Games - a New Medium for Public Diplomacy?

Wednesday, June 1st 2011

If you want to hear a global communicator whose livelihood depends on getting it right, listen to Arjun Sethi.  He has to sell the same basic story, Ravenwood Fair, to audiences all over the globe, modifying language and plot details to match local customs.  He always asks a key question: “How much do men and want to share about themselves?”  His audience: 300 million (he says) and growing (next big push is Latin America.)

Sethi was the lead-off speaker at Serious Games, presented on May 27-28 by the State Department’s Tech@State program, a quarterly conference sponsored by the eDiplomacy Office.  (Full disclosure: I was the Office’s first director back in BT -- Before Twitter.)

As a global communication medium, games are now as big as movies.  Zynga, maker of a top game on Facebook, Farmville, was reported to have earned $850 million last year.  As players spend time tending virtual farms or playing (or talking about) World of Warcraft they are surely absorbing information, attitudes and opinions from their game experience.

That’s why Singapore MIT Game Lab’s Konstantin Mitgutsch said: “Now everyone wants to make a game [to promote] their little cause.”  Serious Games refers to the use of computer games to inform, influence and persuade.  During my day at the conference, I heard several references to other nation-states (beyond Singapore) who have commissioned games for promotional purposes.

So how would United States public diplomacy tap into serious games?  The one PD-commissioned game that I know about – an anti-extremism phone game a few years back – produced very modest results.  Perhaps other efforts are underway at this time.  (Readers, please enlighten us.)  However, the cost of creating and launching a game starts at $50 thousand for use on mobile phones, and goes up to more than $5 million, depending on the diversity of places where people can access it.

Perhaps direct sponsorship is not the answer.  Serious games are already promoting causes that align with American interests including environmental conservation, prevention of HIV and tropical diseases, and are even teaching about diplomacy and conflict resolution.  The Defense Department commissions games (including a massive crowd-sourcing project on controlling Somali pirates)    Perhaps the best answer lies in another, older strategy that the Defense Department’s has used with Hollywood: get in touch with the makers, offer assistance and access, learn what you can, and try to steer the industry where possible.  In short: follow up the Serious Games conference beyond a one-time event.

Joe B. Johnson

Board member


Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. authors name for more info

Author: Joe Johnson

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