Video Game World Gives Peace a Chance

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Parents who worry that video games are teaching kids to settle conflicts with blasters and bloodshed can take heart: A new generation of video games wants to save the world through peace and democracy.

A team at Carnegie Mellon University is working on an educational computer game that explores the Mideast conflict -- you win by negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This spring, the United Nations' World Food Programme released an online game in which players must figure out how to feed thousands of people on a fictitious island.

This weekend, the University of Southern California is kicking off a competition to develop a game that promotes international goodwill toward the United States, a kind of Voice of America for the gamer set.

And lest anyone think only professors and policy wonks are involved, a unit of MTV this week announced a contest to come up with a video game that fights genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Internet-based computer games, in which players create characters in a virtual world and interact to solve problems or win battles, are branching out from fantasy into serious social issues. Academics recognize their power as a new form of mass entertainment, and activists hope to tap into their enormous worldwide popularity to reach a new generation used to interacting through computers.

"It's been kind of a surprise for us. It just took off," said Jennifer Parmelee, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s food program.

So popular was the U.N.'s game, titled Food Force, Yahoo had to step in as a Web host for the game when swarms of Internet users converged on and accidentally knocked it off-line. The game, which Parmelee said was initially regarded with skepticism within the U.N., has been downloaded 2 million times since its launch.

Stephen Friedman, general manager of an MTV channel shown on college campuses, said he thinks his network's contest could help spread awareness of Darfur to young people who are interested in games but who don't follow world events.

"Activism needs to be rethought and reinvented with each generation," he said. "This is a generation that lives online -- what better way to have an effect?" The network is promising a $50,000 prize to the student or team of students that comes up with the best idea.

Carnegie Mellon's project, called PeaceMaker, is led by an Israeli citizen named Asi Burak, who has sought input from both sides of the conflict for the game his team is building. In it, players take a role as an Israeli or Palestinian leader charged with bringing peace to the region. Use too much military force and the region falls into violence -- but give too many concessions quickly and a leader risks assassination.

"We want to prove that video games can be serious and deal with meaningful issues," said Burak, who will be lecturing about it at the Serious Games conference in Washington next month, a get-together dedicated to introducing game makers to potential clients interested in educational games.

Edward Castronova, a professor at the University of Indiana who has written a book about the dynamics of virtual worlds, said he wishes the State Department would invest in an immersive online game that would appeal to teenagers across the globe -- a game in which players could participate in an online world governed by democratic principles.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company