The State Department is pursuing people-to-people diplomacy through video games


The United States government’s highest foray into video game diplomacy ended its first academic year last month.

A total of 450 students from the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain participated in the 10-week Game Exchange program, completing a total of 170 new video games based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Participants engaged in up to three shared video conference calls with their international peers at a subsidiary school in addition to seven or eight sessions, totaling between 20-25 hours, with each other. Teachers received paid training to help students navigate the game development process.

Game Exchange aims to bring together students from these four nations to foster long-term relationships while teaching them how to create video games. To do this, Game Exchange received a grant from the Stevens Initiative, which is funded by the US State Department and the Bezos Foundation along with other governments and institutions and implemented by the Aspen Institute. (Jackie Bezos, president and co-founder of the Bezos Family Foundation, is the mother of Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.)

The program envisages doubling the number of students in the next academic year.

Although a quantitative analysis of the program is still planned, the US State Department remains optimistic about the games as a way to facilitate “people-to-people diplomacy” on issues such as climate change, gender equality and food security, especially among young people.

“This virtual exchange is just the beginning of what we hope will be a lasting relationship that goes beyond gaming,” said Chris Miner, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Professional and Cultural Exchanges at the US State Department.

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Students who spoke to The Post after two of the sessions overwhelmingly reported positive experiences with the game-making aspect of the program. Some wished for more opportunities to interact with their fellow study abroad students during the program – although many still felt they had meaningful interactions.

“I have never met anyone from outside the country [except] maybe Canada,” said Edin Henton, 16, a student at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit. Henton was drawn to the program after getting into “Fortnite” during the pandemic. She was interested in the prospect of making her own video game, but was skeptical about the cross-cultural aspect.

“Personally, I didn’t think it would work. I couldn’t imagine meeting someone from Israel,” she said.

That changed for her and her classmates after a revealing moment in which an Israeli student said “f—” during one of the video conferences.

“Hey Mr. Williams, they talk like us!” Silas Williams, a Martin Luther King Jr. High School teacher and program facilitator, recalled one of his students saying. Many question whether their Israeli counterparts watch the same movies and play the same video games as them.

“They’re teenagers just like you,” he replied.

Williams, who completed his 24th year as an educator in the Detroit public school system and learned the Scratch programming language during his master’s program in 2008, said he chose Game Exchange after seeing his son meet your friends through online video game platforms during the pandemic.

It also helped support one of his main initiatives, which is to encourage his students to create.

“For African-American kids, it’s not just about consuming technology, it’s about being creators of technology,” he said, adding that it challenges them to think as creators rather than just consumers of technology. Almost all students at Martin Luther King Jr. High School are black.

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“Being able to create games and design them and work with others was nice,” said Timothy Parker, 15, one of Williams’ students. Parker said he designed his first game in eighth grade and hopes to build on his skills. He wanted to make his characters move in specific ways, like rising.

Milana Keliza, 17, participated in the program with her class at Staten Island’s Tottenville High School, which partnered with Mekif Yud Alef High School in Ashdod, Israel. She said she was always curious about the code behind video games.

“For me, I just like solving problems and figuring out how things work. I feel like making games and finding bugs is just something I love,” she said.

On the Israeli side, students were similarly interested in creating games and meeting people from another country.

“I play a lot of video games and I wanted to know the background of the games,” said Tomer Malka, a student at Ashdod Nursing School who knows three programming languages. Like the Americans Henton, Parker and Keliza, he was drawn to game development and the Game Exchange program out of curiosity about how games are made.

Malka connects with her American counterparts through games as well as sports and music.

“I’m a big basketball fan. I know the Detroit Pistons. I also know the Kiss song ‘Detroit Rock City’… I didn’t have high expectations for [Detroit] students. I wanted them to work together and have fun, just like me,” he said.

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While the students felt connected, they encountered some cultural gaps. Williams said some of his students were put off by the personal nature of some of the Israeli students’ questions — about the students’ families and what their parents do for work — something the Israeli students said they did as a show of interest. to developing meaningful friendships.

“If someone they don’t know contacts them like that, they think it’s a scam,” Williams said of her students.

Interactions were also hindered by technological difficulties. Sessions observed by The Post had the expected beeps and frozen screens of teleconferences. The sessions observed afterwards saw only about 10 minutes dedicated to ice-breaker type exercises, while the rest of the time was mostly given to the students to quickly explain their games.

Suzanne Pollack, president of Games for Change (G4C), said the next rounds of the program will put more focus on the number of interactions students will have in different countries. She added that interactions will also be smoothed by learning from G4C’s technical experience over the past year.

“We had some assumptions that some platforms were universal, and it wasn’t until we were in the program that we identified the issues,” Pollack said, noting that, for example, gaming-focused chat platform Discord is banned in the UAE. Some school districts, she continued, also have weak broadband connections. Williams said some students cannot install certain communication platforms on their laptops; he questioned whether the joint sessions were of much use overall.

Pollack said G4C and teachers are starting next year “with a lot more clarity about what we can achieve.” She expects the current crop of teachers to be equipped to understand what works and what doesn’t.

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G4C plans to work with an intercultural dialogue expert next year to help prepare students for the experience of working with peers in a different country, Pollack said. However, she believes the key connecting elements are the games and the UN’s sustainability goals.

“We believe these are two topics that can start conversations. It’s not just a blank slate of what to talk about,” she said.

The games are a mixture of styles, but all can be considered casual games. Williams described them as “like Donkey Kong in the 80s, but they made him try to save barrels of water”. The winning games in the year-end competition revolved around a penguin navigating a melting ice field, collecting rainwater and bottles to recycle and harvest to donate.

While they are proud of the games they created, the students said they enjoy the social aspect just as much, if not more.

“The program gave us an understanding of how to create games, but I think more important than that is to create friendships with people all over the world,” said Malka, from Ashdod, Israel.

“At first it felt surreal working with students from other countries around the world, but there’s something impressive about meeting new people,” said Henton, of Detroit.