Gamer Nation

As video games become more popular than ever, the Israeli gaming industry has begun to level up.

Many experts in the field of conflict resolution have argued that the best way of overcoming ethnic, national, religious, and political divides is by finding common ground and understanding. There are, of course, many potential paths to this point, such as shared values or history. But some observers point to successes in the use of other media as a unifier—such as video games.

The idea of games as a cultural unifier is not new. In ancient Greece, the Olympic Games brought all of Greece’s vastly different city-states together, as the modern incarnation continues to do today. There are also other initiatives, such as Chess4Solidarity, which has seen Israeli chess players compete in virtual tournaments with players from Europe, Iran, Iraq, Tunisia, and elsewhere. But it isn’t just athletics and chess that can build bridges and bring people together. Video games can too—and are arguably just as potent a means of doing so.

To many experts, this claim will not be surprising. Since the late 1980s, video games have taken the world by storm. Industry revenues are greater than those of the movie and music worlds combined; the medium appeals to people from all over the world. Israel is no exception, with Jews and Arabs alike both being avid consumers of video games.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by the industry, who have begun to engage with the Middle East as an untapped market. This is reflected by Nintendo’s decision, in 2019, to open a store in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center—after New York only the second ever opened outside Japan.

Nintendo isn’t the only gaming company operating in Israel. Electronic Arts (better known as EA) has an office in Caesarea, although the Israel branch focuses more on digital platforming and Cloud technology than actual game development.

What about smaller companies? As befitting Israel’s reputation as the Start-Up Nation, the indie video game development scene (that is to say, small independent game developers without the financial backing of the major studios) is thriving in the country.

In March 2020, during the annual Harucon (Israeli Anime, Manga, and Japan) Convention in Jerusalem, I spoke with one of these early-stage developers. David Tzur, a student at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, has been working for around two years on a game he calls Cycle. Largely his own creation, the game is influenced by the Metroidvania subgenre, non-linear games inspired by classic gaming franchises Metroid and Castlevania, as well as Mega Man games.

Cycle is still unfinished. “Game development is very difficult, and Shenkar has a lot of homework,” Tzur explains. But he has completed another, shorter game. Titled Hexshift, this five-to-ten minute game was made for the 2020 Yuri Game Jam (a contest where developers try to make a game from scratch within 24 or 48 hours). In the game, a new twist on the dating simulator genre, the player helps witches go on dates with the demon queen.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of independent Israeli developers working alone or with others on their own projects. One of the most notable of these developer communities is Make Games JLM, a Jerusalem-based community founded by Amir Blum, for developers working on narrative and experience-based video games. The community has grown significantly in recent years, and while many of its members are Israeli-Jews, Blum is working on changing this.

“The push that I’m trying to make is for Jerusalem as a diverse city to have a game [development] community to reflect that, and I believe diverse teams make better games,” he told me. “We do have Arab participants and some more religious participants. In our desire to increase that, we’re working with one of our Arab members to make Arabic-language workshops to make games in Unity [a popular game engine], and we want to have this workshop a few times and have that crowd more trained so they can participate in it. That way when we have a game jam, they can participate. That’s the end goal to get that mixing going on. It’s complicated, and I’ve been learning a lot about the different aspects of the connections between Jews and Arabs … the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are very different compared to Arabs in the North, so we need to be delicate.”

Blum has been helped in all this by support from the American Center, a section of the US Embassy that promotes the broader understanding of American ideals alongside activities encouraging peace and cooperation. Another supporter of Blum’s outreach work is Start-Up Central, part of the organization’s promotion of initiatives promoting coexistence in Jerusalem. This acknowledgement is evidence of the value that many see in using video games to bring different cultures together.

Of course, there are others who worry about the weak points that gaming may highlight, due to differences in understanding the experience. And this, according to Amit Gilboa of gaming news outlet GamersPack, is perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to bringing the story of Israel and Palestine into gaming.

“There’s a difference in the understanding between Israeli [Jews] and Arabs, let alone Palestinians, regarding what the story is, so any story about Israel would be considered one-sided,” Gilboa explained.

However, this does not discount the potential of the medium itself for bringing people together. “There are opportunities like Game Jams, where people from different sites around the world get together to build games together, like a hackathon, and that could be a good way to bring people together,” Gilboa noted.

Blum agrees. He has hosted several Game Jams and hackathons in Jerusalem for that purpose. “The participation on the Palestinian side right now is really really low, but we’re working on it, and we’re also trying to reach out to the Haredi community,” Blum told me. “Those are all things that are very much part of the vision for our community.”

These opinions aren’t the exclusive preserve of smaller developers just starting out. They are reflected in larger development teams too. In the last two years, a few Israeli-made indie video games have been showcased pre-launch at major gaming expos like Gamescom. Of these, four—GRIME, Of Bird and Cage, In Sound Mind, and Dream Engines: Nomad Cities—seem especially promising. The first three have debuted playable trailers on Steam, a popular cloud-based gaming library. GRIME is an action-adventure RPG set in an impressively depicted 2.5D world; Of Bird and Cage is a “unique metal album presented through a short story-driven game”; In Sound Mind is a first-person horror game; and Dream Engines: Nomad Cities, which is targeting the large PC strategy gaming scene, is a city building-and-managing strategy game that uses flying cities.

It only takes one major hit for a country’s indie gaming scene to go from obscurity to being touted as a rising star in the industry. A few years ago, very few people would have predicted that some of the best games of the decade would come from Eastern Europe. But some of the most successful in recent memory include the Metro series, developed in Ukraine and based on the novel by Russian-Israeli writer Dmitry Glukhovsky; the Estonia-developed Disco Elysium; and, most notably, the Polish-made The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, one of the greatest games ever made.

For many game developers in Israel, being able to create a video game is a dream come true. Yarden Weissbrodt, studio director for Clover Bite, which is developing GRIME, said: “I bet many potential developers had this experience, of playing video games and dreaming of one day working on one yourself.”

The problem, Weissbrodt explained to me, is when the dreamer grows up, hones their skills, and is at the point where they can submit an application for developer roles, but can’t find companies in their country where they can personally be really passionate about their projects.

Clover Bite was fortunate to receive funding from Haifa’s Tiltan School of Design and Visual Communication to help them continue developing games independently.

“If GRIME ends up being successful, along with other promising indie games developed in Israel such as Moduwar and Dream Engines, we hope that it could develop a foundation for something like that. Something Israeli gamers could be proud of and for new talented developers to aspire to.”

Capricia Productions, meanwhile, who are developing Of Bird and Cage, are based in Israel but made up of a global development team, even working with people from countries considered hostile to Israel, like Indonesia.

Israel’s culture of innovation as the Start-Up Nation, it has been argued, also makes it well-suited for game development. This theory rings particularly true for Ido Tal of We Create Stuff, the studio behind In Sound Mind. When we spoke, he noted many similarities between start-ups and game studios.

“I co-founded two other start-ups before building the game studio we run today for In Sound Mind,” Tal told me, describing the commonalities between the two industries. “Founders, investors and employees in start-ups are often of a different breed than in game production. But there are similarities too—it takes similar uncompromising commitment to build something from scratch.”

But games themselves are nothing without gamers to play them. In this regard, while innovation may be the hallmark of the Start-Up Nation ethos, it is Israeli gamers themselves who stand out in working to find common ground in a fractured and divided region.

One group of gamers has actually taken to literally building bridges—and other virtual structures. Minecraft, the open-ended 3-D building platform, is the best-selling video game of all time. As part of the Minecraft Build the Earth (BTE) project, gamers around the world have formed teams to painstakingly create a full 1:1 scale model of the entire planet in Minecraft. This is possible thanks to the game’s cooperative features and emphasis on building and crafting.

While there are different teams in different parts of the world—there are three teams in the Middle East—the BTE Israel team really stands out. With the motto of “Breaking the divides between us one block at a time,” this team is the largest in the region, dwarfing the BTE UAE team and the BTE Middle East team.

I spoke to Boaz M., the team’s leader, for a story I wrote for The Jerusalem Post magazine in 2020 about the project. He explained how the builders focus on rendering every detail of Israel and the West Bank accurately, even using 3-D mapping tools to do so. While each builder has their own projects—curiously, the city of Gedera is among the most detailed in its current state—they also have big collaborative building events, one of the most recent of which saw them fully recreating Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

The team’s achievements thus far have even led to interest from municipalities for collaborative ventures and events. But most impressive is the vast multicultural aspect of the entire body of effort. The team consists of Jews and Arabs, and politics have never gotten in the way of their work. Israel and the West Bank are important to everyone here, and each builder is dedicated to recreating their home alongside everyone else’s.

BTE isn’t alone in using Minecraft to try and break down physical and cultural boundaries. Another group, called Games for Peace, utilizes the game to help break down barriers between children. Play2Talk, an initiative established by the group six years ago, pairs students from Arab and Jewish schools across Israel to play Minecraft together, in a specific “world” emphasizing cooperation and teamwork. After eight weeks, the students then meet face-to-face—or rather, over Zoom nowadays, due to the ongoing pandemic.

“The virtual avatars from each side are what they know first, and that allows them to connect to the other side without prejudice,” Games for Peace CEO Dudi Peles told me.

“Putting the game before religion. That was the idea six years ago, and when we started it, it was very revolutionary. There was lots of talk about peace and games but never talk about using existing games. That’s what we want to do. Because it’s video games, the students actually fight for a place in the program because it’s fun and they get to know the other side.”

We Create Stuff’s Tal—also a co-founder Games for Peace—agrees with these sentiments. “When I was a kid, I played way too many MMO [Massively Multiplayer Online] games and met people from all over the world. I really learned about their culture and everyday life because we had a common goal in the game,” he told me. “This is what I wanted to recreate for kids today in Games for Peace, and why we decided to use an approachable game like Minecraft, so it fits non-gamers as well.”

But the education focus of the program does not mean that they believe video games can only help as educational tools. “Gaming appeals to every culture in Israel and everyone plays video games,” Peles explained. “If you compare it to the high-tech community, I think the gaming community is more open to Arab developers and Arab game designers. I know about a few Arab studios in Israel, and I think everyone can create an industry that is more open to Arab developers.”

One such studio is Obscure Games, which is primarily focused on hypercasual and casual games for mobile platforms, usually with very simple gameplay. Like most game developers, going into video game development was a gamer’s dream come true for Obscure’s co-founder, Ayman Horani.

“I’ve been a gamer all my life,” he told me in an interview in 2020. “As a kid, I was not good or interested in sports or other similar things, but I was very into PC games. My dream since I was six or seven was to work as a game developer for big companies like Blizzard. The problem was that most of these companies are in the US, Japan, or Europe, and not in Israel. So I went the traditional route and learned software engineering in tech companies, and all the way developing my own games as a hobby.”

“This changed a few years ago when I met my co-founders Majd Abdulqadir and Muhammad Bushnaq at Game Jams and other events…when Israeli developers like Playtika and Moonactive started to get very big, we all knew that we had to be part of this phenomenon. We had to take the plunge and work on our passions. That itch inside us wouldn’t go away until we founded our studio and made our own games together.”

One of Obscure Games’s stated core values is “Unity in Diversity.” This, Horani explained, derives from gaming’s universal nature, and how it can unite even the most diverse people.

“Not long ago, gaming was seen as very niche,” he said. “Nowadays, and in no small part [due] to mobile gaming, everyone is a gamer in one form or another. From a 50-year-old homemaker who wants to play some Candy Crush while food is being cooked to a corporate executive who wants a few minutes to clear his mind before his next meeting. Gaming has become mainstream.”

Diversity stands out at Obscure Games. Based in Tel Aviv, the company’s team has members from Nazareth, Kfar Munda, Taybeh, and, in Horani’s case, East Jerusalem, all coming together to work on their passion—albeit not literally for most of the past year due to the pandemic, which has often forced them to work from home. But, as Horani explained, this isn’t an impediment to their work. “That’s what’s amazing about technology,” he said. “As long as you have your laptop and enough Cola-Zero or Coffee to keep you going, then you can work from anywhere!”

But while BTE Israel and Games for Peace work to break down barriers virtually, and other studios work to do so on an entrepreneurial level, another effort is doing so in-person for the average gamer. As exemplified by the Olympic Games, competition is a factor common to every culture—especially competition through sports. E-sports, organized, multiplayer video games competitions, are simply the latest incarnation of this phenomenon.

The International e-Sports Federation (IESF), the biggest e-sport federation in the world, holds an international championship event every year, bringing gamers from all over the world together after regional qualifiers. Eilat’s selection to host the 2020 World Championships was a surprise. After all, how would countries without ties to Israel be able to send gamers to participate?

It soon became apparent, though, that video games could even establish ties between fierce geo-political rivals. This became especially obvious when Iran, who has faced criticism in the past for forcing its athletes to forfeit competitions against Israelis, announced that it would send representatives to Eilat.

When I spoke to Ido Brosh, an IESF board member and head of the Israeli e-Sports Association (IESA), for The Jerusalem Post, he explained that “e-sports is a tremendous bridge between people. Over the Internet, you have access to a lot of different cultures, and just as we get access to them, they get access to us.”

Regrettably, the event was cancelled due to the pandemic. However, the fact remains that the Eilat championships were on the verge of changing a major and iron-clad rule—not just on an interpersonal level, but on an international governmental policy level.

Using gaming as a means of peace building isn’t just something that just gamers and developers support, either. The idea also has backing in academia. Some researchers, like Rex Brynen from McGill University, have written about how games and simulations have a role to play in peacebuilding processes. Others have suggested that with respect to peacebuilding, the type of game itself matters. According to Cody Levine, a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem specializing in conflict resolution, video games are an effective means of conducting what is known as “Track II diplomacy”—informal contacts and activities between private individuals and non-state actors, as opposed to formal interactions between the nations themselves.

For this to be effective, the content of the game itself must be taken into account. Levine gave the example of Minecraft. As mentioned earlier, it is simply an open world centered on building and crafting, without any overtly political or divisive themes. Compare this with a series like Call of Duty, a military-based “shooter” game, which has been criticized for its use of ethnic stereotypes and nationalistic themes. Minecraft is far more likely to be useful during Track II diplomacy than Call of Duty.

Similarly, games have both brought people together and stoked divisions in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. A game called PeaceMaker, released in 2007, was lauded for its portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The game was a government simulation that simulated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the goal being to create a two-state solution. During the 2014 Gaza conflict, several violent video games, developed on both sides of the war, were released through Apple’s App store and Google’s Play store. With names like Bomb Gaza, Gaza Assault: Code Red, Gaza Defender, and Rocket Pride, the titles were criticized for making divisive and inflammatory contributions to an already violent conflict.

The games have all since been removed from the App store and Google Play store. PeaceMaker, however, remains available for free, its accessibility in English, Hebrew, and Arabic testament to its potential for reinforcing common ground.

Ultimately, the potential of the video game medium for peacebuilding is rooted in the common ground that the medium creates, together with its universal appeal. Whether through use of real-life scenarios or by creating fictional worlds devoid of political context, the medium potentially has something to offer everyone.

Nothing emphasizes this better than what indie game developer David Tzur told me when we met in Jerusalem:

“I feel like videogames are such an easy way to connect people! Since it’s such an interactive and open medium, you can find people who love the same things you do even if you don’t speak the same language, just by having the shared experience of playing the game and experiencing it.”

And with video games becoming more popular than ever during the pandemic, the future and prominence of gaming, both in Israel and around the world, looks brighter than ever before.

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