What if modern technology could provide new avenues for forging peace? Could the new perspectives they offer allow us to see the world through other lenses? The new realm of virtual reality seems to provide such opportunities. Indeed, the latter is a three-dimensional, computer generated environment (1) which allows people to explore and discover a new near-reality. Through a range of different systems and projects, some have used this new technology to promote peace and empathetic relations in conflictuous contexts.
The lenses of a new reality
By stimulating our senses in a different way and exposing us to a new, close-to-real environment, we are challenged to think out of our comfort-zone. Indeed, through virtual reality (VR) lenses, we are able to emerge ourselves into a situation we would have never been confronted with in our ordinary lives. The VR4Peace Museum seized this novelty to create VR projects all around the world to raise awareness about peacemakers who dedicated their entire life to forge peace. The crux of their project is a “peace walkway project” whereby “real-time installations in 100 or more locations of bronze plaque memorial monument” (2) are built and include a VR segment which becomes available on an app to explore a moment in that peacemaker’s life. “From the caring for the poor in a leper colony to a major speech, or other related events that effected change in creating peace”, the VR app allows the viewer to adopt the point of view of the prominent peacemaker and seize the importance of values such as empathy, love and justice.
On what grounds can such project help foster peaceful relations? Paul-Felix Montez, the creator of the VR4Peace Museum points to the fact that VR allows to transcend geographic barriers and “create peace beyond borders” (3). Moreover, VR is used for noble purposes given the emotional and intellectual stimulation it offers. Indeed, the United Nations has started to adopt VR as a means to “inspire humanitarian empathy” (4) in “hopes of changing how a person acts toward others.” and thus foster more considerate, thoughtful and compassionate attitudes.
In fact, since January 2015, the United Nations created a Virtual Reality series and coordinated its projects with UN SDG Action Campaign (5) in order for decision makers to be in the shoes of those often left behind or marginalized by society. For instance, the VR movie “Clouds over Sidra” which captures in 360° and 3D videos the life of a 12 year old Syrian girl who has lived Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan was premiered at the World Economic Forum in Davos.Imagine a world where political decisions made at the Security Council would require a prior visioning of the current situation of combatants and civilians in conflict zones. One could only hope that this would bring more humanity to the decision making process that is seldom anchored in the realities and the difficulties of war-torn countries.
VR and the Arab-Israeli conflict, new prospects for peace
In september 2016 was held an international media seminar on peace in the Middle East in order to discuss the role that could be played by virtual and augmented reality in order to “help people around the world understand the Israeli-Palestinian story and take action to create change.” (6) In fact, VR allows to engage the viewers with a reality they are never exposed to. For instance, the project "The Enemy" created by Helen Adamo from Camera Lucida Productions aims to make the “enemy visible”, and thus to render the latter more humane and identifiable. In order to do so, the VR lenses allow the viewers to immerse themselves into the “other side” by seeing and experiencing both sides of the conflict without actually having to change one’s geo-location. The project aimed to spark a debate and provoke questions such as “Could I be you if I were on the other “side?” and thus challenge the monolithic and deep-rooted narratives and beliefs that each side holds.
A scientific research was conducted in 2014 (7) whereby sixty male, Jewish Israeli students, aged between 21 and 45 years were virtually put in contact with an avatar character representing the “outer group” i.e. a Palestinian. They were able to discuss a controversial topic about the conflict, while the avatar moved and mimicked the participant in his actions. The results of the study showed that “modifications in the virtual interactions” such as the mimicking of nonverbal posture “are capable of increasing empathy in the human participant”. Indeed, “participants who reported a priori negative feelings toward Palestinians expressed more sympathy toward their Palestinian virtual interaction partner (and) rated themselves as closer to him”. The indirect contact offered by virtual connections may provide a key for creating peaceful and empathetic relations whilst repairing the hatred between groups in the real world.
VR: a tricky terrain?
Critics are swift to point out the limitations of VR as a tool to foster peace and restore relations in protracted conflicts. The main counter-argument made to such VR projects grounds itself on the fact that virtual experiences cannot capture the reality of the experience of an individual. By displaying and virtually experiencing segments of the life or environment of someone, we are only shown a glimpse of his or her reality. Some argue that this can only offer a partial and altered vision of their life which is thus misleading. Although VR can inform it cannot change reality and it does not necessarily spur action on the part of the viewers. In addition, others point to the ethical limitations of VR insofar as its content can be misused. Although valid, such criticisms are to be mitigated insofar as they omit that VR is a tool amongst others to foster peace; it is a means to an end. Where individuals lack the opportunities or the will to directly interact, VR offers a simple and realistic way to foster dialogue and exchange. The potential of technology-enhanced conflict resolution is under-explored. VR offers a myriad of possibilities to promote peace projects which ought to be considered fully.
If you want to discover more virtual reality projects that aim to foster peace, we invite you to click on these links:
Or visit the UN Virtual Reality website
(1) “What is Virtual Reality?”. Virtual Reality Society
(2) VR Peace museum
available at: http://vrpeacemuseum.org/
(3) Peace walkway project available at: http://peacewalkway.org/video-2/
(4) Agora financial. The key to world peace. 05/2016
(5) United Nations Virtual Reality, About. http://unvr.sdgactioncampaign.org/home/about/#.WWOw9dOGNE5
(6) International media seminar on peace in the Middle East. September 2016
(7) Beatrice S. Hasler, PhD, Gilad Hirschberger, Tal Shani-Sherman, and Doron A. Friedman. “Virtual Peacemakers: Mimicry Increases Empathy in Simulated Contact with Virtual Outgroup Members”. 2014
United Nations Virtual Reality, http://unvr.sdgactioncampaign.org/