Advocacy Through Game Design: An Interview with DePaul’s Lien Tran

Immigration and Migration @DePaul
3 min readAug 22, 2022

By Yessica Pineda

Photo courtesy of

Between November 2021 and February 2022 alone, Yuma County, Arizona recorded that 36,000 unaccompanied immigrant minors crossed the border of Mexico to the United States. As cited by the Council on Foreign Relations, immigration authorities encountered nearly 150,000 unaccompanied minors in the last fiscal year.

Imagine being thousands of miles away from your family, not speaking the native language of a foreign country, and having no clue of the legal pathways that lie before you. With the number of unaccompanied minors at an all-time-high, the need to educate people about the detention-and-release process in the United States legal system has become an urgent priority. Prof. Lien Tran, assistant professor of games and design at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media, has created a tool that can do just that.

In partnership with the Immigrant Children’s Affirmative Network (ICAN), a program made possible through the collaboration with the University of Miami’s Community and Educational Well-Being Research Center (CEW) at the School of Education and Human Development, Prof. Tran developed “Toma El Paso (Make a Move),” an educational game that follows pathways which the player can use to either speed up or slow down the approval process for release. Created in 2014, the game has since facilitated discussion and learning among immigrant youth, helping them process their immigration journey while teaching them about their rights.

Toma El Paso grew out of the transdisciplinary design lab, Matters at Play, originated by DePaul University. Matters at Play uses its transdisciplinary structure to collaborate with government, non-government, and academic organizations that focus on creating social justice and environmental/health solutions.

According to Prof. Tran, the interest in creating educational games began when a group of researchers in the organization found that “while the knowledge about an issue could be communicated easily with a written report, the game increased people’s attitudes about whether they wanted to advocate for the issue.” Due to the success of the transdisciplinary design, Prof. Tran and her partners created a series of games such as “Cops and Rubbers,” “Fines and Fees Challenge,” “The Big Build Up,” and many more.

As a group of HumanitiesX Student Fellows who spent the past year learning about and advocating for issues of immigration and migration, we decided to give the game a try ourselves, in order to discover the power of using games in education.

HumanitiesX Student Fellows Emerson Sherbourne and Lauren Rosenfeld playing the game

As mentioned, Toma El Paso is a board game that follows the detention-and-release process of an unaccompanied minor navigating the legal immigration system. The game takes the players through the three possible pathways that a detained immigrant youth may go through to get released. These three pathways include reunification, federal foster case, and voluntary departure. Through these pathways, the players interact with characters such as lawyers and case managers, just as they would if they were going through this process in real life.

Intrigued by the intricate paths of the game, student fellow Emerson Sherbourne said,

“The game highlights how complicated and frustrating the immigration process can be. It also helps people understand what options are available and how hard it can be to access them and obtain status even if you know what to do.”

Although all three of the fellows who played were well-versed in the topic of immigration policy due to their academic background in immigration topics, they were astounded by the complications that the game introduced to every player. At one moment, a player was cheering when reaching their case manager just to discover that it was only the first step of the extensive release process.

Overall, the fellows enjoyed learning through the game and hope that it will be more accessible to both immigrant youth going through the detention process and to potential advocates such as students, lawyers, and organizations that support immigrants.

Today, “Toma El Paso” continues to be used in the field by ICAN and Prof. Tran and colleagues hope it will become more accessible to youth in the future.

Yessica Pineda is a 2021–22 HumanitiesX Student Fellow.