BBC’s Syrian Refugee Interactive: Educational or Tasteless?

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On March 31st, 2015, the BBC published “Syrian Journey: Choose Your Own Escape Route,” an interactive game where users are forced to make difficult choices as if themselves and their families were fleeing Syria for Europe. The game is designed to provide users with an understanding of the real life dilemmas that Syrian refugees face on a daily basis.

Protests against the government in Syria began in 2011 and a massive war followed shortly after, which forced millions of people to flee the country. It was published three months prior to The Guardian’s article that said the current number of Syrian refugees in places such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq was over four million.

According to BBC News, the entire games; routes, options, and outcomes were based on real stories from the Syrian refugee crisis. BBC Arabic conducted countless hours of research on the topic. The research was conducted by Mamdouh Akbiek and Eloise Dicker, who were also involved in the BBC’s publishing of “Syria From Space,” showing how the war severely impacted electricity.

At the start of the game, users are instructed to select a “character” in order to begin their journey – male or female. Immediately, the tough decisions begin. Users must decide the details of their escape plan, such as traveling to Turkey or Greece, paying a smuggler money or not, and traveling by sea or land.

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Every answer either forces a new question or ends the journey if the wrong choice is made. If you make the wrong choice, your fate is revealed. Some are fatal, while others indicate being sent back to Syria. Users are encouraged to “try again” if they make the wrong choice.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 1.10.43 AMMuch like many other users, my journey was not smooth. I made several wrong choices under pressure and was forced to start over multiple times. On my eighth try, the game revealed that I would “make it to Europe.”

Clearly, even in a simulated version of such a horrible event it is difficult to make decisions that would impact myself and my family.

Other than the mentally taxing wrong decisions I made while playing, the interactive game itself was clear, easy to use, and did not lag. The next question in the sequence appeared instantly after making the previous choice and the overall experience was not very time-consuming.

In addition to the interactive journey, additional elements of this experience included real survivor stories as well as descriptions and pictures of items that the refugees took with them when fleeing the country. Users were encouraged to “hash tag” the phrase “#whatwouldyoutake” on their social media platforms with a list of things they would bring with them if they were put in a similar, awful situation.

Although the interactive experience was published nearly three years ago, people are still continuing to use it and discuss items that they would bring with them if they needed to escape. The experience is continuing to bring light to such a drastic situation that the Syrian people went through.

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I think that this form of journalism is effective, but extremely controversial. The simplicity of the game makes a complex issue more understandable for an everyday user. It provides enough background and context of the refugee crisis in addition to the game itself. This form of journalism puts users in a real life situation that is impacting millions of people and forces the participant to think about the seriousness of this crisis in relation to their own personal lives. The game is engaging, but the stories and videos of the survivors are what make this form of journalism memorable and provide the user with an emotional connection.


Although effective in my opinion, I believe that this type of journalism in a situation like this is very controversial. Real people are being ripped from their homes and the place they have lived their whole life because of a chaotic war. The situations being presented to us in a “game” format are decisions that these people really have to make. It is effective because it is engaging and forces us to think, but calling this horrible situation a game is unsettling to me as a user.

Many other users and bloggers were critical of the game. Notably, Chris Walker, a Middle East expert told The Sun, “In the midst of probably the bloodiest Syrian crisis this century, the decision of the BBC to transform the human suffering of literally millions into a children’s game beggars belief.”

Social media was also flooded with negative reactions to the BBC’s interactive experience. Users called the game “awful” and “tasteless.”

The BBC defended their choice to make the game by saying, “Syrian Journey is an interactive experience, based on real-life stories told to our journalists, which shows audiences the choices faced by thousands of Syrian families every day.  The project has achieved over a million online hits.”

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Particularly, the latter portion of the statement regarding the amount of hits the project received in unsettling. It makes me question as an active audience member if the BBC is only concerned with the amount of traffic their site gets compared to the feelings of the refugees that this game is based upon and their users that are uncomfortable with the project.

Not all feedback was negative, however, as The Guardian supported the BBC’s decision to create a game like this. They called the game, “a digestible introduction to the concept of trafficking, and the desperate uncertainty of migration.” This reaction from The Guardian is not surprising as they launched their own interactive game in 2014 where the user assumes the role of a Syrian refugee.

The BBC has done other projects similar to the interactive Syrian refugee game. The corporation has created innovative ways to engage users as both technology and journalism are advancing.

In the beginning of 2015, the BBC launched BBC Taster, where users can take part in interactive content such as virtual reality and games. This allows BBC to experiment with new digital content and get direct feedback from the audience through ratings and shares. BBC Taster has given the audience a chance to take a walk through space virtually, and interact with an inmate on death row through an engaging documentary.

Though the BBC has developed many similar projects, none have received as much backlash as the Syrian refugee game. I think that although the game is meant to inform, it is hard to walk the fine line between educational and inappropriate when the given situation has a negative impact on millions of people.

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There is currently an ongoing effort to help the displaced Syrian refugees reunite with their families. To read more about this effort and to get involved, click here.


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