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The fighting in Syria has spilled over the country's borders, sending errant mortar fire and sectarian clashes into its neighbor Lebanon in recent months, along with tens of thousands of refugees.
Skirmishes in Lebanon between militant supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime have left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.
While the country's capital is far from the Syrian border, the violence has managed to seep past Northern Lebanon and into Beirut. That's where six-month-old start-up Game Cooks is trying to establish itself as a mobile game studio creating titles for both Middle Eastern and international audiences.
But it's hard for the team to concentrate on that goal at times due to the conflict. "You're always distracted by the news," says Game Cooks head Lebnan Nader. "If you hear a bomb going off nearby, you want to hear about it, you want to see the news. You just waste time away from what you really need to be doing, developing a game."
He's speaking from experience -- Nader and his co-workers have been unable to even leave their office in the past after hearing gunfire and grenades going off nearby. "If that's going on, you're not able to work anymore. People aren't trying to kidnap us, but if it happens on the next street, it gives you a bad vibe, and it kind of cuts you off of your creativity and development."
Sectarian fighting in Lebanon a couple of months ago
Lebanon and its ruling political party Hezbollah (declared a terrorist group by the U.S.) are no stranger to violence. Even before the Arab Spring, Lebanon spent the past decade trading rocket fire for airstrikes and an invasion from Israel, wresting itself from a Syrian occupation, and almost falling into another civil war in 2007.
"You had ups and downs," explains Nader. "Now we're down, I guess. You had summers where you thought about nothing except going to nightclubs, and you had summers where you had to stay home because there's a war outside."
He says that instability has had a damaging effect on the culture and Lebanon's progress as a modern nation: "A lot of the youth here in the country, they follow politics and they follow those ideas. Very, very few concentrate actually on technology. So, this affects overall the passion for developing anything related to tech."
Nader contrasts that environment with San Francisco, where there's a rich tech-focused community. "If you need anything, they can help you. If you want to share ideas, they're there for you. Whereas if you're in Beirut, it doesn't exist. Nobody talks about [technology], or very, very few people. You don't feel like you'll get help with just anything you need."
Lebanon's underdeveloped infrastructure is unavoidable; slow internet connections are a constant annoyance for Game Cooks -- Nader recounts how when the company first opened, his team would spend more than a day trying to download software development kits and libraries for iPhone and Android, and their connections often cut off.
Game Cooks has been able to overcome all those challenges, though, and has just put out its first game, Run for Peace. It's an arcade-stye iPhone and iPad running game, in which players sprint across Middle Eastern countries (e.g. Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, etc.) to spread a message of peace while avoiding missiles, radioactive boxes, and other hazards.
Game Cooks' Run for Peace
The studio is cautious to avoid referencing anything related to Hezbollah or specific politics or religions in the game -- making the wrong references upsets different groups. "We really do not want to draw the attention of [extremists], believe me," says Nader. "We try our best to remain as low profile as possible. ... We want to focus on the fun part of the game and on the good cause of the game."
He continues, "Everybody on the team just wanted to develop something for peace. We were pushing to develop something for peace because this is what we need to do. If all the Arabic players are somehow playing this game and having fun, and without noticing they are playing this game for peace, then this is a good added value."