Virtual Conflict Resolution – a New Avenue for Digital Media

If you think “Virtual Conflict Resolution: Turning Swords to Ploughshares” sounds like an innovative title for a video game, you’re not alone – the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation agrees. An interdisciplinary team of Duke University computer scientists, film, video and digital scholars, and public policy experts is working on the project after winning a $238,000 grant for the idea this spring.

The project was among 17 selected from more than 1,000 applicants to the MacArthur Foundation’s first Digital Media and Learning grant competition. The competition was part of a broader, five-year, $50 million initiative designed to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life.

Led by principle investigators Tim Lenoir, the Kimberly Jenkins Chair for New Technologies and Society at Duke, and Duke Center for International Development Senior Research Scholar Natalia Mirovitskaya, the team began working this spring to transform an existing military simulation into a humanitarian assistance game.

Team members include Rotary Fellows Sanghee Jeong, Willan Mendoza and Katia Dantas. Under Mirovitskaya, the Rotary Fellows’ efforts are focused on designing and implementing software that uses virtual reality to teach mid-career policymakers how to effectively address natural disaster crisis situations.

In selecting the Rotary Fellows for the project, Mirovitskaya looked for individuals whose career experiences in disaster assistance and digital media best suited the project’s goals. Jeong, Mendoza and Dantas – who have worked in disaster management, software development and humanitarian assistance, respectively – fit the bill.

“This is not for the volunteer who’s going to go into the field and donate 20 hours a week for relief. This is for the head of the NGO, the minister of foreign affairs, the mid-career professionals who will be making the tough decisions on whether a billion dollars goes here or goes there,” Mendoza explained.

The simulation uses 1998’s Hurricane Mitch as a reference point, comparing how institutional responses in El Salvador and in Honduras played out with differing degrees of success. Participants will be faced with the same challenges that government and relief organization leaders faced, and they’ll interact in a virtual world resembling actual locations and organizational headquarters.

“The idea of the project is to replicate disaster and see how people respond,” said Dantas. “There will be some scripts that we design that always happen in disasters and some interference that people have to react to. So it’s basically a training tool, not only for conflict prevention but also preparedness.”

In addition to issues of preventing violence, coordinating governmental response and acquiring international aid, the simulation will also address the problems of combining multinational interests with local expertise.

“Often, an international stakeholder, like a UN agency, comes with the idea that food should be distributed very equally,” Jeong said. “But maybe the minister of foreign affairs of Honduras has a better idea of how the community really works … and in reality it should focus on family units or community units. This kind of local knowledge should be integrated.”

Slated for completion this summer and preliminary testing in PIDP and Duke/UNC Rotary Program classes in the fall, Mirovitskaya and the “Virtual Conflict Resolution” team hope to eventually share the product with other Rotary centers and international relief organizations.

“And if we are successful … then I think it will be an incredible resource for these organizations,” Mirovitskaya said.