Playing Along for Global Understanding

Two USC researchers propose a multiplayer online competition that would give participants a better understanding of cultures around the world.
By Carl Marziali
Joshua Fouts, left, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and Douglas Thomas, associate professor of communication

Photo/Philip Channing
Can an online game help America win friends and influence people?

It sounds too easy, but researchers from the USC Annenberg School for Communication think they may be on to something. Their idea: Hold a competition to create a multiplayer online game (MOG) that promotes cooperation and international goodwill.

To promote even more goodwill, the winner would receive a $5,000 prize and a private dinner with judges, including game industry leaders Bing Gordon of Electronic Arts and Cory Ondrejka of, as well as Silicon Valley guru John Seely Brown.

Joshua Fouts, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and Douglas Thomas, associate professor of communication, are challenging the huge “game mod” community to modify a popular MOG such as “World of Warcraft” or “Star Wars Galaxies” into a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding.

Thomas, who has a research grant to study MOGs, said that even un-modified games have a surprising capacity for softening bias. While researching the player culture of “Star Wars Galaxies,” he hooked up to a European server for the popular global game.

“I started to talk to some of these players about their impressions of America. Their initial impressions of Americans were very negative,” he said, but those improved after the players started meeting Americans in the game.

“What is it about play and gaming that allows people to negotiate and overcome cultural differences?” Thomas asked.

He pointed out that many countries have a long history of success with cultural-exchange programs. Foreigners who visit the U.S., or Americans who travel abroad, often return to their home country with more nuanced views of other cultures.

The drawback is the cost and practical constraints of such programs, which limit the number of participants.

“The nice thing about a virtual environment is you can do that in much more convenient time frames, much cheaper,” Thomas said.

“Our notion is that these [games] are providing virtual-exchange environments,” said Fouts, who thinks the MOG project has great potential to reach Internet users.

“I see this as an opportunity to try to inform the government and encourage thinking about how to possibly engage tomorrow’s generations in a way that takes them on their own terms,” he said.

The government apparently agrees. Karen Hughes, undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs in the U.S. State Department, met with Fouts and USC Annenberg Dean Geoffrey Cowan on a trip to USC last month.

“One of the most fascinating discussions at the Annenberg School was about all the different new uses of technology and how me might tap into all the new technology to better communicate our message,” she said at a recent news conference.

Jeremy Curtin, a senior adviser to Hughes, said, “We are aware of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy contest. We think it’s great. We think efforts to find innovative ways to use new information technologies should be encouraged.”

The project earned six-figure encouragement in the form of a grant from The Richard Lounsbery Foundation, a New York-based group that supports initiatives in science, technology and education.

“The Lounsbery Foundation has been one of the supporters of what’s come to be called the serious games movement,” said Jesse Ausubel, a Lounsbery trustee. “This is an application of new technology to better relations between peoples. Maybe you can do something that will improve lives, conditions, attitudes.

“USC seems like the kind of place where this could flourish,” he said. “It does really connect to these other strengths at USC in media in general and the Institute for Creative Technologies.”

Judges’ panel member Brown, formerly the chief scientist at Xerox and now a visiting scholar at USC, said the U.S. “desperately needs to influence the minds and hearts of today’s kids and young adults.

“We need to consider the leading edge of media and storytelling, and that is games.”

Television and movies no longer work as cultural ambassadors, he said.

The idea of using video games as cultural ambassadors may be one whose time has come.

MTV and Reebok want to create an online game or viral campaign to help stop the genocide in Darfur; a game called “FoodForce” from the United Nations has had more than 2 million downloads; diplomacy-based game projects are under way in at least two other institutions of higher education; and Jean Miller, the newest graduate research assistant in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, titled her master’s thesis for the London School of Economics, “Can Space Invaders Bring World Peace?”

For information on how to enter the USC Center on Public Diplomacy competition, visit The winner will be announced next spring.