Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World

Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World


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Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World by Asi Burak, Laura Parker

The phenomenal growth of gaming has inspired plenty of hand-wringing since its inception—from the press, politicians, parents, and everyone else concerned with its effect on our brains, bodies, and hearts. But what if games could be good, not only for individuals but for the world? In Power Play, Asi Burak and Laura Parker explore how video games are now pioneering innovative social change around the world.

As the former executive director and now chairman of Games for Change, Asi Burak has spent the last ten years supporting and promoting the use of video games for social good, in collaboration with leading organizations like the White House, NASA, World Bank, and The United Nations. The games for change movement has introduced millions of players to meaningful experiences around everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the US Constitution.

Power Play looks to the future of games as a global movement. Asi Burak and Laura Parker profile the luminaries behind some of the movement's most iconic games, including former Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O’Connor and Pulitzer-Prize winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They also explore the promise of virtual reality to address social and political issues with unprecedented immersion, and see what the next generation of game makers have in store for the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250089335
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/31/2017
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,211,792
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

ASI BURAK was named one of the “Digital 25: Leaders in Emerging Entertainment” by the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and Variety Magazine for his work with Games for Change. He co-founded and led Impact Games, the creators of the acclaimed PeaceMaker and Play the News.

LAURA PARKER is a journalist who writes about video games and technology for publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.

Read an Excerpt

Power Play

How Video Games Can Save the World

By Asi Burak, Laura Parker

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Asi Burak and Laura Parker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08934-2


A Little Game about Peace


It's morning rush hour in Jerusalem. A pink haze hangs low over the streets. Cars, buses, and pedestrians jostle for space. Bleary-eyed schoolchildren trundle past shopkeepers rolling up heavy steel doors.

A man boards a bus. He stands beside early morning shoppers, retired old ladies with oversized canvas shopping bags, and soldiers on their way to the training academy. There are children, too, off to school on the other side of town. The man waits until the bus is full, until passengers are pushing up against the windows and doors. Only then does he open his jacket and detonate the explosive strapped to his chest.

There's a flash of white-hot light and a low-pitched rumble, like distant thunder. The flames spread quickly. There's a hole where the street used to be, its edges charred and smoky, glass raining down like confetti. The bus itself is barely visible in the smoke, its crumpled metal insides twisted and poking skyward. The ground beneath it is slippery with oil, tar, and blood.

Sirens wail in the distance. A crowd slowly forms; some people reach down into the hole, searching for survivors. Others simply watch, praying that the bodies scattered at their feet don't belong to friends or relatives. Police and paramedics arrive. They work silently, the routine all too familiar. Yellow police tape goes up. People are told to go home. The camera crews arrive last, training their lenses on the growing pile of black body bags on the side of the road. By midday, news of the attack is everywhere. Nineteen are dead, and more than fifty seriously injured.

We zoom out. It's February 2007, and Major General Danny Yatom, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, is sitting at a mahogany desk playing a video game. A warning message pops up on his screen. It reads, "Hamas claims responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. How will you respond?"

Yatom is wearing a black suit and a burgundy tie. Behind him is the Israeli flag; to his left is his "power wall" — framed photos of Yatom with various world leaders. A news crew from Israel's Channel 2 is standing behind the desk, filming him for that night's evening news. The violent scene described above — a Palestinian suicide bomber detonating a device packed with ball bearings on a crowded bus in the middle of Jerusalem — is the game's opening gambit.

Off-camera, a young reporter tells Yatom that the game requires him to choose a side before he can play. "Do you wish to play as the Israeli leader, or the Palestinian leader?"

Yatom does not hesitate: "The Israeli." The game presents him with his first task: responding to the suicide attack.

"It is clear to me that I need to seek out the terrorists' nest and strike back," he says out loud, not diverting his eyes from the screen. The camera follows him as he sends army troops in for a ground assault. Satisfied by the outcome of the attack, he presses on. "This time I am going for the leadership of Hamas," he says excitedly. "Let's order a targeted Apache strike."

The reporter interjects from across the room, "Remember, General, this is a game designed to demonstrate the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: too much aggression and you might lose."

Yatom reconsiders. "Fine. I will move to diplomacy. I will reach out to the Palestinian president and seek collaboration." After a few minutes, he doubles back. "Wait. I am going to demand — to force, in fact — military action against the terrorists." The reporter protests, but Yatom pushes on. The screen begins to flash an angry red. A message pops up informing Yatom that his decision has led to a new Palestinian uprising. Game over.

"'You have lost,'" Yatom reads. He looks up at the camera, smiling. "I lost because the computer decided I lost. In my opinion, I did all the right things."

Yatom was playing PeaceMaker, a simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, developed by Asi Burak and a small team of developers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. The game had just been published on Amazon and was getting a lot of attention from the press — in the United States, where Asi lived, as well as in Israel, his home country.

When Asi first began work on PeaceMaker, he didn't know what kind of game it would be, or who would play it. All he knew was that video games were finally being taken seriously. People everywhere, from public schools to the United Nations, were looking at games as a new way to teach and inspire the younger generations.

A few days after PeaceMaker's release, Asi received a call from the largest television network in Israel. The network's representatives told him they wanted to test the game out on Major General Yatom, who, at the time, was running for the Israeli Labor Party leadership. Sure, Asi said. There's probably no better way to see if the game actually works than having a leading politician play it on national television.

PeaceMaker asks players to navigate a series of events and hostilities — like the suicide bombing on the bus — through a combination of military intervention and diplomacy. How, for example, should Israel have responded to the bus bombing that inspired the game's opening scene? The scene was based on a real event, and in real life, Israel launched a raid on the West Bank. Was it justified? Was it effective? Might there have been a different, more diplomatic course of action that would have yielded a better result?

Serious games, or "games for change," are often criticized for being too earnest or preachy. PeaceMaker is an exception. Asi and his team used real news footage to illustrate the attacks and events in the game. This had never been done before. The goal was simple: to show people, especially young people, that not all games involving violence have to be made purely for entertainment — that their interactivity could be used to create empathy and provide insight, even into a problem as entrenched and complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and, more fundamentally, that violence doesn't end when you turn the computer off.

As an Israeli who had spent the last three years researching the conflict, Asi recognized the power of an experience that could safely and realistically put players in someone else's shoes.

In the same broadcast for which Yatom played PeaceMaker for the cameras, the reporter asked Asi what he thought about Yatom's decisions in the game. "What happened to Yatom essentially proves that the game is realistic," Asi told the reporter. "This is exactly what's been happening to the State of Israel for decades. It's the same cycle, the same actions that lead to the same depressing results."

The reporter mused, "In PeaceMaker, you can eventually reach peace. So perhaps the game is not so realistic after all."

* * *

Asi grew up in a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv. His university-educated parents took great pains to give him as much creative freedom as he could handle. For him, that meant drawing. He drew a lot as a kid, and somewhere along the way, it was decided that he had a talent for it. His kindergarten teacher used to corner his parents during parent-teacher nights to show them his drawings. "Have you seen Asi's latest?" she'd say, thrusting a pile of crudely drawn clowns at them.

Over time, Asi stopped drawing clowns and started drawing tanks. He was too young to register what was happening around him, but he saw the planes overhead and the tanks in the streets. Plus, everyone talked about it constantly. No one in Israel discussed sports or entertainment or culture with as much zeal as when they talked about "the situation." "As a nation, the conflict defined us," Asi says today.

In primary school, Asi's teacher asked the class whether they believed Israel should return the occupied territories to the Palestinians. "No," they chorused. "We were attacked and won the war, didn't we? Why should we have to give anything back?" When Asi related this to his parents, his father was taken aback. "Why do you seem so sure?" he asked Asi. "I don't know," Asi replied. "But it's just fair, isn't it?" Asi's father explained that things weren't so simple — that each side had its own reasons for wanting what they did. That was the first time Asi had heard anyone express that idea. His father was certainly a liberal, but that was not uncommon at the time. Asi began to question his feelings. "I was Israeli, but did that always make me right?"

In high school, Asi decided to study Arabic — an unusual choice for a middle-class kid from Tel Aviv with good grades. A year later, the military showed up at his school to recruit for the following year's compulsory service programs. In Israel, compulsory military service for men begins when they are 18 and lasts three years. A few of Asi's teachers recommended him for an elite program, and when the army found out he was studying Arabic, they immediately scheduled the eight-hour entrance test.

Asi passed the test, but his parents worried. It turned out he had to do a seven-month preliminary course in addition to the three years of mandatory service, and the course required a whole bunch of secret assignments. The army needed his parents' signature, so they sent the head of the course to Asi's house. He explained that the elite program wasn't as simple as the mandatory military service — that there was much more at stake. Recruits would be dealing with life-and-death situations. Because of the sensitive nature of the information they would have access to, failing a mission could mean prison.

Asi began the course the following week. "We studied morning and night, only going home on the weekends. We couldn't say anything about what we were doing or even where we were." On the surface, the work the recruits were doing was similar to that of the National Security Agency (NSA) — collecting and analyzing data. "Say, for example, that we knew of ten ultra-sensitive emails between two heads of state, but for whatever reason we couldn't get our hands on all ten, just half. My job would be to read those five emails and fill in the gaps. It was analytics, mostly, but it also required me to use the creative part of my brain quite a lot, which I enjoyed."

Once the actual program began, though, things quickly changed. Suddenly, Asi knew so much more than what regular people did. He'd pick up a newspaper and immediately recognize what was truth and what was speculation. He couldn't talk about any of it, of course, but it made him feel powerful. "It was as if I'd suddenly gained X-ray vision."

Slowly, his feelings about what he was doing began to change. As Israeli soldiers, the recruits were constantly fed the idea that they were fighting the good fight, saving lives on a daily basis. But after a few years behind the scenes, some of them had begun to realize that it was mostly thrust and parry, a never-ending circle of violence.

At times, what they were doing felt almost like a game. For one thing, it was nearly always about winning or losing. One operation Asi remembers involved targeting a high-level meeting of militants in South Lebanon. The operation involved months of preparation, total secrecy, and classified reports that only a handful of soldiers in the whole Israeli army could see. Everything went smoothly, and Asi's teammates were exhilarated. "There was actual applause in our bunker," he says.

Sometimes, lives were indeed saved, and people were kept safe. But major events like the Oslo Accords and the 1991 Iraqi surprise attack on Kuwait proved that seismic change often doesn't happen on the military level. The most important breakthroughs are political and often hard to predict. War with Hamas or Hezbollah, on the other hand, can feel like a constant loop. As soon as one problem is eliminated, another pops up in its place. "We'd successfully take out a target or disarm a militant leader, and someone bigger and even more dangerous would replace them," Asi says. "I knew a lot and understood a lot, but to what end? Nothing changed."

After five years, in which he became an officer, and then a captain, Asi had had enough. He quit the army and applied to the best art school in Israel, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. After graduating, he worked in advertising and in the emerging mobile-app market, but he felt restless. "It was almost like I tried to take a break from the army, and get back to normal. But in Israel there is no normal."

Although he was working in an emerging industry, Asi couldn't get excited. Everything he did felt meaningless. He didn't yet know how, but he knew he had to find a way to use his talent to make an impact — he just wasn't sure what kind.

In 2003, during a late-night session of scouring job boards, Asi was suddenly taken with the idea of studying abroad. He began looking at grad programs and hit upon Carnegie Mellon University. One sentence describing CMU's new Entertainment Technology Center jumped out: "Video games are a largely untapped medium for expression."

Even though he'd played games nonstop as a kid in the '80s, on his Atari and then the Apple IIe, he hadn't touched one since.

But could games be the next big thing? When Asi saw that sentence on CMU's site, something clicked. It spoke to his experience: design, the army intelligence service, the old love for games, and his passion for politics. Here, perhaps, was his chance to do something that mattered.

He began reading about the pioneering work being done with games at places like MIT Media Lab and New York University. He bought books about virtual communities and online avatars, like Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck. It was instantly clear that this was powerful stuff, and he had only just scratched the surface. But what astounded Asi the most was how far technology had come since his game-playing days — and how much the meaning of the words "video game" had changed.

Ultimately, he saw an opportunity. "Imagine working on an art form that most people don't yet fully appreciate, but that you know will grow into something incredible one day," he says. "A medium that many people consider shallow, or violent, but whose potential to teach and transform is in fact limitless."

A week later, Asi enrolled in the Carnegie Mellon program and spent the next six months catching up. He bought a new PlayStation console and locked himself in the house, getting reacquainted with everything from Doom to Hitman. The 3D graphics were astounding, yet almost nothing grabbed him emotionally or intellectually. He still somehow preferred the old text adventure games he'd played growing up. Video games certainly looked amazing now, but what about their storytelling power? Could a game both be visually engaging and successfully communicate a deeper message?

One game series that led Asi to hope was Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid. Even though it was designed as a common third-person shooter game, there were moments when it was clear that the designers wanted to surprise players, or throw them off balance. An example is when the protagonist is confronted with the ghosts of everyone he's killed in the game, or when the game begins addressing the player directly: "Stop playing games, put the joystick away."

He thought, "If even just 5 percent of the game was so thought-provoking, couldn't we make a game that's all about challenging our assumptions and making us rethink our values?"

That's how PeaceMaker was born. A video game about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would challenge players to make the same kinds of decisions that the real people in charge are making every day. The game would certainly be provocative. Nothing quite like that had been attempted before. And who better to create it than a kid who'd grown up in the middle of the conflict?

In August 2004, Asi moved to Pittsburgh. Since he didn't want to walk into CMU on his first day and say, "Hey guys, I already know what I want to spend the next two years doing, and you're going to love it," he took some time to adjust. He got to know his lecturers — among them Jesse Schell, Don Marinelli, and the late Randy Pausch, whose 2007 lecture at Carnegie Mellon reflecting on his terminal cancer diagnosis became a YouTube sensation. There was also the fact that Asi was ten years older than everyone else in his class.

Each semester, the faculty assigned the class specific projects. Often, the projects were sponsored — say, an interactive game for Disney to complement the entertainment giant's new television show, or an interactive installation for the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. Students could also pitch their own projects to the faculty, but the chance of success was very low: on average, the faculty only accepted 10 percent of the pitches they saw each year. The reason given was that they didn't have the resources to spare for more. Sponsored projects were, of course, paid for, and the final product would be good publicity for CMU; approving student-run projects meant CMU had to invest its own resources in ideas that could fail.


Excerpted from Power Play by Asi Burak, Laura Parker. Copyright © 2017 Asi Burak and Laura Parker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: A Little Game about Peace (The story of PeaceMaker),
Chapter 2: A Former Supreme Court Judge Takes Matters into Her Own Hands (The story of iCivics),
Chapter 3: New Bonds in Georgia (The story of Macon Money),
Chapter 4: A Prince's Tale (The story of New Arab Media),
Chapter 5: Nine Minutes of Pregnancy (The Story of the Half the Sky Movement,
Chapter 6: A Lab of Hope (The story of Re-Mission),
Chapter 9: "Don't Just Buy a New Video Game — Make One!" (President Barack Obama, December 8, 2013),

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