"Special Force 2" is another manifestation of Hizbullah's mass media dominance. Having proven in the summer of 2006 that it is a strong force on the battlefield and especially in the international media, the Beirut-based terrorist group has added a new video game to its arsenal of propaganda tools. In "Special Force 2," players—the game is intended for Muslim youth—reenact the 2006 Lebanon War as Hizbullah fighters, crossing the Israeli border on kidnapping missions and firing Katyusha rockets at Israeli cities. The more Israelis killed, the more points earned. "The game presents the culture of resistance to children," said Sheik Ali Daher, a Hizbullah media official. This is Hizbullah's brainwashing at its finest: corrupting a new era of children to wage war against the Jewish state for generations to come.
While Hizbullah builds games that encourage martyrdom and cynically destroy any hope for coexistence, a former Israeli soldier is introducing a revolutionary game with a decidedly optimistic mission. The game is called "PeaceMaker." The objective: make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
PeaceMaker is a baffling concept, as players strive not to maim and slaughter, but to bring people together. "The early video game industry did not successfully diversify," said PeaceMaker co-creator Asi Burak. To "take interactive media to a different place," Burak and co-creator Eric Brown ignored the tired platform of violence and instead created a game with meaningful content and a revolutionary goal, to make peace. Their efforts, a product of time spent at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, have injected some variety into the video game market, where sports games and shoot-‘em-up bloodbaths dominate almost exclusively.
Burak's biggest challenge in creating a virtual Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieving some sense of objectivity. Complex testing would be needed to gauge the right way to present the conflict.
For advice, Burak and Brown teamed up with Carnegie Mellon professor Laurie Eisenberg and took PeaceMaker prototypes to "an Islamic high school, a Hebrew high school, a Zionist youth group, an Arab student organization, and others," including Palestinian university students. Eventually, Burak and Brown showcased the game at various gaming conferences and elsewhere.
Burak was excited by the initial responses and soon came to believe that the game could transcend its original goal of transforming the video game industry and become "a new voice in the conflict."
The idea of making a video game out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is both novel and provocative. And weird. Perhaps a little reductionist and Pollyannish as well.
Does PeaceMaker incorporate enough of the facts to offer a realistic portrayal of the conflict? Is PeaceMaker simply a gimmick, or does it provide players with a valuable experience and a new perspective? How can any game about the conflict avoid trivializing its terrible realities and even belittling the sacrifices of so many victims? Does it become, as Burak claims, "a new voice in the conflict"?
PeaceMaker is a "single-player turn-based simulation game." In English, this means that after an event occurs on the screen—anything from settler protests to Hamas suicide bombings, foreign negotiations to Israeli incursions—the player must take an action in response. Before beginning, players choose whether to play as the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian Authority president.
The goal of the game—whether the player is acting as the Israeli prime minister or Palestinian Authority president—is to establish a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by meeting the needs of both the Israeli and Palestinian populations. Success is measured in the game according to two public opinion ratings—one rating the Israeli public, and one the Palestinian—which each start at zero. The player wins when both populations show ratings of 100%. The Israeli Prime Minister must achieve ratings of 100% among the Israeli and Palestinian populations. The Palestinian president, however, is tasked with achieving those ratings not from the Israeli population, but from the international community instead. These numbers can also dip below zero, so that even if the player is highly popular on one side, he can lose the game by ignoring the other.
Without irony, each PeaceMaker round commences with a violent event. When playing as the Israeli prime minister, a Palestinian may detonate a suicide bomb; when playing as the Palestinian Authority president, a deadly Israeli artillery shell may land in Gaza. The player interacts with the game by choosing from a range of actions with which to respond to developments and create new initiatives. The range of responses understandably highlights the frustrating choices that accompany leadership in the Middle East. Should the Israeli prime minister assassinate a Hamas leader to reassure his population after a terrorist attack? Can he then offer the Palestinians medical aid without it being refused, or his government calling for his resignation?
It is vital to understand from the outset that PeaceMaker is a game based on the creators' assumptions. This is both PeaceMaker's greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
Most importantly, Burak and Brown assume that each side desires a two-state solution. As recent events demonstrate, this basic assumption might already place PeaceMaker on shaky, unrealistic ground. Hamas's brutal June 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip has caused many to reconsider basic assumptions about Palestinian governance and prospects for statehood. As one Palestinian politician sardonically noted recently, the two-state solution has finally been achieved with one state in Gaza for Hamas and one in the West Bank for Fatah, its Mahmoud Abbas-led rival. With Hamas dedicated to Israel's destruction, a two-state solution seems unlikely, to put it lightly.
Many also criticize PeaceMaker for asymmetry. While playing the Palestinian side, a player cannot attack Israel directly, and only has a primitive internal police force capable of limited action. The Israeli prime minister, on the other hand, enjoys a wide variety of military actions. Arguably, this portrayal airbrushes history, as it fails to acknowledge the connections between the Palestinian president and terrorist violence against Israel.
Asymmetry is also apparent in the basic objectives of the game. Although the Israeli prime minister must play to the Israelis and Palestinians for support, the Palestinian president does not need the support of the Israeli public. This seems to suggest a bizarre situation in which the Palestinians could gain a state by decree alone, without having to deal with their neighbor and supposed peace partner, Israel. This, of course, is impossible.
Most conspicuously missing from the game are final status negotiations. Negotiations over Jerusalem, refugees, and border agreements—the very things that nixed the Camp David talks in 2000—are all missing from PeaceMaker. This, critics say, can lead players to believe falsely that a sustainable peace can be achieved without addressing these issues.
These troublesome elements suggest that PeaceMaker may fall under the same category as other innovative but failed Mideast peace initiatives, heartwarmingly idealistic and naively full of lofty expectations.
Maybe the whole enterprise was futile from the get-go. How can a video game possibly capture the detailed nuances of the conflict? What can PeaceMaker show its players without addressing the central issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And how can players achieve any semblance of a meaningful peace without the detailed, real-world complexities so central to the conflict?
Burak had a quick answer to these concerns. He argues reasonably that PeaceMaker is not meant as an all-encompassing experience of the Middle East conflict. "We didn't go too far to really make it 100% like the conflict," Burak said. He did not intend PeaceMaker to be an encyclopedia, and the game is not built for perfect accuracy.
It is, however, a solid beginning for those with just basic exposure to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More importantly, it contains a framework for understanding the conflict in a unique and potentially beneficial way. "The media brings events in the Middle East to us out of context," Burak said. His game, on the other hand, gives players a wider perspective by demonstrating continuity and the idea that events do not happen in a vacuum, but within a complicated timeline of connected events. Essentially, Burak pointed out, the player begins to see the "conversation" between Israel and the Palestinians. And it is up to the player whether to converse through bombs or through negotiation.
Burak touts the option to play as both sides as the quality that makes PeaceMaker truly unique among games. In Burak's opinion, the dual perspective makes PeaceMaker beneficial even to those who are well versed in the conflict, who may have never experienced the other side. "I can tell you as an Israeli, "that after seeing the other side from this game I realize I had no clue of what occurs on the other side," Barak said. "I didn't really know what the Palestinians care for, what their real agenda is." This feel-the-other-side's-pain appeal sounds a bit too market-tested, but Burak argued further that the game's asymmetry gives the player a sense for the strengths and weaknesses of each side, of the basic desires and expectations of each population. Indeed, Burak goes as far as asserting that the PeaceMaker experience is only truly valuable after players have exited their comfort zones and played the side with which they are unfamiliar.
The manner and depth of PeaceMaker's portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to its appearance as a teaching tool in university classrooms. Professor Eisenberg, who began as a consultant to the game, decided to use the final product in her classes at Carnegie Mellon University. In a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Eisenberg introduced PeaceMaker to students near semester's end, mandating that they play at least once as Israeli prime minister and once as Palestinian Authority president. Students then wrote essays describing their playing experience and its relevance to class material, and they filled out a number of surveys.
PeaceMaker was a hit among Eisenberg's students. "Virtually all of my students loved playing the game—all of them said they had never used anything like it in a course before," she said. Rather than teach the students about every small detail, Eisenberg comments, PeaceMaker helped them "in mastering the actors, issues, resources, and constraints in the Arab-Israeli peace process." As for concerns about PeaceMaker's relevance, Eisenberg stressed that "for weeks afterwards, students would bring the game up during class, as in ‘this is just like in the game when...'" PeaceMaker clarified the scattered media reports that students saw on television by demonstrating that an Israeli military incursion, for example, might be in response to Palestinian terrorism. That is relevance at its finest, giving players new perspectives and experiences.
By early 2005, the beta version of the game was so successful that Carnegie Mellon decided to employ PeaceMaker in its "American-Arab Encounters" course, which links the main campus in Pittsburgh to a satellite campus in Doha, Qatar. The class is taught in real-time, with the classrooms connected by video-teleconference, allowing students to see each other across the world on giant screens and speak through digital microphones. The students in Doha, according to Eisenberg, "were quite animated about having had the chance to play the Israeli side." Dr. Ben Reilly, the instructor at the Doha campus, said that PeaceMaker "was a great educational tool and inspired both strong enthusiasm and class discussion." As a teaching tool, "PeaceMaker is a breath of fresh air," said Eisenberg. "Students enjoy the game and the issues make a deep impression."
All this gratifies Burak, he said, but he is quick to repeat that PeaceMaker was not intended primarily an educational tool. "We get it all the time, and I'm not saying that it does not have educational value, but it's a definition we are trying to shy away from," said Barak. "Why should we [only] call a video game that is positive or serious an educational tool? A documentary, which is a serious movie, can still be entertainment." Burak's is a strong point. It's even stronger in his eyes though, for he and his incipient game-development company, Impact Games, have marketing in mind; it would not bode well for them to advertise PeaceMaker only as an educational tool.
Burak emphasizes the many aspects of PeaceMaker beyond the educational. Chief among them, in my experience, is hope. The game is powerful partly because it often jars players from moments of hope to moments of despair, but PeaceMaker's focus on solutions causes players to think positively and envision peaceful resolutions. Seeing this, some may argue that hope can be a mirage in the Middle East, and that providing false hope through an unrealistic video game can be harmful. There is something to be said for this point. In sum, though, fears of disappointment should not forever impede progress.
In early 2007, PeaceMaker received a VIP trial run when Danny Yatom, an Israeli politician and the former chief of Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad, was invited to play by an Israeli television network. In response to a suicide bombing, Yatom launched a strike with an apache helicopter, mandated a military ground operation, and set a curfew on Palestinian cities. "To me what was interesting is that he took those actions seriously," Burak remarked. "I would say the first four or five actions that he took in the game were all very extreme."
But Yatom is no political extremist; indeed, he is a leader of the leftist Labor party. And the actions he took are viewed by many as perfectly reasonable and even obligatory in the face of unrelenting terrorism. After only a few minutes with Burak's game though, Yatom had lost by sparking the third Intifada. Afterwards, Yatom called the game "unrealistic."
As Burak sees it, Yatom's "extremism" is a grim comment on strategic malaise in the Middle East. Burak argues that the conflict has an amazing ability to remain static. "The status quo always somehow maintains itself, even if something really extreme happens. Over time, it goes back to that middle ground."
But there is much evidence to the contrary, including the division of Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Israel's security fence and the waning of the second Intifada. But because he sees the conflict as he does, Burak structured the game with a limited number of options. The lack of options reflects Burak's belief that Israeli leadership never considers new solutions.
Indeed, perhaps Yatom failed because of Burak's assumption that Israel's leadership only considers redundant, basic responses. Moreover, perhaps Burak is incorrect to assume that those responses would lead to another Intifada. Might Yatom's actions actually decrease terrorism, rather than fuel it? And is it fair for Burak to come down so unequivocally on one side of this complex matter?
Overall, Burak's assumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inject a certain amount of absurdity into PeaceMaker. While Hizbullah and its terrorist associates are busy creating games that teach Arab children to expertly kill Israelis, Burak and company are trumpeting a seemingly blind attempt to show that coexistence is possible. The fact that the player must gain 100% support from two populations is not only fantastical but is a detriment to Burak's peace agenda; no true leader undertaking such a painful effort could expect 100% support from anyone. Burak constructs a fantastical situation in PeaceMaker that those interested in achieving peace would die for--some indeed have—if only pesky reality did not get in the way.
PeaceMaker is likely overly optimistic. Yet it would not serve its purpose without showing us that, just maybe, moderation can achieve something. And if Burak's game does not capture reality, it does encourage creative thinking and optimism. Further, in a world where academics and media celebrities daily trivialize tragedy, hijacking concepts such as apartheid and genocide to their own ends, it would be excessive to dismiss PeaceMaker as a trivializing force simply because it is a video game. There is nothing trivial about taking up a challenge and attempting to master it, and there is nothing trivial about glimpsing the other side of an issue to gain understanding. Far from belittling the conflict, PeaceMaker adds a new perspective to a situation that desperately needs it.