The Israel Defense Forces sets out to detain a Palestinian suspected of concealing Qassam missiles in his home. The missiles are seized and Khaled, the owner of the home, is arrested. It appears that the good guys have won. But a journalist, embedded in the unit, discovers that, as usual, it is not so simple. Khaled is mourning a wife killed in a demonstration against the separation fence and raising his son, Nabil, alone. His son, possessed by vengeful feelings regarding his mother's death, is apparently responsible for the Qassam missiles.
The scenario sounds all too familiar but, this time, it is not real. It is a mission in Global Conflicts: Palestine, a game created by Serious Games Interactive of Denmark. The Danish company has an ambitious objective: To shatter the traditional approach of the games industry, which typically cultivates a single, prevailing, schematic narrative. Thus, unlike most war games on the market, there are no heroes or villains here, and the player does not view the world through the sight of a gun.
In this adventure, the player takes the role of a journalist, who must expose the real story behind the laconic reports that appear daily in news media. To uncover the truth, he must earn the trust of sources in the field, but he quickly becomes entangled. For example, how will he express empathy toward Khaled in front of the arresting IDF commander Roi? Only if he gains the detainee's trust will he discover the truth: his son, Nabil, is somewhere nearby guarding a tunnel under the house.
The information he gathers is used to write the story, and the more facts he reveals, the more interesting the story will be, thus promoting his career. CEO Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen explains, "The player can choose a pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli position. He gets points for every article he submits. If you choose a pro-Israeli line and only have pro-Palestinian quotes, you get very few points."
Egenfeldt-Nielsen says that documentary television programming actually served as the inspiration for the game. "We were influenced by the Discovery Channel to provide interesting, quality programs. We wanted to do the same thing for computer games." He says that was his idea when he wrote a doctoral thesis about the potential of the Europa Universalis II strategic game as an educational tool. Then, he realized how complicated it is to implement the concept while using a commercial game title.
"I am convinced that using games as an educational tool has a place," he says. "But it is not easy to develop titles that justify both classifications - game and educational. Just as there are many bad books, there are also many bad games."
Do you really think games can be an efficient tool for presenting complex concepts like political and military conflict?
"Good games, with several objectives, for a variety of target audiences. What we try to do is create an experience that involves personal stories of people who have different perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think games can successfully play this role, and experiments we conducted in schools in Denmark, for children age 13-19, also proved that we were right. The pupils said they learned much more from the game than from regular courses.
"We don't see the game as something that stands on its own but more as a starting point. Historical background, for example, is not suitable for the gaming platform. But we provide recommended material and links to allow people to investigate further."
In one of the missions, the journalist is sent to infiltrate Hamas to study the structure of the organization. Now, he has two options: To act as an informer for the Shin Bet security service or on behalf of a concerned father, by persuading his sons, who joined the organization, to return home.
In other missions, he must help a pregnant woman cross an IDF checkpoint, cover clashes between settlers and Palestinian farmers and even prevent a suicide bombing.
Syrians do it, too
Games used to portray political reality are not new. Dr. Hanan Gazit, a professor in the Department of Instructional Systems Technologies at the Holon Academic Institute of Technology, reports, "In recent years, the field of using the computer to increase political awareness of social and cultural struggles has developed." Gazit cites the potential of games as a promotional tool in campaigns. The United States Army uses the America's Army game to recruit soldiers, and the Syrians created the UnderSiege game in which a hero does battle with Israeli occupiers (http://www.underash.net/en_download.htm).
Gazit says that computer games are "a new battlefield in a war is for the political awareness and thinking of millions of young people around the world, who consider the computer their central medium." Recently, he says, the Games4Change conference, in New York, displayed titles that attempt to promote social change. One of these games, PeaceMaker (www.peacemakergame.com), strives to illustrate the difficulty of running a country mired in the crisis that plagues this region.
Like PeaceMaker, Global Conflicts: Palestine tries to present a complex reality. Egenfeldt-Nielsen says that they consulted advisers and relied on interviews, articles, documentary programs and personal testimony to present the whole picture. The content of the game does maintain a high level.
IDF soldiers explain that their harsh treatment of Khaled is an attempt to protect the lives of innocent Israelis, and they are not afraid to mention the Holocaust. But when the player earns their trust, they admit that the Geneva Convention is not really implemented in the field. The sad conclusion of the blog created by the journalist, from the array of information that he gathers, is that no one is right - and all are victims.
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