There are places in the world where hatred hangs in the air, like floating motes. It is breathed in and it is breathed out. It is borne aloft by suspicion and distrust of the other.
NGOs and charities often attempt to diminish hatred by connecting people from mutually hostile societies, most especially children. They organize joint lessons, excursions, sports and cultural events. The logic says that if we can recognize the alien other as essentially the same as us, hatred cannot thrive.
But there are places in the world where physical connections are problematic, even risky. New opportunities for bringing people together arise in the digital domain.
Justin Hefter has been working to establish empathy between people since his days as a student at Stanford, where he organized a social group designed to increase understanding between Muslim and Jewish students.
More recently, he has been visiting the Middle East, seeking ways to bring kids together from across national, religious and cultural divides. Now he has turned to games. He is not a game developer, but he recognizes the power of video games to bring people together.
"I set out to start a nonprofit to bring Israeli and Palestinian kids together," says Hefter, who is Jewish-American. "Last year I traveled to Israel to see if there was a way to use games to bring Israeli and Palestinian kids together. We went into schools and started interviewing hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian kids to find out where their game preferences overlapped. What we found was that kids wanted to play co-operative games."
Hefter mocked up a rough board game version of Temple Run in which players could only reach the end if they helped other players. The kids responded positively. Hefter decided to work with some game developers to build an endless runner that could only be played cooperatively. They founded Bandura Games.
RunZoo randomly pairs players from around the world. They are incentivized to work together throughout the game, to share boosts and loot. At the end of the game, each partner gets to view the other's profile, including shared tastes, but also their background.
"Through this experience, we feel that you'll be able to develop a relationship with this person," explains Hefter. "Perhaps you'll overcome any biases or prejudices you might have had toward someone of that race, religion, ethnicity."
Bandura Games is set up to be the change it wants to see in the world. "We are founded by an American, Israeli and Palestinian team," states RunZoo's Indiegogo page, which is seeking $37,000. "We've since grown to over 10 people. We are 40 percent women. We are Jewish, Muslim and Christian. We are black, white and brown. We are gay and straight."
Hefter believes that playing a game co-operatively can create powerful bonds between people, who are divided by political and societal divides. "There's tons of research that's been done on games," he says. "15 minutes of gameplay can turn a complete stranger into a friend. That's amazing. Just last week an article came out that cooperative gameplay can help people's heart rates sync up. You're developing trust."
"Kids love cooperative games. Their self-worth increases. They feel their lives have more value because this other person wants to play with them on the same team. This other person shares a boost with them, saves their life in the game.
RunZoo is a simple runner that is unlikely to revolutionize the world of game design. But its ambitions are way bigger.
"Say you've been taught your whole life that this person is a bad person," says Hefter. "Then, you play a game with this person, who wants to help you, wants to share their resources with you, wants to save your life. That creates such a feeling of self-worth, especially for young kids. That lasts a lifetime."