Can games be venues for dialogue and conflict management?

The video games most of us are familiar with involve violence of some kind – shooting or fighting, strategizing to conquer or destroy, escaping violent death in various ways. So is it a crazy proposition to suggest that digital games could also be venues for dialogue and conflict management? I’ve recently been collaborating (through Build Up, and with UNDP and UNAOC) on a global competition – PEACEapp – that proposes just this. The competition gives prizes to developed games and ideas for games, and it is open for entries until October 15.

Digital games present opportunities that are particularly relevant to fostering dialogue that prevents violence. One of the hardest things for communities living in conflict is to begin to imagine a common future. Digital games offer a creative medium for people to imagine a peaceful future together.

First, games can provide ways for individuals or groups to explore issues of identity in an engaging and safe environment. Negative stereotypes, narratives of blame and discrimination all work to pit communities against each other and create the enabling conditions for violence or war. See for example The Migrant Trail, which helps players understand immigrants crossing ilegally into the United States and the policemen patrolling these borders.

Second, games can expose people to narratives that are not shared in mass media. They offer engaging ways to tell stories, and are well suited to building empathy about the perspectives of other groups. See for example Gone Home, which I wrote about in this post. Check out also this review of games that use different approaches to examine war’s impacts on civilians.

Third, leveraging social networks, games can be a means for contact. Game interfaces can provide ways for players to talk with each other. The work of Games for Peace, using Minecraft to engage young Israelis and Palestinians in a conversation about space, is pioneering in this area.

This is a hopeful competition. Hopeful that we can use games for positive social change and peace. But we are not naive about what can be achieved through this medium. We are well aware that a digital game can only carry individuals and communities so far. Many local peacebuilders work hard to help communities find common ground, see beyond the current divides, and risk to invent new ways of living together. Community workshops, peace festivals and conferences are incredibly important work in this respect, but they are also very hard to scale. Digital games have the potential to reach different people in different ways, and can be later leveraged for other peacebuilding interventions.

Our aim with this competition is to encourage peacebuilders and technologists to explore the use of digital games to foster dialogue, contributing to a wider toolkit for building peace.

Posted in games | Leave a comment

Poem of the month: Sweetness (Stephen Dunn)

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ….

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

Posted in poetry | Leave a comment

Conflicts of the Future

The new issue of Building Peace magazine – Conflicts of the Future – is out. I wrote an article for this issue, which you can read here. In it I explore how we can think of the contributions that technology can make to peacebuilding by using the framework that John Paul Lederach’s “The Moral Imagination” provides. I conclude by explaining how new technologies can be tools of the moral imagination:

Conflict situations, Lederach tells us, are often constrained by the sense of inevitability often present in conflict. What peacebuilders need to do is provide spaces for the moral imagination to emerge. Moral imagination is the ability to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not exist. New technologies empower local peacebuilders to do what was previously impossible and can be effective tools of the moral imagination, shifting future trends in peacebuilding toward more local, impactful, and imaginative implementation.

Another two great articles to watch out for:

  • Sanjana Hattotuwa’s thoughtful analysis of the good and bad that technology can do for peace. He explains an important challenge for all of us to keep in mind:

Most policymakers now grasp the positive potential of technology, but there are less positive, more hurtful applications as well. The central challenge today, shared by the UN, civil society, governments, Bretton Woods institutions and others, is to outsmart technologies that help promote hate, hurt and harm and instead, imagine and promote technological content and initiatives to counter radicalization and build resilience.

  • This piece by Krista Wise and Adam Mukhtar on the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA) use of low-tech solutions to build peace by improving communication flows. The story they tell is a wonderful example of local peacebuilding, and I couldn’t agree more with their concluding statement:

For SUDIA, this enthusiasm is an important reminder that building peace is not a top-down process. There can be no peace without community engagement.

Posted in data analysis, games, social media, Sudan | Leave a comment

Drones, ethics and conflict

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak on the Technology for Peace panel at IPI’s 44th Vienna Seminar. Ameerah Haq (Under-Secretary-General, United Nations Department of Field Support) was also on this panel, and explained how drones are increasingly becoming a feature of DPKO missions. As proof of the importance of this innovation, she recounted a story about the first flight of the MONUSCO drones, operated by UN peacekeeping troops stationed in Goma, North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Goma is on the shores of Lake Kivu, and the most common mode of transport between Goma and Bukavu are unsafe, overcrowded boats across the lake. On their test flight, the UN drones sent back real-time imagery of a boat that was sinking in the middle of the lake. The peacekeepers quickly deployed a few UN boats and saved many passengers from drowning.

Boat on Lake Kivu (CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Julien Harneis)

Boat on Lake Kivu (CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Julien Harneis)

That UN peacekeepers were able to undertake a rescue thanks to their new drones is laudable. But the key purpose of deploying UN troops to Goma is to guarantee the safety and protection of civilians in an area where violence from non-state armed groups is all too common. Why did Ms. Haq chose to share a story that was about a humanitarian action peripheral to the central purpose of DPKO missions? Is it early days and there wasn’t much else to share? Or was this the only story that could be shared because the others would compromise the intelligence gathering that drones are allowing the mission to undertake?

The second thought stayed with me. UN peacekeepers are actively collecting data on civilian (and military?) activities in the Kivus (and elsewhere). Does the local population get a say in what data is collected, and to what purpose? How relevant is this question in conflict settings? Do the same standards apply as elsewhere? Patrick Meier has been doing some great work on the ethics of humanitarian UAVs, but I wonder if we need a concrete discussion on the ethics of drone use for conflict prevention. OCHA recently published a policy brief on the use of UAVs by humanitarian actors where it directly recommends against using UAVs in conflict settings:

“Focus on using UAVs in natural disasters and avoid use in conflict settings: The use of UAVs in conflict settings is still too complex and hard to separate from military uses.”

I understand that OCHA may not want to complicate the still-nascent discussion on humanitarian UAVs by considering conflict settings. However, if drones are starting to be used for non-military purposes in places like the DRC, then we need to begin to discuss this. Here are three problems and two possible solutions to start a conversation on drones, ethics and conflict.

Problem 1: privacy and consent. The discussion around data privacy and UAVs centers on two issues: consent and the imperative to save lives. Consent is critical to any data collection and dissemination in conflict settings, whether via UAVs or otherwise. It is often difficult to meet Do No Harm principles because the unintended consequences of data collection in complex conflict environments are so hard to predict. An important way to mitigate this risk is to obtain the consent of those being surveyed who are most likely to understand these unintended consequences. But if the purpose of the MONUSCO UAVs is to allow peacekeepers to monitor a broader area than they can cover over-land, then how operationally viable is it to obtain consent for UAV-collected data? Humanitarian actors at times argue that the imperative to save lives trumps the need for consent in certain situations and / or at certain levels of data aggregation. This is an important argument to make in humanitarian crises, but how applicable is it to collecting data on civilian protection? It is much harder to draw the line on what is life-threatening in a conflict context. UAVs cannot detect intent, so how are imagery analysts to determine if a situation is likely to result in loss of life?

OCHA's DJI Phantom UAV (pic.twitter.com/lxjopMq8XR)

OCHA’s DJI Phantom UAV (pic.twitter.com/lxjopMq8XR)

Problem 2: fear and confusion. In describing common misconceptions about humanitarian UAVs, Patrick Meier argues that most drones used by the UN / NGOs are perceived by local communities as toys, not as threatening military equipment. In speaking with local peacebuilders in the Somali Region and in Pakistan, I wonder whether the same is true in (at least some) conflict contexts. There is significant trauma among local populations who have witnessed drone strikes that appeared to come from nowhere. There is also much greater suspicion of anything that looks like an instrument to spy, to relay information to places of power far away, and that might (even unintentionally) make them a target for military action. This blogpost by the IRC raises similar concerns about the difficulty that local populations may have in distinguishing drones-for-good in conflict settings. When the MONUSCO drones first started to operate, a consortium of NGOs working in the Kivus warned that they might (at least in the eyes of local beneficiaries) appear to blur the lines between military and humanitarian actors. The OCHA policy brief reinforces these concerns, arguing that painting and signaling humanitarian UAVs to distinguish them from military drones works well in natural disasters, but is unlikely to be sufficient to overcome the fears of local populations in conflict settings.

Problem 3: response and deterrence. Whether collected with UAVs, via SMS-enabled crowdsourcing or at community meetings, a key issue with any system that gathers data in or about a conflict is that it raises expectations for a response. This risk is especially concerning for MONUSCO, who have in the past been criticised for inadequate response to known threats to civilians. Is it ethical for MONUSCO or other UN /NGO actors to deploy UAVs if they do not have the capacity to respond to increased information on threats? One possible counter-argument is to say that the presence of UAVs is in itself a deterrent (just as the presence of UN peacekeepers is meant to be a deterrent). In fact, the head of DPKO has suggested that deterrence is a direct aim of UN drones. Other initiatives using satellite imagery to monitor violence, such as the Satellite Sentinel Project, have similarly argued that surveillance of conflict areas acts as a deterrent. But the notion that a digital Panopticon can deter violent acts is disputable (see for example here), since most conflict actors on the ground are unlikely to be aware that they are being watched and / or are immune to the consequences of surveillance.

Solution 1: education and civic engagement. Educating communities where drones are deployed is one way to address the issues above. OCHA’s policy brief indicates that it is important to increase “the degree of transparency, acceptance and community engagement of the UAV program”. An open conversation with communities can include considerations about the potential risks of drone-enabled data collection and whether communities believe these risks are worth taking. This can make way for informed consent about the operation of drones, allowing communities to engage critically, offer grounded advice and hold drone operators to account. Still a question remains: what happens if a community, after being educated and openly consulted about a UAV program, decides that drones pose too much of a risk or are otherwise not beneficial? In other words, can communities stop UN- or NGO-operated drones from collecting information they have not consented to sharing? Education will be insufficient if there are no mechanisms in place for participatory decision-making on drone use in conflict settings.

Solution 2: from civic engagement to empowerment. Perhaps civic engagement in how outside actors use humanitarian UAVs is not sufficient. In my view, the critical ethical question about drones and conflict is how they shift the balance of power. As with other data-driven, tech-enabled tools, ultimately the only ethical solution (and probably also the most effective at achieving impact) is community-driven implementation of UAV programs. Drones flown by communities as part of their own conflict prevention processes and activities. If you think that’s a crazy undertaking, consider that something similar is already happening for community-led, UAV-enabled disaster risk reduction in Haiti. And there is plenty that local peacebuilders could use drones for in conflict settings: from peace activism using tactics for civil resistance, to citizen journalism that communicates the effects of conflict, to community monitoring and reporting of displacement due to violence.

I’m guessing this second solution is not going to sit easily with most readers. If you think it would never fly because people would be taken for spies and military / government officials would be afraid of them, then doesn’t that reinforce the three ethical problems outlined above? The more I consider how drones could be used for good in conflict settings, the more I think that local peacebuilders need to turn the ethics discourse on its head: as well as defending privacy and holding drone operators to account, start using the same tools and engage from a place of power.

Posted in build peace | 3 Comments

Poem of the month: And they don’t ask… (Mahmoud Darwish)

And they don’t ask: What comes after death?
Though more intimate with the book of Paradise
than with accounts of the earth, they’re preoccupied
with another question: What shall we do
before this death? Near to life, we live
and we don’t – as if life were parceled out
from a desert where the haggling gods of property
settle their disputes.
We live beside an ancient dust.
Our lives burden the historian’s night:
‘Though I make them disappear, they come back to me
from absence.’
Our lives burden the artist:
‘I draw them and become one of them, veiled in mist.’
Our lives burden the General:
‘How can a ghost still bleed?’
We shall be what we want to be. And we want
a bit of life, not for just anything – but to honor
the resurrection after our death.
Unintentionally, they speak the philosopher’s words:
‘Death means nothing to us: if we are then he isn’t.
Death means nothing to us: if he is then we are not.’
And they have rearranged their dreams
and sleep standing.

Posted in poetry | Leave a comment

Digital activism and the strategic use of new media in Sudan

This week, MIT’s Center for Civic Media published an ebook – Global Dimensions of Digital Activism – that is also the start of a project to examine and understand why and how activists campaigning for social change make use of digital tools. The book and project are led by Ethan Zuckerman and Lorrie LeJeune, the director and assistant director of the Centre, and I’ve had the privilege of contributing a chapter on digital activism in Sudan. Other case studies in the first release include Rynda.org in Russia, the Opposition Coordinating Committee in Russia and Light Up Nigeria.

Another book on digital activism? Here’s why you should read this one.

There’s no dearth of books and articles about digital activism – whether arguing the revolutionary power of digital tools or on the contrary attempting to demonstrate that digital activism is weak and inefficient. What I appreciate most about this project (and why I think you should read the book!) is that it goes beyond an artificially polar debate of cyber-utopians versus cyber-pessimists. The book engages with the complex reasons that lead activists to engage with digital tools, explores the risks they consider taking and tries to track the evolution of strategies and tactics over time. By putting the experience of digital activists around the world (not just in Taksim and Tahrir) at the forefront, the book provides a richer, deeper understanding of how digital activism plays out in social change movements. Ethan does a great job of explaining this approach in the introduction (and he also puts out a call for activists / supporters who are interested in writing additional case studies).

I initially had many reservations about writing a piece on Sudan. I’m not Sudanese, not an activist in the social movements I describe. My knowledge and access are the product of personal contact, professional interest and what technical support I could provide my friends. It was only through the kind persuasion of my friend Rodrigo Davies, and later Ethan and Lorrie that I agreed to write a piece. They suggested that telling the story of a place that is not often written about and where activists themselves have a limited ability to report was important. Their intuition was later confirmed by the people I interviewed (some anonymously), and by the reactions once it was published.

Sudanese activists: want a user guide not a research piece? Go to Sawtna.net

So I’m glad to have told this story, and it’s a great way for an external audience to see into Sudan in a new way (it’s not all Darfur, oil and Muslim-Christian fighting, you see). But its use to Sudanese activists looking to use digital tools is limited, for two reasons. First, the chapter is in English and we currently do not plan on translating it to Arabic (although it is published under a Creative Commons license, so feel free). Second, the chapter provides an interesting retrospective look at what digital tools have and have not worked in Sudan social change actions, but it does not provide guidance or best practices tailored for Sudanese activists.

If you are looking for a more practical resource tailored to Sudan, make sure to visit Sawtna.net.

Sawtna_logo-EN_250px.fw_This online platform designed by and for Sudanese civil society activists explores strategies for using ICTs and social media for advocacy, campaigning, mobilization, dissemination of information, crowdsourcing and more. It combines information from global best practices and useful adaptations for the Sudanese context. And it is available in Arabic and English!

Posted in crowdsourcing, mapping, social media, Sudan | Leave a comment

Poem of the month: I want a lot (Rainer Maria Rilke)

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing
And are raised to the rank of prince
By the slippery ease of their light judgments
But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old, and it is not too late
To dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.

 

Posted in poetry | Leave a comment