Elizabeth "Biz" Nijdam

Elizabeth "Biz" Nijdam is a settler-scholar and Lecturer in the Department of Central, Eastern, and Northern European Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where she lives and works on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She is currently working on her book manuscript Graphic Historiography: East German Memory Discourses in Comics and Graphic Novels (Ohio State University Press, 2022). Biz’s research and teaching interests include the representation of history in comics, comics and new media on forced migration, intersections between Indigenous studies and European studies, and feminist methodologies in the graphic arts. Biz also sits on the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Forum and the Executive Board of the Comics Studies Society.

Contact information:
enijdam at mail.ubc.ca

Playing Against Real Time: Queer(ing) Temporalities in Bury me, my Love

by Elizabeth "Biz" Nijdam


This article examines the 2017 interactive fiction Bury me, my Love (BMML) as a case study to determine to what extent games on forced migration can be set in dialog with larger debates on forced migration. In particular, I explore how BMML offers a unique perspective on refugee temporalities through its undermining of conventions in game time to queer player expectations. Looking at its WhatsApp game mechanics through the lens of discourses on migrant timescapes, this essay evaluates how BMML’s engagement with the player’s real time endeavors to communicate the temporal uncertainty and disruption of refugee time. I thereby argue that by queering player expectations in digital games on forced migration, this serious game reveals how migrants themselves are queer subjects, setting the representation of refugee experience in dialog with queer theory through a “subjectless critique” of temporality during the migrant journey.

Keywords: forced migration, refugee experience, migrants, mobile games, Bury me, my Love, Refugee Crisis, digital games, WhatsApp, refugee time, migrant temporalities, queer game studies, subjectless critique



The last decade has seen the largest migration of people since World War II. As governments around the world continue to struggle with increasing influxes of people across borders, the media landscape portraying their flight is also changing. The representation of migrant experience is essential in rallying support in the nations in which forcibly displaced people seek asylum. Yet, the news media often focus on sensationalism, negativity, crisis, and ethnocentrism, fostering misinformation instead of empathy for the struggles migrants and refugees face daily (Plewe and Fürsich, 2018, p. 2470). Media representations thus tend to reduce refugee issues to corporeal vulnerability, stripping migrants of their agency and political and historical contexts, while minimizing the constraints and challenges they face during their journeys and when they arrive at their destinations (Sou, 2018, p. 512). Furthermore, the actual experience of what it means to be a refugee is often overshadowed by a focus on the legal, political, economic, and security issues for the national audience targeted by the news media (Plewe and Fürsich, 2018, p. 2470). Detached from the myriad reasons for their flight, migrants are depicted as simply existing, with only marginal engagement with the broader structural factors that forced them to flee their homes and the experience of forced migration (Sou, 2018, p. 512).

Turning to queer theory, however, helps demonstrate the unique circumstances of forced migration by providing insight to the processes of marginalization refugees face through the power relations that define their oppression and precarity. With queer theory’s commitment to interrogating the role of social processes in producing, normalizing, and sustaining identity, queer studies methodologies aid in fostering critique of social antagonisms beyond and in addition to gender and sexuality, expanding its purview to include issues of race, class, nationality, and religion (Eng et al., 2005, p. 1) [1]. In particular, a “subjectless critique” (Eng et al. 2005) of forced migration demonstrates how refugees and migrants are defined against normative markers of identity and experience, positioning them as queer subjects. By examining migrant subjectivity as constituted against “the regime of the normal” (Warner xxvii), queer theory illuminates new ways of understanding refugee experience that illuminate how it is the “wide field of normalization, rather than simple intolerance” that functions as “the site of violence” (Warner xxvi). This shift in perspective in characterizing the oppression and precarity migrant communities face reverses the grounds for their persecution. By citing the systems of normalization as the source of their oppression, society itself is implicated in the violence, racism, and persecution targeted at refugees and migrants. Moreover, through attention to their queerness, migrants are recast as agents of political activism “challenging the normalizing mechanisms of state power” (Eng et al., 2005, p. 1), instead of victims of it.

Scholars such as Seitz and Shakhsari already understand migrants as queer subjects, citing their “asynchronous relationship to the putatively productive, orderly temporal logic of capitalism” (Seitz, 2017, p. 443; Shakhsari, 2014). Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with asylum seekers, Seitz demonstrates how the material and metaphorical space of the waiting room renders asylum seekers liminal queer subjects (Seitz, 2007, p. 438). Here, he turns to Halberstam’s work on queerness as precarity to define migrant subjectivity, rather than a definition that relies upon lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender identity (Seitz, 2007, p. 438). Seitz thereby draws parallels between migrants and a variety of non-LGBT categories of queer subjectivity, ranging from Cohen’s African American ‘‘welfare queen’’ (1997) to Puar’s Brown man profiled as a putatively perverse Arab terrorist (2007) (Seitz, 2007, 438). While this research engages space -- and particularly, the space of the waiting room -- as the means through which asylum seekers are queered (Seitz, 2007, p. 439), importantly, it is a space that renders migrants precarious via its “temporal liminality” (Seitz, 2007, p. 439), implicating time as a framework for understanding migrant queerness as well. Incorporating Halberstam’s theory of queer time into an understanding of the factors that queer refugee experience therefore further articulates their queerness.

Illuminating the queer subjectivity of migrants in media representation, however, is difficult. Moreover, the simplification of refugee experience and identity is not surprising since the processes that shape refugee issues are complex, various, and difficult to distil into a clickbait title, 500-word newspaper article, a 140-character tweet, single image, two-minute fundraising campaign, or even a 90-minute feature film (Sou, 2018, p. 512). In this context, video games present new opportunities for exploring and representing migrant experience. The formal characteristics of the digital medium enable developers to construct sophisticated messages about the political, social, economic, and historical issues that shape contemporary forced migration and its processes, while the combination of interactive storytelling and news content encourage players not only to follow media coverage of migration issues but also to engage with it to gain deeper insight into its issues (Plewe and Fürsich, 2018, p. 2470). With games on forced migration able to promote transformation and compassion beyond the act of playing (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 6), this genre of serious games communicates refugee experience without participating in media representations “regime of pity” (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 5). First-person narrative strategies in digital games thereby demonstrate that migrant voices need to be heard, exposing to their truths through a kind of interactive storytelling that asks players to engage with histories that could otherwise seem too foreign (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 5).

Furthermore, by looking at this genre of serious games through the lens of queer game studies further demonstrates how game design can communicate refugee experience by illuminating the queerness of migrant subjectivities through “procedural rhetoric,” (Bogost, 2010). With the field recently directing its attention to queerness “beyond representation,” queer game studies explores queerness as a function of video game systems themselves (Ruberg, 2018, p. 550). These new directions open up radical theoretical avenues for interrogating the structures and uses of communication technologies as well as their cultural and political implications, positioning the formal characteristic of the medium as also a site for exploring queerness and queer identity (Shaw and Sender, 2016, p. 1). Thus, by employing queering strategies in game design, games about marginalized subjectivities draw attention to queer(ed) identities on both the level of form and content. Queer studies is thereby deconstructing binaries and destabilizing assumptions about games and gaming to disrupt dominant notions on how the form should be studied, critiqued, made, and played as much as how the messages of games should be interpreted (Shaw and Ruberg, 2017, p. x). 

Turning to the 2017 interactive narrative fiction Bury me, my Love (BMML) as a case study, this article explores how digital games on forced migration can queer game play experience to reveal refugees themselves as queer subjects. Framing refugees as queer subjects through scholarship on migrant temporalities and Halberstam’s theory of queer time, I explore the function of temporality in BMML’s game mechanics and game play to further demonstrate Navarro-Remesal and Zapata’s claim that “[l]udofictional worlds can serve as commentaries on the real world” (2019, p. 6). In particular, by manipulating gameplay experience to engage with the player’s real-world time (Zagal and Mateas, 2007), BMML communicates the temporal uncertainty and disruption of migrant temporalities. BMML thus subverts player expectations of game time to illuminate the queer timescapes of forced migration, queering gameplay to draw attention to the queerness of refugee experience.

Refugee Experience and Bury Me, My Love’s Mobilization of the Migration Technologies

Figure 1: Bury me, my Love (2017). Click image to enlarge.

BMML is an interactive work of narrative fiction developed by Florent Maurin’s The Pixel Hunt in collaboration with Figs and the French-German TV channel ARTE. However, as a reality-inspired game (RIG), BMML incorporates “genuine stories from the perspective of a few or encompasses the values of a larger section of those affected by a specific issue” (Jayemanne, 2018, p. 1). Based on a real-life migrant journey from Syria to Germany, BMML is therefore a biographically-situated gaming experience that is in fact located somewhere between fiction and documentary. Moreover, through the innovative deployment of its game mechanics and the WhatsApp-like gameplay framework, BMML is an important example of digital games on refugee experience [2].

The original inspiration for the game came from a digital news project released in Le Monde online, led by Lucie Soullier (Soullier, 2015). The end product (fig. 2), which was published in December 2015, is a faithful retranscription of a WhatsApp conversation between Syrian refugee Dana and her loved ones on her journey from Syria to the EU territories before she finally settled in Germany. While BMML’s narrative also takes from numerous documentary and scholarly sources and first-person accounts of forced migration, Dana’s story is at the foundation of the digital game’s interactive fiction, and she very quickly joined the team to ensure a realistic portrayal of her path to Europe (Hoguet, 2017), reading through over 110,000 words and correcting the details (McMillan et al, 2020, p. 4).

Figure 2: Lucie Soullier, “Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil WhatsApp,” Le Monde, Dec. 18, 2015, screen capture. Click image to enlarge.

Released in October 2017 and named after the Syrian traditional farewell, BMML was originally designed for mobile phones and plays as a WhatsApp conversation between two Syrian nationals, a fictional husband (Madj) and wife (Nour) [3]. The game follows the story of Nour, as she flees Syria on March 4th, 2016, and attempts to reach European soil. The player, however, takes on the role of her husband, Madj, who has stayed behind to take care of aging relatives, hoping to join Nour after she has successfully navigated her journey to safe harbor. The player’s objective is to help Madj advise Nour on her passage, with Nour’s route to and around Europe changing depending on the choices she makes and yielding nineteen possible endings.

Gameplay progresses with the player receiving messages from Nour and responding with either a prompted predetermined answer, cartoon selfie or illustrated image, or a choice between a selection of reactions and appropriate emoji. These messages appear on the player’s phone as push notifications, much like real-life text messages from friends or family, and they quickly become part of the player’s normal messaging routines. While the limited number of gameplay options might make this game appear too prescribed, the tenderness, realism, and playfulness of Nour and Madj’s relationship lends an air of authenticity to the couple’s conversations, with the player themselves quickly becoming as sincerely invested in Nour’s wellbeing as the husband they are roleplaying. Moreover, the game in fact makes use of four variables to determine the progression of gameplay: Nour’s morale, the state of the couple’s relationship, Nour’s current budget, and her inventory (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 12; Jayemanne, 2019, p. 820). While these variables are never displayed, they manifest in Nour’s behaviour (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 12; Jayemanne, 2019, p. 820). So, contrary to many interactive fictions, the players’ choices really do matter (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 12).

Much of the conversation between Nour and Madj takes the form of the typical banter between couples, with the dialog advancing as a combination of helping Nour decide who to trust and what path to take, while offering her moral support and information about the area and the journey (that Madj looks up on the internet or provides with his vast knowledge of Syrian politics, history, culture, and geography). However, the choices that the player helps Nour make are usually under-informed snap judgments that are quite often mistaken, since a lot of information is unavailable. Their consequences are therefore frequently dangerous or even deadly.

Figure 3: Bury me, my Love, opening scene, screen capture from author’s phone. Click image to enlarge.

Figure 4: Bury me, my Love, opening scene, screen capture from author’s phone. Click image to enlarge.

Figure 5: Bury me, my Love, beginning of gameplay, screen capture from author’s phone. Click image to enlarge.

The game begins by emulating gameplay with a text-message conversation on the morning of September 30th, 2015 (fig. 3 and fig. 4), the year prior to Nour’s journey, setting the stage for Nour’s flight the following spring: Bombs are falling in Talbiseh, where Nour’s sister works, and Nour messages Madj in a panic, checking to see if he is okay. It is clear from this first exchange that the couple is already grappling with the complex and violent political situation in Syria. After the introductory cutscene of text messages, the title screen is presented in the selected language and Arabic, before we fast forward to Nour’s departure in March 2016 (fig. 5).

While originally designed for mobile devices, BMML has since also been released for PC, Nintendo Switch, and is available on Steam. Yet, no matter the platform, BMML remains engaged with the handheld device for which it was originally made. With the conversation playing out on a platform developed to mimic the WhatsApp messaging system, even while played on a console, the game in linked to the aesthetics of the smartphone by synthesizing the appearance of its interfaces. While Nour is online, for example, the iconic dancing dots of messaging apps indicate that she is typing. Then when Nour is unavailable -- while she is asleep, awaiting news or her phone runs out of battery, for example -- conversation halts and Nour’s status reads “Busy” (fig. 6) or “Offline” (fig. 7) with her avatar indicating she is unavailable with a red dot (fig. 7) instead of a blue one (fig. 6). Furthermore, BMML employs the WhatsApp convention of one check mark indicating a message has been sent, followed by a second check mark appearing when the message has been received (fig. 7). The game even asks the player to “take” photographs, using the WhatsApp technique to snap and send images and selfies, albeit in cartoon form (fig. 5). Lastly, all these bits of conversation, exchanges of images, and previously-sent emojis remain on the player’s screen under the appropriate date to be scrolled through at the player’s leisure, much like a real WhatsApp conversation (fig. 8).

Figure 6: Bury me, my Love, screen capture from author’s phone. Click image to enlarge.

Figure 7: Bury me, my Love, screen capture from author’s phone. Click image to enlarge.

While this mobilization of the basic features of WhatsApp has the benefit of rendering a game play tutorial unnecessary for any player proficient with text-messaging systems, it also draws attention to real methods of communication for migrants and refugees. WhatsApp is in fact among the most widely used applications by migrants due to its anonymity, since the data traces it leaves are not subject to the kind of monitoring of Facebook, Twitter, and other encrypted apps (Gillespie et. al., 2016, p. 24). Refugees fear potential reprisals from organizations or governments that may be monitoring social media, concerned not only for their safety but also for the safety of family members who are still in Syria (Gillespie et. al., 2016, p. 76). The voice message option of WhatsApp is also crucial to its usefulness because it allows individuals who do not feel comfortable sending text messages -- or do not possess the literacy to do so -- to still communicate with their friends and family as well as potential smugglers, local volunteers, and support networks. For migrants on route to the EU, tools such as WhatsApp are therefore essential in their journey, with mobile devices and the digital infrastructure of Google Maps, and social media, news, and refugee-oriented apps just as important as the physical infrastructure of roads, railways, sea crossings, and the borders controlling the free movement of people (Gillespie et. al., 2016, 2). With refugees often arriving on European soil with only a smartphone in their possession -- anxious to find a place to recharge it -- mobile devices have become foundational in shaping the movement of migrants (Gillespie et al., 2016, p. 24). Moreover, these same tools are also reshaping how refugees tell these stories. BMML is thereby a testament not only to how smartphones are changing the experience of migration, but also to how new media technologies are revealing new ways to narrate them.

Yet, another fascinating feature of BMML’s WhatsApp-like game mechanics is that they undermine conventions in gameplay experience by constructing a relationship between the player’s real time and the game’s game time. While most games progress with complete disregard for the temporalities that exist outside of the game, BMML maintains an engagement with the player’s experience of time in real life (IRL) in addition to a sense of temporality within the game itself [4]. The gameplay progresses at the speed of the conversation between Nour and Madj, but it repeatedly interrupts the player’s day to do so, only moving forward as the player participates in the dialog. For example, when Nour disappears for several hours while trying to organize a new flight to Istanbul, the player also does not hear from her until she suddenly reappears. This often results in hours between actions in the game, with the game itself constantly disrupting the player’s real life as Nour returns to check in with Madj and vice versa, giving the conversation a natural tempo that destabilizes conventional notions of game time (Byrd 2019). Gameplay thereby appears “as part of contemporary hypermodern time, rather than as a playful departure therefrom” (Jayemanne, 2019, p. 820).

So, while games that utilize real time are not new, the typical role of real time in conventional game mechanics differs fundamentally from its mobilization in BMML. For example, there is a genre of strategy games that utilize real time to establish game time, where time within the game is connected to time passing in real life, though the game’s relationship to real time is typically accelerated and minutes IRL pass as hours, days, or sometimes years in the game [5]. BMML’s relationship to real time, however, has the potential to be almost 1:1 in its real-time mode, offering a rare example of this game mechanic in order to thematize some real-life features of refugee experience. Moreover, this real-time element to the gaming experience allows the BMML to progress in a way familiar to all players: through the smartphone notification (Jayemanne, 2018, p. 5). With messages appearing from Nour at all times of the day, in which both hours of game time and real time passing almost in sync, BMML produces a ludic version of refugee experience that emerges as 24-hour crisis:

Nour’s attempts to contact Majd weave into the tasks, communications and updates of daily life, appearing alongside them rather than as a departure therefrom and becoming part of the harried consciousness of the smartphone user. The competing stimuli of the smartphone become part of the game, helping to convey the anxiety that Majd (as representative of those left behind with a slender internet connection to a journeying loved one) must be feeling. (Jayemanne, 2018, p. 5).

The player thus neither knows when they will hear from Nour next, nor can they anticipate what this next communication will entail -- it could be a joke or a goodnight from Nour, a new problem that Nour and Madj hope to solve together, or a devastating voicemail message confirming Nour’s incarceration or death.

This arguably unpleasant mode of gameplay maps onto queer game studies theories of no-fun gaming, in which Ruberg looks to Halberstam’s theory of queer failure to identify the queer work of disruption accomplished by some video games. Here, Ruberg argues that no-fun gaming moves beyond simply “step[ping] into the skin of someone else’s adversity” and is itself meaningful: “Every experience of annoyance, anger, sadness, and hurt comes with its own value, its own message, and its own transformative potential” (Ruberg, 2015, p. 115). Identifying no-fun gaming as a queer mode of play, Ruberg observes how rejecting fun turns normative expectations on their heads, destabilizing the status quo (Ruberg, 2015, p. 117).

Yet, BMML’s WhatsApp platform offers another avenue for exploring the queerness of its gaming experience and, in particular, by way of its linkage to the queer temporalities of refugee time. Positioning perspectives on game time alongside discourses on migrant timescapes through the lens of Halberstam’s theory of queer time demonstrates how illuminates the marginalized temporalities of forced migration by undermining gameplay conventions. In this context, Jayemanne similarly argues that BMML’s temporal structure allows the game to convey its subject matter in a new way, adding value to the story (2018, p. 2) [6]. However, while Jayemanne focuses on the diachronic effect of BMML’s game mechanics, which combine gaming technology with prosocial modes of interactivity to convey the plight of refugee experience, my interpretation approaches what Jayemanne calls BMML’s “ethical temporality” (2018) through the game’s queering of player expectations around temporality. In particular, by collapsing real-world and gameworld time, BMML illuminates the queerness of refugee experience.

At the Intersection of Game Time and Real Time: Queering Player Expectations of Game Temporalities

Hanson (2018) argues that an essential feature of digital gaming is the player’s ability to attain agency over that which they cannot control in the real world: namely, time. He writes: “Video games enable players to experience and manipulate time in ways that transcend other media” (Hanson, 2018, p. 2). Through the mechanics of the game, players can preserve, pause, slow, rewind, replay, reactivate, and reanimate time, resulting in numerous colliding temporalities in a given game (Hanson, 2018, p. 2). As simultaneous spectator, actor, and author, videogames thus reveal -- by enacting -- the tensions inherent in the human experience of time (Bushnell, 2016, p. 65), while simultaneously transporting players “to a new temporal location” (Nitsche, 2007, p.147).

Yet, game temporalities also include the time it takes to play the game and the way in which time is constructed within the gameworld as well as their relationship to each other. Juul (2005), for example, differentiates between “play time,” which occurs only when the player is engaged, and fictional time, which is “the time of the events in the game world,” forcing us to imagine gameworlds with temporalities all their own (Juul, 2005, pp. 291-93). Zagal and Mateas similarly differentiate between real-world time, “established by the set of events taking place in the physical world around the player” (2007, p. 518), and gameworld time, “established by the set of events taking place within the represented gameworld” (2007, p. 518). In combination, however, as Bushnell demonstrates through an analysis of Heavy Rain (2010), certain games are able to slow down or speed up the player’s experience of time to cultivate certain kinds of engagement with the game (2016, pp. 68-72). Juul (2001) argues that this constructing of the story time as synchronous with narrative time (and thus the game’s play time) positions as now: “Now, not just in the sense that the viewer witnesses events now, but in the sense that the events are happening now, and that what comes next is not yet determined.”

However, despite the sense of immediacy games construct (Juul 2001; Thabet 2015), the gaps and disjunctions between play time and fictional time splinter and proliferate temporalities, offering, according to Nikolchina, more venues for the multiplication of timescapes than other media (2017, p. 24). The temporalities associated with gameplay are, as Bushnell concludes, “both volatile and multi-layered” (2016, p. 67). Many game scholars thus argue that “any formal analysis of games must account for temporality” (Zagal and Mateas, 2007, p. 518), in which the experience of time warrants careful consideration to reveal how a game’s ludic temporal structures exceed and transcend familiar temporal experiences (Hanson, 2018, p. 2). Furthermore, as Nikolchina argues, the formal aspects of a game’s temporal construction should not be separated from a game’s ideological and political implications (2017, p. 26). The game mechanics informing a player’s experience of time therefore “need to be approached as traits indicative of the present epoch” (2017, p. 26).

Turning to BMML in the context of game studies theory on game temporalities, I argue that BMML’s disruption of conventions in ludic timescapes moves beyond a simple disturbance in our understanding of game time; in fact, the way BMML queers gameplay by both engaging and disrupting real-world time imparts something important about the temporalities of forced migration. In particular, applying these frameworks for temporal analysis in BMML demonstrates that there is no point during gameplay in which the player -- once they start BMML -- is not playing the game. Even those minutes spent waiting for Nour to respond -- while she is looking for a hotel, catching a flight, buying a bus ticket -- are part of the player’s real-world time as much as the game’s play time and therefore part of the game’s fictional or gameworld time. So, while Juul’s definition of the relationship between play time and fictional time is described as projection, meaning “that the player's time and actions are projected onto the game world where they take on a fictional meaning” (Juul, 2005, p. 295), BMML links its temporality directly to that of the player’s real-world time. BMML thus maps the player’s world directly onto the gameworld -- and vice versa -- rendering real-world time the game’s fictional time as well.

Then, linked to the player’s real time as it is, BMML’s game time is unequivocally chronological, moving forward as the player’s day progresses. The game features time stamps that mark every excerpt of conversation, which, as long as the player can keep up with the progress of gameplay (i.e., the real world does not interfere with the player’s responses to Nour’s messages), roughly correspond with the time of day in the player’s own life. When games employ real time as a factor to determine game time, this fictional time is often placed in a specific historical period, with it “perfectly possible to play a real-time game that takes place in fifteenth-century France or in space in the thirty-second century” (Juul, 2005, p. 298). BMML, however, plays out in the contemporary moment -- the conflict in Syria impacting the player characters of BMML is the same one being reported on by media outlets in the player’s real life. These factors in the game’s temporality cannot be overstated, since they all contribute to the sense that in BMML, fictional time is the player’s real time. So, while Hanson argues that “[g]ames create separate temporalities from our everyday lived experience,” which “allow us to experience time in new and previously inaccessible ways,” BMML strives to do the exact opposite (Hanson, 2018, p. 3); revealing what Zagal and Mateas refer to as a kind of liveliness in the gameworld defined by events continuing to occur even when the player is not actively participating (2007, p. 518). By linking game time to real time in such a way as to make them nearly inseparable, BMML fundamentally undermines conventions in gameplay temporality.

This is also true of other aspects of BMML’s procedural rhetoric, since it does not offer the temporal controls typical of digital games -- or at least they don’t function in the same way. For example, there is no way to pause the game in a traditional sense. You either respond to Nour or you do not. The game does not progress until you do. Pausing is so ubiquitous in digital games that its absence is all the more noteworthy (Hanson, 2018, p. 14). Moreover, players cannot save their place in the game in a conventional way, which is a feature of games that was introduced relatively early in the history of the form and is typically only missing in traditional arcade games (Hanson, 2018, p. 14). In BMML, however, the player either continues where they left off or restarts the journey. The player can therefore neither start multiple games on the same device side-by-side nor return to an older save point to try a different strategy. With the ability to pause and save universal elements of temporal manipulation in digital games that demonstrate an intrinsic agency over game time, restricting the use of these features underscores the intentionality of BMML’s undermining of game time conventions to highlight how part of its project is to contradict -- or queer -- player expectations of gameplay by disrupting any sense of control they might feel on the most fundamental level (Hanson, 2018, p. 14).

Turning to theory on migrant temporalities demonstrates how BMML’s subversion of game-time conventions engages with discourses of migrant experience to reveal how, as queer game studies scholars Colleen Macklin and Avery Mcdaldno argue, nonnormative experience can be mobilized as a game mechanic (Ruberg, 2015, p. 110). By emulating migrant temporalities in its procedural rhetoric, BMML collapses the player’s real time with that of the player character’s fictional or narrative time, modifying the player’s experience of time itself by asking them to internalize this alternative temporality. BMML thereby draws attention to other ways of experiencing time inside -- and consequently outside -- of the game, queering gameplay through an emulation of migrant temporalities to reveal the queerness of refugee experience. Through BMML’s manipulation of game time, it presents migrant time itself as queer; as constantly disrupted by unpredictable changes in circumstances and departing from normative markers of temporal progress, positing a present that is perpetually unstable as it fluctuates between acceleration in moments of crisis, deceleration in periods of waiting, and a future that is fundamentally uncertain.

Queer(ed) Temporalities and Refugee Time

While migration has been readily accepted as a phenomenon conceptualized by way of categories of space -- or more precisely, “as a process unfolding in space,” -- time, which has oft been acknowledged an essential element in the construction of space, is oft neglected in contemporary migration scholarship (Cwerner, 2001, p. 7; Çağlar, 2018, p. 24). Brian Roberts’ 1995 observation that migration is, in fact, “a process as much concerned with time as it is with space” has, therefore, been largely ignored, with research into migrant temporalities almost exclusively investigating the experience of time in refugee camps and detention centers or while awaiting asylum (Cwerner, 2001, p. 7). This scholarship typically explores the working lives of migrants and refugees and how their temporalities are subject to regulation by state policy, thereby producing degrees, periods, and moments of acceleration and deceleration (Clayton, 2018, p. 2). Research has thus demonstrated how migrants experience multiple temporal tensions, which are largely due to the specific characteristics of asylum and detention systems, including certain administrative procedures, chronic uncertainty, and the institutionalization of waiting (Griffiths, 2014, pp. 1991-1992).

Yet, these studies also illuminate how migrants and refugees rely heavily on temporal descriptions to communicate their experiences, revealing notions of temporality at the very foundation of understanding forced migration. For example, a 2018 article on the UK asylum system demonstrates how migrants characterize their experience of immigration detention centers as “drawn out” and the process following an asylum application but before an applicant’s right to work is determined -- in what Melanie Griffiths identifies as “suspended time” -- as a state of “limbo” (Clayton, 2018, p. 9). This reiterates Griffiths’ 2014 claim that time functions as a metaphor by which migrants “experience and describe the instability and powerlessness of the immigration system” (Griffiths, 2014, p. 1992). These articulations of temporal variation reflect both a disjuncture between people, where refused asylum seekers feel out of sync with mainstream temporalities, as well as a temporal contradiction felt by individuals between different aspects of their lives (Griffiths, 2014, p. 1992). With countless factors differentiating experiences of migration, it is noteworthy that the characterization of the immigration system experience as uncertain and instable through temporal descriptions is prevalent across scholarship independent of cultural contexts (Griffiths, 2014, p. 1993). Moreover, the unknowable duration of time spent in both detention and the asylum claim process underscores a shared sense of spatio-temporal disorientation experienced by all migrants that fundamentally clashes with narratives of chronological progress experienced by individuals not in the asylum system (Clayton, 2018, p. 4).

Theorizing migrant temporalities is therefore essential in understanding the lives of refugees and asylum seekers, yet it remains an insufficiently evaluated aspect of the actual processes of forced migration (Çağlar, 2018, p. 24). While scholarship has revealed that understanding the temporal challenges faced by migrants in their new home is crucial to appreciating the implications of migration with relationship to dominant temporalities, studies of migrant detention and their daily lives post-migration dominate, while migration scholars tend to neglect the temporal dimensions of mobility itself (Gardiner Barber & Lem, 2018, p. 8). Consequently, the temporalities of the migration journey itself remain undertheorized and require comprehensive analysis to better understand the migration processes (Cwerner, 2001, p. 7). Looking to the intersection of queer theory and new media to help think through migrant timescapes opens up new opportunities for shifting or destabilizing normative notions of human temporal experience, allowing for a reevaluation of refugee time that accounts for the consequences of perpetual movement.

In In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies and Cultural Lives (2005), Halberstam offers a definition of queer that explicitly separates itself from sexuality and instead explains queerness through normative and nonnormative notions of time: “If we try to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices, we detach queerness from sexual identity…” (Halberstam, 2005, p. 1). Defining queer instead as a “way of life,” Halberstam posits new ways of understanding both normative experience and time itself (Halberstam, 2005, p. 1).

While Halberstam’s theory of queer time emerged alongside the AIDS crisis and thus within gay communities whose horizons of possibility were “severely diminished,” this definition cannot be reduced to the impact on life expectancy instigated by the formerly terminal illness (Halberstam, 2005, pp. 1-2); instead, queer time is about temporalities not dictated by heteronormative conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing (Halberstam, 2005, p. 2). Queer subcultures, for example, exist in alternative temporalities that presuppose futures not imagined according to logics of normative markers of life experience
-- namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death (Halberstam, 2005, p. 2). Yet, by articulating the concept of queer time, Halberstam not only posited new ways of understanding the nonnormative behaviors of gay and lesbian subjects, but also developed the language necessary to evaluate specific models of temporality outside of bourgeois practices of reproduction, family, longevity, safety, and inheritance (Halberstam, 2005, p. 6). Halberstam’s intervention therefore has consequences beyond understanding the LGBTQ experience that inspired his redefinition of time. In particular, through subjectless critique, it also offers us the theory necessary to understand the experience of other members of marginalized communities living in alternative temporalities not defined by heteronormative markers of progress. By unraveling universal claims on time made “from and on behalf of white male subjects,” Halberstam posits a new understanding of time for all individuals who do not live by temporal definitions of normal (Halberstam, 2005, p. 4).

So, if, as Halberstam argues, time is ruled by normative conceptions of human existence defined by security, stability, family planning, and inheritance, refugee experience falls entirely outside of dominant conceptions of temporality. Forced out of their homes due to civil war and genocide, families are torn apart; with husband, wives, and children often living on opposite sides of the globe or losing each other in the process of migration. Moreover, the practices of reproduction, child rearing, and inheritance that typically form the markers of heteronormative time do not exist while on the move. Children are more likely to perish than to be born, and with no belongings beyond those which migrants can carry, there is no process of inheritance. Instead, ownership and wealth only decrease with time, where individuals are manipulated out of the little funds they may have and possessions are lost or stolen.

Then, alongside any ability to imagine a future shattered both through the destruction of their homes and the unknowingness of the location of their final destinations -- never mind the very real possibility that they will never reach safe harbor, even conventional temporalities are fundamentally disrupted by the processes of forced migration. For example, clock-time itself is unstable. Moving between time zones and losing electricity or cell-phone-battery power renders time elusive, while movement in the middle of the night between safe refuges changes the rhythm of days on the migration journey. With time in refugee and detainment camps often an exercise in wasting it between arrival and departure, which itself will occur at an unknown point in the future as migrants await paperwork on their status or transfer to their next internment camp. The conflicts in their home countries have, for all intents and purposes, paused what these individuals perceive as their “real lives,” yet time itself keeps moving forward, profoundly destabilizing previous conceptions of their relationship with time and progress. Migrants thus live in a time determined not by normative markers of chronological progression but by their constantly shifting circumstances, by the queered temporalities of refugee time.

Perpetually unstable, refugee time is in constant flux -- both sped up and slowed down from normative experiences of temporality. It is immediate and unhalting in one moment and drawn out and suspended in others. Movement forward -- in space and time -- is not a marker for progress. Instead, some paths may in fact lead individuals backwards away from their geographic or existential goals or end their progress indefinitely or entirely. With the 2018 average of six people dying each day while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and one person dying at sea for every 14 who arrive in Europe, the migration journey’s mortal danger forgoes the possibility of a sense of futurity, since death feels as much of a potential outcome as life in some circumstances (UNHCR, 2019). Instead of the linear trajectory implied by chronological time, asylum seekers experience life as an impasse both in the countries of their origin as well as in transit and upon arrival (Seitz, 2017, p. 443).

Conclusion: Bury me, my Love’s Refugee Time

Returning to BMML, by connecting the queer temporalities of refugee time to the player’s real time through its procedural rhetoric demonstrates, the game demonstrates how, as Ernst Bloch observes, that “[n]ot all people exist in the same Now” (Fog Olwig, 2018, p. 45). Yet, BMML, in fact, asks the player to do just that -- to exist in Nour’s Now, to exist in refugee time. In its real-time mode, BMML incorporates itself into the everyday rhythms of players’ smartphone usage (Jayemanne, 2018, p. 1), interrupting and inconveniencing the player’s real life, much in the way it disrupts the fictional daily routine of Madj. BMML thereby maps the temporal structures of refugee experience onto the lives of its players. Hanson articulates this ideological spillage of games in his examination of how players must adhere to the rules of game to succeed, thereby internalizing attendant ideologies: “the player must think like the game system in order to thrive” (Hanson, 2018, pp. 10-11). So, much like experiencing a game’s temporal manipulation is “also an act of submission to its temporalities,” playing a game is also to submit to its regulations (Hanson, 2018, p. 11). The player must therefore play by the rules even if those rules -- as is often the case with First Person Shooters -- do not reflect the life experience or ideological position of the player themselves. By “shaping and limiting a player’s interaction with the simulated reality,” BMML’s procedural rhetoric reveals the elusive processes of migration (Sou, 2018, pp. 514-515). This mimicking of the real structural and mortal issues facing migrants thus affords players insight into how these social systems and institutions function (Sou, 2018, pp. 514-515).

Adopting the perspective -- and temporality -- of the Syrian national they are playing forces the player to internalize an understanding of that experience in order to make the best possible decision as to how to succeed at advising Nour. However, with the game featuring the potential to visit fifty different locations and reach nineteen different endings with widely divergent outcomes to meet the thirty-nine different end states (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 12), Nour’s survival is, in fact, unlikely. Playing BMML thus requires the player to live in Nour’s queer temporality -- in refugee time -- experiencing the unpredictable disruptions, the waiting, the uncertainty, and the timelessness of forcefully displaced people on the move, with far too many outcomes likely resulting in the ultimate loss -- of life -- despite their best efforts.

With clock-time so pervasive in Western modernity, few question its hegemony. It is therefore crucial to give voice to queer experiences of time by focusing analysis on temporal multiplicity (Martineau, 2015, p. 6). Considering that individuals living outside of normative conceptions of time also do not fit into normative conceptions of human existence, media texts that engage migrant temporalities can shape how the public understand the experience of forced migration. Here, digital games afford opportunities to play with temporal conventions, producing ludic timescapes that help players understand the migration journey, while contesting media tendencies that render migrants “anonymous passive victims” (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 5). Rooted in the real-life experiences of refugees, BMML’s WhatsApp framework thereby offers a new avenue to conceptualize the marginalized temporalities of forced migration. By restricting the player’s agency in controlling game time and undermining conventions in gameplay experience, BMML draws attention to the accelerated, decelerated, and fractured time of the migration journey; revealing the marginalized temporalities of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Thus, by participating in BMML’s interactive narrative, player’s experience the migrant journey from a migrant perspective, if only for a brief time, blurring the barriers between their world and ours: “Our phones become their phones. They talk to us via (fake) streaming. We make choices as them. We are lost in alien cities and alien bureaucracy as them” (Navarro-Remesal and Zapata, 2019, p. 15). Ultimately, by queering gameplay experience, BMML illuminates the queer subjectivities of forced migration, developing compassion, empathy, and understanding for the impact of forced migration through the temporal engagements with the queerness of refugee experience (Shaw and Ruberg, 2017, p. xii.).



[1] Moving beyond the implications of gender and sexuality, for example, Indigenous studies has turned to “subjectless critique” to argue that colonialism is a system of normativity which “queers” settlers and Indigenous people alike (Clark, 2015, n.p.). Moreover, “[a] subjectless critique can help Native studies (as well as ethnic studies) escape the ethnographic entrapment by which Native peoples are rendered simply as objects of intellectual study and instead can foreground settler colonialism as a key logic that governs the United States today.” (Smith, 2010, p. 44).

[2] Games on refugee experience are an essential genre in serious games and newsgames. For example, in 2005, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) developed an Adobe Flash web-based game to help young players understand the experience of forced migration. Directed at adolescents aged 12 to 15, Against All Odds is a playable version of the experience of millions of individuals and families fleeing war-torn parts of the world. Since Against All Odds’ launch in 2005, many more games thematizing forced migration have been released, most notably after 2011 and the start of the Syrian civil war. While not all of these games privilege a social-justice-oriented pedagogy, even the games developed solely for entertainment purposes offer opportunities to build empathy for refugee experience. In 2011, the UNHCR developed My Life as a Refugee, which lets players contemplate the same life-changing decisions refugees make in their quests to survive, reach safety, reunite with loved ones, and re-start their lives. In 2015, Endgame Syria by Tomas Rawlings, a free newsgame was released, examining the events unfolding in Syria by exploring the options open to Syrian rebels as the conflict unfolds. Then on April 1st, 2015, the BBC launched its experiment in interactive journalism, Syrian Journey: Choose your own escape route. Primarily texted-based with accompanying illustrations, this interactive newsgame asks players to make choices to understand the real dilemmas that refugees face. Later that same year, Channel 4 News released Two Billion Miles (2015), a user-led interactive video story which allows viewers to start in one of six locations (Sinjar in Iraq, three cities in Syria, Somalia, and Eritrea) and follow the footsteps of migrants and refugees as they face the hardships of months on the road, fleeing from terror and war. Then, in 2017, the same year as BMML’s release, two other games emerged. Survival (2017), by Spanish startup Omnium Lab in collaboration with the PeaceApp program of the Alliance of Civilizations of the United Nations, was developed with the help of young migrants and refugees who shared their experience and the difficulties they faced on their journey to Europe. Path Out (2017), on the other hand, is an explicitly autobiographical Roll-Playing Game (RPG) developed with an RPG generator by Causa Creations, Wobblersound, and graphic designer Brian Main. Retracing the journey of Abdullah Karam, a young Syrian artist that escaped the civil war in 2014, Path Out mobilizes the iconic aesthetics and conventions of older Japanese RPGs to deal with serious contemporary subject matter. While it is also playful and light-hearted, Path Out informs players about the challenges facing families in Syria before and after 2011. The fundamentally unique feature of Path Out -- a YouTube-style commentary that runs alongside gameplay -- appears very early in the playable narrative. There have also been many games about refugee experience from a more global perspective. For example, in 2012, Austrian artist group Gold Extra released Frontiers, a 3D online multiplayer game that leads its players to the borders of Europe, portraying a refugee journey from the sub-Sahara region to Europe. Then in 2017, UNHCR Malaysia released Finding Home, a simulation app created about the story of Kathijah, a 16-year-old Rohingya refugee forced to flee to Malaysia with her brother Ishak in order to find safety. Furthermore, many fictional games on the global refugee crisis have been developed. For example, in Papers, Please (2013), a puzzle video game created by indie game developer Lucas Pope, the player takes on the role of a border crossing immigration officer in the fictional dystopian Eastern Bloc-like country of Arstotzka, a fictional parallel East/West Berlin. Then This War of Mine (2014) is a war survival video game released by the Polish game development company 11 bit studios and inspired by the 1992-96 Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. Cloud Chasers - Journey of Hope (2015) by Blindflug Studies based in Zürich, thematizes larger issues of migration through the journey of a father and his daughter as they traverse the deadly deserts of a dystopian future, but it does very little work to develop awareness about the flight of refugee experience beyond the demonstrate the futility -- and mortality -- of refugee experience.

[3] “Bury me, my love” is a Syrian goodbye phrase, which means “Take care, don’t even think about dying before I do.” For more information see Nintendo, “Game Info,” (2019). Retrieved from https://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/bury-me-my-love-switch/.

[4] This is not the first time real-time has been mobilized in a text-messaging adventure game. Lifeline (2015), in which the player converses with a sole person on a faraway planet, also links game time to the player’s real-time and was an important precedent and influence for the developers of Bury me, my Love.

[5] While many action games tend to have a 1:1 projection of play time to fictional time, this does not mean that one minute in real-time is one minute in game time. In Sim City 4 (2003), for example, two minutes of play time equal one year of fictional time. Furthermore, in some games, such as Shogun: Total War (2000) or The Sims, the player can change the game speed, thus determining for themselves the specific relationship between play time and fictional time. This is also a feature of BMML, which allows the player to set the speed of gameplay to either speed up or slow down interactions between Nour and Madj; however, the game default still plays out in pseudo-real-time and the language in the setting encourages players to select the default. For more information on real-time games see Juul (2005, pp. 296-98).

[6] Darshana Jayemanne’s assessment of how gameworld and real-world temporalities intersect through a theory of chronotypology provides an important methodology for exploring the impact of various timescapes on the storytelling, narrative, themes, and character development of games. Engaging the concepts of “diachrony,” “synchrony,” and “unstable signifiers” to examine different layers of temporality, Jayemanne’s work provides games studies and literary studies scholars with the language necessary to explore gaming’s “heterochronia” or temporal complexity. For more information see Jayemanne (2018 and 2020).



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