Letter from the Peace Front: Fair Game
Have you ever thought you could do a better job than the diplomats in solving the intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute? If so, try this challenge on for size.
The two Palestinian girls knew exactly what to do. Evict the West Bank settlers. Remove the Israeli Army patrols. Let every Palestinian refugee move to Israel. a They were playing the role of the Israeli prime minister in a computer game called PeaceMaker. Yet it was more than a game to them. It was payback time—every Palestinian’s dream of what they would do if only they controlled the Knesset.
But the girls were puzzled. Israel made concession after concession, yet the suicide bombings continued. They became frustrated: The Palestinians would not reciprocate, and by the end of the game they understood why in the real world the Israelis are so relentlessly concerned for their security.
Can a video game bring peace to the Middle East? It sounds like every teenage boy’s fantasy: “No time to do my homework, Mom. The Annapolis peace talks will fail unless I destroy the hyperspace dragons from planet Quarg III.”
But PeaceMaker, created by Asi Burak and Eric Brown, is a different kind of computer game, one of the new breed of so-called serious games, which have a purpose and a conscience. They are based on the belief that kids can have fun and make the world a better place. Some may sneer at the teaching power of an educational game, but this game can do something that no book can: A player puts himself or herself in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister and is given a chance to make decisions—and then to see the consequences of those decisions.
“A book might teach you more, but not in the emotional sense, the participation sense,” said game designer Burak, a former Israeli military intelligence officer.
The game is uniquely able to create a sense of empathy by allowing a player to step into the situation of people on either side of a conflict.
“As an Israeli, I went into PeaceMaker with a lot of bias and came out interested in the concerns of the other side and really considering the plight of innocent civilians,” said Orr Rozov, who played the game for a Middle East history class when he was a sophomore at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
In style and graphics, PeaceMaker bears some resemblance to strategy games such as Sim City. A player can choose to be the Palestinian Authority president or the Israeli prime minister and also select the difficulty level: Calm, Tense or Violent. The screen displays a map of Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Various screen tabs show information on numerous groups, including the Israeli and Palestinian publics, Israeli settlers, Palestinian militants, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. Another set of tabs shows public opinion in the game on key issues, which differ for the two sides. For the Israelis, security and suppression of militant activity are paramount; economics and independence are the Palestinian concerns.
Each turn in PeaceMaker represents a week, during which the player—it’s a one-player game—can perform a limited number of security, economic or political moves. The Israelis have the most choices, a full carrot-and-stick menu that ranges from raiding Gaza and targeting militants to removing settlements and offering aid to the Palestinians.
Palestinian options are limited to cracking down on militants or creating social programs, assuming they can beg the funds from reluctant donors. As in real life, the bestlaid plans are disrupted by events that occur throughout the game, such as suicide bombings or Palestinian civilians wounded by Israeli fire (each event is accompanied by actual news clips of mangled Israeli buses or Palestinian women wailing over victims of Israeli strikes).
The key numbers in PeaceMaker are the public approval ratings. Just like real politicians, PeaceMaker politicos must keep an eye on the polls. In adrenaline-pumped first-person shooters, it’s game over when you kill the dragon or the dragon kills you. In PeaceMaker, you lose the game when Palestinian public opinion sinks so low that a new intifada erupts. You win if the violence abates enough that both sides can embark on peace talks leading to a two-state solution.
And therein lies the existential dilemma of the Middle East that PeaceMaker so neatly captures: Whatever pleases one side will anger the other. Destroy a militant and Israeli public opinion soars while the Palestinians seethe. Release prisoners from an Israeli jail and Palestinians will cheer while Israelis howl.
Since its debut in february 2007, peacemaker has been distributed in some 60 countries. The most prominent user has been the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv, which sent out 80,000 free copies through the Israeli Ha’aretz and Palestinian Al-Quds newspapers. It has also been used by the Peres Center in 22 educational workshops in Israeli high schools, involving about 660 teenagers, according to Yarden Leal-Yablonka, a project manager at the center. The game has received positive reviews and several awards, including a 2006 first-place prize from the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy in Los Angeles for “Reinventing Public Diplomacy Through Games.”
Peacemaker’s creators make no pretense that their mission is to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The goal of Burak and Brown, who together founded Pittsburgh-based ImpactGames, is to demonstrate the power of what Brown calls “documentary gaming.”
The two met as graduate students at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center, where they came up with PeaceMaker as a student project that would show interactive media’s capabilities. It was conceived in the bad old days (2006) when critics accused violent, sex-laden games, such as Grand Theft Auto, of poisoning children’s minds. Burak and Brown wanted to prove that games could be educational yet interesting.
“Games are engaging because they are challenging,” Brown said. “Chess and checkers are not graphically great like Grand Theft Auto, but they are still time-honored games that are played. We’ll give presentations to high school kids, and the reaction of the adults is ‘Kids aren’t going to get into PeaceMaker. It’s too serious.’ And an hour later, we’re trying to get them to stop playing so we can talk about the issues.”
PeaceMaker joins a growing wave of interactive games that are making a mark as tools of social activism. A Force More Powerful (www.aforcemorepowerful.org) is designed by Breakaway Games with funding from a pro- democracy group and teaches how to practice nonviolent regime change. The United Nations has distributed Food Force, where players are aid workers dropping food to a starving Indian Ocean island, while Darfur is Dying (www.darfurisdying.com) puts players in a Darfur refugee camp.
Burak and Brown’s new project is Play the News (www.playthenewsgame.com), an interactive news site where users engage in short PeaceMaker-like games to decide outcomes in current events such as the United States presidential elections.
But for those who would save the world through games, beware. The path is not an easy one. Any games that attempt to simulate reality inevitably make assumptions, whether it is a board war game that portrays Robert E. Lee as a better Civil War general than Ulysses S. Grant or a sports game for the Xbox that treats the New York Knicks as a better basketball team than the Boston Celtics. The only thing a game designer can be certain of is that someone will always accuse him of making the wrong call.
PeaceMaker may leave those with hawkish views of the Middle East feeling slighted: Those who would bomb the Palestinians to the peace table will lose. Assassinations and Apache helicopter strikes will inflame Palestinians until an intifada erupts. An optimum Israeli strategy appears to be a mixture of economic and social packages for the Israeli public as well as economic aid for the Palestinians while responding with tempered security measures (such as increased police patrols on Israeli streets) after every terrorist attack.
Burak and Brown dispute any notion that theirs is a peacenik game. “If you are an extreme left-wing Israeli prime minister and you go only with removing settlements or removing the security wall, you will lose the game,” said Burak. “You get penalized for military attacks that are extreme, but you get penalized for making concessions when you don’t have the support to make concessions.”
Some players might also be rankled by the assumption that only the Israeli prime minister can initiate violence. There is no option for the Palestinian president to launch suicide or rocket attacks or conduct mass protests (these happen, but only as preprogrammed events). To be fair, PeaceMaker came out before the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the subsequent rocket barrages (there are currently no plans for an updated version).
However, Burak maintains that there is no evidence that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is ordering suicide attacks. He believes the game accurately reflects the situation on the ground.
“Look at reality,” Burak said. “The Israeli side has more power and more resources.”
Nonetheless, whether players agree or disagree with its assumptions, the beauty of PeaceMaker is that within the game’s limits they can experiment with their own strategies. “We always said that we’re not in the business of telling [anyone] what is the right way,” Burak explained.
PeaceMaker’s designers did research by speaking with Israeli and Palestinian students at CMU as well as meeting with peace groups and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations.
“Many Israelis really appreciated the effort,” said Burak. “Even if they thought it was too optimistic, they respected that there is something about the game that is engaging and makes you think about the issue.”
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a professor of Middle East history at CMU, assigned the game to her class. She doesn’t think serious games will replace human teachers, but she found PeaceMaker a useful teaching aid. “Weeks afterward, [students] would still comment, ‘It’s just like in the game,’” she said.
Rose Danielle Goff, who played PeaceMaker as a sophomore in Eisenberg’s class, said the game helped her “understand the way a leader would have to think, weigh different choices and choose the best available option. It also helped me understand the cause-and-effect relationship between a leader’s action and events on the ground.”
The Peres Center’s Leal-Yablonka said PeaceMaker stimulated students. “It is interesting to see their reaction to the fact that they are experimenting with choices and decisions that could, someday, actually come to fruition and bring an end to years of conflict,” she noted.
Games such as PeaceMaker may not change everyone’s mind about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But they have one undeniable benefit, according to Eisenberg: “No one ever forgets to do video game homework.”
Michael Peck is a writer living in Corvallis, Oregon.