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Public Diplomacy in Virtual Worlds
Micki Krimmel, 10 May 06

Second Life screenshot The definition for public diplomacy is difficult to pin down, ranging from US-centric propaganda to a broader cultural awareness. The USC Center for Public Diplomacy hosts a wiki all about it. The games in this contest were asked to address public diplomacy in one or more of the following ways:

  • For U.S. games, as extensions of the U.S. brand and their role in shaping how the world sees the U.S. (for non-U.S. games their role as extensions of identity, image and brand of their respective country);
  • As online venues (or virtual worlds) in which people from different cultures come together and shape or form ideas about each other and their respective cultures;
  • The unique role that 'localization' plays in public diplomacy (How does framing a game for a community outside the game's country of origin play a role in its impact?);
  • Game Design: As public policy play tools that can be used to educate (not train) people about how different cultures work and/or function (e.g. Roleplay Kofi Annan or the President of Russia, etc.).
  • Four finalists presented their games at the ceremony for the expert judges' review. Judges included Bing Gordon, EVP and Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts, Cory Ondrejka, Chief Technology Officer of Linden Labs and leader of the Second Life project, John Seely Brown, Lauren Bon and T.L. Taylor. The winners received cash prizes and the unique opportunity to attend a private dinner with the contest judges and other industry experts.

    The finalists ranged from virtual cultural exchange programs to strategy games about the Israel and Palestinian conflict or international water rights. All four ideas were rooted in a knowledge of how online games work and built upon the natural cross-cultural collaboration and interaction inherent in MMOGs.

    Honorable Mention: Global Kids Island: Fostering Public Diplomacy Through Second Life.
    Global Kids, Inc. is a seventeen year-old organization with a mission to prepare urban youth to be global citizens and community leaders. Global Kids has embarked on a project studying the use of interactive tools to teach kids public diplomacy. Global Kids Island is a virtual space within Second Life where kids in the after school program facilitate their own workshops with teens across the globe. In this way, the students in the after school program are gaining leadership skills and kids across the globe are connecting to learn about cultural issues.

    The judges expressed great respect for this project as a teaching tool and noted its potential as a new type of learning experience. However, Global Kids Island is more of an online meeting space than an actual game.

    Third Place: Exchanging Cultures.
    Exchanging Cultures is a diplomatic game built inside Second Life. It was created to facilitate cultural understanding through virtual communities and relationships based on the exchange of cultural items like: dances, art crafts, food receipts, architectural models, clothing, etc. Four players compete to obtain the most points by trading cultural items with each other. Points are earned by mixing and matching cultural items like poker cards, with the highest point value going to the player who collects five items from one culture. Through the trading process, players learn themes that tie all the items together and similarities across cultures.

    Exchanging Cultures was awarded third place with praise from the judges for the designers' plans to allow users to create their own cultural items and to earn administrator status in the game. It's a great start toward building a powerful game and proves the power of Second Life as a user-generated community.

    Second Place: Hydro Hijinks.
    Hydro Hijinks is a class project from Montgomery College designed to promote discussion about international water issues and to educate players from around the world about sources of international conflict over water rights. Neighboring countries, Onetopia and Twonesia are locked in a battle over limited water resources. The player's mission is to broker a solution between the two countries by making decisions on how to best use water. The complex issues around water rights are revealed level by level through consequences of your decisions and also through talking to people in each country.

    The judges awarded Hydro Hijinks second place because because it showed the best combination of learning and entertainment. The issues are revealed through gameplay and suspense builds for the player as more information is revealed. Bing Gordon noted the potential for Hydro Hijinks to become a surprise hit for online play and education like the UN Food Game.

    First Place: Peacemaker.
    Peacemaker is a game produced in the labs at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center. It is a cross-cultural political simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which can be used to promote a peaceful resolution among Israelis, Palestinians and young adults worldwide. It is a strategic role-playing game where the player plays the role of the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President. The goal is to reach a peaceful solution while you're in office. The game includes security actions (i.e. sending in tanks), diplomatic actions and construction actions. (Security actions do not play out in the game. You make a decision and time passes, revealing the result. It is not a combat game.) Each action has a consequence and the player must also react to unsuspected events such as car bombs. Through gameplay, the player learns that there are no easy answers and can begin to empathize with the decisions made by leaders on both sides of the conflict.

    The team behind this game has begun testing it with a small group of Palestinian and Israeli students. They are incorporating the feedback into the game as development continues in an effort to achieve the most realism possible. Real video footage of bombings and altercations is included in the game as a constant reminder of the real human cost of the conflict.

    Because of the attention to detail and the real potential for creating change, Peacemaker was awarded First Prize of the Reinventing Public Diplomacy Through Games contest.

    Co-producer of Peacemaker, Asi Burak, had this to say about their game: "There are so many games out there about violence. There is certainly a place for one little game about peace."

    The study of online games and their potential to create social change is a new field but thanks to pioneering schools like USC, it is moving ahead quickly. Hopefully that means we will see many more games like Peacemaker in the future.

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    These look quite cool - it's a shame that apart from the ones within Second Life, there's no obvious way to obtain them. Hydro Hyjinks is just shown by a video trailer. Peacemaker has a fairly slick website but no information on whether or when it would be available more generally. Retail, downloadable for free, still finalising development ... surely the proof of the game is in the playing?

    Posted by: Adam Burke on 11 May 06

    Boy howdy, I took that screenshot! My avatar looks pretty much like meatspace me - not quite as imaginative as some of the others in that image. Perhaps I should write a bit about what the award show experience was like within SL.

    Posted by: thedaniel on 12 May 06



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