Gone are the days when switching on a video game meant chewing up blinking Pac-Dots or dodging banana peels on a Mario Kart racecourse.
As video games have evolved over the past several decades to incorporate the latest technologies available, so, too, has their ability to impact players and generate lasting change, according to a veteran Israeli game creator and social entrepreneur.
“This is a serious medium,” said Asi Burak, a Tel Aviv transplant to New York. “It’s just going to get stronger and it’s going to be the way in the future. We are educating ourselves, we are training people, we are dealing with serious issues – through activity, not sitting and listening to a teacher.”
Burak recently spoke with The Jerusalem Post, following the publication of his new book, Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World, co-authored with journalist Laura Parker. The culmination of years of Burak’s research and practical work, the book explores a variety of case studies in which video games have caused positive change, such as helping children battle cancer and obesity, preventing cognitive decline and enabling Saudi women to defeat oppressors.
“You need to convince the wider public that video games matter,” Burak said. “The book is focusing on the heroes who made it happen.”
Perhaps one of those heroes himself, Burak is known for co-founding Impact Games, the creator of the 2007 PeaceMaker video game. The fruit of his master of entertainment technology thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the game focuses on helping Israelis and Palestinians better understand each other. Today, Burak is a faculty member in the Design for Innovation MFA program at New York City’s School of Visual Arts as well as the chairman of Games for Change, an organization that focuses on the positive power of digital games.
“I was playing a lot of video games as a kid in the ’80s – I mean, tons, really deep into it,” Burak said. “And then, for whatever reason, during my ‘dark life,’ I stopped. But I always appreciated it.”
After serving in the IDF’s 8200 intelligence unit and completing his bachelor’s degree at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Burak spent the early 2000s working in Israel’s mobile technology sector.
Around 2004, he “came back to video games,” buying and playing all the latest games and familiarizing himself with the newest technologies available.
“I fell in love with digital,” he said. “Then, one day, which I can’t until now really explain how it happened, I decided to study abroad.”
While completing his master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon, Burak developed the idea for PeaceMaker, which ultimately became his thesis project and received ample coverage in the mainstream press. PeaceMaker players can take on the role of either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian Authority president, with the goal of making peace. The game incorporates real-world footage and events and is today available in desktop or mobile versions, in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
“It was almost the opposite of what people think about video games,” Burak said.
In recent years, the entire video game genre has become a “story of entrepreneurship,” according to Burak. Looking at the progress Games for Change, he observed that in 2004, the group’s events would draw about 30 people for one-day conferences, while today more than 1,000 people attend threeday conventions to talk about the positive power of gaming.
While many people might still look at the video-gaming industry as something that’s “not for them” because they are not interested in playing the games themselves, Burak stressed that he wrote his book for both gamers and nongamers alike.
“What I’m trying to argue is that even if you’re a parent and you don’t play games, your kids do play games,” he said.
As he looks forward toward the future of video games and their potential for social impact, Burak feels that three features will dominate the growing sector: virtual reality, “neuro-gaming” and “e-sports.”
Virtual reality, he explained, triggers “something in the art that really takes it to a different place,” providing an experience “that is much more immersive than just looking at the screen.”
Research has shown that employing virtual reality in video games has made them much more effective, Burak continued. As an example, he cited the game “Clouds Over Sidra,” which uses virtual reality to place the player in a refugee camp in Jordan.
“Many people think of virtual reality as a shortcut – I’ll take you to visit Paris instead of flying to Paris,” Burak said. “In the case of the refugee camp, I understood that it’s not a shortcut.
In the case of Paris, I’m replacing an experience you can have in real life. I just make it in a faster, cheaper way. When I send you to a refugee camp, there is no other way that you are going to fly to Jordan, and I am going to give you access to a refugee camp. Talking about empathy, I can take you to places where you’ve never been before.”
While virtual reality can enable the user to see the world from multiple points of view, a genre called “neuro-gaming” – using brain-computer interfaces to play a game rather than traditional controllers – may have the potential to improve patient health.
“The idea is that people start making games that train the brain,” Burak said. “Those people usually come from science and they know how to manipulate the brain with experiences to drive it toward positive outcomes.”
In Burak’s third sector of interest, “e-sports,” he explained how people are now coming together to play video games as a sport – in stadiums, as teams and with sponsors.
“It’s the first time I see on such a big scale how we are breaking the perception of lone gamers sitting in a basement and playing on a screen,” Burak said.
“Those gamers are coming together in the thousands to watch it in a stadium and in the millions to watch it online.”
Such a phenomenon, he hypothesized, could have lasting impact on social interactions.
“The story of the video gamer who is a lone wolf is starting to break,” Burak said. “You start to see how gamers have power as a movement.”