Clicking Toward Middle East Peace

By Joshua Yaffa

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.

An urgent matter has come to the attention of the Israeli prime minister, and immediate action is required. The army has uncovered a network of weapons-smuggling tunnels in Gaza and is requesting permission to strike; such an operation, however, has the potential to upset the fragile peace that has followed Israel’s controversial disengagement plan.

In this case, however, the “prime minister” making the split-second call is not sequestered in a Knesset office. The responsibility instead rests with a graduate student in Philadelphia, a family in the Tel Aviv suburbs or a Palestinian teenager sitting in an internet café in Gaza City — all potential players of PeaceMaker, an educational videogame presented last week at the Games for Change conference held at New York’s City’s New School University.

Developed by a team of graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University, PeaceMaker is a game not of military dominance but of mutual understanding in which participants have the option of playing as either the Israeli prime minister or the president of the Palestinian Authority.

“The hope is that people will play from the perspective of the other side,” explained Asi Burak, an Israeli-born programmer who helped develop the game at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. “People may not agree, but at least they may understand.”

Players of the game, which is now available in early release to high schools and universities in the United States and Middle East, have a range of tools at their disposal, from roadblocks and public speeches to settlements and security fences. “It’s about actions on the ground — what the leaders are doing daily to build or dismantle trust between the two sides,” Burak said.

In conversation with the Forward this week, Burak suggested that PeaceMaker has revealed some valuable lessons for settling the long-running conflict. “A large challenge of achieving peace is getting support from your own population,” he said.

In the game, a player’s score — which ranges from -100 for “war criminal” to +100 for “Nobel Prize winner” — is determined by the perceptions of both sides of the conflict. “If you ignore Hamas as Palestinian President, they will do everything they can to interfere with your agenda,” Burak explained. “But it’s the same thing playing as Israeli PM with the settlers: You must, on some level, pay attention to their concerns.”

Burak and the game’s co-creator, Eric Brown, recently have founded their own videogame production studio, ImpactGames, with the hope of spinning off the PeaceMaker template to address conflicts in other regions: Darfur, Kashmir and Northern Ireland.

While Burak is optimistic about PeaceMaker’s potential, his expectations were more modest when asked if the game has the power to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Sadly,” he said, “it’s easier to win the game.”



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