State Department pursues ‘people-to-people’ diplomacy through video games

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

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

Game Exchange aims to bring together students from these four countries 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 Department of State and the Bezos Family Foundation alongside other governments and institutions and is implemented by the Aspen Institute. (Jackie Bezos, president and co-founder of the Bezos Family Foundation, is the mother of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.)

The program plans to double the number of students next year.

Although a quantitative analysis of the program is still in the planning stages, the US State Department remains optimistic about the game as a way to facilitate “people-to-people diplomacy” on issues such as climate change, equity between gender 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 the game,” said Chris Miner, acting deputy assistant secretary for professional and cultural exchanges at the Department of State. American.

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

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

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

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

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

“They are teenagers 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 degree program in 2008, said he switched to Game Exchange after seeing how her son had met his friends through online video game platforms. during the pandemic.

He also helped support one of his major initiatives, which is to encourage his students to create.

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

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“Being able to play and design games and work with others was fun to do,” said 15-year-old Timothy Parker, one of Williams’ students. Parker said he designed his first game in eighth grade and hoped to develop his skills. He wanted to make his characters move in specific ways, like strutting.

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

“For me, I love 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, the students were also interested in creating games and meeting people from another country.

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

Malka bonded with her American counterparts through acting as well as sports and music.

“I’m a huge basketball fan. I know the Detroit Pistons. I also know the Kiss song ‘Detroit Rock City’… I didn’t have a lot of expectations on the [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 had to deal with 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 — which the Israeli students said they did as a sign of interest in developing meaningful friendships. .

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

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

Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change (G4C), said future cycles of the program will place more emphasis on the number of interactions students will have between countries. She added that interactions will also be facilitated by learning from G4C’s technical experiences over the past year.

“We had 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, the platform Chat based on Discord games is prohibited in the United Arab Emirates. . Some school districts, she continued, also have weak broadband connections. Williams said some students couldn’t install certain communication platforms on their laptops; he wondered if the joint sessions were of great value, overall.

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

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G4C plans to work next year with an expert in intercultural dialogue who will help prepare students for the experience of working with peers in a different country, Pollack said. She believes, however, that the key connecting elements are the games and the United Nations sustainability goals.

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

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

Although proud of the games they created, students said they enjoyed the social aspect as much, if not more.

“The program taught us how to make games, but I think the most important thing is to build friendships with people around the world,” said Malka from Ashdod, Israel.

“It was unreal at first to work with students from other countries around the world, but there’s something spectacular about getting to know new people,” said Henton from Detroit.

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