Lual Mayen was 14 years old before he even saw a computer for the first time.
His curiosity was aroused by the design more than its immediate purpose: to register fellow refugees.
“I went up and said ‘What is that?’ And [the officers] were like ‘That’s a laptop.’ And that was the moment that changed everything for me,” Mayen says.
“I don’t care what it was gonna take me. I want to use a computer.”
Born in modern-day South Sudan in the early 1990s, Mayen and his family were forced to flee his would-be home during the Second Sudanese Civil War. In fact, fighting had intensified so much around his family’s hometown that he was born on the way to a refugee camp in Northern Uganda — a place where he lived for more than two decades.
Mayen’s dream of owning his own computer remained unfulfilled until a surprise from his mother, the camp’s seamstress, changed everything.
“She kept quiet, looking for 300 dollars for three years to buy for me my computer,” he recalls. “And then one day she was like, ‘Yes, here’s the money. And you can buy a computer when it’s all done.’”
Today, at 25 years old, Mayen is a self-taught programmer, and founder and CEO of Junub Games based in Washington, D.C., a video gaming company developing games for social impact with a distinctive mission in a chaotic and violent world: peace and conflict resolution.
Mayen began developing his latest game, Salaam — which means “peace” in Arabic — while he was still living in the refugee camp.
He hopes to release it in the summer of 2020. For now, the game is available for pre-order updates.
Coded in HTML5 and designed as a first-person player game, Salaam is focused on human survival. Players overcome obstacles like finding food and escaping violence and war. Ultimately, Mayen says, the most difficult aspect of creating it is that “I’m putting my life into a game.”
“I want people to really have information and understanding of what the refugees are,” he says. “It’s more about changing the mindset and getting people to learn that these refugees are where they are because they’re not living in a peaceful environment.”
The study of social impact gaming and empathy has garnered greater academic attention in new media and game design circles. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, more than 90 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls surveyed in the United States have access to a video game console.
In December 2018, while working as a Visiting Scholar-in-Residence at American University’s (AU) School of Communication, Mayen was named a Facebook Global Gaming Citizen. He was first invited to work at the AU Game Lab due to its focus on “games for change and purposeful play.” He then received a quick windfall of support, including mentorship and a Kickstarter campaign.
As for Mayen’s immediate family, after enduring 25 years in refugee camps, they resettled in Canada this past October.
“For my mother and my father I want them to be happy. And for my siblings to follow the right path in life,” he says. “That’s what I want for them.” His brother, Deng, is even pursuing studies in computer engineering.
For himself, Mayen says simply, he’s happy that “there are better opportunities now than I had a few years ago.”