Can a Game Make You Cry?
Certainly... At least if its subject is enough to make you cry.
PeaceMaker begins with a cut scene--brief video clips from the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beginning in 1948 and ending with the present day.
In any game, the purpose of an initial cut scene is to set the emotional context; for most games, this means bombast and violent triumph. For PeaceMaker, it means--sorrow, and perhaps despair.
Created by a mixed American, Israeli, and Palestinian team, PeaceMaker deals with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Playing as either the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President, you must try to satisfy the urgent needs and demands of your own people, while establishing a degree of trust on the opposite side--and, with (a great deal of) luck, an agreed resolution to the conflict.
You track your progress both with a numerical indicator of support from your own side and the other--but also with meters that show how segments of both populations react to your choices, as well as the reaction of groups abroad. Each turn (game week), you may take one action--and there are a wide variety of military, political, and economic actions to choose from. Inevitably, anything you do pleases some segment, and upsets others.
Quite often, an event occurs, indicated by a glowing circle above one of the cities on the map of Israel and Palestine; clicking on it reveals what happened. Perhaps West Bank settlers are demanding expansion of the settlements, or Palestinian militants have blown up a bus. Most events are drawn from things that have actually happened--and the interest groups represented in the game respond to your actions depending on the context of recent events, as well as your choice.
From a game design perspective, in other words, PeaceMaker is a multi-variable popularity model, with one action each turn affecting the model--a fairly straightforward type of simulation. But the emotional context, and the jarring connection to the real world, are such that interacting with it is a compelling, and often disturbing, undertaking.
But Is it Fun?
Games--light-hearted, mindless entertainment for adolescent boys, right?
PeaceMaker places you in the shoes of people who have to make difficult decisions in often horrendous circumstances. In so doing, it illuminates and explores its subject in a way that only a game can do--because you participate, rather than merely witness. PeaceMaker is compelling, painful, saddening, curiously hopeful...
Depends on your definition of fun, I guess. But why should this one word be the single factor by which we judge games? Is Burroughs's Naked Lunch "fun"? Is Kurosawa's Rashomon "fun"?
PeaceMaker is a game you should experience not because it will entertain you (though it may)--but because you will never forget it.
That is perhaps one definition of art.
PeaceMaker has received quite a lot of attention from the press, because of the issues it addresses, and good for it; but in our context, it is at least as important for an entirely different reason. Games are growing up. PeaceMaker is leading the way, demonstrating that they are capable of grappling with the most contentious issues of our time in a thoughtful and sophisticated manner. In short, it demonstrates that game design techniques are applicable to subjects that the conventional industry would never touch--and that the palette of the possible in games is far broader than is generally conceived.
PeaceMaker is a game that anyone interested in games qua games should play.
PeaceMaker can be played in English, Hebrew, or Arabic.