Net Effect

Why is cellphone diplomacy so expensive?

If you thought that all those noisy and badly designed mobile phone games and iPhone applications were a waste of time, well, think again – they could also be great tools of public diplomacy. Or so thinks the U.S. State Department. Its Bureau of International Information Programs, in partnership with a software company, has developed ...

If you thought that all those noisy and badly designed mobile phone games and iPhone applications were a waste of time, well, think again – they could also be great tools of public diplomacy. Or so thinks the U.S. State Department. Its Bureau of International Information Programs, in partnership with a software company, has developed X-Life, which is a mobile game aimed at teaching its players (presumably in the Middle East) about English language and American history and culture (Digits, WSJ‘s technology blog, has more). The game’s plot reads like a a Hollywood thriller with a sweet happy-end:

Storyline: Salah Moaveni has received the opportunity of a lifetime, an international exchange program to International University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, USA. His goal is to rise to the top of your engineering class at International University. Upon attending the University, Salah has encountered friends, professors and Zephyr, the school bully. He will maneuver around the University, learning about the local culture, in order to take on trivia challenges, complete quests, and modify a project car to road-race against a bullying school tyrant called The Zephyr. The race to victory is on! 

Helping Salah achieve his American dream is not going to be cheap; the State Department has invested $415,000 in the company behind X-Life in order to, as WSJ puts it, “see whether the concept of “e-diplomacy” might spread cross-cultural understanding between the U.S. and countries in the Middle East and Persian Gulf “. CNN has more details:

 “We’ve had Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran as our biggest customers so far,” Receveur said. “We’re starting to see it pick up.”

Word is spreading through social networking sites such as Facebook and mySpace, and a formal publicity push may come later. The goal is to have 10,000 people tapping away on X-Life in 12 months, says Ali Reza Manouchehri, CEO of the company that designed the game.

At $415,000, this adds up to spending 40 dollars to convince a player (we could only hope for great economies of scale after Year 1). It appears that Public Diplomacy 2.0 is  not going to be cheap. This looks a bit strange, given how many good (and cheap!) iPhone applications popped up in recent months , many of them without any significant investments. One could only imagine how many more games and applications could have been churned out, had the State Department announced a contest in the iPhone’s application store

Photo by Kamshots/Flickr

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