Avatar Diplomacy: Mobile Games as U.S. Cultural Ambassadors in MENA
February 23, 2010
Television and movies were once the preeminent American cultural ambassadors, but that was all so twentieth century. Now X-Life, a series of role-playing games created by the U.S. Department of State, allows Middle Eastern users to pose as American college students and aspiring young rock musicians by playing the game on their cell phones.
The games are a State Department “e-diplomacy” effort to foster goodwill and understanding among Muslim communities through digital means. To encourage knowledge of the United States, characters who pass tests on American history and culture win points they can trade in for new cars and other perks. The game also connects players to social networking sites like Facebook, and U.S. embassies in Iraq and Egypt have used these sites to post news and teach English.
The games were developed jointly by the State Department, a U.S. government interagency group called the Global Strategic Engagement Center, and a government contractor specializing in collaborative information technology. The CEO of the contractor, an Iranian-American named Ali Reza Manouchehri, lived in Iran as a young adult after growing up in Northern Virginia, and found Iranian youth far more open to American culture than he had expected.
Egypt is X-Life’s largest market. Seventy-one percent of Egypt’s 80 million people have cell phones, and 1.67 million Egyptians got new ones in December 2009 alone. X-Life also targets Jordan and Lebanon, and has been marketed in Indonesia.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.