A few days ago PAXsims mentioned Syrian Journey, the BBC’s interactive exploration of the challenges facing Syrian refugees trying to reach asylum in Europe. We thought it was a “simple but effective example of how interactive fiction can be used to explore difficult humanitarian challenges in a way that makes them readily understandable to a broader audience.”
Apparently not everyone thought so. The British tabloid The Sun—well-known for its sensitivity to migrants, refugees, Muslims, and the Middle East—ran a story about the “fury” that the BBC’s “sick” game had (allegedly) generated:
The Sun cited “Middle East expert” Christopher Walker as saying “In the midst of probably the bloodiest Syrian crisis this century, the decision of the BBC to transform the human suffering of literally millions into a children’s game beggars belief.” (Walker is a former reporter who periodically also does interviews with those other bastions of the quality media, Russia Today and Iran’s Press TV. I wouldn’t personally consider him an expert on either Syria or refugees.)
The Daily Mail—which, like the Sun, is well-known for its sensitivity to migrants, refugees, Muslims, and the Middle East—then jumped aboard the outrage bandwagon:
The Daily Mail even cited a few people on Twitter to buttress its case—because, you know, if a couple of people on Twitter are upset it must be a real story.
As Keith Stuart notes at The Guardian, all this outrage is misplaced:
Mostly, of course, this is down to a misunderstanding about what games are – or can be. It’s telling that the Mail’s expert refers to Syrian Journey as a “children’s game” despite the fact that no such claim is made on the game’s home page. Indeed, it is placed in the site’s news section, and is clearly labeled as a news-based interactive experience.
The inference is that all games are for children, and that this is not a medium that can support or explore serious subject matter. It is, in short, an old-fashioned moral panic, a dated reaction to a medium that has been maturing for over 40 years. Indeed, interactive news games have been around for over a decade, ever since web-based platforms like Flash have allowed developers to quickly develop and distribute topical interactive experiences. A glimpse at the work of studios like Molleindustria and Persuasive Games shows how subjects like fast food production and airport security can be effectively analysed and expressed in game form.
He goes on to explore more fully how “news games” and interactivity can be used to inform and engage, thereby making important news stories more accessible.
The BBC has defended the approach, which has been praised by refugee advocates. Most of the response on Twitter—including by those who work directly on Syrian and refugee issues—has been positive too. The game has received more than a million views.
As for me, I too continue to view Syrian Journey as a valuable and very positive effort by the BBC. And, while it is true I have never been interviewed by Russia Today, Press TV, or The Sun, I do write books about both refugees and the contemporary Middle East, as well as teach on the subject—all of which might give me some modest claim to be a “Middle East expert” as well.