Jack Gutmann was never one of those children whose parents badgered him to limit his screen time and go outside and play. On the contrary, they encouraged Jack and his four brothers to spend as much time as possible absorbed in computer games so they would stay indoors, safe from the conflict raging on the streets outside their home.
"I was scared, and I tried to escape reality,” says Jack, named Abdullah at birth and brought up in Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. “I didn't want to see the war and I did not want to hear it.” When there was electricity, he played video games. When the electricity went out, he played on his laptop. When the laptop battery died, he designed on paper.
He never dreamed that years later – safe in Austria – his passion for computer design would equip him to produce an award-winning video game. A teaching edition of Path Out was re-launched by UNHCR for World Refugee Day (20 June) this year to help schoolchildren in Austria and elsewhere stand in the shoes of a refugee, making life-and-death decisions along a hazardous journey to safety.
Jack, who took a new name when he forged a new life in Austria, began drawing and colouring digitally as a child and mastered the graphics programme Photoshop by the time he was fourteen.
"...computer games were the window to the world for me."
"Digital art and computer games were the window to the world for me, out of my room in Syria, away from the war into a diverse world with very different people," he says, reflecting on the crisis that broke out in March 2011, the same month he turned 15.
Since the start of the crisis in 2011, millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Today some 6.8 million Syrians have fled abroad as refugees, and almost as many – 6.9 million – are displaced within the country.
At 18, facing the danger of being drafted into the army, Jack fled his homeland – a dangerous and circuitous journey to Turkey and then across a number of countries until he reached Austria in the heart of Europe. This was the first place he truly felt safe.
"I didn't plan to stay in Austria,” he freely admits. “But when I arrived here with my brother, we were really shocked because so many people helped us – positively shocked.”
Shortly after arriving, Jack met Georg Hobmeier, head of Causa Creations, a Vienna-based game-design company that sees video games not only as entertainment but, in the words of its website, as “meaningful, enriching experiences that can connect us, challenge our perceptions, and give insights into the world around us.” They’ve worked on issues such as migration, climate change and nuclear energy.
Jack, eager to turn his passion into a profession, teamed up with Causa Creations on a joint project. The result was Path Out, in which the player replicates Jack’s surreptitious trek from Syria, sometimes in the hands of people smugglers.
"We decided that Jack himself would be the main character of the game," says Georg, adding that it was particularly important to show that behind every refugee statistic there are complex stories and complex personalities.
In the Japanese game style they chose, the cute characters contrast with the harsh reality of the journey. Jack – the designer and the character – are dressed throughout in the yellow shirt he actually wore on his odyssey, which now has sentimental value to him.
From a box in the corner of the screen, real Jack comments on the players’ moves in Youtuber style, often with humour. “You just killed me, man,” he exclaims when the player makes the wrong move. “In reality I wasn’t as clumsy as you.”
Originally released as a two-hour game in 2017, Path Out has won international and Austrian awards for “its effort to shed light on a serious issue.”
The new version Causa and UNHCR developed for schools takes no longer than one lesson and helps pupils who might never meet real refugees learn that Jack led a life much like theirs until his world was turned upside down and he had to leave everything behind. It was rolled out in German and English for World Refugee Day; other language versions are to follow.
Jack the designer is still writing his own happy ending. He felt safe as soon as he reached Austria, but it took time for the country to become his true artistic and emotional home.
“It took five years until I felt my journey was over, until I really felt relieved," he says. Now 26, he speaks nearly flawless German and English. He completed vocational training, worked for a few years in a game development company, and now is training further in 3D modelling and animation to become an even better game developer and designer.
He met an Austrian woman who also plays video games – though not by profession – and they married last year.
And he maintains his sense of humour, a trait he considers essential both in real life and in his game, Path Out. "The story of flight and war is bad enough; one needs humour to be able to cope with it,” he says.
Since the game reflects his reality, “it’s funny at the same time. After all, computer games are supposed to be fun.”