More playing to fight conflict

Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu smile at each other.
If only this could be enjoyable.

Thanks again to Asi Burak, co-creator of the PeaceMaker Game and director of Games for Change, who responded to my recent post on in-person and gamified conflict resolution.

Asi shared with me research that has been done using Peacemaker to gauge how much people can improve their ability to take a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Screenshot of PeaceMaker Game, showing a street protest by Israelis against Palestinian self-rule
Protests on “your side” quickly become frustrating.

PeaceMaker is a game that puts you in the position of either the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian president. It’s actually pretty tough, and it does give the player a good (but fairly simplified) idea of how difficult it is to manage the relations between the two groups. I was surprised how hard it was to achieve a high approval on both sides, which is an optimal outcome. In most strategy games, the objectives are one-sided: either gain more for your side or diminish the strength of your opponents. In PeaceMaker, I often found that I was more annoyed with people on “my side” (e.g. violent settlers or other politicians, when playing as the Israeli PM).

In the studies that Asi pointed me to (including this one by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Maryland), academics used PeaceMaker to test whether subjects were able to improve their management of the conflict as they learned more about it. The researchers had students play the game from both points of view, study the issues for a semester, then play again.

Some of the findings of the research are unsurprising but encouraging. For one, they found that the impact of the students’ religious affiliation diminished as they learned more about the conflict. Those who marked “other” as their religion did better in the initial play-through, but by the end of the semester, this advantage diminished. That’s probably a good sign – as people learn more about the conflict, those who have more of a vested interest are able to achieve a more balanced approach. Similarly, students who identified as Democrats or Republicans did pretty badly at first, but both improved their scores substantially after learning more.

What really surprised me was how large of an impact the players’ personality types had on their success. In one study, they found a huge increase in the success of students with Thinking/Judging personality types, well beyond other personality types’ improvements. Additionally, researchers found that the advantage of these personality types is strongest among participants that declared a religious affiliation.

I’d still like to see more research done to show what impact games like PeaceMaker can have on real-world conflict, but it does seem promising. My takeaways from playing the game and reading research on it:

  • People with some skin in the game have the most to gain from learning more and seeing the other side. This may seem obvious, but it isn’t a given. The good news is that people who identify strongly with a political position or ethnic/religious group can improve their mindset and learn a more balanced approach to a conflict.
  • At the same time, how a person approaches a problem or learns about it can have a big effect. Certain personality types (such as Thinking/Judging) may benefit more from education and encounters.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s encouraging to see positive research about the benefits of in-person encounters and conflict resolution games, but the real benefit of either will be if they can reduce conflict back in the real world. That is, after playing the game or meeting their counterparts, do participants have a measurable effect on violence? If we can show that either approach actual reduces violence (and not just participants’ mindsets), then the only question would be how to scale them.

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