Violence, Video Games, and Conflict Resolution Education

I enjoyed a recent exchange amongst a few conflict resolution blogs (this one, ICT4Peace, and Diane Levin’s Online Guide to Mediation) focused on games, virtual worlds, and their applicability to conflict resolution education.

As to my point about the connection between violence “on the screen” and violence in real life, Sanjana referenced the oft-cited media story from 2005 where a Chinese gamer killed a fellow gamer over the sale of a valuable artifact that existed in the online role playing game where they both played. (Now that virtual items are being turned into cold hard cash such a story takes on a decidedly non-virtual feel.)

Needless to say, a single anecdote doesn’t prove much of anything; it may in fact be the exception that proves the rule, as I don’t know of this happening anywhere aside from this case, and there are millions of MMORPG players around the world. There are plenty of examples of people committing murder over ridiculous things. Some people are unbalanced or violent, and the smallest thing can set them off. They may even commit random murders for little or no reason. My eye jumps to this example:

“Julia Smith, 20 years old, was killed by her brother Michael because she talked on the phone too long. Michael clubbed his sister to death with a cordless phone, then stabbed her several times with the broken aerial.”

Is this a signal that phones are a threat to human safety? Should we regulate call times? Of course not. Any kind of human interaction can lead to conflict, and that conflict can urge an unbalanced person to do something awful. I recall the ongoing controversy surrounding Dungeons and Dragons and the assertions that it made players violent – as a former D&D player I can tell you that the vast majority of the people drawn to role playing games are if anything much less likely to engage in violent behavior than mainstream society. The BBC had an excellent piece in 2004 that looked at this question in what I think is a measured and well considered way.

Sanjana observed: “Now that’s an interesting development - the first I know of the first degree murder of an individual over something that didn’t really exist.”

First of all, I can think of plenty of examples of murders that happened over things that aren’t physically tangible (see the examples above). I’d even go so far as to bet that most murders are motivated by things that you can’t hold in your hand. That said, I’d disagree with the assertion that the “virtual sword” that sparked the murder in China “didn’t really exist.” Sure it existed. It may have just been bytes in a computer server someplace, but it certainly existed. It was traded, used, carried around, viewed, and even sold. It definitely existed for the individuals who played the game, maybe even more than a physical sword would have existed (which would undoubtedly have been less useful and magical).

But that is where our disagreements end. Sanjana continues: “I still maintain however that what Second Life and games like it offer in terms of complexity and real / virtual world interplays is far more complex and textured than the traditional study of games such as Doom III and their impact on real life.”

I absolutely agree with that observation. The introduction of interaction with actual people within games is far more complex and engaging than the fixed-storyline themes of FPS games like Doom or RPG games like Dungeon Siege or Neverwinter Nights. I also agree that games can offer us powerful tools that can enable more effective role plays, illuminate aspects of human behavior that are difficult to distinguish or recognize in our “f2f” interactions, and help us teach lessons in the area of emotional intelligence. The peer mediation exercise is a good example of that – 3D, interactive technology is quickly becoming so mainstream that it can be applied in a context like that without the participants batting an eye.

Not all games have to be violent or oriented around destruction. There’s long been talk of using games like SimCity to teach urban planning, or Age of Empires to teach history, or Spore to teach evolutionary biology. I remember seeing simple laserdisc games used for campus mediation trainings back in the early 1990s.

Games are a powerful educational tool because they can empower players to drive learning themselves, and games can capture the interest and intellect of a player in a very powerful and sustained way and submerge them in new contexts. From my perspective, it’s a no-brainer that we should try to harness some of that power to teach the lessons of conflict resolution.

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