On the list of All-Time Great Game Premises, it’s a fair bet that you won’t find the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A low-intensity battle of suicide bombers and targeted assassinations, a decades-long hostility that defines the entire region and shows no signs of imminent resolution? It doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of promising game play. After all, games are premised on the possibility of change, and, for the player, a measure of control — the interactivity that separates video games from other, passive media such as film and television. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which for most people has only hazy, distant relevance, appears better suited to a long, grueling independent documentary series than a video game…
…unless you’re the developers at ImpactGames. Seeking to mitigate the sense of hopeless detachment many players might have about the Middle East peace process, their first product, Peacemaker, casts the player in the role of either the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President. In the turn-based strategy game that follows, each week brings a new set of challenges: a suicide bomber might blow up a bus; the Israeli Army might crack down on militants; Jewish settlers might agitate for more government support. Winning the game involves balancing multiple interests, from military hawks within the government, to independent militant groups, to the average citizen on the “Tel Aviv street.” The end goal is a two-state solution, the apotheosis of a non zero-sum, win-win outcome. Succeed, and you’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize. Fail, and the Middle East will once again be consumed by violence.
Failure, in Peacemaker, comes more often than success. As an opening montage makes clear, the region has known violence for generations. Undoing decades of hostility, in the game as in real-life, involves a slow, incremental process of trust-building. Trust begets trust, but a single misstep can undo weeks of work; the cycle of trust is much more fragile than the cycle of violence. Winning the game requires a synergistic strategy that maximizes benefits for both sides.
Playing as the Israeli Prime Minister, for example, you can react to a suicide bombing by ordering targeted assassinations or a crackdown on militants. Or you can speak with the Palestinian President. Or you can offer aid to the Palestinians. As the Palestinian President, reacting to the same event, you too can order a crackdown, make a speech to your people, or bribe militant leaders. Your choices set the tone for further negotiations; both sides have internal interest groups to consider — Hamas and Fatah militant groups for the Palestinian President, hawkish military leaders and Jewish settlers for the Israeli Prime Minister — as well as having the world’s eyes on you. And world opinion makes a tangible difference in Peacemaker — the Israeli Prime Minister, for example, has much better international standing than the Palestinian President, forced to beg other countries for economic and social aid.
Even given this disparity, Peacemaker is surprisingly balanced. Despite Israel’s diplomatic and economic advantages, it’s no easier to win peace from Israel’s side than it is for the near-destitute Palestinians. This underlines the game’s position that the only way anyone wins is if everyone wins. The only true peace is peace for everyone.
The most frequent question I was asked after telling people I’d be reviewing a game based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — beyond, “They made a game of that?” — was, “Is it fun?” The answer is, like the game that provokes it, a complicated one: do you play video games in order to escape the world? Are video games, by their nature as “games,” about turning off the higher mental faculties and simply “being entertained”?
Of course the answer is “no,” but making the question explicit reveals something about our preconceptions of the video game as medium (and, implicitly, about the production and distribution of video games). What if the two most-asked questions about Peacemaker were not, “Why would you make a game about that?” and “Is it fun?” but “Why not make a game about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” and “Is it an experience that offers not escapism, but a fuller engagement with the world outside the screen?” In that case, we might not have to talk about games like Peacemaker as “games.” We might be able to talk about them as something else, something approaching, yes, art.