Peacemaker: mideast peace via video games?

Peacemaker: mideast peace via video games?

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There's a kind of video game, intended to serve serious purposes, promoted by the serious games initiative:

LAST week, in an effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, I withdrew settlements in the Gaza Strip. But then a suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem, the P.L.O. leader called my actions "condescending," and the Knesset demanded a stern response. Desperate to retain control, I launched a missile strike against Hamas militants.

I was playing Peacemaker, a video game in which players assume the role of either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president. Will you pull down the containment wall? Will you beg the United States to pressure your enemy? You make the calls and live with the results the computer generates. Just as in real life, actions that please one side tend to anger the other, making a resolution fiendishly tricky. You can play it over again and again until you get it right, or until the entire region explodes in violence.

"When they hear about Peacemaker, people sometimes go, 'What? A computer game about the Middle East?' " admits Asi Burak, the Israeli-born graduate student who developed it with a team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "But people get very engaged. They really try very hard to get a solution. Even after one hour or two hours, they'd come to me and say, you know, I know more about the conflict than when I've read newspapers for 10 years."

Video games have long entertained users by immersing them in fantasy worlds full of dragons or spaceships. But Peacemaker is part of a new generation: games that immerse people in the real world, full of real-time political crises. And the games' designers aren't just selling a voyeuristic thrill. Games, they argue, can be more than just mindless fun, they can be a medium for change.

I like this idea, but let's suppose that we get Peacemaker online, in a massively multiplayer environment, like Second Life. Thousands of Palestinians and Israelis could play, maybe taking the role of the other side.

I suspect they'd collectively be smarter than their leaders… and maybe the game could effect some real solutions. Tradtional diplomacy isn't working; time for something new?

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