PITTSBURGH — A Palestinian suicide bomber blows up a bus, leaving the newly elected Israeli prime minister to puzzle over a response. A missile strike could ease security fears, or prompt more violence. A diplomatic approach might anger Israelis, leading to an assassination plot.
The complex choices facing leaders in the Middle East have long confounded political analysts and policy makers. But two graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University are hoping their video game based on the conflict will help players find solutions — and raise capital for their new company.
But will such a game attract players and investors?
Proponents of so-called serious games, an emerging genre of interactive games that tackle real-world problems, believe so. But major video game makers, while applauding such efforts, are wary of investing in them.
Asi Burak and Eric Brown, along with a team of other students, have spent more than a year building "PeaceMaker," which attempts to simulate the violence and political turbulence of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
Burak — a 34-year-old former Israeli intelligence officer — and Brown — a 29-year-old game developer with a degree in painting — recently formed a company, ImpactGames, to take the game to market.
Most serious games appeal to a niche market and seek to educate and train public officials, students and professionals in various fields using simulations — technology the military has used for years.
They include "Incident Commander," a government-commissioned game being designed by BreakAway Games that models terrorist attacks, school hostage crises and natural disasters. Another game, "A Force More Powerful," teaches nonviolent ways of fighting dictators, military occupiers and corrupt rulers.
Deborah Tillett, BreakAway's president, said her games have sold well, but she conceded they would have to be made less realistic to sell in larger numbers. The company's success is rarely measured by units sold, she said, but by lives or budgets saved.
But games that emphasize education over entertainment often risk failure in the marketplace, said Steve Seabolt of Electronic Arts Inc., the world's largest video game maker.
People have believed for 15 to 20 years that there is a market for serious games, "and with the exception of `Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?' there have been precious few that have achieved commercial viability," he said, referring to the 1980s computer game that later spawned a public television show.
Some serious games focus on historical battles, but "PeaceMaker" and others deal with current events.
"Let's be realistic," Seabolt said. "Lots of people like entertainment because it takes them somewhere other than the world as it is or the life they're leading."
But Burak and Brown say the response to their game has been positive so far, even in a market hungry not only for death and destruction, but also the nonviolent themes of best sellers such as "The Sims" and "Myst."
"We had a challenge to make a peace game engaging," Burak said. "What we see out there is all of those war games. There is a reason people are making them — because they're engaging, there is a challenge, there is a conflict."
In "PeaceMaker," players choose between the role of an Israeli prime minister or a Palestinian Authority president. They make policy decisions, communicate with the international community and monitor opinion polls while coping with "black events" — bursts of violence that threaten to throw the game off course.
"PeaceMaker" incorporates news footage of actual events designed to make players feel connected to the real world. The game's objective is peace through a two-state solution, but players can also wage attacks.
It is still being developed, but a Windows-based prototype has been tested at schools and with game-industry figures. Burak and Brown hope to offer a downloadable version for PCs and Macs with $300,000 to $500,000 from people "interested not only in the investment, but the social cause," Burak said.
The project's Web site is at etc.cmu.edu/projects/peacemaker/.
Serious game developers see a bright future for "PeaceMaker" and other games that apply computer modeling techniques to social, environmental or public health problems.
Last year, the U.N. World Food Program unveiled "Food Force," which challenges players to distribute food rations on a fictitious island. The free game was downloaded more than 1 million times in its first six weeks online, according to the agency.
David Rejeski, head of the Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., said games like "PeaceMaker" can help players understand how difficult situations arise and how they might get out of them.
"You could do the same thing with a game ... that models some of the things that happened when the hurricane hit New Orleans," he said. "It's an incredibly complex set of interlocking actions and reactions."
It is unlikely they will become multimillion-dollar blockbusters, Rejeski said, noting that most are developed by energetic graduate students and funded by the government, foundations or altruistic investors.
"So one of the real issues is, what's the business model here? How can you actually do this and earn a decent living doing it? And that hasn't been resolved yet," he said.
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