The Proteus effect: How gaming may revolutionise peacekeeping

5 Feb 2016

Aristaeus fettering Proteus, via Wikimedia Commons

In a world of combined police forces, partnering militaries and peacekeeping activities in a growing numbers of places, communication is often, surprisingly, lacking. Gamification, though, could help that.

The Proteus effect is a phenomenon played out in the digital world, yet sourced from the Greek gods. Proteus, you see, could change form whenever he wanted, making him quite the adaptable fella.

Taking this acute area of mythology, Stanford researchers recently established a phenomenon in which the behaviour of an individual, when gaming online, alters depending on the avatar they chose to play as.

Time to make a change

In a basic sense, if you role-play as someone vastly different to you (taller, shorter, fatter, different gender, more attractive, older etc), you tend to experience what it would be like to be more like them, building a bizarre understanding, tweaking your personality accordingly, even when the game is finished.

It is through this that Trinity College researchers hope to revolutionise peacekeeping around the world, thanks to a €2m grant, international backing and a clever use of modern gaming.

“The Proteus effect has an impact on your sense of self,” explained Anne Holohan, assistant professor at Trinity’s department of sociology. “That is what Gaming for Peace will tap into.”

Gaming for Peace is the name of a new €2m H2020 research programme that Holohan is managing, which will create a role-playing computer game to help train officials all over the world and, potentially, drag interactions between NGOs and militaries into a whole new age. “Think of it like World of Warcraft,” she said.

Knowledge gap

“There is a big gap between militaries and NGOs,” said Holohan, who has researched this engagement (or lack thereof) in areas like Kosovo and Haiti in the past.

“Militaries have so many brilliant resources that could really help NGOs, but the communication can sometimes be non-existent.

“There are factors for this. For example, there simply has to be an infrastructure that physically connects the two. Then there needs to be trust and more understanding of everyone’s roles. We’re looking at that.”

If you’re dubious of the effect walking a mile in someone else’s shoes can have, Nony de la Pena’s work should explain this better. Using VR for immersive journalism, at Sundance last month she let people experience crossing the picket line at an abortion clinic protest.

Having to go through an experience like that, one presumes, would greatly tailor your views of those involved. Information is key.

It’s planned that all military, police and civilian personnel being deployed in EU conflict prevention and peacebuilding missions, such as those to Afghanistan, Palestine and Libya, will be able to receive training through Gaming for Peace upon its completion in 2018.

Challenging scenarios

The game will allow users to experience simulations of challenging scenarios from conflict and peacebuilding missions to learn communication and cooperation, gender awareness and cultural competency skills.

Entering the game as avatars, players will role-play as a member of another organisation, a different gender or nationality, and so will experience a variety of conflict-zone scenarios from a range of different perspectives.

“We’re focusing on inter-organisational communications at the moment. So in the EU there are often combined police forces for things,” said Holohan. “But Polish police and UK police might react differently to situations or people.”

With help from military organisations throughout Europe, educational facilities like Maynooth University and Laurea University in Finland, as well as Irish computer games company Haunted Planted, led by Mads Haahr, Holohan’s two-year project promises to be exhaustive and challenging.

Big challenge? Big reward

The rewards, though, could be far greater than you might expect.

Costs are huge. Training a large number of personnel before deployment – in different locations, from different backgrounds – on a mission is expensive and logistically difficult. It’s so hard to plan and afford that often training isn’t as complete as you may like, according to Holohan.

“Particularly in the area of soft skills, such as communication and gender and cultural awareness,” she explained.

Gaming for Peace will produce a game that is accessible to all personnel before deployment at minimal cost. The only thing that is required is an internet connection.”

When completed, Holohan said she hopes the game can be adapted anywhere in the world, a platform for local tweaking.

But, more importantly, it should also make us understand each other more, which is something any conflict zone could benefit from.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic