Doing a selfie treasure hunt with refugees

Over the course of a couple of weeks, me and my game colleagues at Utrecht University developed a semi-analog location-based game for the refugees in Utrecht. The game is a selfie treasure hunt, and uses play as a way to turn the space of Utrecht into a more familiar place. The play test exceeded our expectation and as it turns out, the selfie is a universal phenomenon.

The game is a selfie treasure hunt, which means that several teams compete to hunt for tokens that are hidden in different “zones”. Our goal was to provide a fun and entertaining way to familiarize the refugees with the city they are housed, subsequently creating subjective experiences in specific places and turning an unfamiliar space into a place with positive memories.

For this first experiment, we created a treasure hunt in Lombok, a multi-cultural area in the city of Utrecht which is very near to the refugee centre. After contacting the municipality to pitch our idea, our game was put on the activity board at the refugee centre. We were given a location, which was a “pick-up point” and a time to be there, but there were no guarantees if anybody would show up. Note: although this first treasure hunt takes place in Utrecht, the framework could easily be deployed in every city.

Play testing the selfie treasure hunt

I was very curious to see how the play test would turn out, if people would show up, if they had camera’s on their phones (or if they even had phones). At first, we were unsure about where we could meet the participants, and if they would show up. I spotted a large group near the entrance of the shelter, and after parading with DIY  “City Game” sign, it turned out that a group of 25 people were interested in playing the game. In the beginning things were quite frantic because we expected a small group and not everybody spoke English. But after finding a translator, we were able to explain the rules of the game.

The tokens were spread throughout notable places, such as established meeting places or public parks, so that the players would discover “hidden gems” in the area. In teams, players have to find these tokens and take a selfie with the item. The group with the most token-selfies within the given time wins the game. Every team is provided with a map that indicates different zones and approximate locations of the hidden tokens. Furthermore, the players are provided with photos that provided a vantage point to start looking for the tokens.

Universal selfies

Surprisingly, the selfie is not just a “western” phenomenon, but a development that maybe is more related to the technology itself.  I asked: does everybody have a phone with a camera? A young man answered in English: “of course, everybody has camera.” I felt very silly and stupid, as this  reminded me of my own prejudice that refugees might not have access to a modern smartphone. As it turned out, they did have smartphones and everyone knew what a selfie was, and they loved the concept. After quickly explaining the rules, the teams went out to take selfies in the different areas of Lombok.

Running for play instead of war

The photo is the first token that my team found during the game. The moment they found a token, they immediately knew what to do. The space of Lombok suddenly transformed into a play space and I could feel the positive energy of the group. The team I accompanied was really enthusiastic, which was visible in their drive to win the game. Even though it was cold and it was raining the whole time, they were running all over the place. I remember one of them saying “the last time I ran like this was for the police in Hungary.” It is moments like this that I was reminded that it these people have been through a lot in the last months: fleeing for their life because of war, crossing over borders that are open one day and closed the other, and not knowing in which country or city they are ending up.

Most of the people in my group were young men and students up until the war, after which they could not study any more. Ahmed for example, has studied mechanical engineering for four year in Syria, but in his final year of study he had to stop. The thing that I personally learned from this experience is how I connected with the players on so many levels: I talked with my team about the tv-series The Big Bang Theory, about student life, and taking selfies. Interestingly enough, they had never heard of game studies, or people researching games, and they were very curious about what I actually did as a researcher. They could not believe that this experiment was something that was related to my study.

Questions relating games and place-making

Gamifying an urban space for refugees encountering this space gives rise to the following research questions to be tested through several gaming experiments:

  • How must space be approached to allow games to imbue it with memories?
  • How much of initial places should be incorporated in the construction of new places?
  • What aspects of the players’ own sense of placemaking should be included in the approach of space?
  • How can digital technology contribute to the construction of place, and:
  • How does world building relate to the construction of a ludic social identity?
  • How can play and games be used as a heuristic method to understand social and spatial practices?
  • How can personal experiences of fragile groups be translated into games?

In the next coming months, I hope to further explore some of these questions, as some of them are closely related to my own research.


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