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Exploring sensitive subjects through video games

The Guardian

Are some topics just too taboo to be tackled by gaming?

Last week, a game called Bomb Gaza was pulled from the Google Play store after a public backlash.

The game’s stated aim was to “drop bombs and avoid killing civilians.”

The game drew a slew of negative reviews and commentary before it was taken down by Google Inc, which said it violated its policies.

As of yet, the creator of the game has not responded to requests for comment — though the game has been made available on the developers’ Facebook page.

This is not the only Gaza game that has cropped up in recent weeks.

Gaza Assault: Code Red is another app that was removed from Google Play last week. Another, Iron Dome: The Game, remains available to download at the time of writing.

Whether games can tackle complex issues is a moot point.

Plenty have succeeded. There have been games about Sept. 11, 2001, games dealing with the effects of depression and games about other war zones, including Syria.

Classed as “newsgames,” the genre is generating more attempts to help players understand and empathize with situations covered by the media.

None of the developers of the aforementioned games have classed their games as newsgames, instead placing them with the escapism associated with gaming in general.

In an interview with Sky News, Gaza Assault creator Nir Yomotov said: “It’s nothing sinister; you shoot people who shoot you. It’s like every other game. I don’t want to offend anyone. Games are just another medium, like video. You can use it to make your voice heard.”

Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital and GametheNews says there is a difference between a topical game and a newsgame, with one being current and the other attempting to engage the user with a topic and convey information.

“People aren’t used to games being used to discuss serious topics — they’re seen as something fun. But for the generations who grew up gaming, it’s natural for them to express how they feel about the work in the form of a game, much as a singer would write a song and a filmmaker point their camera... I think Israel-Palestine is a great example of where, if you’re going to make a game, you need more than one outcome. Traditionally, you win or lose a game, but this is far bigger than win or lose,” he said.

Arguably, with the same care and precision given to any other medium, it is possible to create a game about the ongoing conflict in Gaza — and it has already been done.

In 2007, a team created PeaceMaker, a game in which players are challenged to “succeed as a leader where others have failed.”

Where other games concentrate on the warfare, PeaceMaker rewards its players for making peace.

Asi Burak, president of Games for Change, created the game over three years with Eric Brown and Tim Sweeney and a group of Carnegie Mellon University students. He suggests there may be a problem in the way mobile publishers like Google Play and iTunes deal with these games.

“Unfortunately, the mobile publishers are not yet sophisticated and seem to make random choices around such content, banning statements that they wouldn’t necessarily ban if they came in written form or in a song. I hope this will change in the near future,” he said.

For Burak, these games can have immense value for those trying to understand both sides of the conflict.

“Games have a number of attributes that makes them excellent for learning, for understanding complex systems and situations, for inviting participation and social action,” he said.

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