Sudanese refugee Lual Mayen has turned his experience into a video game, Salaam, which is scheduled to be released in December. Image Credit: Washington Post

Washington: His surroundings are so much different now. Lual Mayen sits in a modern office space, set in a trendy neighborhood that teems with beer gardens and Michelin Star restaurants. He enjoys the comfort of leather furniture and a fiber-optic infrastructure. Cold brew coffee comes on tap, and the water, once such a scare commodity, is citrus-infused. The designer threads he wears can be traced to his homeland, but he wears them with an American swagger befitting of a CEO.

There was a time, though, when thoughts of success were trumped by those of survival. Mayen spent most of his young life doubting he would live to see the next day. He never had enough food. His friends were conscripted as child soldiers. Bombs regularly fell from the sky.

As a newborn in his parents' arms, Mayen endured a 225-mile trek from his war-torn home in South Sudan to a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. His two older sisters died from illness while making the journey. Though he was too young to remember them, he still finds ways to honor their memory.

"We are five in my . . . we are seven in my family," Mayen corrects himself when asked of them.

Mayen was born into war, but his mission is peace. And the journey that began his life has stretched in an almost unfathomable direction. Now 24 years old, he is a video game developer residing in the United States, leading his own company and using the experiences from his past to inform his products: games aimed at peace-building and conflict resolution.

"That's the thing in life," Mayen says. "If you're going through something hard and you survive, the next thing is, how do you come out of that? How do you utilize that opportunity to make your life better?"

Mayen is in the process of launching his company, Junub Games, and programming its latest product: a peace-building game called Salaam. He programmed the first version of Salaam, which means "peace" in Arabic, while still living as a refugee. Mayen, like the other children in the camp, played soccer, looked for food in the bush and hid underground from the nightly bombs launched by the Sudanese government that residents called "antelope."

In the game's new version, players adopt the role of a refugee who must flee falling bombs, find water and gain energy points to ensure the character's survival as the player's country journeys from a war-torn present into a peaceful existence. If the player's character runs out of energy, the player is prompted to purchase more food, water, and medicine for the character with real-world money. The funds go beyond the game to benefit a living refugee through Junub's partnerships with NGOs.

Salaam exists in a distinctive category in the gaming world, but one experts believe can have a legitimate effect on conflict resolution as the video game industry grows. More than 8 in 10 teenagers say they own a gaming console or have access to one, and 90 percent of teens say they play video games on a computer, game console or cellphone, according to a 2018 Pew Center survey.

"[Gaming is] becoming this ubiquitous way that people are interacting with each other," said Leo Olebe, Facebook's global director of games partnerships who connected with Mayen at the 2018 Game Awards. "When you have those moments of teaching people how to interact in a civil manner, in a respectful manner, in a way that promotes peace and conflict resolution versus tearing the world apart, that's where it's all going to start."

Olebe said Mayen is "leading the way" in the social-impact gaming category, but it is not the only game with an empathy-building or educational element that has shown a tangible effect. A 2006 third-person shooter game called Re-Mission featured a player traveling through a human body as a nanobot destroying cancer cells. The game, designed for young cancer patients, had a measured impact on the self-efficacy and knowledge of players, and, according to a 2008 study, resulted in improved treatment adherence in adolescents and young adults undergoing cancer therapy.

Through its in-game transactions, Mayen's game may offer a real-world benefit for refugees. It also seeks to educate its players on the trying life he and his family endured.

Even while enduring the struggles of the refugee camp, Mayen had a unique ability to entertain his peers. His mother, Nyantet Daruka, recalled the shadow puppet shows her son performed for other residents of the camp when he was 9.

"[Lual] would go and cut boxes and put white paper on top of them, and then get a light and put it behind," Daruka said during an interview via Skype that Mayen translated from her native Dinka. "People would come from all over the refugee camp. More than 100 people would sit in our compound to watch Lual. It was a form of television and a form of entertainment."

Mayen saw his first computer at age 12, a laptop at a refugee registration center that he thought "fell from heaven." He begged his mother for one, and she initially laughed at the request. There was not enough food to feed her family. How could she purchase a laptop? But Daruka thought back to the boxes and the shadow puppets.

"It was one of the signs that showed whatever I invested in, Lual would be able to focus and make something out of it," she said.

Daruka also wanted something that would help her son learn and would reduce the stress of living in the camp, she said. For three years, she worked sewing clothes to save enough money to buy her son a $300 laptop. Mayen said he cried when he received the gift.

"I started blaming myself," he said. "There was no power to charge it. There was no one to train me. Was I just going to keep it in my room, like in a museum or something? Again I thought about it and I was like if my mother can work for three years to get the money, why not me? Why can't I [find a way to] use it?"

Determined to reward his mother's sacrifice, Mayen walked three hours every day to an Internet cafe to charge the computer. In the camp, he carried the laptop around with him, keeping it hidden in a backpack so it would not be stolen by others or confiscated by his teachers. He taught himself English, learned graphic design programs and became proficient in programming by watching tutorials a friend from Kampala provided on a flash drive.

When he first began to develop his own game, he wanted to make something his friends could play.

"I distributed the first game to the refugees in the camp," Mayen said. "Because my main focus was to make a video game to give to the refugees so they have something to entertain them, something where they were able to come together and learn or play."

Mayen developed his first mobile version of Salaam in 2016. In that version, players tapped bombs falling from the sky to dissolve them with a cloud of "peace" before they reached the village below. Mayen posted a link to the game on his Facebook page, which was picked up and shared internationally. He was invited to speak about the game and connect with industry professionals in other parts of Africa. Ultimately, it launched him on his path to the United States.

In 2017, Mayen was invited to serve as a consultant for the World Bank and was granted a G Visa to move to the United States. He then connected with managers at WeWork Labs and joined an incubator program that provides him with business mentorship and resources to grow his company. He is now working to launch his game through sponsorships and partnerships, including one with NBA player Luol Deng of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Deng, who is from South Sudan, discovered Junub Games online and reached out to Mayen, inspired by Mayen's mission to promote peace in his home country.

The partnership with Deng is a big step for Junub Games, a company that consists of Mayen and several others who contribute to his code. Mayen is aiming to have Salaam ready to launch in December, determined to grow the category of social-impact gaming to give back to his community.

"Peace is something that is built over time," Mayen said. "It's not about people coming together and signing cease-fires and so on. It's a generation of change. It's a change of mind-set. It's a change of attitude toward each other."

Personal affairs have kept Mayen busy in recent months. He has been assisting family members with their recent move to Canada by helping them complete immigration paperwork and sending money for application fees and arranging transportation to interviews. Mayen said his family members applied nine or 10 times over the course of 12 years until they were granted permanent resettlement this year. Although he is based in the United States, Mayen urged them to apply for Canadian rather than U.S. residence because he thought the immigration process would be easier.

"If the Canadian government had not accepted us, it was going to be so hard for us," Daruka said. "We are so thankful to the Canadian government for opening these doors for us as refugees."

It's been two years since Mayen has seen his family in person, though he calls his mother every night to check in with her. His mother, father, two younger brothers and two young nieces were able to make the move to Canada. His brothers, Dng, 19, and Manyok, 17, recently started school. They want to study computer engineering. Daruka said they will be better off than her eldest son because they will receive more schooling than he did. Education, she said, has always been an important part of creating a better future for her children. It's why she bought her son a computer, and why it wasn't so hard to let him go away to the United States.

"I never knew he was going to be who he was today," Daruka said. "I was just being a mom to him. I was just working hard for him. Because life changes. Life changes sometimes."