Why you should care

Because games like Minecraft are making cross-border dialogue a lot easier.

Most teens know discontent and boredom like they know their own Instagram accounts. Ennui … c’est la vie. But 16-year-old Maria Cherkezia, in the nation of Georgia, has that sense of disconnect for starker reasons: She and her friends have all grown up amid war. The conflict, for now, is frozen, even though parts of the country have broken away. Thank goodness, then, for her favorite park, which is beautiful and brightly colored. And entirely virtual.

From the declarations of independence in the 1990s to the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, tensions between Georgia and its territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have barely had a chance of abating. Determined to combat this deepening divide, a local nongovernmental organization called Elva set out to show Abkhazian and Georgian children that they’re not so different after all. Since travel restrictions and language barriers made it difficult to start a dialogue, they reached for an unorthodox solution: cross-border video-gaming sessions.

There’s no doubt that games are increasingly influential — the sector is expected to grow 9 percent from 2014, to $91.5 billion this year, according to industry research firm Newzoo. While the medium may seem an odd choice for a peace-building project, the reach of so-called “serious games” — those that exist not just to entertain, but also to educate — is likewise on the rise. And many see gaming’s advantage in how much it lets players feel they have control, since, unlike with books or films, they’re often forced to make decisions. “It’s really, really powerful. You can almost literally walk in someone else’s shoes,” says Drew Davidson, the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center.

It would be absurd for my boys to grow up without ever having had a conversation with an Arab citizen, and I thought, ‘Why not use the fact that we’re all online to create a bridge?’

Uri Mishol, co-founder of Games for Peace

Gaming for peace isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. After all, the idea predates the Internet, and play has long been a vehicle for peace — from the Olympics to one-off football matches. The United Nations actively promotes the use of sports in peace-building; among several other projects, it once organized a football tournament to improve relations between the Ivory Coast’s military and paramilitary forces. And Elva wasn’t the first to recognize the potential of online gaming. A decade ago the World Food Programme launched Food Force, a game in which players had to help a famine-ravaged country recover. Two years later, PeaceMaker, a simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, became one of the earliest serious games to become popular. More recently, festivals and competitions have sprung up to promote the concept of gaming for peace.

Yet these initiatives tended to explicitly link the gaming experience to real-world politics. Since the situation in the Caucasus remains delicate, game developers in Georgia are keen to stress that their project has no political elements, and that it’s just about fostering interaction. “It’s important to promote any kind of interaction, because right now there is none — zero,” says Mark van Embden Andres, a director at Elva. “They don’t know anything about each other.” The group’s initiative is twofold: The NGO organizes cross-border Minecraft sessions, in which Abkhazians and Georgians work on virtual projects together, such as building houses or restoring villages. And, in April, it launched its own game for children called Peace Park, where players must ensure the atmosphere in a communal park remains safe and calm; a Google Translate-based system allows them to chat with one another.

Inspiration for this game actually came courtesy of the Middle East, where the organization Games for Peace aims to create trust and dialogue between young Israelis and Arabs with the help of cross-cultural Minecraft sessions. Uri Mishol, Games for Peace’s co-founder, had no clue about gaming when he started the project two years ago, but he realized the medium’s potential when he watched his sons play computer games. “It would be absurd for my boys to grow up without ever having had a conversation with an Arab citizen, and I thought, ‘Why not use the fact that we’re all online to create a bridge?’” he says. Minecraft, he thought, was ideal for peace-building, as it was already popular and had no elements of politics or competition. Games for Peace focuses on creating positive interactions rather than digging into details of the region’s conflict.

However, even enthusiasts accept that there’s a limit to these games’ potential. That’s why both Mishol and van Embden Andres help organize meetings between the players, believing that face-to-face interaction remains irreplaceable. Niels Scott, the head of Georgia’s U.N. mission, is confident that projects like Peace Park will “break a vicious circle of hatred and ignorance” in the region, but whether gaming can actually make a dent in a long-frozen conflict bogged down by stereotypes and nationalist rhetoric remains to be seen. It’s far from certain that players can transfer skills learned in a game to the real world.

Despite their limitations, these kinds of games hold hope. Cherkezia, for one, says it’s already changed her life. “I’ve met people I would never meet otherwise,” she says.

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