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Real diplomacy from the virtual world

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

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
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 "Peacemaker," is all about tearing down decades-old walls of mistrust between the two peoples, all the while turning one of the best-understood video game dynamics on its head. In the game, players assume leadership responsibilities on both sides of the conflict as they face real-life issues, such as diplomatic negotiations and military attacks, that divide the camps.

"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."

Miller said the contest is about helping those trying to solve problems that have historically been hard to solve. "Looking at our finalists," she said, "they came up with different ways to basically help the world."

John Seely Brown, one of the competition's judges, said he sees the project as a way to bridge gaps.

"This is not a chat room. This is actually coming together, really understanding what each of you can do..."
--John Seely Brown, contest judge

"Public diplomacy depends on building real understanding between people on the ground here (in the United States) with real foreigners, real people in other countries," said Seely Brown, formerly the chief scientist at Xerox PARC and currently a visiting scholar at USC's Annenberg Center. "That's what cultural exchange has always been about."

And Seely Brown said that virtual worlds--in which players often have to work together to solve complicated tasks--and game spaces offer the field of public diplomacy a valuable new environment.

"They're not only social (spaces) but also (for) engaging in joint, coordinated, collaborative work," he said. "So this is not a chat room. This is actually coming together, really understanding what each of you can do, working together to achieve really difficult goals."

Miller agrees.

In the book "Playing Video Games," writer Elaine Chan "said that (virtual worlds) are basically a giant forum for communication," said Miller. "Virtual worlds are not just a good environment for public diplomacy, it's a great environment for it. It can facilitate communication across borders and cultures that has never been done to that scale before--people getting the chance to chat/talk/meet/play with hundreds of people that they have never met before."

Meanwhile, two of the contest finalists are using the open-ended virtual world "Second Life" to build their projects. In fact, the contest itself is using "Second Life" as a staging ground; it will simulcast the awards ceremony into a screen in an amphitheater on a private island in that virtual world.

But "Peacemaker" is a free-standing game that doesn't springboard off any other virtual world. And creator Eric Brown doesn't see that as contradicting the spirit of the contest.

"The competition was just (about) reinventing public diplomacy through game studies," he said. "A game world is a virtual world."

Miller, too, said the contest's definition of "virtual world" left room for projects like "Peacemaker."

Entrants are mainly constructed in "pre-existing virtual worlds," Miller said. "But I think video games provide a virtual world within themselves."

And when she thinks about it, Miller said she knows the message that she'd like the contest to spread.

"Video games--virtual worlds and all (their) renditions--can change the world," Miller said.