Peacetech: remarks at the Geneva Peace Talks

Last Friday, I had the pleasure to speak at the 2015 Geneva Peace Talks, organized by the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform. I was humbled to be in the company of such a great line-up of speakers, all addressing the subject “It’s time for peace”. This blogpost is a write-up of what I said.

The peace of the graveyards

I’m from Spain and as you know Spain had a fascist dictator, Franco, until 1975. In 1964, Franco celebrated 25 years in power with the slogan: “25 years of peace”. The counter-slogan from anti-fascist activists, like my parents, was “We don’t want the peace of the graveyards.”

It’s a slogan that I still find relevant, a call to remember that a peaceful society is not one void of conflict, but one where all voices can negotiate a shared understanding of peace. It asks the question: who gets to decide what peace means? who decides what peace we are working to build?

Peacebuilding as civic engagement

So that’s an interesting anecdote, but you might be wondering what it’s got to do with the subject of my talk. I co-direct a social enterprise called Build Up that works at the intersection of technology, civic engagement and peacebuilding. The provocation we put forward with our work is that we need to re-interpret peacebuilding as civic engagement. And that technology plays a key role in that reinterpretation.

In other words, we believe that the key thing technolgy does is broaden participation in peacebuilding process, so that really what they are is civic engagement processes that deal with conflict. That also means that we can do away with the idea that conflict is something that happens in far-flung transition places or in the Global South. Conflict is in every society. Peacebuilding as civic engagement is needed everywhere, and technology is changing how it’s done everywhere.

Peacetech in the Somali Region and South Sudan

Since this may sound abstract, I want to illustrate it with two concrete examples of work Build Up is currently undertaking.

For the past 2 years, we have been working with Interpeace to support two local peacebuilding organizations in the Somali Region. The organizations we are working with have decades of experience doing qualitative research to understand what Somalis are thinking about the conflict. With the information they gather they run local peace processes and work to influence Somali policy makers.

So they do incredible work. We’ve helped them introduce a few technology tools that build on this. We worked with them to design a participatory polling methodology that introduced a mobile data collection tool linked to an online data management and visualization tool (read more about it here). We’ve also helped them come up with ways to share their findings and messages with more people. They were already doing paper reports and film screenings. Now they are also using social media, learning simple animation and making shorter films to be distributed online.

Perhaps you had an image of Somalia as a black hole where nothing works. In fact, it’s an incredibly resourceful place: there are more people online and on Facebook than you might initially think, especially since the fiber optic cable reached Mogadishu.

The second project I want to tell you about is one we implemented earlier this year in South Sudan. USAID funds the VISTAS program, which has been working on the Sudan – South Sudan border, supporting peace committees to make local agreements and manage divisions across the border.

These committees do important work. They convene elders to negotiate rights of passage and then drive around in cars and read out agreements over megaphones. But with this approach, there are only so many people they can reach and only so many voices that can be represented. In other words: the reasons why traders and cattle keepers want peace are clear, and they hear the agreements. But what about women? Or unemployed young men? They’re not at the negotiation table.

So we worked with one cross-border committee to identify a group of young men and a group of women, mixed Sudanese – South Sudanese, and then over three weeks, we supported these groups in making two short films.

None of the participants had touched a camera before. Only 5 of them could read and write. Many told us it was the first time they had been asked to express their opinion. Yet the films they made where entirely led by them. They planned the stories, filmed every shot, recorded every interview, and chose images and voices for the final cuts.

For the films’ opening night, we projected onto a white sheet strung up in the town’s dusty football field. Hundreds of people came to watch. The groups are now working to screen the films in other towns along the border, show them at video clubs, distribute them via mobile phones, and then make more films. (Read more about this here.)

Technology is just a tool

These are two powerful examples of projects that use technology to build peace. But you may be thinking, what of the risks? Isn’t technology also used for war and oppression? And of course it is, technology is just a tool – but for every negative use, I can probably come up with a positive counter-use.

On Facebook, we listen mostly to people we already agree with, which can make views more polarized, and hatespeech is rampant. But groups like Peace Factory are using Facebook to connect normal Israelis to normal people in Iran, Palestine or Jordan, and groups like Umati (Kenya) or Proxi (Spain) are using social media to monitor and counter hatespeech.

Technology can be used to cut off communications, as the government in Sudan has done, but also in Sudan a local NGO sets up a community communications system that links SMS to radio to help sustain local peace agreements. Videogames teach war, but Games for Peace uses Minecraft to bring Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together. Drones can bomb, or they can be tools for peacekeepers. And so on.

Peacetech can learn from civic tech

I think that what is happening with technology in peacebuilding is similar to how technology is affecting other areas of public life. And so I’m taking you back to Spain: with an economic crisis compounded by many corruption cases, Spanish people over the past few years have been asking themselves: who gets to decide what democracy looks like?

Many of the grassroots movements that started with this question are now turning into political forces to be reckoned with on the electoral arena. And in their organizing process, and in their ability to shift the public discourse, technology has played an instrumental role.

And this phenomenon of greater participation, greater empowerment via technology disrupting traditional processes is not just about Spain, and it’s not just about political activism. It’s happening in governments through civic tech movements too. Citizens are talking directly to governments, on their own terms. And governments are setting up web platforms, apps and social media campaigns to reach citizens.

But this change towards greater participation through technology has not yet reached formal peace negotiations. Peace negotiations continue to take place in closed rooms, between governments or warring parties, away from the people most affected, and with limited participation from civil society.

The examples I gave earlier, the many other examples of peacetech that are out there, they’re all happening among civil society. It’s true that the more effective ones manage to connect with ongoing governance / conflict management processes – like the example I gave you from Somalia. And this is very important, but it’s quite limited.

What is the e-governance of peace processes?

In other policy areas, the civic tech movement has meant that it is no longer acceptable for governments to fail to communicate and consult with citizens regularly: technology makes it easy and cost effective, removing any permissible excuse. I think we need a peacetech movement that does something similar for peacebuilding, and I think we need this urgently.

Peacebuilders on the ground are demonstrating how technology makes it easier to broaden participation. They are using technology to reinvent peacebuilding at the grassroots, in track 3. We can use this experience to also re-invent track 1 formal negotiations. We can start using technology to connect the conversations of conflict-affected communities directly to formal negotiation tables in Addis Ababa, New York, or Geneva. We know from past experience that if these two tracks are not connected, what is signed at negotiation tables won’t take root on the ground.

However different the contexts might be, I see digital activism, civic tech and peacetech as part of a global paradigm shift that leverages technology to disrupt what otherwise remains an unquestioned status quo, dominant power structure, a majority’s perspective as the only truth. Because people don’t want the peace of the graveyards.

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.

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.

Designing for civic engagement and peace

I’ve been thinking recently about how tech-enabled peace initiatives can shift the balance of power and result in alternative infrastructures for peace. It seems to me that the proliferation of accessible technology tools makes it easier to innovate from the ground up. I don’t just mean build new platforms or apps, but also bring about social and organizational forms that enable small groups of local innovators to have a big impact on broad social problems. If that’s all sounding too abstract, let me introduce you to the innovators I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past week – and who are the start of an alternative infrastructure for peace in Cyprus and its region.

The mahallae challenge winners

UNDP recently ran an innovation challenge for civic engagement and peace. The winners are doing very different things – promoting the values of volunteerism (i-Vee), mentoring young people on employment and entrepreneurship (YuBiz), empowering women (WeMe), organizing participatory urbanism in a divided region (Hands on Famagusta), and using creative writing to bring communities together (The Sociaholic Typewriter). What holds them together as a group is that they are all challenging traditional ways of engaging people in civic issues, and in this challenge finding new paths to build peace. 

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The other common attribute of these projects is that using technology enables them to more effectively challenge the status quo – through new tools, alternative social forms or creative ways of organizing. New tools: i-Vee is using game mechanics to subtly promote the values of volunteerism. Alternative social forms: YuBiz leverages an online platform to enhance mentoring through online communications and a strong mentor-mentee matching algorithm. Creative organizing: Hands on Famagusta has brought together people in the physical space of Famagusta to map contested areas, and will continue to organize discussion online through an interactive website and a game on the imaginary Famagusta.

Grassroots design for grassroots solutions

What’s so appealing about these five teams is that they really are coming from the bottom up – understanding what people in their communities feel and need, and building from that. And if it’s all about grassroots solutions, then we figured we also need to be grassroots about the design process. This week, I ran a workshop that walked through a process of user-centered design. It was great to work with Rodrigo Davies on materials and exercises, and he shared the excellent approach taken in YoLab‘s Creative Industries Prototyping Lab in Lima that is reflected throughout this workshop.

At the start of the workshop, I introduced four things for the teams to bear in mind as they turn their idea into a product and project: put the user first, prototype and test, build and iterate, remember that your users are your story and understand outreach as community building. We then spent two days unpacking each of these concepts. Here are a few examples of what emerged.

WeMe understands its users by making them designers

One early exercise for the teams was to come up with user personas that would help them understand how users behave, within what social context and cultural environment, and with what technological availability. The teams would then keep these personas in mind throughout the design process.  But the WeMe team went beyond keeping user personas in mind during the workshop: the two team members working on prototypes were two potential mentees (future users of the WeMe platform). For two days, they designed what they would like to use – a critical input at this stage for the WeMe team.

YuBiz gets the best testers for its prototype

We did two rounds of rapid prototyping to get the teams used to getting down to concrete ideas early. Teams then paired up to test the prototypes on each other, with the aim to show how the project works in practice, simulate how a user might interact with it and get some feedback. YuBiz showed their first prototype to the two WeMe team members – two young women looking for jobs.  They got a stronger reaction than they perhaps expected, some push-back in critical areas and a view from just the kind of young people they are hoping to attract as users.

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i-Vee gets serious about iterating

Teams were encouraged to iterate fast through two rounds of prototyping – with the idea that this process of building and iterating should continue after the workshop. It’s a good way to spark creativity and avoid getting stuck early on. The i-Vee team had trouble prototyping initially. They had really dug into their theory of change, researched how games can change social behavior and understood what the offline component of their mobile game look like. But what would the game be exactly? What game mechanics would explore volunteering? We encouraged the team to just start drawing something… and once they started it was hard to stop them. Over the course of two days the game really evolved into a full concept, with complex mechanics and a great potential for expansion. I can’t wait to play!

The sociaholic typwriter really knows their users are their story

The final concept we used to guide the workshop was the most slippery. What does it really mean to say that your users are your story? Fortunately we had the sociaholic typewriter team to show us the way. This idea was born out of the personal creative relationship between the two team leads – and the story of their interaction very much guides their design as well as the future scenarios for the project. The users of the sociaholic typewriter are already the story of the project, and we learned from them that this is a great way to find new ways to do things.

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Hands on Famagusta understands outreach as community building

Towards the end of the workshop we talked about the importance of doing outreach – to partners, to critics and to users. We discussed different mediums for putting messages out and talked about the importance of storytelling. [We also had some fun pretending to pitch to Ban Ki Moon in an elevator, but that’s a longer story.] The message that most resonated with the teams was to understand outreach as community building, and no team better than Hands on Famagusta to illustrate this. The team has already built a network of volunteers to help them map – block by block and in the sweltering heat – the entire city of Famagusta.

This community brings to life what Hands on Famagusta is trying to do: to disrupt a top-down decision-making process and force authorities to take into account views coming from the bottom up about how to handle a divided region. As my colleague Nilgun Arif explains, this type of grassroots disruption is common to all the mahallae concept winners. She believes (and I agree) that grassroots disruption is key to finding new paths to peace, especially in a context like Cyprus where top-down negotiations (alone) will never be enough to find a peaceful solution.

The mess of innovation

It’s been a fantastic, exhausting and *messy* few days – take a look at the video below for a taste of what it looked like. I can’t wait to see where these teams go and how they continue to contribute to a new way of building civic engagement and peace.

Peace, games and social impact

This past week, I’ve been enjoying the Games for Change Festival – highly recommend it to anyone thinking about how to use technology for positive social change. The festival brings together a vibrant, creative community of game developers and researchers that have a lot to say not just about how games can change societies, but more generally about what change is and how it relates to the human condition.

And yes, inevitably, I had a peacebuilding hat on. There’s a lot we can learn from games and gamers. Here are some of the threads (and games) from the conference that really stuck with me.

Impact of games, impact of tech4peace

Before you try to measure what impact a game is having, you need to be clear about what *kind* of change you’re looking to make. One panel proposed a framework to articulate these different kinds of change, and identified five key areas where games can make an impact: learning, behavior change, group empowerment, civic labor and communication.

This taxonomy doesn’t just apply to how games have impact; it works also for how other technologies (information, communications, networking) have impact. And the areas of change it defines match up well with the kinds of change peacebuilding programs are trying to make: learning about peace values; changing behaviors towards other groups; empowering groups to change a conflict narrative; engaging civic labor to respond to a conflict crisis; better communicating peace process or alternative peace narratives. Next time I set out to define a theory of change and indicator set for a tech-enabled peace program, I may well turn to this framework.

Gone Home: immersive story-telling

A great feature of the festival are the talks that provide commentary on a game that is up for a Games for Change Award. In one such talk, Tracy Fullerton described the powerful story-telling techniques of Gone Home. Gone Home is a story exploration video game: you play the role of a young woman who comes home after a year abroad. She’s expecting to be met by her family, but instead finds an empty house, with a haunted feeling. At the start, the game plays like a murder mystery – the player opens drawers and doors, in search of what happened to the family. As the game progresses, it emerges that there is a drama, but it’s no crime scene: the player’s younger sister has recently run away from home after coming out as gay to her parents. By the time the story line fully emerges, the player is immersed in the story, creating a strong emotional reaction to the events.

Whatever the final resolution of the game (I haven’t played it, so wouldn’t know), what Gone Home shows is that video games can be powerful tools for communicating difficult messages to a young audience. Could immersive story-telling games be used to share perspectives across conflict lines, bringing us closer to the “other”?

Papers, please: the ethics of difficult choices

Nick Fortugno delivered the commentary on another award-winning game: Papers Please. The game takes you to a dystopian country – Arstotzka – where you play the role of an immigration officer at a newly-opened border post. Your task is simply to decide whether to accept or deny entry to people at the border, following a set of government rules. You get paid by the case, you might get some bribes, and at the end of the day you decide what to spend your money on (heat, food, medicine, rent), which affects the well-being of your family.

Simple, right? Except doing what’s best for your salary (and your family) may mean denying entry to someone who would face a firing squad at home. Or letting through a pimp who is about to force a girl into prostitution (you just let her in, and she asked you to deny him entry). As Nick Fortugno explained, the difference between Papers Please and other games is that good acts are not instrumentalized by the game mechanics: what’s morally right does not always correlate with the highest game pay-out. Thus, the game is true to Kant’s maxim:

“A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself […]”

But contrary to Kantian ethics, Papers Please has no notion of an absolute moral good. What’s morally right is contradictory, messy and emotionally painful: your son needs medicine, so will you take a fine to save the girl from prostitution? This subtle exploration of the ethics of difficult choices points the way for an application to peacebuilding. Can games expose conflict parties to the ethical choices of the other, breaking the game of positions that many mediations turn into?

Buffalo: empathy, stereotypes and counter-stereotypes

Mary Flanagan is the founder of Tiltfactor, a laboratory “focused on the design of and research on computer games, board games, urban games, and other software that fosters a joyful commitment to human values”. Her talk discussed the design features of games that are proven to change hearts and minds – and specifically the stereotypes we hold about women and science. One such game is Buffalo, where players are given two cards – a person card and a descriptor card – and asked to call out someone who meets the description. Do you know a latino lawyer? A blind scientist? A skinny superhero?

The game has been proven to change players’ views about certain types of people, reducing prejudice and encouraging greater inclusiveness in representations of social identity groups. The psychological research behind it hinges on one key finding: experiences that build empathy towards people who suffer discrimination do not change our views; being presented with counter-stereotypes that challenge discriminatory views does. Flanagan admitted in her talk that she had previously focused on empathy too (see this article for example) and has only recently started focusing on exposing players to counter-stereotypes. This is a critical finding for those of us working in peacebuilding, where programs that focus on bringing conflict groups into contact are often designed to emphasize building empathy. Could peacebuilding programs be re-designed to focus on presenting counter-stereotypes rather than on building empathy? And could games play a role in these re-designed contact programs?

Let’s get games into peacebuilding

The Games for Change community has a lot to teach those of us thinking about technology and peacebuilding, especially about how we frame questions of impact, tell stories that have an emotional impact, present real ethical dilemmas, and challenge stereotypes in a impactful way. Beyond the research on impact and human psychology we can share, I also think it’s time we start investing in getting digital games into peacebuilding. Digital games are immensely popular and their reach expands every year. The examples above point to some of the ways in which games can be tools to increase our impact on tough social issues.

There are a few people already thinking about digital games and peacebuilding. Games for Peace uses Minecraft to bring together young people from different sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A few months ago, UNDP Cyprus and UNDP Kosovo held a workshop on games for peace that may result in a prototype game. Last year, the US Institute of Peace began a PeaceGame series (not digital, but a very interesting initiative). And of course, Asi Burak, the President of Games for Change, designed the award-winning PeaceMaker game.

Do you know of other groups or organizations using games in peacebuilding? Please leave a comment below!

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 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.

Crowdaoke gets honorable mention

Remember this crazy idea about promoting peace through karaoke? Not so crazy after all: our concept for a Crowdaoke app to build peace through collaborative music-making got an honorable mention at the UNAOC Create awards.


Crowdaoke is in really great company, check out the other honorable mentions and finalists here. I’m pretty intrigued by Reality, a game where players can “pursue news stories as a freelance reporter in this game that aims to raise awareness of media bias and promote critical thinking about what we read.”

Rodrigo Davies and I are hoping to move ahead with developing Crowdaoke anyway. We’re meeting at SXSW this week: he’s speaking about crowdfunding; I’ll be talking about technology for peace. I’m not sure we’ll karaoke, but we’ll certainly talk about Crowdaoke, dream up other projects and dance the night away. With friends like these, work and fun are all the same.