Games in Palestine

Can a video game replicate reporting in a war-torn country?

I had just arrived in the Middle East, and my editor was describing my first assignment for the wire service: I was to accompany the Israel Defense Forces on a raid of a suspected terrorist’s house. The piece would be published in a European paper that wanted a story about what happens on such missions, and how prisoners are treated. Equipped only with a map, a notebook, and advice, I set out to meet my contact, a commanding officer in the IDF.

Then I leaned back in my chair at my San Francisco apartment and got perspective. I wasn’t actually about to witness a raid, I was playing Global Conflicts: Palestine, a video game designed to convey the intricacies of being a journalist in the volatile Middle East. Global Conflicts: Palestine is made by Serious Games Interactive, a Danish company that is at the forefront of a new wave of games that explore management and leadership challenges. Other examples in the genre include Peacemaker, in which players are either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president, and Food Force, a game about the difficulties of dispensing food aid inside impoverished countries. Global Conflicts: Palestine is the first “serious game” in which you play as a journalist, and it’s been sold in some fifty countries since its July 2007 release, winning multiple industry awards for creativity. Can a game really capture the perils and responsibilities of being a journalist in a war-torn country?

Here’s how it goes: after getting an assignment, you are left to your own devices. You can wander the streets of Jerusalem, take a cab to the Palestinian town of Abu Dis, or visit the Jewish settlements and the neighboring Palestinian villages. Every move and decision, every word you utter, affects relationships with sources. Those relationships evolve throughout the game, so you don’t want to burn anyone. For example, Israeli soldiers have negative reactions if you don’t don an IDF bulletproof vest while following them on the raid, but Palestinian citizens are much harder to approach while wearing such a vest. There is no “winning” in this game; the best you can do is write an “article”—actually a selection of quotes—that has an impact on the situation through the breadth of information reported, has the right angle for the paper that’s publishing it, and keeps a critical distance. Sound familiar?

Global Conflicts: Palestine won’t teach anybody how to write. After moving around Jerusalem, the resulting story consists only of a headline, a photo, and three quotes of the player’s choosing. Still, through the eyes of the main character, you get some sense of the daily hardships of the Palestinians, the daily fears of the Israelis, and the difficulty of having to work between the two as a journalist.

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David Cohn is a student at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.