Editor’s note: WRAL Local Tech Wire publishes selected stories from the news services of various universities as part of its UniversityTech coverage. LTW is enhancing significantly its coverage of scientific and research efforts at regional universities where many of tomorrow’s discoveries are being made and the foundations of new companies are in the process of being created.

DURHAM, NC — In the basement of Perkins Library, representatives from 16 international agencies struggle to coordinate a massive humanitarian relief effort in the aftermath of a hurricane that has devastated Central America.

Wearing headsets and connected via laptops, these 16 students in Natalia Mirovitskaya’s public policy class are role-playing a scenario using a computer simulation developed by Duke researchers, in collaboration with , a Research Triangle Park-based developer known for its work on the military training simulation “America’s Army.”

The simulation repurposes the technology used in video games such as “World of Warcraft” to help train the next generation of international negotiators.

The U.S. military has used gaming simulations to train combat troops, fighter pilots and Special Forces in unstable regions such as Iraq. At Duke, “Virtual Peace” project leader Tim Lenoir said he was intrigued by the idea of using the same technology to foster cooperation in resolving conflict. In “Virtual Peace”, students can practice real-life diplomatic skills and learn first-hand the necessary tools for sensitive and timely crisis response.

“We’re trying to train people how to collaborate in groups — particularly in internationally sensitive situations,” said Lenoir, the Kimberly J. Jenkins Chair for New Technologies and Society. “The goal is to create an environment where people can practice their negotiation skills — and it’s a whole lot better use of the gaming engine than shooting ’em up.”

The project — winner of the HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Competition — brings together an interdisciplinary team of experts in digital learning technologies and international conflict resolution.

Educators from the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution designed the scenario. It is modeled on real-life events following Hurricane Mitch, which blew through Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998, leaving 14,600 dead and more than $5 billion in damages. Duke computer science students constructed the avatars, based on photos of real people in leadership roles in government and non-government agencies involved in similar humanitarian aid efforts.

In the simulation, participants are assigned roles representing those agencies, such as Oxfam, UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization.

They first convene around a virtual conference table but later break into smaller groups. Their task: to negotiate the specific commitments of cash, in-kind and personnel donations that will address immediate needs such as medical assistance, security, water, shelter and food. They also respond to larger issues such as logistical coordination and political rehabilitation.

During the two-hour simulation, instructors can “fly” around to observe the conversations and send “curveball” messages to particular players to simulate unexpected crises. Instructors also can flag certain points in the game to revisit during after-action reviews.

Research suggests that the immersive experience of game simulations inspires more immediate, compelling interaction than traditional face-to-face role-playing, said Kacie Wallace, a project leader and senior research scholar in Duke’s Information Science and Information Studies (ISIS) program.

“It removes student personalities and advances that sense of reality,” Wallace said. “The scene puts you in a whole different space, not in the classroom but in that conference room.”

After two trial simulations this fall in high-tech classrooms at the Link, Perkins Library’s new teaching and learning center, Mirovitskaya said she was amazed at her students’ response to the computer simulation.

“I’ve been using simulation games in my teaching for many years, and I rarely saw such a level of engagement, such a level of commitment in the process,” said Mirovitskaya, a project leader and senior research scholar of public policy.

The simulation enables real-time international interaction since users can join the game from different physical locations. Users can also customize the simulation for a variety of practical applications, from analyzing what went wrong in the response to Hurricane Katrina to convening a “virtual policy think-tank” of expert stakeholders to discuss international environmental issues, Lenoir said.

The technology could prove useful not just in training but in real-life humanitarian aid negotiations, said Sharif Azami, a Rotary World Peace Fellow and a graduate student in international development policy at Duke’s Sanford Institute.

“In my experience, in an emergency situation, you don’t always know who is doing what, and you may not be able to reach all stakeholders at one time,” said Azami, a native of Afghanistan who worked for the Canadian International Development Agency and Oxfam before becoming a Rotary World Peace Fellow. “With this tool, it would be a lot easier to effectively coordinate and prioritize stakeholders’ initiatives.”