A Syrian refugee game developer, an award-winning Austrian company and UNHCR created a game informing of the life-and-death decisions facing refugees.

By Ruth Schaffle in Vienna, Austria | July 08, 2022

Jack Gutman was not one of those kids whose parents discredited him for limiting his screen time and going out to play. Instead, they encouraged Jack and his four brothers to spend as much time as possible immersing themselves in computer games so that they would be safe from street fights outside their home.

“I was scared, and I tried to get away from reality,” says Jack, whose name is Abdullah and who grew up in Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. “I didn’t want to see the war and I didn’t want to hear it.” He used to play video games when the power came on. He used to play on the laptop when the power went out. When the laptop ran out of battery, he designed it on paper.

Many years later – safe in Austria – he never dreamed that his passion for computer design would equip him to create award-winning video games. This year, on the occasion of World Refugee Day (June 20), the UNHCR re-launched an education version of Path Out to help school children in Austria and elsewhere stand on the feet of refugees and make life-and-death decisions with the risky journey to safety. .

Taking a new name in Austria, Jack began drawing and coloring digitally as a child, and mastered the Photoshop graphics program at the age of fourteen.

“… computer games were the window to the world for me.”

“Digital art and computer games were the window to the world for me, outside my room in Syria, away from the war, in a diverse world with very different people,” he says, referring to the crisis that erupted in March 2011, the same month he turned 15.

Millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes since the crisis began in 2011. Today, about 6.8 million Syrians have fled abroad as refugees, and about 6.9 million – have been displaced in the country.

At the age of 18, facing the danger of enlisting in the army, Jack fled his homeland – a dangerous and arduous journey to Turkey and then to several countries until he reached Austria in central Europe. It was the first place where he really felt safe.

“I never thought of living in Austria,” he admits. “But when I got here with my brother, we were really shocked because a lot of people helped us – a positive shock.”

Shortly after arriving, Jack met George Hobmeyer, head of Vienna-based game-design company Cosa Creations, who sees video games not only as entertainment, but as a meaningful, enriching experience that connects us, challenging your perceptions. And give insights into the world around you. He has worked on issues such as migration, climate change and nuclear energy.

Jack, eager to turn his passion into a business, worked on a joint project with Cosa Creations. The result is Path Out, in which the player replicates Jack’s secret trek through Syria, sometimes into the hands of people smugglers.

“We decided that Jack himself would be the main character of the game,” says George, adding that it is especially important to show that there are complex stories and complex personalities behind each refugee figure.

In the style of Japanese play they choose, the cute characters contrast with the harsh reality of the journey. Jack – the designer and character – wears a yellow shirt in his Odyssey, which now has emotional value for him.

From a box in the corner of the screen, the real Jack often jokes about the players’ movements in YouTuber style. When a player makes a wrong move, he exclaims, “Dude, you hit me. “Actually, I wasn’t as clumsy as you.”

Originally released as a two-hour game in 2017, Path Out has won international and Austrian awards for “trying to shed light on a serious problem.”

The new version developed for Causa and UNHCR schools takes no more than a lesson, and helps students who may never meet real refugees learn that Jack lived a life like theirs until his world was turned upside down and he had to leave everything behind. These were brought in German and English on the occasion of World Refugee Day; Other language versions are to be followed.

Jack the Designer is still writing his own happy ending. Arriving in Austria, he felt safe, but it took time for the country to become his true artistic and emotional home.

“It took me five years to complete my journey,” he says. Now 26, he speaks almost impeccable German and English. He completed professional training, worked for a few years in a game development company and is now training in 3D modeling and animation to become even better game developers and designers.

He met an Austrian woman who also plays video games – though not by business – and they got married last year.

And he maintains his sense of humor, a quality he considers necessary both in real life and in his sport, Path Out. “The story of flight and war is bad enough; One needs humor to deal with it, ”he says.

As the game reflects its reality, “It’s fun at the same time. After all, computer games have to be fun. “