Solving the World’s Problems With a Joystick

The people behind the burgeoning field of serious games want people to care about solving world problems.

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This story first appeared on the Miller-McCune website.

People involved in the Games for Change movement seem to have an answer for the classic art question: Did Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica prevent a single unnecessary death?

Yes, most definitely.

Or at least it would have a better chance if it were turned into a video game.

As a player with “agency,” who can affect the drama’s as-yet-underdetermined outcome, you have a heightened responsibility, they argue. That makes games inherently engaging and part of what makes them “fun.” It’s also the reason players spend hours replaying games—and in some cases develop globe-spanning communities of players who share the passion.

But all that fervor focused just on zapping digital aliens? Some game developers are attempting to wrest creative and market space from the larger commercial universe of games with more purely entertainment aims, and titles such as Halo, World of Warcraft, Mario Kart 64, Grand Theft Auto, NCAA March Madness and Guitar Hero.

These are “games for change,” a genre that is itself a subset of the larger “serious games” field that includes the broader effort to develop educational games.

Take the World Food Programme’s Food Force game (2005). Here, you quickly find yourself in a helicopter surveying the drought and civil war ravaged landscape of the imaginary Indian Ocean island country of Sheylan.

As part of the WFP crisis team that has been flown in, you have a hurried briefing before you are quickly airborne on your first task—taking pictures of the scattered destitute who need your help. You don’t want to miss or undercount any groups.

For an even simpler but surprisingly affecting exercise in empathy try playing a refugee in Darfur is Dying (2006). In this role-playing game, you choose an avatar (who becomes your character) from among a large family living in a refugee camp complete with realistic background noises of baying cows and playing children.

You can wander the camp doing chores and learning about other survivors. Soon it’ll be your turn to forage for water from a well in the surrounding desert, where you suddenly find your life depends on dodging marauding Janjaweed militia members.

They materialize like a menacing mirage from a distance, and there are precious few places to hide. It’s hard not to feel a frisson of terror as you try to hide your avatar. Even when hidden, the jeep-borne militias inspire fear as they noisily barrel right past you.

A considerably more sophisticated experience is Peacemaker, another student project germinated at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and then developed by a for-profit firm, Impact Games, for $750,000.

In this game, a player assumes the position of the Palestinian president or Israeli prime minister and tries to thread a treacherous course from chaos to a peaceful two-state solution. As in real life, this comes amid extremists from both sides and the cacophonous intervention of the public, parliamentarians, neighboring states, the United Nations and the U.S. government.

As the Israeli leader, you might decide, for instance, to remove settlements from land claimed by Palestinians, but this could be answered with a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, triggering demands for retaliation from an enraged Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Real-life video footage of such violence pops up during the game, making the drama palpable.

From Math to Diplomacy
Currently, foundations and the government fund a lot of research to demonstrate games’ potential use for teaching, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects in which American student performance has slipped compared to other nations.

Beyond improving test scores, educators say, games can be far more effective than traditional curriculum, imparting a deeper understanding of subject matter beyond just teaching facts. Games do this by offering an embedded learning experience, which compels players to wrestle with options that have different easily discernible consequences.

Want to teach kids about ecology? Have them play Wolf Quest, in which they become a wolf living in Yellowstone National Park. Or try Quest Atlantis, a 3-D virtual world in which tens of thousands of students around the world learn about other cultures.

And if you want kids to understand that trying to make peace can be just as challenging—and fun—as that video game staple of waging war, have them play Peacemaker.

“Peacemaking can be even more complicated, sophisticated and rewarding then war-making,” said the game’s co-developer, Asi Burak, who served as a captain in the Israeli Defense Forces. “That is a message that we would like to convey to young adults, the future generation leaders.”

After watching the intensity with which her grandchildren play games, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor decided games should be a central part of her 21st-century civics curriculum. What resulted is Our Courts, designed for seventh, eighth and ninth-grade students to learn about legal issues by taking turns playing lawyer.

In one of two games to be released in mid-August, players assume the role of law clerk to a Supreme Court justice and help work through free speech issues. In another faster-paced game creators likened to Diner Dash players run a constitutional law firm and have to decide which clients to take on because there are genuine constitutional issues at stake.

“Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool—every generation has to learn it [and] we learn by doing,” O’Connor has explained.

But games for change are even more ambitious than a snazzy method of learning content; they aim at behavioral changes, and try to accomplish those much faster than might be expected from traditional education. Done on a sufficiently large enough scale these can make a difference in the real world. But do they?

One really interesting effort is a free multi-player PC game, created by Warner Bros., specifically aimed at young Kenyans to change their HIV risk perception, attitude and behavior. Called Pamoja Mtaani (“Together in the Hood”), the game offers stunning verisimilitude of street life in Nairobi and could get real traction there, but it is too early to tell since it was just launched earlier this year.

Darfur is Dying generated a lot of buzz when it came out, with hip-hop artists Kanye West and Matisyahu, musician Serj Tankian (of System of a Down) and U.S. Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek among those helping it launch. It started off as a graduate project at the University of Southern California, then developed momentum by hooking up with the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, the International Crisis Group, as well as with mtvU, the music channel’s university outreach arm, before it went viral.

Didactic packaging around the game aimed at informing and stimulating student activism: letter-writing to elected officials (up to President Obama) or to the local newspaper, disinvestment campaigns at your college or simply buying something to declare your awareness about this humanitarian crisis to literally wear on your sleeve.

This has triggered a swarm of these actions, but it’s doubtful whether even cumulatively they managed to make a difference on the ground. (I’d be happy to be convinced otherwise.)

The same is true of the WFP’s Food Force. In part, that’s because the game is aimed an even younger target audience, 8- to 13-year-olds. It billed itself as “the first humanitarian educational video game about world hunger and the work that goes into feeding people.” If nothing else it would seem a useful recruiting tool.

This is certainly true for the U.S. military, whose high-production-value America’s Army video game is regarded as a particularly cost-effective recruiter. (The U.S. military also deploys sophisticated video games for instructing recruits, such as a game that teaches troops about tribal differences before they deploy to Afghanistan. It also produces games for helping senior leaders game strategic understandings.)

BreakAway Ltd., a Maryland game developer, which has done work for the Pentagon, also produced A Force More Powerful, which effectively trains non-violent pro-democracy organizers challenging unresponsive governments. The game was developed with the help of Ivan Marovic, one of the founders of the Serbian student resistance group, Otpor, which helped topple former-Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Getting Americans to care about other people suffering far away overseas has been a particular obsession for New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has written extensively and eloquently in recent years about Darfur and gender inequality.

But he has come to the conclusion that journalists, and non-governmental organizations, do a poor job of making Americans understand how they are connected to others’ plights and why they should care.

“Any toothpaste company manages to market its toothpaste with incomparably more sophistication than humanitarians trying to market, if you will, a cause where potentially millions of lives are on the line,” he told a recent Games for Change conference (G4C) in New York.

That led him to develop a free social networking game to accompany his latest book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, co-written with his wife, Sheryl Wudunn.

This Year in Jerusalem
Making people care is an issue addressed by the folks at ImpactGames, who promise playing Peacemaker will let you “experience the joy of bringing peace to the Middle East or the agony of plunging the region into disaster. Peacemaker will test your skills assumption and prior knowledge. Play it, and you will never read the news the same way again.”

That potential pricked the interest of the Peres Center for Peace, which distributed close to 100,000 copies of the game as a free insert with Arabic-, Hebrew- and English-language papers. It also sponsored structured workshops in which some 3,000 Israeli and Palestinian students have played the game.

While researchers are still trying to determine what impact this is having, one unexpected finding is that players are reluctant to assume the role of the other community’s leader. They had to be encouraged to do so and tended to play poorly when they did, which suggests preconceptions that are not easily set aside, according to Burak.

He said they were pleased by the testimonials of emotional engagement—tears of frustration and occasional joy (peace is possible!)—and also of players reporting their new appreciation for the immense difficulty confronting leaders.

Another major finding drawn from Peacemaker, according to an academic study, is that players are far less aggressive and confrontational with the other side if they played with a team member from the other community.

“If you play alone, you don’t see the “other side,” so you don’t have anyone to challenge your actions and you don’t have a problem to express stereotypic comments toward the other side,” said Ronit Kampf, a communication and journalism professor who uses the game at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“When you play in mixed dyads, you need to reach an agreed action to be taken which bridges between the two different opinions, and you need to listen to each other and talk with each other so you are exposed to different opinions about the same issue.”

The following (actual) exchange between a Palestinian and a Jewish player (both female) exemplifies the kind of negotiations occurring between dyad players on the same team.

Palestinian participant, Nadida: It is important to remove a few checkpoints to let people pass … it is really hard when you need to make a walk of 10 minutes in 4 hours.

Jewish participant, Alona: Remove checkpoints? But there was a terrorist attack just a short time ago, people are afraid … do you know how the Israeli side is going to respond to this act?

Nadida: And Palestinians are not afraid? All the time they are arrested at the middle of the night, and think what it means when you need to wait so many hours at the checkpoint.

Alona: Why to wait such a long time?

Nadida: Do you know what is a checkpoint and how many exist? About every 100 meters you have a checkpoint. In every checkpoint 100 people are waiting and it takes a long time to check each one and sometimes more than once. A drive of 5 minutes in a car can take up to 3 hours and more.

Since the object of the game is to achieve compromise and peace, those playing together tended to win more often than those who played alone.

Her students’ next project is to have members of the Knesset play the game and see how they compare against younger players—the future leaders. One of the first senior Israeli military officers to play Peacemaker, Gen. Dani Yatom, managed to provoke a Palestinian uprising after just a few moves—a poor performance.

In the U.S., Erik Nilsen, a psychology professor at Lewis and Clark University, said after six hours of playing Peacemaker, a student’s “pre-existing negative perceptions of Palestinians in comparison to Israelis” was “significantly reduced.” Perceptions of the Israelis—especially the settlers—tended to worsen, as did students’ views of Hamas, he reports.

On the other hand, there were considerable improvement in attitudes towards the U.N., Palestinian police and the United States.

Americans studying in Israel have done poorly in Peacemaker, compared to their Israeli counterparts, even after the Americans had intensively studied the conflict for six months.

On average, an American student would make 20 moves before he was thrown out of office, while an Israeli student made an average of 60 moves or more before stepping on a political mine.

This suggests that nuances matter greatly, says Kampf, while the Haaretz newspaper cheekily said it shows Americans are not the mediators the region needs.

Kampf, who seems to have conducted more research using Peacemaker than anyone, is convinced that it “can help young people living on different sides of the divide in Israel to crack the wall of hatred, [suspicion] and fear between them.”

But she acknowledges her small group research only points to the potential such games might have if there were more widely used in schools—something she advocates to Israeli and Palestinian educators.

The truth is, we have a mixed record going out to change the world, Kristof conceded in his Games for Change conference keynote address. On the other hand, he noted, our record is almost perfect getting something good for ourselves—mostly psychic payback, payback whenever we set out to help others.

In the past, religion encouraged us to be such selfish altruists; in the future, he suggests, we may be stirred to similarly ennobling acts by games that once seemed just plain silly.


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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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