Kosovo project reflects social gaming trend

Agnesa Belegu is from war-torn Kosovo and has enrolled at UCF’s video game school to learn how to build a video game that will help spread empathy for her homeland.
Agnesa Belegu is from war-torn Kosovo and has enrolled at UCF’s video game school to learn how to build a video game that will help spread empathy for her homeland. TNS

When Agnesa Belegu first picked up a Nintendo Entertainment System controller as a child in Kosovo, she says she could have sworn it was magic.

She spent many days playing Super Mario Bros., trying to complete the game.

“I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m responsible for (Mario’s) life,’” the 23-year-old said. “I thought, ‘I need to save the princess.’”

The background helped Belegu, 23, develop an idea for a video game that will help others understand the situation in her war-torn home country. She’s now creating that game at Orlando’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy. It’s a prime example of a new national trend of more video games aimed at social commentary, as the first gaming generation ages.

Belegu enrolled at FIEA through a grant from the United States Agency for International Development and the World Learning program, which gives Kosovo students a chance to pursue post-graduate degrees in the U.S.

FIEA is University of Central Florida’s highly regarded video game development school, which was recently named the top video game development graduate school in the U.S. by Princeton Review.

Now, Belegu works with a team of UCF students to develop her game.

Although she didn’t want to reveal many details about the project – it’s still early in the development phase – the premise will have players see the world through the eyes of animal companions.

“It’s a mix of some of the things that happened (in Kosovo) and an exploration of that from the perspective of a non-hero,” she said.

Kids who grew up in the first home console era, the 1980s, are now adults dealing with adult life issues.

One independent video game that has gotten a lot of recognition is “That Dragon, Cancer.”

The game takes people on a journey through the eyes of Amy and Ryan Green, a Colorado couple whose son was a cancer patient. It shows the decisions they had to make as they raised their son Joel before his death at age 4 in 2014.

“Gamers are growing up,” said David Sushil, co-founder of the Central Florida independent video game group Indienomicon. “The people who were young kids playing with the Nintendo are now in their 40s and have other interests in life. Games will change with them to reflect what’s going on in their lives.”

It’s a way of using play to inform, rather than entertain, Sushil said.

Sushil said that as kids we learned by playing, and video games are the new medium that people play on.

He said Belegu’s story illustrates how games can help in new ways.

“For a good portion of the world, video games are still brand new,” he said. “They don’t take it for granted. They can be used as a medium to raise awareness for social issues.”

FIEA Executive Director Ben Noel said Belegu’s game idea would likely be a tough sell commercially.

However, he said he was impressed by the game’s premise and message.

The war in Kosovo dominated headlines in the late 1990s.

But since then, while headlines decrease in number, the struggle for those in Kosovo continue. The country declared its independence in 2008 and still faces instability.

For USAID and World Learning, the goal has been to develop the next generation of leaders in the country of about 2 million people.

The agencies work with about 350 students to encourage creativity and foster critical thinking, said Melissa Oppenheimer, World Learning director of exchange and training.

In Kosovo, “you don’t really have a lot to remember from your childhood,” Belegu said. “As a teenager, loneliness was our biggest enemy. I turned to games to find solace in these experiences.”