Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be busy making headlines in North Korea, but Manouchehri is crafting a more gentle type of public diplomacy from his small office in Virginia: a kind that you can download to your mobile phone.
Manouchehri is CEO of MetroStar Systems, a 75-employee tech start-up contracted by the State Department to bring a better understanding of the United States to the countries with which it has less-than-amicable relations. The company plans to do so with X-Life Games, an initiative that effectively wraps a U.S. history lesson inside a downloadable video game for a mobile phone.
The point, as Manouchehri puts it, is to bring “a more beautiful side of America” to the citizens of nations in politically-troubled nations of the world, a goal for years managed by brick-and-mortar U.S.-funded learning centers in those countries.
Now, that traditional public diplomacy structure is giving way to mobile “e-diplomacy.”
The products of this initiative — so far, “Driven,” a car-racing trivia game, and “Babangar Blues,” a music-based role-playing game — are intended to “demystify” the U.S. to foreign audiences, starting with the Middle East.
Manouchehri demonstrated the games in person for me, and the content is not unlike what you’d find in a grade-school textbook. Trivia questions included picking the Supreme Court justice from four selections (Jefferson, Clinton, Ginsburg, Franklin) and correctly identifying concepts or quotes from the nation’s founding legal documents, such as the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
Ironically, the trivia very much resembles the test administered to new citizens.
I asked Manouchehri if it was really fair to expect an Iranian to know who Patrick Henry was.
“The hope is that they’ll look them up,” he said.
Manouchehri said the choice of the mobile phone was only natural thanks to its ubiquity, which includes less-developed countries. Even in a poor household, a family might share a common mobile phone for family use, he said.
The hope, Manouchehri says, is to form “spontaneous communities” of people having fun and learning about America, connected around the world via a cellular network.
But there’s more to it than a campfire kumbaya: the State Department gathers and receives behavioral data that helps it track “macro behavioral trends,” particularly among the Generation Y demographic MetroStar is targeting, born between 1981 and 2000.
Manouchehri’s challenge is daunting: he must walk the fine line between correcting the ill effects of foreign propaganda denouncing the U.S. without his company risking its reputation from those who would accuse MetroStar to be itself offering State Department-approved propaganda.
“We’re very transparent; we’re very open,” Manouchehri said. “We’re clear about where we get out funding. We’re not hiding anything.”
For now, Manouchehri is looking at deploying his mobile games in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in nations with more mature telecom networks, such as Egypt, Indonesia and Lebanon.
If proven successful, he may get a chance to crack other areas of the world with poor U.S. relations: China, Russia, North Korea.
Some might call it a learning tool. He calls it 21st century statecraft.