Peace gaming

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

World of warcraft 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
World of warcraft 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A14-year-old living in Haifa, Israel, sits by a laptop working allnight with a 22-year-old Lebanese engineering student in an intensequest to kill a boss on the World of Warcraft. Over the course ofmany hours, together, the two unlikely teammates kill a number ofcreatures and gather various resources.
Meanwhile on SecondLife, a 21-year-old Jewish legal aid in Manhattan spends his boringday at work building a synagogue in the virtual world. Alreadyevening in Riyadh, a 29-year-old Saudi air hostess who believes mostJews have horns and sacrifice babies in their places of worship,enters the legal aid's synagogue and starts askingquestions.
Academics, gaming experts and conflict resolutionadvocates say such interactions are taking place on a variety ofplatforms daily, making online gaming an increasingly common avenuefor Middle Easterners, Muslims and Jews all over the world, to engagewith and learn about one another.
"I believe that theInternet and gaming, especially those with social media components,can bring people together," Esra'a Al Shafei, Director of theBahrain-based MidEast Youth, an international student media groupthat promotes dialogue and understanding, told The Media Line. "Igrew up in a relatively closed society, but there are no boundarieson the Internet like there are in real life, making it much easier tocross cultural and political boundaries and to create meaningfulconnections."
"For example, once I was in collegeand played a little game on Facebook and met an Armenian whom I neverwould have met," she remembered. "I know many peoplepersonally who have gotten to know each other across cultural linesthrough gaming."

"Gamingis all about skills, and not identity or nationality," Shafeisaid. "Your intention may not be to meet people, but a lot ofgaming sites now have teams. So you might end up playing on a teamwith an Iranian, an Israeli or an American Jew. Almost every gamethese 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 personand find out that you actually have lots of similar interests inmusic and things like that."
While it was not herintention, Shafei articulated the hope of a growing number ofIsraeli gaming firms and social media analysts who believe games canbring unlikely people together across borders.
“People cancommunicate 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 socialnetworking platforms for mobile phones. "We can play with peoplein Arab countries whereas on a day-to-day basis we wouldn’t dothat.”
Users of Skiller mobile games are identified by thecountry they are located in with a small flag next to their username.With around half a million users from 125 nations, includingcountries without diplomatic relations with one another, Orpaz saysmobile gaming has provided a place for people to leave politics atthe door.
"In the gaming world, people put the politicalconflicts aside," he told The Media Line. "It’s easier toplay against a person than to win a political argument againstthem.”
"We’re combining social networks with games,"Orpaz added. "We have many social elements such as [the] buddylist, [the] messaging system and in-game chat, that enable people tocommunicate easily and form friendships. This [is] what makes ourproduct so unique. This is not just a mobile game; this is a realcommunity.”
But Paul Parush, an expert in media culture anda communications professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,said the effectiveness of online gaming in crossing conflict lineswas likely limited by awareness.
"For Arabs playingagainst 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 levelsof awareness."
Dr Ronit Kampf, a professor ofcommunications and political science at Tel Aviv University and anexpert in the role of online environments in conflict resolution,says the import of online environments in conflict resolution largelyrevolves around whether or not the interaction isintentional.
"There are many online environments that arenot specifically aimed at conflict resolution or learning about theother," she told The Media Line. "These platforms providepeople with the option to cross boundaries easily."

"Butthe glass is half full and half empty," Dr Kampf warned. "Thehalf full is that indeed you can see unintentional interactionsbetween Jews and Muslims and Israelis and Palestinians. The halfempty, however, is that if you look at these interaction[s] over thelong term, their extent [does] not grow."
"Thereality is that we are attracted to people who are similar, notpeople who are different," she continued. "So there aredefinitely unintentional interactions taking place, and it's betterthan nothing, but you can't ignore the fact that their extent andtheir depth is not what we would ideally want."
DrKampf argued that gaming, particularly gaming that requires teamwork,has a greater potential to cross conflict lines.
"Thereis incredible potential for unintentional interaction throughgaming," she said. "In the World of Warcraft, for example,gamers across the Middle East fight together against some environmentthat is attacking them. What's important to them is not whether theperson is a Muslim or a Jew, but their skill playing the game.
"Soyou see people joining together to fight on the same team and seeeach other as individuals," Dr Kampf concluded. "Itindicates that the moment you bring together young people from acrossthe divide to join forces and collaborate on a specific goal – beit to win a game together or do a project together – they are muchmore effectively able to put aside tension and stereotypes anddevelop positive attitudes towards one another."