Virtual Reality Conflict Transformation: Theory and Practice

We are integrating virtual reality technology into our conflict transformation as well as our advocacy.

The underlying idea is that by enabling policy makers and communities to ‘meet’ each other and experience alternative points of view, VR can help reduce ‘moral distance’, improve understanding, and enhance shared information. As a result, interest-based and humanitarian incentives for peacemaking are both increased.

It’s an exciting and experimental process, but one we believe is founded on well established conflict change methodologies. At the moment, we are focused on using film for VR headsets as this gives the most realistic experience of ‘being’ somewhere else, but augmented environments will have their place. Here is a short table outlining how virtual reality sits alongside a few well known existing approaches:

Conflict Theorist Causes of Conflict Recommended focus for Conflict Prevention Potentials of Virtual Reality
Lederach Conflict is inevitable and natural part of human relationships and can generate positive or negative socio-cultural and socio-economic relations. “Conflict transformation” sees conflict as a process, caused by and causing changes in relationships. In order to build peace, destructive patterns need to be transformed into constructive ones. ‘Levels of leadership’ provides most efficient way to engage in policy-level change. Virtual reality experiences among ‘middle ‘level’ influencers – who connect the ultimate decision makers with the grassroots – to improve access to shared information, improve inclusivity by bringing voices into the room. For example, a VR presentation outlining local and expert views on challenges facing a remote conflict.
Galtung Growing gap between individual expectations and realisations leading to, or being caused by structural, cultural or physical violence. Define the violence along cultural, economic and physical dimensions and envision positive peace; mediate (resolving incompatibility) and reconcile (removing traumas from relationships). VR experiences that enable people to spend time with the other in a virtual environment, help close policy gaps (through providing communities with the experience of directly hearing from leaders and vice versa).
Collier and Hoeffler et al Failure of economic development and greed and grievances. Support to governance processes, state development and state dividends. 2-way VR advocacy (local citizen-policy maker interaction),  training services (e.g, civic education walk-through)
Gurr Relative and perceived group deprivation and mobilisation along ethnic/religious/identity lines. Improved relations between state and citizen and reconciling diverse identities. VR experiences which ‘transport’ participants into ‘other’ communities to increase understanding of shared interests and commonalities, to facilitate ‘personal’ interactions.
Relationship Foundation Conflict is relational and caused or sustained by distance along a number of relational domains. Developing and experiencing “relational proximity” in five domains creates an enhanced quality of “relational experience”, which can contribute to outcomes such as trust, understanding, support, accountability and belonging. (As above) VR experiences allowing personal interactions in the five domains; enabling meetings between people who would otherwise not be able to see each other, or increasing the frequency of interactions.
Ronald Fisher Historical trajectories, different conceptions of peace, competitive group strategies and zero-sum mentalities. “Interactive conflict resolution (ICR)” involves problem-solving discussions between unofficial representatives of groups or states engaged in violent protracted conflict. All the above.

Early indications from our advocacy and those of our friends and partners is that VR can produce strong policy and public engagement, though we need to undertake more systematic and longer term evaluation.

In the conflict transformation realm, we look forward to testing whether the ’empathy machine’ of VR really can contribute to sustainable peace processes, and if so, helping support the development of best practice for its use.

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Chris Milner

Chris is a conflict transformation specialist and producer with substantial political, research and creative experience with both communities at the grassroots and policy processes at the highest level.

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