“A lot of people think that living in a refugee camp is temporary. They think you are there for two or three years and leave. I lived there for 22 years. And I had to think, “What can I do for myself and my community?”
So began the story of Lual Mayen, an award-winning developer and gaming studio founder with an incredible backstory. Lual was born in South Sudan, but a growing civil war led his parents to take him and his siblings and flee to Uganda. He was then raised in a refugee camp in northern Uganda, where he spent over two decades of his life.
In living with the lingering presence of violence, though, Lual found his passion and purpose. He decided to create immersive video games to promote peace and empathy – both in his country and around the world. And Lual saw technology as the bridge that would help him accomplish his dream. But, how could he learn to be a video game developer in a refugee camp with no public computers or Internet access? I sat down with Lual to talk about his gaming for good journey, and its unlikely connection to Western Digital.
Saving for Three Years for His First Computer
Before Lual could develop his groundbreaking video game, he had to learn the rules of game development. And before that, he needed a computer. His biggest supporter was his mother, and she started setting aside a portion of her earnings to help her son buy his first computer. Paycheck after paycheck, year after year. Three years later, she had saved the $300 needed for Lual to purchase a laptop.
Lual sees this gift as a moment that changed his life, describing, “It can’t go anywhere because it’s what started my route, my definition. No matter what I get today, that computer really defined what I’m going to be doing for the future and for the people in the world.”
Learning to Be a Video Game Developer
His next challenge was learning how to build his video game. To be a developer, Lual knew he needed to teach himself coding, graphic design, and other technical skills. The solution to his big problem was actually as small as a finger – a USB drive. During one of his 3-hour walks to a local city, Lual realized that he could load video game development lessons on a thumb drive, and bring them back to the camp to study. This would solve his lack of Internet connection by transporting data to his personal computer.
“So, I used to have my friend help me a lot. We’d sometimes go to the city and put [coding] tutorials on a SanDisk® USB drive. We could store like 20 tutorials and I’d put them on my computer. Then, we’d just listen to them. That helped me a lot to train myself and prepare my journey [as a developer].”
Launching Salaam to Support Real-Life Refugees
Now, as CEO of Junub Games, Lual is preparing for the launch of his studio’s video game, Salaam, in summer of this year. The third-person, runner game follows the story of a refugee fleeing from civil war in their home country. It is unique in that players can buy in-game items that donate supplies to real-world refugee camps. Salaam has already attracted worldwide media coverage and near universal praise. It continues Lual’s mission to help people understand what’s going on in the world, and make social impact on the global community through gaming for good. And it all started with a computer and a dream.
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