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.

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