Game developer Steffen Mühlhäuser wants to help alleviate the boredom many refugees face in crowded shelters with a compact set of easy-to-play games. He’s relying on crowdfunding to get the project off the ground.
Deutsche Welle: You've developed a box of games for refugees called "Five"! What's the difference between well-known games and the games you've created?
Steffen Mühlhäuser: There aren't usually any games in the refugee shelters. Sometimes, people donate games. We were in a shelter near Hahn airport, and all they had was a tattered game of Parcheesi. We gave them some of our games, but we quickly realized that the language barrier was a problem. The people couldn't read the rules, and there wasn't really anyone on hand who could explain how to play. So for me, the main difference is that the refugees have to be able to read the rules and that the games are compact. They should be able to play in the limited room that they have - on a blanket, on their bed, on the floor. It has to be a game that doesn't require a board.
Many refugees have just completed a long journey, they're tired, and at least when they arrive here, they have to live in a crowded shelter. What use are games in such a situation?
A lot of these people spend most of their day waiting. And many are traumatized by what they've gone through. Anything that serves as a distraction can help to bring a little variety to their day. We've seen for ourselves how well the games are received. You wouldn't think it was possible, but they're suddenly having fun, they're laughing, and they're grateful for something that is outside their daily routine of getting food, waiting for news, or staring at their phones.
Did you get feedback from refugees on the "Five!" games?
We started off by hosting events with games that are already part of our catalog. But we did take the prototypes for "Five!" with us to the shelter in Hahn. We've been developing original games for a long time, and we have a lot of experience creating games that are easy to understand and start playing. So it doesn't make a big difference in the concept whether you're making a game for German kids or Syrian kids. Playing games is something that's universal.
Do you see games as something that can bridge cultures?
Yes, absolutely. People that have come to Germany from other countries and are confronted with a foreign culture inevitably discover that there are aspects of life here that they can relate to - in the form of such games, for example. The basic principles of abstract games are often the same: You want to be the first to reach a target, or it's a competition, you need to gather the most of something, or be the first to achieve a certain pattern. This is something that's been constant for thousands of years, the whole world over. So there is that element of recognition that I think is very valuable.
What kinds of games are in the box?
There's a game with tiles for children and a complex strategic game for adults. Then there's a bluffing game and a game that's similar to Memory where you have to remember where things are. And there's also a solitary game that you can play by yourself.
Many refugees come from Islamic countries, where, strictly speaking, games are forbidden. Is that something you took into consideration?
Of course. That was one of the first questions I asked myself. There was that moment of hesitation, but it's well known that games like backgammon and chess come from the Arab world and are very popular there. They might be taboo on paper, but they are part of public life and they're tolerated. The people that have played our games so far have had no problem whatsoever in that regard.
Steffen Mühlhäuser is a game developer. He founded Steffen-Spiele in 2003. If the company's crowdfunding campaign is a success, he plans to donate 5,000 boxes of "Five!" games to refugee shelters in Germany.