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Siren: a serious game for conflict resolution in schools

Consider this scene: Jamie, a boy in Holly’s class, keeps calling Lucy “fat”. Lucy tries to argue back, and then they end up getting into an argument (normally in the classroom). Eventually Mr Williams (their class teacher) will tell them off, but they still keep on arguing, but more sneakily – sitting down and giving each other hostile glances. Holly thinks that afterwards they feel angry with each other, and a bit resentful that they didn’t manage to get their point across and conclusively finish the argument. This has been going on since Holly joined the school (almost a year ago).

Now replace the names with Yanni, Jose, Marie or Olaf and the reference to Lucy’s appearance with cultural origin, social or religious background or athletic ability and you end up with a whole range of situations that are very likely to happen in any school across the globe. In today’s multi-cultural and socially diverse societies, confronting conflicts and coping with them is part of social life, especially since conflicts seem to arise in almost every context and developmental stage of human life, from scuffles in schoolyards, to bullying in the workplace and even to international warfare.

The Siren project (http://www.sirenproject.eu) aims to tackle such problems, by creating a serious game that will support the role of teachers and help them educate young people on how to understand and resolve conflicts. World-class research groups from the USA, Denmark, Portugal, UK and Greece and an award-winning game design company from Denmark worked together to design and develop an interactive environment which benefits from recent advances in serious games, social networks, computational intelligence and emotional modeling to create uniquely motivating and educating games that can help shape how children think about and handle conflict. The game developed by the project is able to automatically generate adaptive conflict scenarios that fit the teaching needs of particular groups of children with varying cultural background, maturity, technical expertise and the desired learning outcomes as specified by teachers, enabling the system to be used by school teachers all over the world, without specific technical training.

The main objective of the Siren game is to teach players peaceful and constructive ways for resolving conflicts, knowledge that can then be transferred to other domains. The players face a conflict situation together, with the conflict domain being relevant to the interests, maturity, and level of general knowledge of the participants. In order to increase the players’ level of familiarity with the aesthetics and mechanics of the game and, thus, maximize their level of interest, researchers chose two gaming genres popular among the selected age group (10-14-year old students) and created Village Voices, a collaborative version of a farm game, resembling social games played in social networking websites, and My Dream Theatre, a role-playing game, where the player becomes the director of a theatre club, assigning roles to actors played by non-player characters and attempting to work out the conflicts arising between unappreciative characters or as a result of events external to the theatre company. Students play these two games in successive stages, tackling an increasingly complex scenario each time; each scenario contains one or more goals, which players need to achieve, a number of obstacles, and means to overcome the obstacles. In terms of game mechanics, these scenarios are formalized as collaborative puzzle solving with constraints, where each participant has incomplete information about the overall state of the game. All of these elements support the learning objectives of the game by immersing players in the conflict, facilitating a critical approach to their assumptions about the conflict and allowing them to explore new perspectives other than their own.

Evaluation in UK and Portuguese schools showed that the game succeeds in providing a safe experimentation ‘sandbox’ for students to try alternative approaches to conflict resolution and experience their outcomes. In addition to this, students became more conscious of the semiotic elements of conflict, perceiving and reasoning about others' perspectives and understanding that people may have different ways of handling conflict. After a few sessions of playing the game, students in the test group were not only more capable to produce more options to solve a conflict, but they also showed an increase in the use of collaborative strategies.

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