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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Serious Games Summit: Burak and Sweeney on PeaceMaker

NOTE: I took a lot of notes on this session, and it was beginning to frustrate me how long it was taking to write this, so I just powered through and the organization may lack for it. And of course, I've left much out. Regardless, I rediscovered a few gems and hope they will be helpful for others, too.

Now, the fifth breakout session (on Monday afternoon) was the essence of why I attended the summit - even more so than the previous session on Food Force. I attended Burak and Sweeney's PeaceMaker: A Game That Teaches Peace in the Middle East. (The game's website can be found at peacemakergame.com.)

I'd been looking forward to a game like PeaceMaker since first reading Jim Gee talk about the Palestinian first person shooter Under Ash. He mused (if memory serves) that this would be a powerful thing if American teen agers could play both sides of the conflict and come to understand it from the inside out. This is exactly when Burak and Sweeney have painstakingly created.

The game comes out of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, which has the first masters degree in entertainment technology (an MET), and which focuses on multi-disciplinary group projects, including the "first responder" training game, Hazmat: Hotzone.

Burak and Sweeney pitched their idea for a game about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to their faculty, and were originally told their proposal was "widely out of scope." So they refined their mission, focusing on a 2D simulation of the conflict, on a young audience (high school students it turns out), and free online distribution. The looked to serious comics, such as MAUS as a model of how a traditionally "low" art medium could be used for a much more serious purpose. Because they wanted to teach both perspectives on the conflict, they suggested that a game was a more appropriate medium than a book, and they took great efforts to present a balanced view, involving representatives from both cultures from the very beginning of the project. As for non-violent gameplay, they felt that "peace is challenging", that there are "warriors for peace", and that "this is not less challenging than going to war." In peace, and in game development, they offered this advice "Don't be afraid to take small steps."

In the Israeli version of the game, which was made first, allows the player to take on the role of the Israeli Prime Minister and two work with the leaders of eight different factions to achieve peace. A sort of thermometer display similar to the depictions of relationships in the Sims is used as feedback. Some events, such as the first event - a suicide bombing, happen and players can react and take various actions throughout the game. Though the game is about peace, the player can take military action, but in most cases this is not the right choice. However, in extreme situations, this can improve the situation. Clearly the underlying systems of the game will reflect the designers beliefs about reality, but I for one find it important that there is at least some reasonable motivation behind violence in the game - for it to be otherwise would I think miss the point of much of the conflict. To achieve the desired emotional impact, the designers used real pictures and real footage as much as possible. (They even showed screen shots from the news and from violent games to express the thought that "emotional impact comes from real events, not just the spectacle.")

The Palestinian version is newer and more sophisticated. It was also more difficult for them to sort out simple things such as an answer to the question "what can this person do?" (In answer to this, many actions are greyed out at the beginning of the game, because the Palestinian president simply doesn't have those options until some progress has been made). Ultimately, though, there are more groups to balance and more actions to take in this version of the game. I think it is important that they pointed out "peace" was a suitable victory condition for an Israeli, but nor for a Palestinian... a two-state solution must be reached. The struggle here was now between national approval and world approval.

The research necessary to create these games offers something for other serious game developers to consider. The began by exploring paper based negotiation simulations, both from Carnegie Mellon professors and from the US Institute of Peace. They also explored existing computer simulations including Kuma War, and Under Ash.

The leap for then was how to make a game about peace. Conflict was still a key, but instead of A vrs. B, they wanted A, B, C, and D to cooperate for equality. For gameplay (and verisimilitude) this had to be engaging and challenging! They offered players actions to take, but other (AI) actors in the game would act if their needs were not being met (Hamas for example).

They shared some graphical representations of some iconic games and where they fell on a chart of goal orientation v. open endedness (on the x axis) and simulation v. game (on the y-axis). Peace Maker was just left of the origin toward goal oriented, but was balanced between sim and game elements. They also charted pace and mood by action oriented v. slow paced (on the x-axis) and heavy v. light in tone (on the y-axis). Here PeaceMaker was heavy and slow paced (in the upper right quadrant).

The first prototype was a board game. It has many elements they wanted, and "sounded right", but was not engaging. They were able to categorize the actions into Fighting, Helping, or Waiting, and they realized that the core struggle was between the security of the players' people and the trust of the other side. It is significant, I think, that they said at first it feels as if each action hurts one and helps the other, and that is only when you learn to "climb" the actions that progress is made. They reached this point as a dice game. Then, the vision team worked on interface, visual, xperience, sounds, videos, and scripted a flash demo. Meanwhile, an engine team worked on code, balance, fleshing out actions, and a working java game.

The underlying assumptions behind the system they created are powerful ones.. in life, I mean:

- You can make a difference.
- The other side wants peace, too.
- You lack complete control of your own side.
- Small concrete steps, not grandiose plans.
- "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the possible!"

Incidentally, though I didn't get to see his poster session, Mark Baldwin had some powerful things to say about using games to teach positive mind habits. (See his Self-Esteem Games: Modifying Mind Habits Using Science-Based Psychology Games session for more information.

There is a Pilot program currently underway, both in Pittsburgh, and in the city of Qatar. Students in the two cities will play the game and communicate about it as an assignment. They are currently testing the game, the content, and the educational message. Already they are getting emails from the community, from gamers, and from non-gamers interested in the game.

Currently they plan to publish online in the spring, in a manner similar to Food Force for free download. They hope to create a 2 player version when they are done, and eventually a multiplayer version. In the long term, they suggested they might move on to other conflicts, because after all "unfortunately we have many of them." Also, they hope to move the game beyond the university realm to a profit or non-profit home. I wrote in my notes at this point "this is brilliant." (Earlier, I wrote "TOO MUCH SITTING" at that point in the day.)

Some interesting questions (and suggestions) came up in the Q & A at the end of the presentation. Someone asked if the game was open source. It is not, and their are no plans to make it open, but it will be multi-platform (it is built in Flash). They were asked how long they've been working on it... and it's only been just over a year! When asked "what about people who are not supportive of your ideas?" they responded that most responses are positive, except when it comes to the two-state solution. They acquiesce that people from Hamas would not want to play the game, but many Palestinians feel the game is a way to make their dreams come true in a way they cannot in real life.

When asked how hard it is to play, they relied that the Palestinian version is slightly easier because they've had more time to design it. They said a new player is only 30% likely to pass the game in the first try. Most still get caught up in it. Some get frustrated... "and by the way, the fact that peoplecome to this game and feel that this problem is difficult to solve is a good thing." What is really important, they concluded, was that players feel challenged.

One particularly important question was "are players learning something they didn't know?" To this, the speakers responded that they only have player testimonials and that they want a mehod to measure changes in attitudes. Some testimonials, though, are powerful: "It's crazy, anything you do, someone gets angry", "I wanted to take revenge sometimes, and I couldn't... these guys made something that made me change my attitudes to win." Wow.

Another participant asked if they have an educational person or team involved in the inter-disciplinary design team, too. Apparently they did not on the design team, but they do now for creating teaching materials to accompany the game; they are working with education students at Carnegie Mellon. They are not interested in asking questions, though, they want to record players' actions and through the game see what changes they make. They want teachers to be able to look at the history of a student's game and discuss the choices they made. They would prefer to offer tutorials and hyperlinks online, but are not sure about lesson plans.

Another participant then made the brilliant suggestion to let the teachers create a community around the game, because they will create and share lesson plans etc. I thought this was a beautiful intersection of serious games and the read/write web.

I came to a personal conclusion by the end of this session as well. suppose I will still keep playing WoW for the MMO experience, but I need to start playing Serious Games, whatever their quality. I need the hands-on exposure to these games, too. And most are free. :)

Note: I haven't played WoW since I've been back... though there may be other reasons (in the "and Life" category) for that as well.

-Mark

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