RunZoo game aims to foster Mideast peace through kids

A diverse team of developers wants Israeli and Palestinian kids -- and children in other conflict zones -- to find common ground through the shared experience of cooperative gaming.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

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RunZoo might turn out to be more than just a game. Bandura Games

The high-stakes Middle East peace process has a long, complex history of starts, stops and frustrations. A young American game maker named Justin Hefter believes one possible solution could lie in the simple act of playing games.

Hefter and a diverse team of Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims, Jews and Christians, launched an Indiegogo campaign for a game called RunZoo that's pulled in more than $32,500 toward its $37,000 fundraising goal with 24 days left to go.

The game is cooperative rather than competitive and can only be completed by working with other players. If the game can team Israeli and Palestinian children to complete the task, the thinking goes, it just might teach those kids at a young age to work with -- rather than against -- each other. In the endless-runner-style game, you play an animal that's escaped from the zoo and is trying to reach safety in a "tropical paradise where the animal kingdom lives in peace and harmony." RunZoo is one of a growing number of games aimed at promoting social good.

The idea for the game and Bandura Games, the San Francisco-based company that created it, came about while Hefter was living in Israel and assembling an American, Israeli and Palestinian team to survey hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian kids.

The results showed that over 85 percent of both Israeli and Palestinian kids played mobile games, 50 percent of which were non-violent. Hefter and his team tried out a cooperative version of a normally competitive board game that was popular in Israeli and Palestinian schools and found that 80 percent of the kids liked the cooperative version better. RunZoo was soon born, along with Bandura's idea that a more cooperative and peaceful world could come about through gaming.

While a student at Stanford University in California from 2007 to 2011, Hefter worked to bring Jewish and Muslim students together through fun, nonpolitical events. Wanting to bring that type of relationship-building to Israelis and Palestinians but aware of the physical restrictions of getting thousands of people together, he turned to the world of gaming.

"As I researched ways of using technology to bring people together, video games became one of the most obvious methods," he told CNET's Crave blog. "I read about how couples had met and then gotten married while playing World of Warcraft over the Internet and thought to all of the relationships I had formed with people through games and through sport."

A pledge of $5 (about £3.30, AU$7) will allow one new person to play RunZoo. Higher pledges will help them spread the game to a larger audience, and a pledge of $25 (about £16.50, AU$35) will get you the early-release version of the game.

Hefter and his team have already tested the game and gotten feedback from Israeli and Palestinian children, and if all goes according to plan, the game is expected to launch globally in early 2016. "Even on social media, people are only friends with their existing networks," Hefter said. "Bandura games are designed to connect people from across conflict zones, so that violence is less likely in the future."