The Syrian Refugee Crisis, in a Flip Dot Game



Introduction: The Syrian Refugee Crisis, in a Flip Dot Game

"Safe Crossing" is a critical exploration of the Syrian Refugee Crisis in the form of a game.

The mechanics of the game is to ferry your boat and passengers, representing you and your co-player/s, from one end of the ocean to the other, represented by a wooden platform and blue coils. You take turns passing a 9-volt battery with alligator clips to each other, closing the circuit in one jumble of coils. The coils are jumbled to make you guess which ends belong to the coil you're faced with. If you choose the actual ends connected to the coils, the circuit closes, toppling over the boat. You sink. If you choose ends that don't connect, you're safe. You move your boat piece to the other coil, and your co-player takes their turn. You keep taking turns once you're safe, until you reach the end safely.

It is not meant to make light of the greatest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II. It is meant to be a critical examination of human tragedy and crisis, in the vein of "Train," Brenda Romero's non-commercial, award-winning Holocaust-inspired board game. Similar to Train, this prototype game is intended to problematize the idea of a game, by gamifying the objective of getting on a precariously seaworthy boat with dozens of strangers, to cross a vast ocean with little to no food, with the danger of sinking always present, to reach a land that may or may not give you sanctuary.

This is my final project for Computation Craft, Fall 2016, in Parsons the New School for Design, in the MFA Design & Technology Program. My instructor in this class is Liza Stark.

This is a game built on the principle of a flip dot, First, a video on how flip dots work.

The white circle is a coil of enamel wire, looped around itself, the ends soldered off to make them conductive, and wrapped in yarn. It's wrapped in yarn to not burn your fingers when you close the circuit, because then it heats up. Also, be careful of not leaving the clips on too long, or you will burn the wire.

The blue sphere is a polymorph ball containing a neodymium magnet. Thread is merged into the polymorph for this demonstration to keep the ball from rolling off. Its opposite side is covered in blue marker to indicate changing sides.

Closing the circuit with lobster clips and a 9-volt battery creates an electromagnetic field that reacts with the magnet inside the ball. To get it to flip again, switch the ends of the lobster clips or flip the ball over.

And below, a video showing the completed prototype.

So, let's build this game.

Step 1: Materials

  • Neodymium magnets or magnetic bead
  • Polymorph
  • Enamel wire, 28-36 gauge
  • Blue yarn, to evoke the ocean
  • Solder
  • 9-volt battery
  • Alligator clips
  • Thin wooden sheet, to evoke driftwood

Step 2: Soak the Polymorph in Not-so-boiling Water

Boil water and put it in a non-food intended plastic tub. Fill the water in there. Don't make it too boiling.

Take a good handful of polymorph and put it in the water. Be careful not to scald your hand.

Take a pair of tongs to handle the polymorph once inside the water.

The hotter the water, the faster polymorph turns transparent. The more transparent it gets, the more moldable it will get. As you can see, it will get really goopy when you handle it with the tongs. That's the ideal state you want it in to make it moldable.

Step 3: Make the Boat and Passengers

Take the neodymium magnet or magnetic bead, and mold the polymorph boat around it. Don't make it too thin or the magnet won't hold. Make it thick enough so it fits in the coil you made.

You can see in this photo I've started with an attempt to make a standard boat with a flat end. This isn't ideal, as it turns out. You need a round bottom for the boat to fit into the coil, so I gave it a more rounded end. Also, you'll see I started making a little person shapes. These are meant to be the game pieces, and stand in for players. One player, one person. So if it's a three-person game, three pieces. This is a bit tricky because the pieces are small and may not fit on the boat, or tip it over.

Again, to make the boat, put the neodymium magnets in the base. This will keep it balanced when put on the coil.

Step 4: Make the Coils

Take the enamel wire and start looping them around a thick Sharpie, or any sizable cylindrical object. The thinner your wire, the more loops you will make, minimum of fifty. The thicker your wire, the fewer loops, but don't go below thirty loops if your wire is thick. The size of the cylindrical object will also determine the size of your wire coil, and therefore the size of the boat that fits on it.

Solder off the ends of the coils. This will remove the enamel, and expose the conductive parts of the wires. To make the wires easier to grip with the alligator clips, I soldered button snaps onto them.

You can see in the photos I've placed a prototype boat next to the coil to test its balance. This is important to measure to see if you need to make any changes in either coil or boat.

Take the 9-volt battery and alligator clips, and connect each clip to the battery ends. Then connect the clips to the snaps soldered onto the coils. These will close the circuits.

Below is a video of the test with the coils and boat. You'll see it's a bit difficult to tell whether the boat is toppling over or not. It's very subtle. You also need to figure out which ends are positive and negative. I wrapped blue yarn around the positive ends as an easy visual signifier.

Here's a video of how the set-up works with the boat, people, and coil. You'll see my hand connecting an alligator clip to a copper wire. This closes the circuit, and so topples over the boat.

Test ALL your coils to make sure they work. If they're not thick enough, there won't be enough material to topple over the boat when a current is run through it.

Step 5: Wrap the Coils in Blue Yarn

I chose blue yarn because they evoke the ocean. But ironically enough, they also end up looking life life preservers. This is something my playtesters and critics mentioned when I presented it in class. I'll have to mull over this, but it's also oddly ironic. The yarn will also make the coil thicker and making the opening smaller, so be mindful you don't make it too small that the boat will get off-balanced.

You'll see in the photo the really weird and long coil ends. You'll see why they have to be that long later.

This is tedious work, but once you get the hang of it, you can make as many coils as you want. In fact, the more coils, the better.

Step 6: Make the Driftwood Housing

Now, for the housing. For the purpose of the prototype I opted to fashion a platform out of wood. I took a stray, discarded sheet of wood laying around our studio floor, and just started snapping those into pieces I could use to hot glue.

Step 7: Hot Glue the Coils Onto the Platform


Step 8: Done.

Watch this video of my friends in Parsons playtesting the game for the first time.

Then watch this video where they reflect on the mechanics and message of the game.

Building this game was an invaluable experience for me, because I got to see how a simple concept like a flip dot could lead to a technically, creatively, and conceptually challenging game. I credit Brenda Romero's work a lot, specifically, her installation of critical games called "The Medium is the Message." I would love to revisit this game. I want to rethink the narrative to make it more compelling, while developing more experience mechanics. I was told to add more suspense, like Jenga, a game I got comparison to from my critics when I presented this as my final. But then I want players to reflect on the tension I intend for this game: what does it mean to have fun when you're playing a game based on the Syrian Refugee Crisis? That in itself problematizes the word, "game." My intent was to create a sense of empathy, and question the objective of what a game would ask of you, if its real world inspirations have the plain objective of life, death, survival, and ultimately, human connection.

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    5 Discussions


    3 years ago

    I've been struggling to put it nicely for the last two days but... just change the name, please. The difference with "Train" is that in this case there are still people wrecking themselves today, and they're not to be toyed with.


    Reply 3 years ago

    Thank you for replying!

    With regards to your thoughts on "Train," I wonder, is the difference then in the passage of time? Is there an appropriate amount of time removed from an event that makes it better to discuss? Is it even tasteful to discuss the Holocaust in the form of a game, like "Train" does? Because the Syrian Refugee Crisis is ongoing, does that mean there are certain forms of discussing it that are taboo? If a game is based on a real-world tragedy, is it exploitative? These are questions I'm interested in as well.


    Reply 3 years ago

    I totally agree! It hurts me too. Thank you to have found the words to say that.


    3 years ago

    This is in extremely bad taste, to put it mildly!


    3 years ago

    Is this sad or what?