Can games succeed where diplomacy fails?

Online games have what it takes to get Israelis and Palestinians together, says the head of Games for Peace

Minecraft scene (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Minecraft scene (Photo credit: Courtesy)

A seasoned member of the Israeli high-tech industry is using video games to build bridges between Israeli and Arab youths.

With the latest round of US-sponsored negotiations going sour, it appears that the adults in the room — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and US Secretary of State John Kerry — may not have it in them to reach a peace deal.

Where adults failed, kids may succeed, according to Uri Mishol, a high-tech industry veteran who now focuses on developing Internet events for kids from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries to challenge each other — not with guns and rocks, but with the virtual bricks of the popular online Minecraft massively multiplayer game.

Games for Peace is Mishol’s pet project, bringing together hundreds of kids in a game that requires more cooperation than competition to ensure success. “Kids around the world love to play games, and we decided to leverage the idea of computer games to enhance dialogue, which will hopefully help lead to peace,” Mishol said.

The dialogue has nothing to do with secure borders or rights of return. All the kids talk about when playing Minecraft, is Minecraft, and the best strategies to break rocks, make bricks and build structures, as the game requires. “We chose that game because it requires a lot of cooperation to lay the bricks and build coherent structures and artwork,” said Mishol. “Players communicate with each other, building informal teams and helping each other out to achieve a common goal.”

Using the Internet to promote peace makes perfect sense to Mishol. “When you have a peace event, like a dialogue with Palestinians, you attract the same pro-peace crowd each time. With the Internet, I can attract thousands of kids of all backgrounds to experience dialogue with ‘the other.’”

The same goes for games, as opposed to other activities. “There are lots of programs having kids from diverse backgrounds play ball together, but the you get only the kids that are good at playing ball. We cast a far wider net,” Mishol said.

Uri Mishol (Photo credit; Courtesy)
Uri Mishol (Photo credit; Courtesy)

GFP advertises its events via Facebook and other social media, drawing players from throughout the Middle East, including Israel, the PA, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The game is played on a special server that allows for automatic translation of messages into Hebrew or Arabic, depending on the player’s preference.

Minecraft may promote peace, but one thing it does for sure, said Mishol, is promote dialogue, “which is the first step to peace, as far as I am concerned. When I was a kid I never interacted with Arabs, and neither did my own kids when they were young, I started thinking about this and realized that it was crazy to have never had any communication with Arabs. GFP helps solve this.”

Besides running the Minecraft Challenge, GFP has an in-school program called Minecraft Talk, where classrooms log in at the same time to play and talk about their experiences. “The Minecraft Challenge is for all ages, while the Talk program is being run for eighth graders. For many of them, this is the first positive shared experience with someone from the ‘other side,’” said Mishol.

While Minecraft is as focused on cooperation as a game can get while still being a challenge, and Mishol uses a tweaked version to emphasize cooperative elements, kids can still find something to fight about. Mishol is aware of the possibility, but so far things have worked out. “We’ve had very little fighting, and almost no name-calling,” Mishol said, recalling an instance in which a Saudi Arabian player used bricks to build swastikas and was berated for it in Arabic, by players from Egypt and Jordan.

Still, “kids are always going to have a competitive streak about them, and even play at being violent, but I don’t see that as inherently negative in a computer environment.” The trick, said Mishol, was to allow kids to be kids, with all their positive and negative traits, and work towards understanding and dialogue from that point. “The only time we as administrators interfere is if we see individual players being abused.”

Mishol is the CEO of a successful start-up called IncrediBuild, but he dedicates significant time and money to GFP. “With more funding we could open more servers and expand the program,” Mishol said. “Right now I am funding most of it, and everyone who is working on it is doing it voluntarily. We’ve tried almost everything else to make peace, and most of it hasn’t worked very well. We think this is worth a shot.”

The third edition of GFP’s Minecraft Challenge will be held on April 18 through 20. About 100 players participated in the first two games.

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