Using digital games for conflict resolution

How empathy and perspective can support peace education and conflict resolution.
A still from the game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, created by Iranian-Canadian Navid Khonsari.

As video games have matured as a medium, more games are tackling serious subjects, from mental health issues to hard-nosed journalism.

They rely on game structure, but they're designed for education, not just having fun. Could they be used in conflict resolution and peace education?

Paul Darvasi (Leana Satim)
Paul Darvasi is a Toronto teacher and educational game designer who recently wrote a working paper for UNESCO looking at that question.

He points to serious games about conflict (such as Peacemaker, about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict) as examples of how they can foster empathy and perspective-taking. Both are key ingredients in conflict resolution.

"When you're in some type of hostility, where there's intergroup contact breaks down, and there's a process of de-humanizing the 'other' in their absence," says Paul.

It's this gap that games can help address. Games "can allow you to inch your way towards understanding the other a little bit better, by having exposure to the culture or the realities of the other group through this medium, which is a very powerful way to access them."

A good example of the power of video games to shed light on another culture is 1979 Revolution (about the Iranian Revolution of 1979).

Its creator, Navid Khonsari, comes from a background in mainstream video games, but is passionate about using the structure of a game environment to take people inside the tumultuous period.

The game shows what it was like for ordinary people, on the ground.
Navid Khonsari

"One of my own personal motivations for making this game was the endless amount of conversations I've had to have with people to explain the Iran that I know...Through news, and the filtration that takes place, we only come to see Iran as being a country of mullahs and clerics and women who are covered up in veils; and to tell people that this didn't exist before 1980, 1979…"

Paul Darvasi points to the incredible amount of detail in Navid's project.

"It really merges in some ways, the game mode with the documentary mode," says Paul, pointing out that a lot of the material comes either from images Navid's own family had or archival source material.

The content has been very much what Hollywood has said is entertaining, but...'the real' is something that people are not only embracing, but craving.- Navid Khonsari

Navid thinks this realism could be the start of a new chapter in video games. "The content [of video games] has been very much what Hollywood has said is entertaining, but what we're starting to realize is that...'the real' is something that people are not only embracing, but craving."

While all this seems promising, Paul is realistic about the challenges and limits to games as a tool for conflict resolution.

If players are just rushing through the game without reflecting on the content, for example, he thinks they're not going to absorb the serious message.

He recommends including additional opportunities for context, like watching a video or reading text that primes players for empathy.

The protagonist of the game 1979 Revolution is a photojournalist named Reza.

It seems what's most needed is further study. Paul says there are relatively few empirical studies, and the results are mixed.

For example, one study used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict game, Peacemaker. Turkish and American players (Turkish players took the Israeli side, and Americans took the Palestinian perspective), showed increased understanding of the other perspective.

However, the same wasn't true after Israeli and Palestinian students played the game from the others' perspective.

"The effect on the primary stakeholders in the typically not substantially changed by these types of interventions," he says.

"But where they've seen a great deal of success is with third parties, the populations that contextualize these conflicts."