanding about the migrant crisis. Path Out is an autobiographical game that follows its creator, artist Abdullah Karam, as he escapes Syria—dodging land mines and armed military, the game may look like a Japanese anime, but addresses not just the war and the refugee crisis, but also the heartbreaking decisions families have to make about who stays and who goes. Bury Me, My Love, is a beautifully rendered interactive fiction game that presents as a WhatsApp conversation between Nour—who has hopes of reaching Europe from her home in battle-riven Homs—and her husband Majd. The player communicates—in the role of Majd, who stays behind—with Nour as she makes her stressful way out of the country.

Here is an excellent—and often surprising—overview of Iran’s gaming industry and the role politics, sanctions, and the black market have on it.

Is Israel weak at gaming at the expense of augmented reality? There is an app that can be downloaded at an Israeli-sponsored exhibition that “disappears” the Al Aqsa Mosque from the landscape.

Climate change is also a point of interest for many designers. Patrick Jagoda of the University of Chicago will soon be launching an ARG called Overcast and Earth Primer is billed as a progressive earth sciences textbook textbook you can play with. Old Weather is a participatory game that will help scientists gather and catalyze historic Arctic weather data to better understand the impact of climate change.

Block by Block takes Minecraft as a base for empowering underprivileged communities to improve their surroundings.

Closer to home, studies show that returning veterans can find coping mechanisms through the avatars and gameplay mechanics of video gaming and VR.

The aforementioned Patrick Jagoda and his Game Changer Chicago Design Lab also develops community-focused civic-engagement games with teenage students in Chicago—many aimed at addressing sexual health awareness, including HIV testing, the relationship between reproductive health and socio-economic status, and sexual harassment.

Kurt Squire designs educational games that skill-build and motivate young people to take direct action in their communities.

Check in next week for a new roundup of the latest play news and stories.

(Photo credit: Image of Path Out gameplay, designed by Abdullah Karam, courtesy of the author.)

About Eugenia Bell

Eugenia Bell is the guest editor for She is the former executive editor of Design Observer and Design Editor of Frieze. Her writing has appeared in Frieze, Artforum, Bookforum, and Garage, among other places.