Real diplomacy from the virtual world

Contest challenges game designers to create virtual worlds that promote positive real-world changes.

Eric Brown and Asi Burak think a strategy game, of all things, could help forge a new level of understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Their game, known as "

"The public often sees press on all the negative aspects of games. This is a fight, in a way, for better games."
--Jean Miller, project manager, Public Diplomacy and Virtual Worlds competition

"It's a strategy game that's typical in form," said Eric Brown, a graduate student in interactive educational design at Carnegie-Mellon University, "except we inverted the model, so it's not a war game. The point is to make peace with the other side."

"Peacemaker" is one of four finalists in the Public Diplomacy and Virtual Worlds competition being run by the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy. The winner, which will be announced at a public awards celebration at USC on Monday, May 8, will showcase the best work being done in a new field that organizers think could make a real difference in the world.

The field of public diplomacy in games is the latest entry in the larger serious-games movement, in which government, universities, the health care industry and other institutions are beginning to use games to teach new concepts. The serious-games movement, which is several years old, is gaining momentum and even has its own annual convention, though some feel it still has a long way to go before it begins to make a real difference.

"I think the contest demonstrates that games can not only be entertaining, but beneficial to society on a grander scale," said Jean Miller, the contest's project manager at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. "The public often sees press on all the negative aspects of games. This is a fight, in a way, for better games."

Miller said the contest received more entries than had been expected--though she would not say exactly how many--and that the judges, therefore, will be able to choose a winner from four quality projects.

Making the world relevant
In addition to "Peacemaker," finalists include "Hydro Hyjinks," which is intended to get people talking about the environment and international water distribution; "Exchanging Cultures," which creates a public space where people from anywhere in the world can trade virtual artifacts from their respective cultures; and "Global Kids," a concept game that will eventually provide virtual hands-on workshops for kids and that's designed to facilitate discussion and cross-cultural meetings.

And while only "Peacemaker" appears on the surface to deal directly with diplomacy, Miller argued that all the finalists broach the subject.

"We're looking at public diplomacy rather than direct diplomacy, and public diplomacy can encompass all sorts of things," she said. "'Exchanging Cultures' is about sharing culture, 'Global Kids' is about using international education among students, 'Hydro Hyjinks' would be the next closest thing to 'Peacemaker,' taking a worldwide relevant topic and bringing it to the player."

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