Playing together to fight conflict

Last week’s Sunday New York Times has a piece on whether Palestinian and Israeli teenagers’ views of each other improve when they have positive experiences together (“Peace Through Friendship” by Juliana Schroeder and Jane Risen).

It’s an intriguing hypothesis, but does it work in reality? For four years, we studied Seeds of Peace, a program that every year brings together several hundred teenagers from conflict regions such as Israel and the Palestinian territories for a three-week summer camp in Maine. The teenagers sleep, eat and play games together, and engage in daily sessions to talk about the conflict between their groups and their own experiences with it.

I’ve been interested in programs like this for a while. I’m very curious about mediation, but I’ll admit that I’m also a little skeptical. I worry that bridge building (even if it’s absolutely successful) on a small scale won’t be enough if there is a conflict over real, concrete issues. When these students go home, they may continue to be more open-minded than their peers, but how much of a difference can it make if they are only a tiny part of a very tense population? Unless they can scale conflict negotiation programs, or target future decision makers somehow, I wonder if programs like this will be able to reduce conflict.

One (still unproven) possibility is to gamify real-world conflicts. I volunteered at this year’s Games for (G4C) Change Festival and had the opportunity to meet Asi Burak. He’s a cool guy, clearly very interested in a variety of issues and in diversifying the game world. He’s also been involved in gamifying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he’s written about on Kotaku (‘What I Learned Turning The Israel-Palestine Conflict Into A Video Game“).

I’ve heard people scoff at the possibility of teaching conflict resolution and empathy through games, but creating a digital conflict game has several advantages over real-world programs.

First, in contrast to in-person programs, digital games can be easily scaled, and they don’t require participants to travel. Another presenter I got to see at the G4C Festival was Uri Mishol, talking about Games for Peace, which tries to build trust between kids in conflict zones using Minecraft. I haven’t seen any evidence that their approach works, but at the very least there is no difficulty in getting participants visas or other documents to travel to events. With relatively few administrators, they could have thousands of participants in many different locations.

Additionally, digital games can allow players some time to reflect on the issue themselves, without needing to speak to peers about it. If you watch the news video in the Kotaku piece above, there’s a part where an Israeli politician tries out the PeaceMaker game on camera.

His reaction there is that the game is unrealistic. But what if he (or other Israelis) had the chance to play the game alone, without needing to justify his choices? Multiple attempts at winning the game could, at the very least, provoke some thought about why the other side in a conflict does what it does.

As I’ve said in other posts regarding education, the big question is whether these approaches can be proven to work. I’m happy to see that Seeds of Peace is being studied, and I’m hoping that we can see the same research applied to more innovative approaches like gamification.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *