"Building is our answer to murder," Israel's former economics minister and current education minister Naftali Bennett in September 2014, responding to outrage over his government's appropriation of 990 acres of Palestinian land near Gvaot in the West Bank following the murder of three Israeli students that summer. 2014 was an especially dismal year in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marked by a revival of hostilities in the Gaza Strip which has led to thousands of casualties, and of Israeli settlers into what the UN has long deemed to be illegally occupied territory.
There's more than one way to build, however. On 1st January 2014, a group of Tel Aviv-based academics and entrepreneurs announced (G4P), a not-for-profit organisation that uses online multiplayer games such as Minecraft to foster understanding between school students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds in the Middle East. The brainchild of Uri Mishol, former CEO of software company and an Israeli Army veteran, G4P is a response to the segregation of Arab and Jewish communities in the Palestinian territories and Israel, with many youngsters taught to fear people from "the other side" long before they ever lay eyes on them.
Mishol had little experience of games prior to founding G4P, but has long worried about the creeping effects of cultural prejudice on his own children. His interest in the positive effects of virtual interaction was piqued by watching his sons play games together. In 2013, Mishol attended the annual Games for Change conference in New York, which promotes creators who feel video games can be a force for good in society. "This blew me away, the impact that games could have," he tells me in a conversation over Skype.
"I did a lot of thinking about how this could be useful to the situation here between Israelis and Palestinians and in the Middle East in general. And one idea I spoke to experts in the field about was using popular commercial games to address racism and stereotyping, as opposed to what's much more common today, which is developing educational games for that purpose." This idea then became the core of the G4P initiative.
Working with established games naturally keeps costs down, but its main advantage is that many participating children are engaged from the get-go— Minecraft, after all, is one of the best-loved games in history, with over , and runs happily on a large number of devices.
"For many of the children this is the first positive interaction they've had with a counterpart of the same age from a country that has been demonised by their society"
G4P operates two programmes at the time of writing. "Play for Peace" weekends are themed online sessions to which young people are invited via the group's Facebook page. The majority have taken place in Minecraft, but G4P has also hosted rounds of Valve's first-person shooter Team Fortress 2. Participants are able to converse in their different languages using Google text translation software, and the event is carefully monitored for abusive behaviour. The first Play for Peace weekend took place on 17th January 2014, and saw 50 players from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and other countries joining forces to complete a "Peace Village" in Minecraft's Create mode. The fifth, held in July 2014, tasked participants with erecting a World Cup football pitch.
While interactions between players are generally benign, there have been clashes. "One of the incidents I remember from our first Play for Peace event was that, during one of the sessions, an anonymous player started building swastikas across the game world," Mishol recalls. "It took a while to discover this, but the interesting thing was what happened next—the rest of the players, from all nationalities, cooperated to clean the world of the swastikas."
The premise and relaxed, cheerful ambience of Minecraft obviously encourages amicability; bloody competitive offerings such as Team Fortress 2 are another matter. "We've had our doubts about using TF2, because it's not really a peaceful game!" Mishol confesses. "It's two teams of six players trying to kill each other. This is an eternal discussion, about how constructive the use of violence [in art] can be, but we believe it can be constructive in certain configurations." As with Minecraft, G4P's Team Fortress sessions are closely supervised.
G4P's hope is simply that the opportunity to play together, getting to know each other while working towards a common goal, will gradually disarm any preconceptions the children have about other cultures—steeling them against stereotypes in daily life. "For many of the children this is the first positive interaction they've had with a counterpart of the same age from a country that has been demonised by their society or by the media," notes Mishol. "It's just having fun with somebody from the other side. Sharing an experience."
G4P's other current programme is Play2talk, which brings together children from two particular schools to participate in weekly Minecraft sessions. "It's not one school playing against the other," explains Mishol. "They're split into teams and each team has participants from both schools. And they go through a series of challenges, and each challenge engages the students in a way that requires increasingly more cooperation, communication and dependency between team members."
Initially straightforward activities such as building a house give way to more advanced projects, like assembling a famous landmark. Ultimately, the students are asked to come up with and vote on a structure themselves. "During this stage there is also increasing awareness of the other team [in reality]: students are exchanging information about locations, they send over class photos, so there's a growing familiarity with the people behind the avatars. It's something our students started—they felt the need for it—and now it's part of the programme."
Once the final task has been completed, the children are invited to meet each other face to face. "We usually do this in a public park, somewhere in between, but sometimes we set up visits to each school," Mishol tells me. "And they see each other for the first time, which is often quite surprising. You see that this male warrior you were slaying zombies with is actually a girl!"
G4P's organisers are still gathering data about the long-term effects of such encounters, but pre- and post-programme surveys of pupils have been "promising," Mishol says. "We do see on both sides signs of suspicion towards the other. [But] this is always on par with their curiosity about the game, and the dynamics of the game. The Jewish class knows that there are Palestinian players on the other side, and that does rouse certain emotions and vice versa, but helping their team win in the challenges, or going through the adventure, is sometimes more powerful than the preconceptions they have about each other. And when they physically meet—we've seen varied results in the testimonies, but there's one thing we hear again and again, which is that the experience on the virtual plane made it a lot easier."
Most encouragingly of all, some of the children have maintained a rapport after finishing the programme, adding each other on social media. It's a small gesture, but Mishol is convinced that this will have far-reaching consequences. "Just seeing a newsfeed with updates from children from [the] other school post-programme has a positive effect," he remarks. "And in one or two cases, we've seen schools keep up the connection and create an annual tradition of visiting."
The Games for Peace team has presented its work at humanitarian conferences around the globe, including Peace Build and Games for Change. It's also collaborated with organisations in other regions, hosting Minecraft sessions in the Caucasus with the aid of humanitarian data-gathering organisation to ease tensions between Georgian and Abkhazian youth, following the bloodshed of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. Mishol hopes to continue to operate outside Israel—even in relatively peaceful countries like the UK, where is on the rise following the Paris attacks of 13th November.
"It was very powerful for us to see how similar [things were in Georgia], and how universal the concept we're trying to implement is," he observes. "Because children on both sides immediately connected [with each other] through the games, and we saw that the hesitation that's usually involved with having a dialogue with 'the enemy,' so to speak, in some ways dissolves when it's reduced to play. There's a child in everyone, and that's what we're trying to build on."