TRAINING AND SIMULATION

State puts X-Life games into play for Middle Eastern youths

Games for mobile phones, aimed at young adults, part of eDiplomacy program

Since its founding in June 2008, X-Life Games has launched two mobile computer games in collaboration with the State Department’s eDiplomacy program and has garnered a modest following of players in the Middle East.

“Today we have 2,000 players around the world,” most of them in Egypt and Indonesia, said Ali Manouchehri, chief executive officer of MetroStar Systems, parent company of X-Life.

The games, designed for play on Internet-enabled cell phones, are part of State’s diplomacy program to improve understanding of the United States in other countries. The department has experimented with electronic information delivery for several years and employed social-media applications on its Web page, but this has been its first foray into computer gaming.

“We are seeing this move past the flat Web” to more interactive formats, said Tim Receveur, a foreign affairs officer at State’s Bureau of International Information Programs. “This was a completely new area for us. We have not used any games before. This was a pilot [program] to see if it was an effective way to reach people.”

The program "has worked a little bit,” he said. “We brought in the audience we wanted to bring in,” which is primarily 19- and 20-year-olds. But the game is limited a few handsets and a single operating system, and the content specifically targets players in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, so the game has been slow to become popular.

However, Receveur is not discouraged. “We can’t even create content that appeals to all of our embassies around the world, let alone to all of the people in the world,” he said. The X-Life program is in its first option year, and talks with the company are under way for the next stage of development. “Everything we’ve learned on the pilot will go into the next phase.”

The next phase, which is probably six or seven months away, is envisioned as a platform that would let U.S. embassies quickly create their own content for local populations on a variety of platforms, including social-networking sites. “When you create all the content upfront, it’s not easy to regenerate it with new characters,” Receveur said.

The gaming program started with a request for information from State on ways to use mobile devices to help young foreigners learn English. MetroStar is a small, minority-owned business based in Reston, Va., that does software and systems integration for government. One of its focus areas is new media.

“We started looking for opportunities” in the RFI, Manouchehri said. “We thought about building a community of mobile gamers where they could learn about American culture, our history and people.” The goal was to reach the teens and 20-somethings who often are recruited by terrorist organizations. “We came up with X-Life.”

State bought into the idea, and MetroStar founded X-Life Games.

“We had most of the skills in-house,” Manouchehri said. “Our weakest area was game design.” So the subsidiary was formed with gaming industry veterans Neal Hallford, J.R. Register and Ghafur Remtulla. State’s e-Diplomacy initiative funded the first X-Life Game titles.

The first considerations in game design were policy and strategy issues and the rules of engagement for users. Then the content for the games themselves was written. The first two titles are role-playing games that users can download to cell phones from the X-Life Web site at www.xlifegames.com and are played off-line. The first game, "X-Life: Driven," was released in January and puts the player in the role of a Middle Eastern youth, male or female, with a scholarship to a fictional Pennsylvania university. The second game, "X-Life: Babangar Blues," followed in February with a story built around a Middle Eastern would-be rock star. Further titles are in preproduction.

Players select an avatar for the games, and by answering questions, they can earn virtual currency and progress through different life scenarios, choosing different paths while also learning English and U.S. culture.

It might not sound as exciting as slaying dragons with a magic sword or stealing autos in downtown Los Angeles, but the games are intended to take advantage of a fascination with the United States that the designers found while doing research in the United Arab Emirates.

“People are still intrigued by America,” Manouchehri said. For instance, people in the UAE love NASCAR racing. “It’s the policies that they fear, not the people. There are definitely ways we can link people and cultures together.”

In this case, they are being linked by Sony Ericsson and Nokia handsets running the Symbian open-source operating system for mobile devices. This hardware/software combination has a large share of the Middle Eastern cellular market, and Manouchehri said X-Life plans to expand the games to the Google Android platform and Apple iPhone, too. The games, which are only about 256K to download, are hosted in a shared server facility in the United States rather than on State servers because the department did not want users to access the game in the dot-gov domain.

Because users play the games off-line, developers have little information about the players other than the basic demographics gathered when players download the games.

“Egypt and Indonesia are not much of a surprise” as the two most popular countries for the games, Manouchehri said. Egypt has a large proportion of cellular users, and the sheer size of Indonesia's Muslim population makes it a logical place for success. “What surprised us was Lebanon,” the country with the third largest number of players. “We definitely were not targeting them. We were looking more at the Gulf region.” Lebanon is on the Mediterranean coast, well to the northwest of the Persian Gulf.

Players can leave messages at the X-Life Web site, but so far, there have been only a few hundred messages from players. “There is not a lot of communication back our way,” Receveur said. So there is still a lot that is not known about the games’ players and impact, including why they are popular in Lebanon.

To help improve feedback, X-Life began building a community this summer around a Facebook page, from which the company can gather information about demographics and attitude. It has grown to 800 members, both players and nonplayers, and the company hopes to have as many as 5,000 members by the end of the year.

State is a fan of social networking for public diplomacy. “We’ve been using Facebook for about a year now,” Receveur said. The department hosts an online chat forum called Co.Nx on Facebook, built on Adobe Acrobat Connect Web conferencing software. Ambassadors and other U.S. officials hold scheduled chat sessions on policy subjects, such as a recent discussion with the ambassador to Kenya on U.S./Kenyan relations. “With Co.Nx, we have gotten more feedback in an afternoon than we sometimes get in months,"  Receveur added.

That feedback makes social-networking sites attractive platforms for distributing games and other digital tools for public diplomacy. They could provide a distributed way for officials in foreign countries to generate content, such as games that can be ported to a particular language for a specific locality.

Above all, eDiplomacy must be flexible.

“Everything has changed so fast” since the game program began to develop in March 2007, Receveur said. “You don’t want to wed yourself to a specific technology or platform.”

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