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  • Kathryn Schoenberger

War Games: Building Empathy Through Video Games

This article was originally published on Kosovo 2.0.

Agnesa Belegu remembers only details from her childhood during the war in Kosovo. She recalls blurry images of her parents smiling and peaceful encounters with soldiers. But she doesn’t remember the time her family spent as refugees in Montenegro or the destruction and death around her.

She only knows about those experiences from her mother’s stories, including how she used to draw pictures of burning houses and soldiers killing people. Psychologists now identify this as common among children who have experienced trauma.

Over time, the 22-year-old from Peja overcame her early trauma. One of her biggest supports was playing video games. Now she wants to use her love of gaming to help people come to terms with their own experiences and help others understand the reality of civilians caught in violent conflicts. She believes games allow people to step into “the shoes of another individual.”

“That was just always fascinating for me, and I thought of the possibilities of that being potentially endless,” says Belegu.

After studying computer science in college and working as a mobile game designer in Prishtina, Belegu decided to pursue a graduate degree in the United States. She wanted to study and work with like-minded people, exploring with them gaming’s full potential.

This fall she started a master’s degree program for game design at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Agnesa came to the U.S. through the Transformational Leadership Program – Scholarships and Partnerships (TLP-SP), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Government of Kosovo and implemented by the nonprofit World Learning. The program supports Kosovo’s next generation of leaders by providing scholarships for U.S. graduate and certificate programs in a wide variety of fields.

Belegu is collaborating with 12 other students on a demo for a game called “Child No More,” which explores the experience of a young girl during conflict. Unlike most other games set in war, “Child No More” doesn’t focus on a “fighter” or “hero” out to “defeat the bad guy,” but a child named Arya who is separated from her parents at the start of the war.

“You’re stuck in the middle, and you absolutely have no way of getting out of it,” she says. “You just need to go through it, and you need to survive the best way you possibly can.”

Belegu said she was inspired by games like “This War of Mine,” which follows civilians struggling to survive the Siege of Sarajevo. However, instead of playing as Arya, users control animal companions representing family archetypes. A wolf is the protective, aggressive father figure, a ferret the comforting mother, and a fox the clever older sibling. Using these animals in different situations changes Arya’s experiences and ultimately the game’s outcome. Depending on players’ choices, Arya may end the game more resilient or deeply traumatized.

Set during a war between the fictional countries of Hlavia and Serova, “Child No More” is an amalgamation of Eastern European conflicts from the 1980s and ’90s. To create the game, Belegu drew from her own experiences and stories from others her age. “We have been kicked out of our houses, and thrown out in the streets, and we’ve all heard stories of people being separated from their families,” she says.

Belegu says it was difficult to revisit the war but “it has to be done” in order to help outsiders understand the struggles of civilians caught in conflict, build empathy for them, and learn from the past.

Her team pitched the game to their instructors during the height of the media attention on the Syrian refugee crisis. She says that conflict “really hit home” for her because she identified with the refugees.

“That is us,” Belegu says of her generation. “I was a war child.”

Photo by marietta amarcord from italy. Available through CC BY 2.0

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