STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Some time before President Bush announced this week that he wants a Middle East peace conference, a man named Asi Burak walked into our studios. He's an Israeli. He was carrying a laptop computer. And once he fired it up, he invited us to play a computer game.
Mr. ASI BURAK (Former Israeli Army Captain): The game is called Peacemaker.
INSKEEP: And the objective?
Mr. BURAK: The objective is to win the peace between Israel and Palestine.
INSKEEP: Well, we've got a few minutes, so let's see if that's enough time for us to resolve a decades-old conflict, okay?
Mr. BURAK: Okay.
INSKEEP: What do we do here first? Click on the laptop computer in front of us.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Unlike some other computer games, Peacemaker is not about killing as many enemies as you can. It's not about that, though you certainly have the option. You become one of the leaders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. BURAK: It's a one-player game so you actually play kind of against the computer. The computer tries to simulate the environment.
Mr. BURAK: But the interesting idea about Peacemaker is that you can play both sides, and they're very different, because as you can imagine, the Israelis have different resources than the Palestinians. And even their goals and agenda, you know, are very different.
INSKEEP: Their whole strategy is different.
Mr. BURAK: And that's actually the first choice, and it's not an easy choice. So I might make it easy for you and I can ask the computer to choose a side for us.
INSKEEP: It says random leader. Roll the dice.
Mr. BURAK: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Okay, let's be random and see if we get to be the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister.
Mr. BURAK: Okay. He chose the Israeli leader.
INSKEEP: Oh, so we get to be the Israeli leader. Okay, so we now have this memo that gets us started here. Welcome to your new role. As the Israeli prime minister, you are responsible for balancing Israeli and Palestinian approval. You must see to the security and economic needs of your own people as well as consider the quality of life and stability of the Palestinians, because if you're Israeli prime minister you're overseeing a very large number of Palestinians.
Mr. BURAK: Right. And this is already news. You know, you have to take care of the other side, I mean, it's very important in Peacemaker. You can't just make your people satisfied and win the game.
INSKEEP: And what's happening here? There's some kind of circle showing a situation going on in the West Bank.
Mr. BURAK: Right. This red, blinking red...
INSKEEP: That's Jerusalem, actually.
Mr. BURAK: Right. This red blinking dot is really the first thing that you see when you come to office. So usually we say, you know, the celebrations are short because this is reality.
INSKEEP: News report: suicide bomber kills 18 and injures over 100 in West Jerusalem. We have a picture of a burning bus.
Mr. BURAK: And you can actually watch the event, so we have footage from, you know, past events like that. And again, you get the idea that this is a game, but a game about current events, about real events, and it's not only about two sides. You got the public, you've got the settlers.
INSKEEP: The people who have moved and done settlements in the West Bank.
Mr. BURAK: The U.S.A. and the Arab world. And next to each one of them there is this thermometer.
INSKEEP: Oh, showing how tense or how engaged or unhappy they are at the moment.
Mr. BURAK: With you, with your policy.
INSKEEP: Oh, okay. Let's figure out some things that we can do. Let's not do the most extreme thing.
Mr. BURAK: Let's do something that is...
INSKEEP: We got to get some troops out on the street.
Mr. BURAK: Yes. Security, but kind of more moderate. And by the way, you have advisers.
INSKEEP: Oh, okay.
Mr. BURAK: So let's look at them.
INSKEEP: We're thinking about sending army units and - oh, I have advice from a hawk and a dove, so to speak.
Mr. BURAK: Right.
Mr. BURAK: What do they say?
Mr. BURAK: Each one of them will try to pull you in another direction. So the hawk will tell you definitely send the army because it will raise your security. But the dove will tell you that the presence of troops will actually hurt the Palestinian quality of life.
INSKEEP: Okay. Not because it's automatically a good idea or a bad idea, let's do it because we want to proceed and see what happens with the game.
Mr. BURAK: Let's try to do that and let's send army units to - we can choose different objectives. Let's do something simple as securing the area.
Mr. BURAK: Now time passes.
Mr. BURAK: So you kind of...
INSKEEP: Several days just went by.
Mr. BURAK: Skip the week, yeah.
Mr. BURAK: Yeah. If you look at the score, that's interesting. We don't have only one score. We have two. So on the Israeli side, we got actually positive score because people approved of our action.
INSKEEP: Are we trying to get to a hundred points? Is that what we're trying to do to win?
Mr. BURAK: On the two sides.
INSKEEP: On the two sides. So we've got four points. We got a good start. And on the Palestinian side, we're at negative seven.
Mr. BURAK: Right.
INSKEEP: We've lost a bunch of points.
Mr. BURAK: So yeah. And I want to show you something that in Peacemaker it's - we made it so it's not - I mean, you see the complexity in a way that is counterintuitive. So for example, if a naive user just did what we did and sent the army and got this response from the Palestinians and says, oh, you know what? Let's send them aid.
INSKEEP: And try to buy them off, that will make them unhappy.
Mr. BURAK: Yeah. Let's give them, you know, directly medical aid.
INSKEEP: Okay. Let's send them some aid and see what happens. See if we can improve our opinion among the Palestinians. Your request rejected.
Mr. BURAK: Yeah. Because...
INSKEEP: They don't want it.
Mr. BURAK: Because yeah, the game has a memory in the sense that you just did something that is perceived as a security action.
INSKEEP: No one believes that such an effort is genuine, it says
Mr. BURAK: Yeah. And they just don't believe you.
Mr. BURAK: Because of what you did just a week before.
INSKEEP: So I got nothing; although I got another point of the Israeli side.
Mr. BURAK: Right.
INSKEEP: But the Palestinians aren't happy.
Mr. BURAK: Right.
INSKEEP: So I'm starting to get tense. What can we do now? I don't like to lose. All right. Help me out here. Give me an idea. We've clearly - I clearly lost control of the situation. There's more red dots all over the map, more terrible things happening. How would you get out of this situation? How do you ever get out of this situation?
Mr. BURAK: I mean, one thing that happens with Peacemaker a lot is that you'll play it several times and the first time that you play it you will probably lose the game. Part of that losing is part of the lesson, you know, to see that frustration and lack of control that you have. I mean we played it for five minutes. You can't win in five minutes something, you know, 60 years is - you can't really solve.
INSKEEP: I want to ask because you're an Israeli. You're an Israeli army captain. You must have played this game any number of times from the Palestinian point of view.
Mr. BURAK: Right.
INSKEEP: Have you learned things you didn't know?
Mr. BURAK: Yeah, definitely. I mean, not only by playing it but actually the process of working on the game; and we used Palestinians, people that helped us in writing the content and translating it. I mean it was a huge thing for me because what I realized is that the first time that I actually talked to Palestinians and understood their perspective was when I came to the U.S. after 33 years. So that's a big deal.
INSKEEP: When you came to the U.S., because when you were in that tense situation...
Mr. BURAK: Yes.
INSKEEP: ...it was hard to...
Mr. BURAK: It was very hard to communicate with Palestinians. It was very hard to see their perspective. And I think it's true for almost any conflict. I mean if you're in a certain place, what you get through the media is a one-sided - even though you think you get the objective story, you don't get it.
INSKEEP: That's Asi Burak. He and a colleague, Eric Brown, invented the computer game Peacemaker.