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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Power Play

How Video Games Can Save the World

Asi Burak and Laura Parker

St. Martin's Press




A Little Game about Peace



It’s morning rush hour in Jerusalem. A pink haze hangs low over the streets. Cars, buses, and pedestrians jostle for space. Bleary-eyed schoolchildren trundle past shopkeepers rolling up heavy steel doors.

A man boards a bus. He stands beside early morning shoppers, retired old ladies with oversized canvas shopping bags, and soldiers on their way to the training academy. There are children, too, off to school on the other side of town. The man waits until the bus is full, until passengers are pushing up against the windows and doors. Only then does he open his jacket and detonate the explosive strapped to his chest.

There’s a flash of white-hot light and a low-pitched rumble, like distant thunder. The flames spread quickly. There’s a hole where the street used to be, its edges charred and smoky, glass raining down like confetti. The bus itself is barely visible in the smoke, its crumpled metal insides twisted and poking skyward. The ground beneath it is slippery with oil, tar, and blood.

Sirens wail in the distance. A crowd slowly forms; some people reach down into the hole, searching for survivors. Others simply watch, praying that the bodies scattered at their feet don’t belong to friends or relatives. Police and paramedics arrive. They work silently, the routine all too familiar. Yellow police tape goes up. People are told to go home. The camera crews arrive last, training their lenses on the growing pile of black body bags on the side of the road. By midday, news of the attack is everywhere. Nineteen are dead, and more than fifty seriously injured.

We zoom out. It’s February 2007, and Major General Danny Yatom, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, is sitting at a mahogany desk playing a video game. A warning message pops up on his screen. It reads, “Hamas claims responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. How will you respond?”

Yatom is wearing a black suit and a burgundy tie. Behind him is the Israeli flag; to his left is his “power wall”—framed photos of Yatom with various world leaders. A news crew from Israel’s Channel 2 is standing behind the desk, filming him for that night’s evening news.1 The violent scene described above—a Palestinian suicide bomber detonating a device packed with ball bearings on a crowded bus in the middle of Jerusalem—is the game’s opening gambit.

Off-camera, a young reporter tells Yatom that the game requires him to choose a side before he can play. “Do you wish to play as the Israeli leader, or the Palestinian leader?”

Yatom does not hesitate: “The Israeli.” The game presents him with his first task: responding to the suicide attack.

“It is clear to me that I need to seek out the terrorists’ nest and strike back,” he says out loud, not diverting his eyes from the screen. The camera follows him as he sends army troops in for a ground assault. Satisfied by the outcome of the attack, he presses on. “This time I am going for the leadership of Hamas,” he says excitedly. “Let’s order a targeted Apache strike.”

The reporter interjects from across the room, “Remember, General, this is a game designed to demonstrate the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: too much aggression and you might lose.”

Yatom reconsiders. “Fine. I will move to diplomacy. I will reach out to the Palestinian president and seek collaboration.” After a few minutes, he doubles back. “Wait. I am going to demand—to force, in fact—military action against the terrorists.” The reporter protests, but Yatom pushes on. The screen begins to flash an angry red. A message pops up informing Yatom that his decision has led to a new Palestinian uprising. Game over.

“‘You have lost,’” Yatom reads. He looks up at the camera, smiling. “I lost because the computer decided I lost. In my opinion, I did all the right things.”

Yatom was playing PeaceMaker, a simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, developed by Asi Burak and a small team of developers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. The game had just been published on Amazon and was getting a lot of attention from the press—in the United States, where Asi lived, as well as in Israel, his home country.

When Asi first began work on PeaceMaker, he didn’t know what kind of game it would be, or who would play it. All he knew was that video games were finally being taken seriously. People everywhere, from public schools to the United Nations, were looking at games as a new way to teach and inspire the younger generations.

A few days after PeaceMaker’s release, Asi received a call from the largest television network in Israel. The network’s representatives told him they wanted to test the game out on Major General Yatom, who, at the time, was running for the Israeli Labor Party leadership. Sure, Asi said. There’s probably no better way to see if the game actually works than having a leading politician play it on national television.

PeaceMaker asks players to navigate a series of events and hostilities—like the suicide bombing on the bus—through a combination of military intervention and diplomacy. How, for example, should Israel have responded to the bus bombing that inspired the game’s opening scene? The scene was based on a real event, and in real life, Israel launched a raid on the West Bank. Was it justified? Was it effective? Might there have been a different, more diplomatic course of action that would have yielded a better result?

Serious games, or “games for change,” are often criticized for being too earnest or preachy. PeaceMaker is an exception. Asi and his team used real news footage to illustrate the attacks and events in the game. This had never been done before. The goal was simple: to show people, especially young people, that not all games involving violence have to be made purely for entertainment—that their interactivity could be used to create empathy and provide insight, even into a problem as entrenched and complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and, more fundamentally, that violence doesn’t end when you turn the computer off.

As an Israeli who had spent the last three years researching the conflict, Asi recognized the power of an experience that could safely and realistically put players in someone else’s shoes.

In the same broadcast for which Yatom played PeaceMaker for the cameras, the reporter asked Asi what he thought about Yatom’s decisions in the game. “What happened to Yatom essentially proves that the game is realistic,” Asi told the reporter. “This is exactly what’s been happening to the State of Israel for decades. It’s the same cycle, the same actions that lead to the same depressing results.”

The reporter mused, “In PeaceMaker, you can eventually reach peace. So perhaps the game is not so realistic after all.”

*   *   *

ASI GREW UP IN a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv. His university-educated parents took great pains to give him as much creative freedom as he could handle. For him, that meant drawing. He drew a lot as a kid, and somewhere along the way, it was decided that he had a talent for it. His kindergarten teacher used to corner his parents during parent-teacher nights to show them his drawings. “Have you seen Asi’s latest?” she’d say, thrusting a pile of crudely drawn clowns at them.

Over time, Asi stopped drawing clowns and started drawing tanks. He was too young to register what was happening around him, but he saw the planes overhead and the tanks in the streets. Plus, everyone talked about it constantly. No one in Israel discussed sports or entertainment or culture with as much zeal as when they talked about “the situation.” “As a nation, the conflict defined us,” Asi says today.

In primary school, Asi’s teacher asked the class whether they believed Israel should return the occupied territories to the Palestinians. “No,” they chorused. “We were attacked and won the war, didn’t we? Why should we have to give anything back?” When Asi related this to his parents, his father was taken aback. “Why do you seem so sure?” he asked Asi. “I don’t know,” Asi replied. “But it’s just fair, isn’t it?” Asi’s father explained that things weren’t so simple—that each side had its own reasons for wanting what they did. That was the first time Asi had heard anyone express that idea. His father was certainly a liberal, but that was not uncommon at the time. Asi began to question his feelings. “I was Israeli, but did that always make me right?”

In high school, Asi decided to study Arabic—an unusual choice for a middle-class kid from Tel Aviv with good grades. A year later, the military showed up at his school to recruit for the following year’s compulsory service programs. In Israel, compulsory military service for men begins when they are 18 and lasts three years. A few of Asi’s teachers recommended him for an elite program, and when the army found out he was studying Arabic, they immediately scheduled the eight-hour entrance test.

Asi passed the test, but his parents worried. It turned out he had to do a seven-month preliminary course in addition to the three years of mandatory service, and the course required a whole bunch of secret assignments. The army needed his parents’ signature, so they sent the head of the course to Asi’s house. He explained that the elite program wasn’t as simple as the mandatory military service—that there was much more at stake. Recruits would be dealing with life-and-death situations. Because of the sensitive nature of the information they would have access to, failing a mission could mean prison.

Asi began the course the following week. “We studied morning and night, only going home on the weekends. We couldn’t say anything about what we were doing or even where we were.” On the surface, the work the recruits were doing was similar to that of the National Security Agency (NSA)—collecting and analyzing data. “Say, for example, that we knew of ten ultra-sensitive emails between two heads of state, but for whatever reason we couldn’t get our hands on all ten, just half. My job would be to read those five emails and fill in the gaps. It was analytics, mostly, but it also required me to use the creative part of my brain quite a lot, which I enjoyed.”

Once the actual program began, though, things quickly changed. Suddenly, Asi knew so much more than what regular people did. He’d pick up a newspaper and immediately recognize what was truth and what was speculation. He couldn’t talk about any of it, of course, but it made him feel powerful. “It was as if I’d suddenly gained X-ray vision.”

Slowly, his feelings about what he was doing began to change. As Israeli soldiers, the recruits were constantly fed the idea that they were fighting the good fight, saving lives on a daily basis. But after a few years behind the scenes, some of them had begun to realize that it was mostly thrust and parry, a never-ending circle of violence.

At times, what they were doing felt almost like a game. For one thing, it was nearly always about winning or losing. One operation Asi remembers involved targeting a high-level meeting of militants in South Lebanon. The operation involved months of preparation, total secrecy, and classified reports that only a handful of soldiers in the whole Israeli army could see. Everything went smoothly, and Asi’s teammates were exhilarated. “There was actual applause in our bunker,” he says.

Sometimes, lives were indeed saved, and people were kept safe. But major events like the Oslo Accords and the 1991 Iraqi surprise attack on Kuwait proved that seismic change often doesn’t happen on the military level. The most important breakthroughs are political and often hard to predict. War with Hamas or Hezbollah, on the other hand, can feel like a constant loop. As soon as one problem is eliminated, another pops up in its place. “We’d successfully take out a target or disarm a militant leader, and someone bigger and even more dangerous would replace them,” Asi says. “I knew a lot and understood a lot, but to what end? Nothing changed.”

After five years, in which he became an officer, and then a captain, Asi had had enough. He quit the army and applied to the best art school in Israel, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. After graduating, he worked in advertising and in the emerging mobile-app market, but he felt restless. “It was almost like I tried to take a break from the army, and get back to normal. But in Israel there is no normal.”

Although he was working in an emerging industry, Asi couldn’t get excited. Everything he did felt meaningless. He didn’t yet know how, but he knew he had to find a way to use his talent to make an impact—he just wasn’t sure what kind.

In 2003, during a late-night session of scouring job boards, Asi was suddenly taken with the idea of studying abroad. He began looking at grad programs and hit upon Carnegie Mellon University. One sentence describing CMU’s new Entertainment Technology Center jumped out: “Video games are a largely untapped medium for expression.”

Even though he’d played games nonstop as a kid in the ’80s, on his Atari and then the Apple IIe, he hadn’t touched one since.

But could games be the next big thing? When Asi saw that sentence on CMU’s site, something clicked. It spoke to his experience: design, the army intelligence service, the old love for games, and his passion for politics. Here, perhaps, was his chance to do something that mattered.

He began reading about the pioneering work being done with games at places like MIT Media Lab and New York University. He bought books about virtual communities and online avatars, like Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck. It was instantly clear that this was powerful stuff, and he had only just scratched the surface. But what astounded Asi the most was how far technology had come since his game-playing days—and how much the meaning of the words “video game” had changed.

Ultimately, he saw an opportunity. “Imagine working on an art form that most people don’t yet fully appreciate, but that you know will grow into something incredible one day,” he says. “A medium that many people consider shallow, or violent, but whose potential to teach and transform is in fact limitless.”

A week later, Asi enrolled in the Carnegie Mellon program and spent the next six months catching up. He bought a new PlayStation console and locked himself in the house, getting reacquainted with everything from Doom to Hitman. The 3D graphics were astounding, yet almost nothing grabbed him emotionally or intellectually. He still somehow preferred the old text adventure games he’d played growing up. Video games certainly looked amazing now, but what about their storytelling power? Could a game both be visually engaging and successfully communicate a deeper message?

One game series that led Asi to hope was Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid. Even though it was designed as a common third-person shooter game, there were moments when it was clear that the designers wanted to surprise players, or throw them off balance. An example is when the protagonist is confronted with the ghosts of everyone he’s killed in the game, or when the game begins addressing the player directly: “Stop playing games, put the joystick away.”

He thought, “If even just 5 percent of the game was so thought-provoking, couldn’t we make a game that’s all about challenging our assumptions and making us rethink our values?”

That’s how PeaceMaker was born. A video game about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would challenge players to make the same kinds of decisions that the real people in charge are making every day. The game would certainly be provocative. Nothing quite like that had been attempted before. And who better to create it than a kid who’d grown up in the middle of the conflict?

In August 2004, Asi moved to Pittsburgh. Since he didn’t want to walk into CMU on his first day and say, “Hey guys, I already know what I want to spend the next two years doing, and you’re going to love it,” he took some time to adjust. He got to know his lecturers—among them Jesse Schell, Don Marinelli, and the late Randy Pausch, whose 2007 lecture at Carnegie Mellon reflecting on his terminal cancer diagnosis became a YouTube sensation.2 There was also the fact that Asi was ten years older than everyone else in his class.

Each semester, the faculty assigned the class specific projects. Often, the projects were sponsored—say, an interactive game for Disney to complement the entertainment giant’s new television show, or an interactive installation for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Students could also pitch their own projects to the faculty, but the chance of success was very low: on average, the faculty only accepted 10 percent of the pitches they saw each year. The reason given was that they didn’t have the resources to spare for more. Sponsored projects were, of course, paid for, and the final product would be good publicity for CMU; approving student-run projects meant CMU had to invest its own resources in ideas that could fail.

The semester before Asi came to CMU, a group of 12 students pitched an idea for a large-scale 3D game about zombies. The project kept growing in scope each semester until, finally, it fell apart. Come graduation, the group hadn’t finished even a quarter of what they were supposed to. The project was a big red flag for the faculty, and everyone in the program spoke of it in hushed tones—the urban legend of Asi’s master’s class. “Oh, you want to pitch your own project? Be careful man—you don’t want to end up like the zombie guys.”

During his first week at CMU, Asi met another student, a stern-looking kid named Ross Popoff. He was 23 and very interested in what Asi had to say about Israel, Palestine, and a game that “could change the world.” He said he wanted to help Asi get it off the ground. The pair began working on a pitch for the university board.

Ross and Asi quickly became inseparable. “We were best friends; we sat together in class, ate together, and spent most of our downtime refining the pitch for PeaceMaker,” Asi says.

They knew the idea was good, but convincing the faculty would take some work. The pitching process itself was complicated: one initial pitch, then two follow-up pitches. Each time, students had to demonstrate that the idea had progressed significantly.

Ross and Asi went in for the initial pitch about a month after they first met. It was a tense morning. They’d decided to wear suits and ties, except that Asi didn’t actually know how to tie a tie. (Hardly anyone wears suits in Israel—it’s hot, and opportunities to wear a suit don’t come very often.) Ross helped Asi with the tie in the men’s room, five minutes before the presentation was due to begin. It was 10:00 a.m., and other candidates were already waiting. Asi couldn’t help noticing that none of them had bothered to dress up.

Asi and Ross were finally called inside a big, airy boardroom with tall windows, where ten faculty members sat at a long table. There was nothing else in the room—not even curtains on the windows. For some reason, it reminded Asi of the film Flashdance (which, coincidentally, was also filmed in Pittsburgh), particularly the final scene—probably all the more so because he’d brought his own CD player.

“What’s going on?” Ross whispered to Asi as they began setting up. If the pair had hoped for banal chitchat to break the ice, they clearly weren’t going to get it. Everyone at the table stared pointedly at Ross as he plugged in the CD player and set up the PowerPoint slides on the projector. He had compiled a soundtrack with some of the sounds Asi and Ross imagined they’d have in the game—machine guns, airplanes, and an Israeli siren that warns residents of an imminent rocket attack. They’d also brought ten blindfolds, crudely torn the night before from a single white sheet.

Asi picked up the blindfolds and walked over to the table. “Could you please put on these blindfolds?” he said, trying not to look any of the faculty members directly in the eye. Some shifted in their seats and exchanged confused glances, but one by one, they did as they were asked. “I expected at least one of them to say something, even a wisecrack, but no one did,” Asi says.

Asi looked at Ross, who shrugged. They hit play. For two minutes, the sounds of a war zone filled the room. Then Ross asked the faculty members to remove their blindfolds. The first thing they saw was an old Palestinian woman, tears streaking her face, arms outstretched toward a group of Israeli soldiers. The next slide was of a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem. Next, a child standing in front of tanks in Gaza. When the slideshow ended, Ross started talking.

“This will be a video game about negotiation, not about fighting or destruction. It will show the horrors of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but it will also attempt to engage the player in the journey toward peace. The road there will be filled with tough decision making, with life-or-death situations.”

Asi cut in. “Mainstream video games have been both too violent and too shallow for too long. Around 87 percent of contemporary games include violent content. We want to create a game that will be about a real-life conflict. This is no fantasy world.”

“We’ll recruit a team of talented game programmers, artists and designers, and we hope to have this completed within the year,” Ross continued.

Asi looked at the clock. Two minutes left. He and Ross stood in silence, looking at the faculty members. Asi wasn’t sure if they realized that he and Ross had finished; he was just about to speak again when Randy Pausch shifted in his seat and said: “This game is…” he paused. “Well, it is widely out of scope.”

Ross and Asi stood dumbfounded. They were sure they’d won the faculty over. Randy spoke again. “It’s a bold idea, but it seems to me that you don’t really have a good plan for executing it.” Another faculty member on the panel spoke up. “Can you tell me in three sentences what you’re trying to do?”

Asi and Ross mumbled something about emotion, about the real world, about a video game that would finally attempt to show players a perspective on true events. It was a vague reply, at best. There was a lot left out, things they hadn’t even talked about yet, such as: Who exactly was this game for? Israelis and Palestinians? Americans? Schoolchildren? Or mainstream gamers?

Finally, just as Asi thought they were going to be kicked out, Randy said, “Come back in a month, and be ready to show us something more concrete.”

Asi and Ross set about recruiting students to help get started on the game. Most students they talked to seemed excited by the idea. CMU was one of those places that recognized the importance—and validity—of games early on. Asi began lobbying the faculty, like a senator on the campaign trail. He set up one-on-one meetings with each person who’d sat at that long table and asked them for advice and feedback. “I wanted them to see that I was extremely invested in this thing.”

After talking to other students in their class, Asi and Ross settled on a programmer named Eric Keylor. It was Eric who convinced them that their best chance of success with the game was to use 2D simulation, not 3D. A 3D game would require a huge amount of work to pull off successfully, and no one would be interested in the ideas if they were too busy mocking the bad graphics. With 2D, Asi and Ross at least had a chance to focus on communicating a central message without having to worry too much about rendering backgrounds and character animations. Asi liked to think of it as a Sim City for peace, the kind of game in which players can build physical infrastructure and watch how it impacts the virtual environment.

The team spent the next few weeks refining the concept for the game, coming up with some crude art and a few of the key choices that players in the game would have to make. Asi also did some research into other games with serious themes, or serious games, as they were called, to see what the competition was. What he discovered was that the timing for their project couldn’t have been better. When he first arrived at CMU, in 2004, serious games had been around for a year or two, but under the radar and with limited impact. Many projects aimed for government and military applications, building on the success of games like America’s Army, developed and used by the US Army beginning in 2002 to recruit young men and women. But there was a feeling that serious games would one day be as financially successful as entertainment games and would be used in education, training, and a number of other professional contexts.

This optimism was further bolstered by the arrival of “news games,” which took serious, newsworthy topics as their subject. The two leaders in this field back then were Gonzalo Frasca, the creator of an iconic game called September 12th,3 and Ian Bogost, who often experimented with the form as a designer and later wrote a textbook, Newsgames: Journalism at Play. September 12th, created in response to 9/11, was a smart, sharp commentary that played for no longer than five minutes. It was less like a game and more like an interactive cartoon, one that featured a village full of people, made up of militants (who hold guns) and civilians. The only element players could control was a crosshairs, except that whatever weapon the crosshairs belonged to was extremely inefficient and inaccurate, meaning that even if players aimed for the militants, a whole bunch of civilians would end up dying as well. Each civilian who was shot immediately turned into a militant. “Naming it September 12th was provocative—there is no way to win the war on terror but to create more terror,” Asi says. “Looking at that now, you can understand how prophetic it is.” One member of the faculty at CMU told Asi that if he could pull off something as polished as September 12th, he’d have a winner on his hands.

The best-known serious games at the time were A Force More Powerful, Darfur Is Dying, and Food Force. A Force More Powerful was a fairly complex simulation of nonviolent resistance movements; Food Force was a polished 3D game, created with funding from the UN, that has since been translated into multiple languages; and Darfur Is Dying broke ground by being associated with a big brand (MTV), reaching two million players and including a direct call to action—players were invited to write letters to Congress about the issue, a new concept in games at the time.

Asi took all of this information with him to the second pitch in front of the faculty. This time, the atmosphere was visibly warmer. For one thing, Asi and Ross weren’t as terrified as they’d been the first time, because they already knew to expect the worst. For another, people were actually smiling.

Asi and Ross talked through the progress they’d made, and Randy was again the first to speak. “We are going to give you the go-ahead to continue,” he said. “It is not that we don’t have our doubts still, but you are clearly motivated to succeed here.” Other faculty members cut in with advice and tips. “We are always here to help,” said Josh Yelon, a nerdy computer science teacher who later volunteered to be one of the project’s mentors. “But you’ll need to do the heavy lifting. To be honest, I don’t envy you.”

Ross and Asi brought on Tim Sweeney, another kid in the class, to be the official game designer. Tim had a long, unkempt red beard and bad sleeping patterns. He worked on the game in his spare time, and preferred to keep out of the spotlight. Ross eventually left the project due to disagreements over the development strategy, and Asi and Tim moved into their own office. They dedicated every spare second to PeaceMaker. They made a digital demo—a modest prototype of the Israeli version of the game. (The idea to include a Palestinian point of view came later.) At that stage, they were simply exploring which values would come into conflict for an Israeli leader. How did security measures taken by Israel immediately affect the Palestinians’ quality of life? And how did concessions to the Palestinians make Israelis feel less safe?

To explore that core tension, Tim first designed a paper-based board game, and then a dice game. Once the premise was tested and validated by some of Tim and Asi’s fellow classmates and a few of the faculty staff, the duo made a rough text version of the game. There was a map and a very crude interface with some icons and a few key decision points for the player. It was at this stage that Asi and Tim decided to use real-world footage. Using such footage was a little risky; at that time, no other game had tried it. “We thought, it’s one thing to draw a suicide bomb; it’s quite another to see the real thing,” Asi says.

Progress was slow. But then, something happened that pushed PeaceMaker from a small student project into the cornerstone of the serious games movement.

Soon after Asi began work on PeaceMaker, word got out in the Pittsburgh press that students at CMU were working on a video game about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few local papers came to interview Asi, Ross, and Tim. Then Al Jazeera sent an Arabic-speaking crew all the way from Qatar to do a story.4 Finally, the New York Times ran a front-page story5 in the Sunday arts section on a new wave of video games set to change the world. The accompanying photo was a half-page screenshot of PeaceMaker under the headline, “Saving the world, one video game at a time.”

Don Marinelli, who had co-founded CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center with Randy, bought 100 copies of the paper when the story came out. Asi remembers him running down the hall to his and Tim’s office that day, shouting, “Some people would give their right arm to get this type of coverage!” Asi also remembers what Don said next: “Guys, you need to start making sure this is real.”

They were hearing this a lot. On one hand, the faculty was happy to be getting so much outside attention. On the other hand, they were worried about having another zombie game on their hands, only this time under a national spotlight. They didn’t want this thing to fizzle out and die. They wanted a success story. And PeaceMaker was far from that. The demo was good, but it was nothing like the real thing. The code was still crude and the scenarios in the game half-baked. Both Don and Randy began stopping by the office almost daily, offering feedback and checking up on the game’s progress.

The problem was that Asi and Tim were really familiar with only one side of the conflict. Obviously, Asi knew a lot about Israel and its involvement in the matter, but the game needed help when it came to representing the Palestinian side of the issue. So Asi asked around the faculty, and someone pointed him to Laurie Eisenberg, a CMU history professor who specialized in the conflict. Eisenberg invited Asi and Tim to sit in on some of her classes, and after a while the two PeaceMaker designers realized that this would be the perfect environment in which to test a prototype of the game. Eisenberg always discussed the conflict with her class—why not introduce them to a game about it? Asi and Tim spent a few weeks making a playable version of PeaceMaker and brought it to one of Eisenberg’s classes. At first, the students didn’t know what to make of the game, but they soon got the hang of it. As they played, Eisenberg would ask them questions like “How did it make you feel?” and “What did you learn about the Israeli side?”

Soon, Asi and Tim began to hear some unexpected things. One student said she’d learned more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by playing PeaceMaker for an hour than from everything she’d read or seen in newspapers and on television. That was the first, but not the last, time Asi and Tim heard this.

After that, Asi and Tim began testing the game all the time: in Eisenberg’s class, even in high schools around Pittsburgh, including a local Jewish school. They were now trying to answer design questions like whether or not to have a scoring system; how do you quantify something as serious as war? Would a score undermine the complexity of the issue? How do you put a number on human suffering?

Meanwhile, word of the game was spreading. When people outside the university—stakeholders, prospective clients—asked the faculty to show them a range of CMU student projects, the faculty always chose PeaceMaker. “We quickly became the go-to project.” This is how Asi first met Bing Gordon.

Gordon, the chief creative officer at Electronic Arts at the time, had come to CMU as a guest lecturer. He and Randy were good friends, and after the lecture he asked Randy to show him some of the projects by the master’s students. Randy brought him to Asi and Tim’s office. The two students were in the middle of a design session. The office was cramped and had no windows. Bing is a big guy. When he appeared in the doorway, his body cast an enormous shadow over Asi and Tim’s desk.

“You guys got something you want to show me?” he asked them. “That’s what I love about Bing, he was a no-bullshit kind of guy,” Asi says. They gave him the pitch—by this stage they’d done it so many times they could recite it in their sleep—and waited for his reaction.

He started firing off questions. What’s unique about this game? Why does it matter?

“It’s the first video game about a real-life conflict,” Asi fired back. “No,” Bing said flatly. “What’s unique about your game is not that it’s the first game about a real-life conflict. It’s that it’s the first game about peace.”

And with that, Bing had found the specific magic in Asi and Tim’s nebulous idea—the essence of what they were trying to achieve. He was in their office for only 20 minutes, but by the time he left, Asi and Tim finally knew what to say when people asked who exactly this game was meant for and what it was about. It was a game about peace: for Americans, Palestinians, and Israeli youth. Simple as that.

Before Bing left, Asi asked for permission to keep him updated on their progress. Bing said sure. It was Bing whom Asi emailed when he was having doubts about whether to continue with the press coverage in the face of not actually having much game to show. “The life cycle of a game is long,” Bing wrote back. “If it’s a good story, they’ll write about it again and again and again. Kiss the press and be happy this is happening. This isn’t your only shot. Be grateful and use it in every way possible.”

A few months after Bing Gordon’s visit, Eisenberg came up with another opportunity. CMU had a sister branch in Qatar, and Eisenberg had been invited to teach classes to students there via video link. “What if we took PeaceMaker to Qatar?” she asked Asi and Tim. The faculty seemed to agree that it was a good, though bold, idea, and suddenly, Asi and Tim were packing their bags. “We’re going to Qatar!” they shouted to each other in the halls.

In Qatar, they spoke to the local students. One of them was Hala Abbas, the granddaughter of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. They learned from Hala and her colleagues that if they wanted Palestinians to play the game, they had to refer to the Hamas organization as “militants” (instead of “terrorists,” for example). As Asi and Tim learned more about the Palestinian side of the conflict, they realized their plan to leave the game without a concrete solution was untenable. They’d hoped to simply present the simulation and let people make up their own minds about the endgame. But it became clear that in order for Palestinians to embrace the game—or even want to play it in the first place—the game must embrace a two-state solution and an independent Palestinian state at the end of it.

The Israeli experience is very different. It’s always been about the tension between the need for security and the need to gain the other side’s trust. But for Palestinians, the desire seemed to be about having a strong leader who could face both his people and the larger world on the journey to statehood and sovereignty. Yasser Arafat was known for saying one thing in English and twisting the meaning completely when he spoke in Arabic. “The world expects the Palestinian leader to reject violence; but the Palestinians are proud of their resistance,” Asi says. “Some see violence as necessary, as the only means of progress. What we learned from these students is that the most important factor for Palestinians is having an independent state they can call their own.”

Asi and Tim finally had enough information to flesh out the Palestinian side of the game and finish it. A few weeks after they returned from Qatar, Asi received an email message from a representative of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the second of the three wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, then emir of the State of Qatar. She was interested in what CMU in Qatar was up to, and the university selected three projects to show off, including PeaceMaker. The message Asi received read, “Her highness urges you to continue with this project.”

As Asi and Tim got closer to finishing the game, the solution challenge kept cropping up. They decided to assume that the solution already existed: two independent states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace next to each other. However, the steps needed to build trust, to ensure security and freedom, and to get the necessary buy-in from both populations were taking much longer than expected. Leaders had tried their best in the past, some paying an incredible personal price—Egyptian president Anwar Sadat paid with his life for signing the agreement between Israel and Egypt, while Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated before reaching a final agreement with the Palestinians.

By this stage, another team member had joined Asi and Tim: Eric Brown, who was instrumental in developing local support for the game and helping Asi on the trip to Qatar. It was with Brown that Asi decided to co-found a video game company. “If we finished the game and confined its release to the academic circles, very few people would ever play it,” Asi thought at the time. “It would become a museum item; people would say what a great job we’d done, and that would be it.” Asi wanted to go big. Releasing the game commercially would mean that everyone could access it. He didn’t want to be boxed in by the classroom. He wanted to create more PeaceMakers based on other conflicts—Iran and Korea, to begin with.

Everyone echoed that the game should be in schools and distributed by nonprofits. But Asi says he was naïve and stubborn. He thought people would line up around the block to buy this game. He and Eric sought legal advice and applied for some state funding. They got their first $100,000 through a state-funded grant program and used the connections they’d made over the years to draw more attention to the game. One early investor, a local and successful businessman named Bill Recker, was so impressed with the demo of the game that he pledged $300,000 on the spot. With the faculty’s help, Asi and Eric also approached major game publishers, including EA and Microsoft. They all said the same thing: “Neat idea, but not marketable.” Microsoft showed the most interest, but in the end muttered something about no one wanting to play a video game about politics. It was a sign of what was to come.

Using the money they’d raised, Asi and Eric rented an office on East Carson Street, the main street of South Side Pittsburgh, and called the company Impact Games. The shopfront was next to some very popular clubs, cafés, and sandwich shops; people constantly wandered in to ask what the hell they were selling. No one had heard of a video game company occupying a storefront on the street.

PeaceMaker launched on Amazon in 2007. After all of the press it had already received and Asi, Ross, Eric, and Tim’s efforts to make it what it was, very few people bought it. It sold roughly 5,000 copies in the first couple of months. Asi was confused: He’d received so many emails from all around the world—from the UN, from world leaders. He’d printed all of them and stuck them in a folder he kept on his desk. But now that the game was finally out, where the hell were all those people who’d told him he’d done a great job and encouraged him to keep going? Why wasn’t the UN buying so many copies of PeaceMaker that Asi and Eric could barely keep up with demand?

It took them a while to realize that those people who’d written to them about PeaceMaker were not, in fact, representative of the general public’s interest in the game. They were more like the only ones interested in the game.

That was a hard realization to come to. After the years of hard work, the dream project was collapsing. Every morning, Asi and Eric came to work and stared at the sales numbers on Amazon, hoping they’d gone up overnight. Every morning, they were disappointed. Eventually, they understood how many factors had escaped their attention. The game had come along too early, and been too ambitious, to succeed commercially—this was before the golden age of digital distribution. There was hardly any marketing budget: they didn’t think they’d need one, what with all the press the game had already received.

Asi remembers telling Eric a few months before the release of the game, “I don’t want to see anything more than PeaceMaker in a package on a store shelf. That’s going to be enough for me.” But of course, it wasn’t. Asi and the others had massively miscalculated, with depressing results. PeaceMaker had gone overnight from a video game that could change the world to a very expensive art project.

Just as Asi was wondering what he was going to do with his life after spending three years making a game that nobody wanted to play, he received an email from his father, now a successful businessman. His father had followed PeaceMaker’s progress and had an idea he wanted to run past Asi. “He’d warned me occasionally that the idea of PeaceMaker was bigger than the game itself. But the first time he played it, he loved it. Then he started raving to his friends about it,” Asi says. “Look, you’re not selling any copies of this, but it’s too important to just forget about,” Asi’s father wrote. “Why don’t we go to the Peres Center and convince them to do a wholesale deal?”

The Peres Center for Peace is an independent, nonpolitical organization founded by former Israeli president Shimon Peres in 1996, with the aim of working toward peace in the Middle East. The organization regularly holds conflict-resolution workshops and works with both Israelis and Palestinians to promote good relations. Here, finally, was Asi’s chance to make a real contribution. If people at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could play PeaceMaker and perhaps learn something about the conflict, and each other, wouldn’t it all have been worthwhile?

Asi’s father approached the center, whose representatives didn’t need too much convincing. They offered to buy 100,000 copies of the game—80,000 copies to distribute for free through one of Israel’s national newspapers and a Palestinian newspaper in the West Bank, and 20,000 copies to use in youth workshops.

And so, one morning in November 2008, Israelis and Palestinians alike opened their morning newspapers to find free copies of PeaceMaker. The stunt got a lot of public attention; once again, Asi was answering questions for national newspapers and Israeli radio. But the Peres Center workshops had the greatest impact. They still use PeaceMaker to this day.6

A few days after the game was distributed through Israeli newspapers, Asi and Eric got a call from a Disney executive named Leigh Zarelli. The company, which had a division for early acquisition, wanted to chat. Asi and Eric flew out to meet with Leigh, who took them to lunch at a flashy New York restaurant with a view of Central Park and offered them $10 million in cash for Impact Games.

“I wasn’t sure what to say; of course, I was desperate to salvage the company and do something—anything—that would make all our efforts worthwhile,” Asi says. “But Disney’s idea wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind: they wanted a platform that could be used to turn any of Disney’s brands and TV content into video games.” That wasn’t exactly the meaningful contribution Asi was hoping to make. But Asi and Eric were hopeful that under Disney’s wing, they might be able to continue making video games about serious topics until, eventually, the world took notice.

Then came the global economic crisis of 2008. Asi and Eric’s next meeting with Disney took place in Leigh’s office at Disney HQ, on one of the worst days in the history of Wall Street. She barely listened to what they had to say; her eyes were glued to the television screen in her office. Disney dropped the offer. Asi could not blame the company for doing so, but the decision spelled the end for Impact Games. He left Impact; Eric kept the company and managed to sell it sometime later.

Asi went back to Israel for a while to clear his head. He visited the Peres Center to see what was being done with PeaceMaker. Even though the center was involved in youth education and hosted school workshops, it wasn’t an officially sanctioned part of the Israeli education system; that would have been perceived as too sensitive or political. “I remember when I arrived someone telling me, only half joking, that they keep expecting the government to march in and shut the project down.”

The PeaceMaker workshop Asi attended took place in the same Tel Aviv suburb in which he’d grown up. The attendees were well-educated, middle-class kids, all 17 and all Israelis. Asi sat at the back of this classroom. The instructor walked in and said, “Today, we’re going to be playing a game.” The kids looked around at each other, wide-eyed. Asi waited for the instructor to explain what PeaceMaker was all about and how to play it. Instead, she waved the kids over to the computers. “Right,” she said. “Just start playing and we’ll talk about it afterwards.”

With no introduction to the game and no idea what they were about to experience, the kids jumped on the computers and started playing. Some seemed confused when the footage of the suicide bomb played on the screen; Asi heard one girl tell her friend excitedly, “Oh, so it’s a war game!” Asi looked over their shoulders and was horrified. Most of them—if not all—had chosen to play as the Israeli PM. No surprises there. But they also seemed to miss the point of the game completely. One kid bombed the Palestinians over and over again.

“I’d never seen people playing the game this way. It’s true, these kids didn’t get the context before they jumped in, but the game is pretty self-explanatory. It’s clear that it’s about conflict resolution; it’s not Call of Duty.”

But these kids were doing something else, too: they were testing boundaries. They suddenly had the power that many of them had probably only fantasized about. “What would it be like if I were leading the country?” “What would I do?” It was, after all, a game. Asi now saw that PeaceMaker could just as soon be about playing out fantasies of power in a safe environment as it could be about building empathy. The students had taught him an important, albeit disturbing, lesson.

The instructor called a time-out. The kids got up from the computers and sat back down at their desks. She asked the kid who’d been repeatedly bombing the Palestinians, “Why did you do that?” The kid looked at her. “Because they’re the enemy,” he said flatly. The instructor asked him to elaborate. Over the course of the next hour, she asked each of them their thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: What did they know? How did they feel about it?

Asi was amazed by the students’ responses, but mostly by their general ignorance. The kids knew frighteningly little about the conflict, not grasping even the basics, such as why there was a conflict in the first place. The instructor put a map on the wall. “Can anyone tell me where Gaza is?” she asked. No one knew. They said Hamas was not connected to the Palestinian people. These kids weren’t underprivileged—they all came from good schools. The public education system had let them down. The teachers didn’t actually talk about the conflict in the classroom; it was seen as too sensitive a topic. And here, suddenly, was a game that let students do whatever they wanted—pick sides and then talk openly about the conflict.

Asi found the process alarming to watch. The following year, most of these kids were going to be in the army, making very real and very important decisions. How could they be expected to make the right choices when they didn’t even know the basic facts about what was going on? Asi was glad that PeaceMaker had helped in some small way. But he also realized that he’d been so preoccupied with changing people’s minds about the situation that he’d missed this other possible function of the game: simply teaching facts about the conflict and its context. How can someone feel empathy for another’s opinions if they don’t even know what those opinions are in the first place?

Asi came to understand that the game itself had perhaps been a little premature. “Imagine making a game like that today, when the world is a lot more receptive to new technology that helps them see the world differently. I’m not just talking about a better-looking game that has fancy graphics and more immersive scenarios, but about awareness, connectivity—the increasing power of social media.”

People continue to refer to PeaceMaker after all these years. There’s continued media interest, especially when the Israeli-Palestine conflict is back in the headlines. But Asi also continues to hear from people who still play the game, or discover it for the first time. For him, this proves that not only is the game still relevant, but also that the idea of a video game teaching someone about a complex situation, and fostering in that person a sense of empathy, is more accepted now than it was in 2007.

When Asi returned to the United States, he got a call from an organization called Games for Change. That nonprofit became the umbrella organization for games with a purpose, games that have goals beyond entertainment alone. “They asked me to help them grow, and I said yes.” Asi ended up leading the organization as an executive director from 2010 to 2015.

Asi is often asked how things have changed since the early days of PeaceMaker. Although the game did not do well commercially, its impact has been undeniable. Not only did it prove that games could be much more than entertainment, but it helped unify all the other games and game developers in this field under the banner of games for change. It inspired a new movement that has since become a significant area of the video game industry.

Eisenberg, the pioneering teacher from CMU, and Dr. Cleotilde Gonzalez, a research professor in social and decision sciences, went on to use PeaceMaker to better understand decision making in conflict resolution. Dr. Gonzalez later published several papers on the game, including one in the journal Computers in Human Behavior,7 which used data collected in Israel when the game was tested on students there.

“We saw that young Israelis were far more willing to explore the different possible actions when playing the Palestinian than the Israeli side,” Gonzalez said recently. “This means Israeli students were less willing to explore new scenarios in their own role, and thus less successful in resolving the conflict from that perspective. Again, putting people in others’ shoes helps.”

She also studied the effects of repeated playing. “The most meaningful finding was that with repeated plays of the game, the relationships between the person’s political assumptions and value system they hold to before playing, and the performance in the game, decreased. This means that they did better over time, from one session to the next, and it often meant taking action that is misaligned [with] or even contradicts their original beliefs. So it is possible to put someone in the other side’s shoes and reduce the effect of personal bias while engaging in conflict-resolution exercises.”

Now, imagine how powerful games like PeaceMaker can be in bringing about cultural understanding and speaking directly to younger generations in their preferred language.

This is just the beginning.


Copyright © 2017 by Asi Burak and Laura Parker