Peace in a Pixelated World

By Sourya Banerjee

Illustrated by Rayhan Galib

When Nolan Bushnell and his business partner, Ted Dabney, founded Atari in June 1972 and launched Pong (an arcade ping-pong game), I doubt they anticipated they were sowing the seeds of an industry that would be valued at more than $229.16 billion in just over 50 years. Little did anyone envision how the nature of popular video games would evolve, from simple mobile games like Bounce to the massive online real-time world of Travian Kingdoms.   

Video games have jumped out of those big, bulky personal computers into the smartphones in our pockets, significantly increasing their accessibility and the time spent in the virtual world. Prolonged gaming time, especially for young children and young adults, has resurfaced concerns about the impact of video games on issues related to violent behaviour and social alienation, among others, once again.

Raging concerns about video games spawning violent tendencies among young adults is a longstanding debate with conflicting reports. However, experts widely agree that while they may not directly instigate acts of violence, video games, like all art forms, leave an imprint on impressionable minds. Unlike books, movies or other media forms, immersive games like Role Playing Games (RPGs) or First-Person Shooter (FPS) are more likely to desensitise a young mind to violence. However, it is important that studies examining the link between game violence and physical aggression also consider the broader culture, in both the Global North and South, in which children, and especially boys, are raised. 

The use of video games, especially violent war-themed games, as propaganda and military recruitment tools is well-documented. The US Army famously designed America’s Army as a recruitment tool. Another popular video game, Desert Storm, was launched a year before the Iraq war and was allegedly supported by the US government to expand tacit support for the war. Multiple countries, including Iran, the UK, China, Russia, and North Korea, have used state-created, -supported or -sponsored video games to engender and increase patriotic sentiment towards the government and disseminate propaganda and in some cases, foster outright hatred towards people of other communities or countries. Shooter and action games, which advocate violence as a solution and actively reward you for violent actions, perpetually reinforce the very same principle when it comes to the real world as well. 

From war to peace

The same concept, that is, repeated exposure to certain themes and ideas imprints them on impressionable young minds, can also be used to educate and encourage empathy, morality, and proper behaviour among young adults. The problem, however, is that to date, our approach to using video games for education and peace education has been somewhat flawed. More often than not, such game scripts are designed by those who have never played video games. As such, these games miss out on the simple understanding that gamers (myself included) do not choose a game to learn something. Instead, like other art forms, people often resort to gaming to take a break from reality. 

The current approach has been too focused on incorporating elements of peace education and teaching empathy. It has overlooked the key lesson: gamers generally learn by doing and experiencing the rewards and consequences of their actions rather than through instruction. Violent video games do not necessarily teach violence; they reward players for engaging in violent behaviour. As such, empathy cannot be taught but must be nurtured in the players. 

Closer home, in India, concerns about video games spurring violent or anti-social behaviour did not gain national visibility until the advent of games such as Player Unknown: Battle Grounds (PUBG). Although shooting games like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty were popular in India, PUBG’s availability on mobile phones helped it penetrate a previously untapped gamer base. Despite the government’s restrictions on the game in India (owing to concerns about the game data being stored in China), multiple variations of the game, such as Battlegrounds India, Free Fire and FAU-G (an Indian version in which you play as an Indian Army personnel), replaced it. FAU-G additionally replicates real-world events such as clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley, and allows players to  combat Chinese soldiers in their role as an Indian army personnel.

This new breed of games and the competition to be the winner have reportedly unleashed violent tendencies among Indian youngsters, including lashing out at parents and physical altercations. Several mobile platform-focused video games, including violent ones like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, have existed on mobile platforms for a long time with Mortal Kombat having over 100m+ downloads. However, this new generation of first-person shooter mobile games uses realistic graphics and animation, which makes them not only far more popular than the earlier games, but also creates a deeper impression on the mind. A game based on any war or conflict need not also pose ethical questions about the politics of war, but as a hugely popular form of mass media with a juvenile and impressionable audience base the designers’ vision of real-world events has the potential to influence people’s emotional states, thought patterns, and perceptions of the events. Ian Bogost, a professor of media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has argued that the interactive nature of video games makes them an inherently persuasive medium. Video games use a system of “procedural rhetoric” that encourages players to create abstract mental models for how systems work, and form judgements about those systems through the act of playing. 

A parallel can perhaps be drawn with Heroes of 71, a mobile video game funded by the Bangladesh government and based on the Bangladesh Liberation War. In it, players aim to kill as many Pakistani Army personnel as possible. This game and its successor are immensely popular in Bangladesh, touted by experts as increasing patriotic support for the current government and animosity towards Pakistan. Bangladeshis undoubtedly suffered terribly at the hands of the then West Pakistan Army. However, the game raises ethical concerns about promoting violence and whether the government is using the country’s historic freedom struggle to militarise its citizens now.

Ultimately, video games are akin to any art form that serves as a method of storytelling. And if video games can promote violent tendencies, through the in-game narratives influencing a person’s perception of the real world, they can also be tailored and created to do the exact opposite. While some video games promoting violence and brutality are successful, they are not the only kind of video games available. For instance, Civilization requires players to build a thriving civilisation, and penalises them if their civilisation experiences major violence and riots. Even popular action-adventure RPGs like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas, and Dishonored have an in-game morality system that rewards users for making good/peaceful decisions. 

The critically acclaimed Spec Ops: The Line deals with repercussions of military actions and chemical weapons usage, including a game repeatedly reminding players that their actions are not those of a hero they believed themselves to be. After Days is a recent video game inspired by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. It allows players to experience suffering and play as aid-providers. Riseup Lab Games has also created numerous games designed explicitly for Rohingya refugee children who have survived the horrors of conflict, to reintroduce them to the traditional education system. This War of Mine is another critically acclaimed game in which players assume the role of war survivors. It provides players insight into the human side of a conflict and the difficulty of loss and rebuilding. 

Paul Darvasi, a teacher at Royal St George’s College, in a 2016 paper commissioned by UNESCO MGIEP, “Empathy, Perspective and Complicity: How Digital Games can Support Peace Education and Conflict Resolution”, focused on how supposedly “serious games” can alter perspectives and create cognitive empathy. The report stated: “Perspective-taking helps negotiate social complexities, diminish biases, improve intergroup attitudes, and encourage a view of our groups as more self-like… The potential to positively impact attitudes with digital games is not only rooted in their ability to grant perspective, but also in their potency as instruments of persuasion.” 

Games constitute an exceptional educational medium as they allow individuals to be a part of their learning and tap into multiple learning styles, including audio-visual and kinesthetic. It is important to reiterate here that while FAU-G was promoted heavily as a patriotic game with celebrities like Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar and even some social influencers endorsing it, it did not even come close to the success of PUBG, BGIM, or Free Fire. Simply because though it was intended to promote a sentiment, it wasn’t a well-made game. And this brings me back to the key to designing games that advocate peace education — gamification of peace education cannot happen if we forget the basics of making a good game. 

With the advent of virtual reality gaming devices, it is vital for peacebuilders and educators to be actively involved with the video gaming community. They should engage not just as teachers who would propagate ideas but as active members who can plan and help design video games to cultivate an aware and empathetic generation. When it comes to gamification as a medium of peace education, the game is just getting started. 

About the author: Sourya Banerjee is an Advocate, Policy Consultant, Facilitator, and video game enthusiast. Sourya has received training as a Peacebuilder from UNESCO MGIEP and The Red Elephant Foundation. He does freelance legal advisory for numerous civil society organizations and frequently writes and comments on law, policy, and institutional issues in India. When not working, playing strategy video games, or drinking coffee, he runs a blogging platform called Arguendo. He is currently associated as a Consultant, Training & Outreach at the Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi.






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