COMTOG Report on “Path Out”

Devreese, Margaux. (2023). “COMTOG Report on ‘Path Out’.” Never Again Initiative. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 23, 2023.


Path Out is successful at teaching people about the realities of conflict due to its well-researched background, appealing art direction, authentic storytelling and exploration opportunities. When the game is introduced in an educational environment, it gains new players, and the teachers are able to provide a framework for understanding the student’s player experience. However, despite the classroom context expanding Path Out’s potential, similar nuanced and thoughtful games about conflict, such as the other games featured in the COMTOG project, do not have access to these educational environments. 

By Margaux Devreese

As it stands, in 2023, the video game industry has captivated 3 billion players by offering immersive entertainment through stunning graphics, challenging gameplay, and engaging world-building (Statista, 2023). Over the course of the past two decades, the global video game industry has grown in value, reaching 196.8 billion USD in 2022. Moreover, the industry has proven to be resilient even in the face of economic downturns, such as the 2007 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic (ISFE, 2022). As the industry evolves in business and technology, more opportunities arise for game creators to feature complex, sensitive, and niche subjects. 

The COMTOG project launched by ECPS aims to take a closer look at a new wave of video games that bring players into conversation with the realities of conflict. While war-time settings are frequently used in popular video games, these games do not actively reflect on the consequences of war and combat. Today, however, a new generation of video games employs a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens when relaying these historical events in this new media form and attempting to shape our collective memory of conflict events. 

Path Out is an example of a successful game that employs its format to express the consequences of conflict effectively. The autobiographical adventure game recounts the story of a young Syrian man’s life before the war when the war started and how he had to flee his home country in the wake of the Syrian uprising and civil war. The game was created by Vienna-based production company, Causa Creations, in collaboration with its refugee protagonist, (now called) Jack Gutmann. The game’s playful yet honest tone has been very well received by players and critics alike and has even been adapted into a teaching aid by the UNHCR for lessons on refugees and migration (Steam, 2022). 

Over the past two decades, academic institutions have recognised the value of interactive learning for students’ educational motivation and performance. As video game technology became increasingly mainstream and accessible, interactive video games emerged in classrooms worldwide and demonstrated their ability to engage a wide range of students (Ranirez-Moreno & Tristan, 2022). This characteristic of the video game format spurred investment in developing serious games, which are games that have a purpose beyond entertainment (Fernandez-Sanchez, et al., 2023). Today, primary and secondary schools use serious games to enhance lessons on mathematics, biology, languages, history, and geography, in addition to theatre and fine art (Manero et al., 2017). 

The appropriation of new technology in education hopes to appeal to the current generation of students who have grown up as ‘digital natives.’ Video games enable them to apply their technical skills, situate themselves in unknown contexts, and learn by doing. Serious game scholars theorise that students become more involved in their learning experience when offered the agency to explore and make mistakes (Durkin & Barber, 2002). While several case studies merit this positive outlook towards video games as an educational tool, a stream of the literature considers this overstated (Rebah, 2019). Serious games vary in quality, applicability, and accessibility; hence judgements on their utility should be considered within the specific context. 

This report uses the case of Path Out to explore the educational utility of video games and discern under what conditions these tools can promote the understanding of conflict events. In conversation with Georg Hobmeier, Path Out’s lead designer; Dr Bill Watson, a serious games scholar; and Frederik Smets, a UNHCR Education Officer, ECPS explores what elements of Path Out enable critical thinking about migration and what are the recurring barriers to its success. 

The collaboration between Causa Creations and Jack Gutmann stands at the centre of Path Out’s success, as it is this combination of authentic storytelling and personal experience that makes the game unique. When living in Austria as a refugee, Gutmann went to work at Causa Creation as an unofficial apprentice translating his passion for playing games into creating them. This collaboration naturally evolved into translating Gutmann’s refugee experiences into a game format. When questioned on how this project reflected their joint intentions Georg Hobmeier, Path Out’s game designer, answered, “Causa Creations wants to tell powerful stories, and Jack had one that was worth telling.” Later adding that a first-hand experience of the refugee experience was missing in the politicised media conversations that were playing out in 2015. In translating Gutmann’s story into a video game, the team presented this narrative to video games’ typically young audience in a creative and exciting format. 

Players learn about the political atmosphere and background of the Syrian civil war as they move across time and space,as Jack Gutmann. The storyline starts during the Arab Spring protests against the al-Assad regime in 2010, giving the player context on how this political discord escalated into a civil war. As the game moves into 2014, the year Gutmann fled, we notice that his local neighbourhood has become increasingly rundown; there are fewer resources but more soldiers. When visiting Gutmann’s neighbours, the player also gets a sense of the various positions held across Syrian society. The wife of a Syrian soldier is seen in a lavish, well-furnished home, while a dubious man in a dark house pays you to spy on that same soldier. The player becomes aware of the fraught political landscape Gutmann had to navigate with lies and bribery in order to safely flee the country. After bypassing obstacles like ISIS soldiers and shady smugglers, the player finally arrives to meet his brother at the Turkish border. While the game ends here, we, as the audience, know this is just the beginning of an arduous journey to Europe. 

Path Out is a part of the UNHCR’s broader catalogue of teaching materials on refugees, asylum, and migration. Frederik Smets, UNHCR Education Officer, noted that this initiative was a direct response to the requests of teachers. In 2015, the peak of the migration crisis, educators contacted the UNHCR for help tackling classroom discussions about why people are crossing the Mediterranean. Today, conversations on migration are still highly politicised and frequently misinformed, which makes education and open discussions on this topic extremely important. 

The UNHCR adaptation of Path Out maintains the original’s overall narrative but features a shorter gameplay so that it can fit within a 50-minute lesson. In addition to the game, teachers are provided with lesson materials that enable class discussions on the refugee experience and the consequences of conflict. The game adaptation was officially launched in classrooms last year in English and German and will soon be released in additional languages like French. One year after the launch, the UNHCR will conduct a broad evaluation of Path Out’s success in the classroom and incorporate the feedback to improve the learning experience. 

The initial round of feedback from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. The game allows students to step out of the classical learning environment and interact with their subject material on a more personal level. As students navigate Gutmann’s character through his journey, they can come to grips with the consequences of their choices; A wrong step in a minefield or a wrong answer at the border can mean the end of the game and the end of a refugee’s life. 

Another successful element of the game is its ability to promote self-driven learning. Dr Bill Watson, a professor in the field of serious games, argues that actions in video games enable players to answer their own curiosities rather than relying on someone’s answer (Watson & Fang, 2012). Students explore the Syrian War’s context, location and attitudes by walking around the different sets and speaking to different NPCs, slowly growing their understanding of the whole issue. Path Out makes exploration appealing by depicting Syria in a cosy pixel-art style, but this feature also drives players to question the accuracy of the depiction by featuring humorous commentary from Gutmann. His comments regarding the accuracy of the architecture and the smugglers keep the students engaged in the game while also driving home that this is a real lived experience. 

Path Out was originally created as a commercial game, meaning that it did not receive academic funding, nor was it developed with the primary intention of education. It was created to provide gamers with a thoughtful and insightful experience regardless of their context and age. This raises a question of what the added value of bringing a game like Path Out into the classroom and supplementing the game with a teacher and lesson materials is when it has been successful on its own. The structure of academic environments is beneficial to the learning experience in more ways than one. According to Dr Bill Watson, video games are extremely powerful in engaging students’ attention, but it is the role of the teachers to focus their attention. In encouraging points of reflection and discussion amongst students, teachers increase a video game’s educational utility and social impact (Watson & Harris, 2011). 

Path Out is successful at teaching people about the realities of conflict due to its well-researched background, appealing art direction, authentic storytelling and exploration opportunities. When the game is introduced in an educational environment, it gains new players, and the teachers are able to provide a framework for understanding the student’s player experience. However, despite the classroom context expanding Path Out’s potential, similar nuanced and thoughtful games about conflict, such as the other games featured in the COMTOG project, do not have access to these educational environments. 

There are several barriers for video games to enter educational institutions. First, the educational institution needs access to a certain level of technology that allows several students to play the game simultaneously. Additionally, game creators need to take into account the variety of technology available in this setting and ensure their game is formatted to suit these options. Second, in order to reach young, diverse audiences, educational games need to translate their work into a variety of languages, a task that takes extensive time and effort. Third, teachers and game creators both have a hard time justifying the use of serious games in traditional and stringent school curricula, and the time and cost of advocating for the games’ value often outweigh the benefits. 

Educational institutions funding serious games place high standards for the games’ educational value and accessibility,constraining creative flexibility in the game development phase. On the other hand, commercial games that attempt to provide an educational experience through creative gameplay suffer from a lack of funding to reach all the technical requirements specified by schools. In the case of Path Out, the UNHCR has acted as the vehicle to bridge the gap and help adapt and fund a unique and thoughtful commercial game for formal education. 

Path Out is a unique game providing students with an education in empathy and acts as an interesting template for how niche commercial games are able to find success in formal education. 

ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project

Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.

The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.

Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.


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