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Here’s why the UN is getting interested in video games

New report praises games that build understanding

Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Many of us have experienced playing a game that changed our mind or our heart. Perhaps it was about injustices visited upon people who live different lives to our own. Or it was about an ailment or illness sitting at the periphery of our own experience. Or maybe it challenged lazy assumptions about otherness.

For lots of gamers, the power of the medium is its ability to place us in the shoes of other people, making tough choices that we'd otherwise never need to contemplate.

But how does that message of power and opportunity spread outwards, away from the mostly indie games that address serious issues, and the relatively small number of people who celebrate these noble efforts?

For one academic, that question is a call to action. Paul Darvasi is a teacher at Royal St George's College in Toronto. He uses games to teach his English students about alternative forms of narrative to linear norms like novels, films and plays.

He's also the author of a new report commissioned by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) which seeks to find ways in which games can be used to foster empathy and understanding around the world. The report was commissioned by UNESCO subsidiary the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace.

If this all sounds like a hippy-dippy peacenik dreamscape, keep in mind the number of people killed in conflicts every year. According to this report, 180,000 people died in 42 conflicts in 2014. The source of many of these conflicts is hostility between groups of people with differing cultures and world views. Video games are not going to change human nature, but they can help those people — like UNESCO — who are trying to make a difference by diminishing suspicion and rage through empathy.

UNESCO headquarters in Paris
Elliot Blondel / AFP / Getty Images

Conflict Resolution

Darvasi's report — Empathy, Perspective and Complicity: How Digital Games can support Peace Education and Conflict Resolution — focuses on academic studies into how so-called "serious games" can alter perspectives and create cognitive empathy.

"Perspective-taking helps negotiate social complexities, diminish biases, improve inter-group attitudes, and encourage a view of outgroups as more self-like," states the report. "The potential to positively impact attitudes with digital games is not only rooted in their ability to grant perspective, but also in their potency as instruments of persuasion."

"If you read the literature on conflict resolution, perspective-taking is very important in order to reconcile opposing points of view," says Darvasi. "It's difficult to have empathy if you can't put yourself into somebody else's perspective. Video games allow you to assume perspectives in an embodied form.

"When you watch the news or a documentary, you might not feel connected to the issue. But video games immerse you in the action. Your actions have consequences within the game and therefore there's a greater emotional and cognitive investment."

Darvasi says UNESCO approached him following heightened internal interest in games as teaching tools. His vocal enthusiasm for the issue brought him to the organization's attention.

"There's a big initiative to promote game based learning," he says. "In order to create policy UNESCO commission working papers by approaching experts in any particular field who produce a paper which is relevant to their endeavors. particularly for peace education and sustainable development."

1979 Revolution
Ink Stories

Ethics and Propaganda

Darvasi’s report also focuses on a number of games that illustrate his point. These include Peacemaker, in which the player takes on the role of either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president to achieve a two-state solution. He says the game is successful because "players must think about the needs of their own stakeholders and constituents as well as their opponent’s mindset and circumstances."

Hush is also mentioned, in which Rwandan Tutsi mother Liliane must quieten her child through a rhythm game mechanic, in order to keep them both from being discovered and murdered.

This War of Mine is also profiled, most particularly because of its widely praised moral choices, in which the player tries to survive in a war-ravaged city, sometimes by hurting innocent people.

But the game which garners the most attention is Ink Stories' 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a 2016 narrative game that offers players tough dialog and action choices. It puts the player in the role of a photojournalist covering the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, 38 years ago. The game was widely praised by critics for telling a convincing story about a real world event, without resorting to preachy sentimentality. 1979 Revolution has been condemned by the Iranian government as "American propaganda," a charge its makers strenuously deny.

Based on interviews with dozens of Iranians who lived through the revolution, the game incorporates archival footage with a strong story and Telltale-like gameplay.

"You're asked to make very complex ethical decisions every step of the way," says Darvasi. "They're not black and white, good and evil-type decisions that you would get in a less nuanced game. They put you in the position of somebody who has to make very difficult decisions. You often don't have the opportunity to make a positive ethical decision. The power of that is substantial."

"The other reason I found the game fascinating was because of its fidelity to Iranian culture and that particular historical time period. One of the staples of reconciling the world or creating peaceful situations is developing intercultural understanding. This game helps you look into Iranian culture from the inside and really see the various ideological issues that were in play.

Crowds in Iran, 1979
Getty Images

Crude Stereotypes

1979 Revolution is an important milestone in political gaming, partly because it addresses one of gaming's most popular subjects: conflict in the Middle East. But instead of the usual shooting gallery of brown bad guys, it offers something much more subtle and illuminating

In the west, Iran has been reduced to a simplistic idea, and video games are partly responsible for fostering these crude stereotypes.

Ink Stories' founder Navid Khonrasi was raised in Iran, but moved to Canada at around the time of the revolution. He's spent his career making games as well as documentaries. His company is an attempt to fuse these activities into "vérité games," a play on the cinema vérité movement of observational, documentary film-making.

"I feel that interactive experiences are the strongest experience that we have to engage people with what's taking place in the world," says Khonrasi. "You're in it. You get to control your own narrative.”

"You can create an understanding that eventually leads to feelings of empathy and understanding," he adds. "In our time, we're getting our news through Facebook clips, which are condensed but also shallow. The strength of games is that they can have an impact in the long term on people's comprehension and understanding and views of one another."

Ink is working on two new projects. One is a VR experience in which the player experiences what it might be like to be interrogated by agents of a hostile regime. The other is a look at radical '70s movement The Weather Underground.

1979 Revolution was recently updated with seven new languages, including Farsi. "When the game was banned in Iran, we went out of our way to make sure it's also in Farsi so it can be accessible to those who don't necessarily speak a western language. The one thing that we do know about the [Iranian] community is that they've always overcome any digital barriers that have been put in front of them."

1979 Revolution
Ink Stories

Games and Politics

Now that Darvasi's UNESCO report is complete, what does he think about people who say that video games ought to just be a bit of fun, without any political element?

"There's implicit politics in every game." he says. "You can look at GTA 5 as a space for neo-liberal values where the government has disappeared completely and the wild west of the free market has taken over.

"I think of every video game as a text, and a text is susceptible to any number of political readings. It's a mistake to over-simplify them and to think they are devoid of political content. Some games are more deliberately political. 1979 Revolution is certainly more political than Tetris. But I believe that you can yield a political reading from a game like Tetris if you look hard enough and from the right angle.”

Ultimately, the work of people like Darvasi as well as those making games with clear political messages is an antidote to the sometimes lazy and crass politics of mainstream games, which channel received ideas about otherness.

"The goal is to move people towards looking at events from an informed perspective as opposed to a superficial understanding of the world," he says.