Peace gaming

Social networks, games and virtual worlds are crossing unlikely boundaries.

May 13, 2010 17:54
4 minute read.
World of Warcraft.

World of warcraft 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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A 14-year-old living in Haifa, Israel, sits by a laptop working all night with a 22-year-old Lebanese engineering student in an intense quest to kill a boss on the World of Warcraft. Over the course of many hours, together, the two unlikely teammates kill a number of creatures and gather various resources.

Meanwhile on Second Life, a 21-year-old Jewish legal aid in Manhattan spends his boring day at work building a synagogue in the virtual world. Already evening in Riyadh, a 29-year-old Saudi air hostess who believes most Jews have horns and sacrifice babies in their places of worship, enters the legal aid's synagogue and starts asking questions.

Academics, gaming experts and conflict resolution advocates say such interactions are taking place on a variety of platforms daily, making online gaming an increasingly common avenue for Middle Easterners, Muslims and Jews all over the world, to engage with and learn about one another.

"I believe that the Internet and gaming, especially those with social media components, can bring people together," Esra'a Al Shafei, Director of the Bahrain-based MidEast Youth, an international student media group that promotes dialogue and understanding, told The Media Line. "I grew up in a relatively closed society, but there are no boundaries on the Internet like there are in real life, making it much easier to cross cultural and political boundaries and to create meaningful connections."

"For example, once I was in college and played a little game on Facebook and met an Armenian whom I never would have met," she remembered. "I know many people personally who have gotten to know each other across cultural lines through gaming."

"Gaming is all about skills, and not identity or nationality," Shafei said. "Your intention may not be to meet people, but a lot of gaming sites now have teams. So you might end up playing on a team with an Iranian, an Israeli or an American Jew. Almost every game these days allows you to chat and connect with people, so you say 'hey, where are you from? I'm from Bahrain,' get to know that person and find out that you actually have lots of similar interests in music and things like that."

While it was not her intention, Shafei articulated the hope of a growing number of Israeli gaming firms and social media analysts who believe games can bring unlikely people together across borders.

“People can communicate better through games because there are no borders,” said Nir Orpaz, the founder and Chief Technical Officer of Skiller, an Israel-based gaming company that provides both gaming and social networking platforms for mobile phones. "We can play with people in Arab countries whereas on a day-to-day basis we wouldn’t do that.”

Users of Skiller mobile games are identified by the country they are located in with a small flag next to their username. With around half a million users from 125 nations, including countries without diplomatic relations with one another, Orpaz says mobile gaming has provided a place for people to leave politics at the door.

"In the gaming world, people put the political conflicts aside," he told The Media Line. "It’s easier to play against a person than to win a political argument against them.”

"We’re combining social networks with games," Orpaz added. "We have many social elements such as [the] buddy list, [the] messaging system and in-game chat, that enable people to communicate easily and form friendships. This [is] what makes our product so unique. This is not just a mobile game; this is a real community.”

But Paul Parush, an expert in media culture and a communications professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the effectiveness of online gaming in crossing conflict lines was likely limited by awareness.

"For Arabs playing against Israel, they probably know what the Israeli flag looks like, whereas Israelis probably don't know what a Saudi flag looks like," he told The Media Line. "So it's worth noting different levels of awareness."

Dr Ronit Kampf, a professor of communications and political science at Tel Aviv University and an expert in the role of online environments in conflict resolution, says the import of online environments in conflict resolution largely revolves around whether or not the interaction is intentional.

"There are many online environments that are not specifically aimed at conflict resolution or learning about the other," she told The Media Line. "These platforms provide people with the option to cross boundaries easily."

"But the glass is half full and half empty," Dr Kampf warned. "The half full is that indeed you can see unintentional interactions between Jews and Muslims and Israelis and Palestinians. The half empty, however, is that if you look at these interaction[s] over the long term, their extent [does] not grow."

"The reality is that we are attracted to people who are similar, not people who are different," she continued. "So there are definitely unintentional interactions taking place, and it's better than nothing, but you can't ignore the fact that their extent and their depth is not what we would ideally want."

Dr Kampf argued that gaming, particularly gaming that requires teamwork, has a greater potential to cross conflict lines.

"There is incredible potential for unintentional interaction through gaming," she said. "In the World of Warcraft, for example, gamers across the Middle East fight together against some environment that is attacking them. What's important to them is not whether the person is a Muslim or a Jew, but their skill playing the game.

"So you see people joining together to fight on the same team and see each other as individuals," Dr Kampf concluded. "It indicates that the moment you bring together young people from across the divide to join forces and collaborate on a specific goal – be it to win a game together or do a project together – they are much more effectively able to put aside tension and stereotypes and develop positive attitudes towards one another."

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