Gaming for peace

When it first came out, the Peace Maker Game was considered by many a hair-brained idea: a single-player game that would let you “play” the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as either the Israeli President or the Palestinian President. Asi Burak (the game’s Executive Producer and now President of Games for Change) explains that he was told it was crazy to make a game out of one of the most complex conflicts in the world. And that even if he did, no-one would play it. Over 100,000 players and sixty countries later, the game is now seen as a flagship of serious games. It is immensely popular, with players speaking of the real impact it had on their views of the conflict. Even Dany Yatom (former head of Mossad, from the Labor Party) played it, and promptly  lost in a few minutes.

PeaceMaker_Screenshot_3

PeaceMaker integrates real news items to gameplay

That was 2007. Although they’re still not common, other educational games about peace have since been published. Columbia University’s Country X is a multi-player simulation to teach about genocide prevention. Global Conflicts is a set of single-player games where players walk through a narrative, holding conversations with other characters, to resolve one specific conflict – a school attacked in Afghanistan, a girl shot at the Mexican-American border, avoiding recruitment of child soldiers in Uganda, etc. People Power takes players through a complex scenario that simulates nonviolent struggles to win freedom and secure human rights against a variety of adversaries (dictators, occupiers, corrupt regimes, etc).  In Endgame Syria, you can weigh up the strategic choices available to the rebels in the current conflict. (If you know of other examples, I’d love to hear about them.)

One thing ties all these games together: their explicit aim is to educate about a conflict (concrete or abstract) and show how to resolve it or at least navigate it. Ian Bogost makes a distinction between two theories of educational videogames: behaviorism and constructivism. Behaviorism sees knowledge as empirical and made up of knowable, singular concepts. Behaviorist educational videogames are therefore built to represent a microcosm of the world, where players can simulate the actual dynamics of the material world. Constructivism, on the other hand, posits that videogames teach more abstract principles that contribute to general skills and learning values. Constructivist designs focus on the ability of educational videogames to teach higher-order thinking skills by giving players situations that are not direct re-creations of the real world but rather more abstract environments where the focus is on understanding a whole system not on learning isolated facts.

The two theories are not mutually exclusive, but they do encourage us to think about how meaning and learning is situated in games. Games can provide a space where players embody experiences to solve problems in a near-real world environment – that’s what the peace games above are about. But they can also serve to reflect on the design of this imagined world and the social relationships and identities it creates, thus offering a space for reflection on the structures and relationships in the world.

“Videogame players develop procedural literacy through interacting with the abstract models of specific real or imagined processes presented in the games they play. Videogames teach biased perspectives about how things work. And the way they teach such perspectives is through procedural rhetorics, which players “read” through direct engagement and criticism.” (Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, MIT Press, 2007)

To increase their impact, games for peace have to expand in the direction of constructivist design.  In particular, I think we could use games to explore identity and empathy in the context of peace (and war).

Identity games

The construction of (conflicting) identities is critical to how a conflict unfolds, escalates and becomes violent. Negative stereotypes, narratives of blame and discrimination all work to pit communities against each other and create the enabling conditions for violence or war. Identity formation is also critical to understanding the individual choices that lead people to take up violence, as this study by Google Ideas on radicalization explains.

A couple of weeks ago, I helped to facilitate a workshop organized by UNDP that brought together peacebuilders from Cyprus and Kosovo to discuss games for peace. In the brainstorm of game concepts that concluded the workshop, none of the groups suggested educational games about conflict as described above. All three ideas that stuck in the end dealt (in very different ways) with identity and conflict. In one, users would play a Farmville-like game of resource collection and community building, but interactions with “neighbors” would bring them face to face with stereotypes they hold about the “other” group. In another, players would go on an adventure to discover how they react to and interact with different groups. The third idea took inspiration from Australian Metro’s Dumb Ways to Die and suggested a series of micro-games where players would be presented with the “dumb” identities we take on to justify entering into conflict.

Empathy games

The Google Ideas study mentioned above also explains that many individuals join radical (violent) groups out of a need for purpose in life. Another study conducted by Mercy Corps in Somalia reports that young Somalis who have greater self-efficacy (ability to influence decisions) are also more likely to endorse violence. This points to a general point that people act when they feel there is hope for change – and that if the purpose is great enough and other peaceful avenues for change seem unlikely, violence becomes tolerable.  James Hillman makes a similar argument not just for radicalization, but for why we go to war. Whether it’s in Sudan or in the US, I’m often surprised at how easily people say they are for peace and then how quickly they show up for war. Wars are a large-scale effort where many of us are compelled to take-up arms (or support the take-up of arms) for a greater purpose. Hillman explains that the flow that comes from being part of a large war effort, this exalted sense of purpose, goes a long way to explaining our “terrible love of war”.

Perhaps a game could help us empathize with the experience and choices of civilians who live through war. It’s not a simple undertaking, and could easily become patronizing if the gameplay narrative was too value-laden. One participant in the Cyprus – Kosovo workshop is exploring an idea along these lines. I won’t describe it to avoid a spoiler, but it’s interesting that one of her inspirations is The Last of Us – a game where players go through an emotional journey that many describe as transformative. Perhaps if we internalized through gameplay what the loss of war felt like, we’d be less likely to love it.

I’m also interested in taking this empathy narrative to a more dangerous place by putting players in a position where violence is a real, concrete avenue for action. In other words, putting players in the shoes of a character who may choose to join a militia or a war effort. The only similar game I know of is Akrasia, which takes players through the experience of being addicted. The game is set in a maze that represents the mind, and which has two states (normal and psychedelic). To enter the game, the player collects a pill-shaped object and thus enters the game as an “addict”. Players then go from “chasing the dragon” to experience dependency through to “cold turkey” where willpower is mapped onto navigation skills. This approach appeals to me because the process helps us discover our own psyche and reflect on how our motivations are not independent and unchangeable. Only by understanding how our motivations to engage in violence are structured can we make sure that all our peace talk translates into action when war is in sight.

It may seem strange to suggest a war game to teach peace, it certainly would need very careful design, but how else are we to overcome this terrible love of war if not by understanding it? John Hunter’s excellent book on the World Peace Game and Other 4th Grade Achievements tackles this very point. Although the World Peace Game on the face of it seems similar to concrete conflict resolution games like Peace Maker or Global Conflicts, it is designed and taught by Hunter in a way that emphasizes reflection on social relationships. Hunter takes his students deep into the psychology of war, using Sun Tzu as their guide. And Hunter’s book (and TedTalk) are full of stories of betrayal, realization and altruism. It is these relationships that teach the children the value of peace, and why they should stand up for it even when war beckons.

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