PeaceMaker: Real-life challenges become virtual

Think of a challenging video game with violence. Now think of a dangerous, real-life situation. Put them together, and you have PeaceMaker, a video game that dares you to tackle one of the toughest situations in the world: the conflict between the Arabs and Israelis.
PeaceMaker is a current project at Carnegie Mellon?s Entertainment and Technology Center (ETC). Less than one year ago, PeaceMaker was just an idea rattling around in the head of Asi Burak, a Carnegie Mellon student working on a masters in Entertainment Technology. On an ETC program trip last winter, Burak ran into William Wright, producer of popular video game The Sims. After about an hour?s worth of conversation and advice, Burak set out to create a revolutionary game.
PeaceMaker was originally created as an educational tool for high school and college students in Palestine and Israel, but gaming companies and young Americans have been anxiously awaiting its release. ?It?s a revolutionary idea,? commented Laura Rose Semo Scharfman, a student at Carnegie Mellon. ?It?s a game that is promoting non-violence and is meant to constructively help people.? Semo Scharfman has studied U.S. and Middle Eastern foreign policy but has yet to see technology play an important role in aiding the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In the game, players can choose to be the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President. In their chosen role, the players will interact with seven other ?characters?: Egypt, America, the Palestinian or Israeli leader, Palestinian Public, Israeli Public, and the United Nations. None of the characters in the game are specific people. Instead, ?all of the characters are historical representations of that area ... their reactions represent historically how they would react,? said Burak.
While interacting with the other seven characters, the player is challenged to negotiate a peaceful resolution while keeping the other seven characters? hostility levels as low as possible. The player?s game score starts at 0, Mediocre Minister level. If the player makes progress toward a resolution while keeping his country satisfied, he gains points until he reaches 100, Nobel Prize Winner level. However, if the player makes choices that either do not satisfy his country or upset other countries, the player can drop to
-100 points, War Criminal level.
While the complicated scoring system is written in Java, the game has a Flash interface. The program is written in such a way that Java tags can easily be adjusted to manipulate the game content. Such dynamics are necessary for PeaceMaker to keep up with the changing political situation. ?Every variable we add has so much complexity,? said Burak, ?the characters care about security, economy, quality of life ... they react to that as well.?
One of the most complex part of PeaceMaker?s development was the different scoring situations for the Israelis and the Arabs. Depending on which country leader played, there are distinct goals to keep in mind. As the Israeli Prime Minister, your goal is to increase internal and external authority. As the Palestinian President, your goal is to increase country security and gain the trust of the Palestinian government. But why do the teams have different goals?
?We want them, as a player, to understand what?s driving [the character?s] reactions,? said Eric Brown, co-producer on the PeaceMaker team. To develop the game, Burak and Brown interviewed Israelis, Palestinians, historians, and educators to learn what each country?s current concerns are. And they found just that: differences in goals, complicating both real and virtual life.
Still, PeaceMaker is not complicated for the players alone. Burak called producing the game a ?double challenge.? While PeaceMaker is meant to be educational, it has be a fun, enticing game to play. Burak also pointed out that game content must be written very carefully: ?The subject is so sensitive. It might be one word that makes the player feel very offended. But there?s always a neutral word that can be used.?
The PeaceMaker team is still searching for the neutral words. They?re also deciding on what content is appropriate for the game. Likewise, they are ?trying to incorporate actual events into the game,? Brown said, ?but we have to assess what age to show the content of the game and the game?s level of violence.? Brown also commented that while many games today incorporate violence, the use of real-world violence in a game can be much more alarming to the public.
While the PeaceMaker team is working out the final kinks, the game has been
released for testing to a class at Carnegie Mellon called Arab Israeli Encounters. Taught by Professor Laurie Eisenberg, advisor to the PeaceMaker team, the class uses the game and video conferences with students at CMU?s Qatar campus to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict.
PeaceMaker still has a long way to go. This week, the team will make their first appearance on Israeli television to discuss the program. After the game?s release, Brown foresees the team deciding on ?how to proceed past the University. Once we put it out there ... we don?t want to let it die. We can?t let the content get old.? Burak also commented that the game could take on many more directions: increasing the emotional level, making it more accessible to young groups, and having it be more dynamic or multiplayer. However it is made, PeaceMaker may help make peace.