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Video game for peace inspired by Lebanon

BEIRUT: Computer games such as “Grand Theft Auto” and “Mortal Kombat” are often blamed for an increase in aggression and lack of empathy among young players.

In Lebanon, where teenagers are well acquainted with the tragic consequences of real-life violence, NGO Search for Common Ground aims to harness the power of computer games as a force for good. “Cedaria: Blackout,” a multiplayer game due to be released in March, aims to promote conflict resolution and further the organization’s goal of achieving sustainable peace.“This video game is targeting youth from 15 to 25 years old,” SFCG Country Director Emily Jacquard explains. “We’ve seen that recently more and more NGOs are using serious games to educate people, especially young people.”

Many of these games are overly serious and didactic, Jacquard explains, proffering black-and-white choices between right and wrong. Determined to appeal to young players’ sense of fun, SFCG teamed up with Matsuko, the Slovakia-based company behind popular games such as “Assassin’s Creed,” to create a game that combined the organization’s peace-building initiative with a sophisticated and enjoyable gaming format.

“We were convinced that it can be serious and fun at the same time,” Jacquard explains. “We want it to be nuanced, not dichotomous, to show that there are lots of options in real life for how to deal with conflict. You can fight but you can also negotiate. There are so many options and alternatives.”

The computer game format should allow the organization to reach out to young people who are usually outside the scope of their projects, she explains, such as those who don’t attend school or university.

Research conducted via focus groups across the country revealed that 90 percent of young people surveyed spent three to four hours a day playing computer games, she says, a statistic that applied to women as well as men.

The game is set on a fantasy island called Cedaria – a reference to Lebanon’s national symbol, the cedar – at the end of the 19th century. Players begin by returning to the island after an absence of some years, having heard tales of the country’s wealth and the power of the Phoenix, a unique machine capable of providing the entire island with wireless electricity.

When they arrive, however, they learn that someone has sabotaged the Phoenix, scattering the pieces across the island’s 14 zones, and that the island has been without electricity for months.

In the darkness, enmity begins to grow between the island’s four clans. Players must gather the pieces of the Phoenix and figure out who destroyed it and why. The choices they make along the way may help to reconcile Cedaria’s inhabitants or drive them further apart.

Players can set out to solve five different mysteries, each requiring them to complete 10 missions. Each choice they make has unique consequences, encouraging them to play multiple times to find out how each decision affects the final outcome.

“They can choose the wrong response,” Jacquard says, “but then they will face the consequences of their actions. They’ll realize that they may have saved time [by doing things] the wrong way, but if they had thought twice about it and tried negotiation as an alternative to violence then they would have gained more points and achieved their goal more easily.”

The game aims to promote virtual collaboration while engendering real-life tolerance and teamwork. “Because it’s a multiplayer game [on] Facebook, players will have to build alliances with people they don’t know,” Jaquard says, “who might not come from the same sectarian or socioeconomic background. So they will have to overcome all those stereotypes and prejudices.”

While the game steers clear of physical combat – though characters are able to fight – players face challenges such as corruption, inequality, racism, crime, monopolization of resources and blackmail.

“The game was inspired by situations like those we experience in Lebanon,” Jacquard says, “like loss of electricity and sectarian issues.”

“We created some factions on the island that were inspired by some factions that are already here in Lebanon,” the game’s writer Zeinab Alayam adds. “We tried to make them in a way that you couldn’t make the connections between them, but the ideas are all there.”

The Lebanese inspiration for the game is reflected in the graphics. Combining Victorian steampunk machinery and Ottoman architecture, Cedaria blends part and present, East and West, to create a unique fantasy world populated by characters such as tomboy mechanic Josephine “Josie” Doughtry and treacherous steamboat company owner Edwin Westlock III.

“We didn’t want to use Arabic names,” Alayam explains, “because some are specific to one kind of religion ... so we prefer to use English names to keep people from drawing any conclusions.”

The organization is currently running a campaign on crowd funding website Indiegogo to raise extra funds in order to distribute the game in schools across Lebanon and train teachers in how to use it as a conflict resolution tool and a means of bridging sectarian divides.

“We would like to do interschool tournaments,” Jacquard says. “Then [players] mix physically with others, because [young people] don’t travel. If they’re from Sidon or Tyre they will never go to Tripoli, so the idea is for the game to provide a safe space for them to interact with each other and network and overcome prejudices ... to show that to win or to achieve things you have to collaborate.”

To find out more about “Cedaria: Blackout,” visit www.cedariagame.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 10, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

Computer games such as "Grand Theft Auto" and "Mortal Kombat" are often blamed for an increase in aggression and lack of empathy among young players.

In Lebanon, where teenagers are well acquainted with the tragic consequences of real-life violence, NGO Search for Common Ground aims to harness the power of computer games as a force for good.

Many of these games are overly serious and didactic, Jacquard explains, proffering black-and-white choices between right and wrong. Determined to appeal to young players' sense of fun, SFCG teamed up with Matsuko, the Slovakia-based company behind popular games such as "Assassin's Creed," to create a game that combined the organization's peace-building initiative with a sophisticated and enjoyable gaming format.

Players begin by returning to the island after an absence of some years, having heard tales of the country's wealth and the power of the Phoenix, a unique machine capable of providing the entire island with wireless electricity.

When they arrive, however, they learn that someone has sabotaged the Phoenix, scattering the pieces across the island's 14 zones, and that the island has been without electricity for months.

Players can set out to solve five different mysteries, each requiring them to complete 10 missions.


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