1993 VR Conference Proceedings

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Virtual Reality Games for Teaching Conflict Management
with Seriously Emotionally Disturbed
and Learning Disabled Children

Dr. Donna Oliver
Educational Psychologist
The Mitchell School
P.O. Box 653
Capitola CA 95010

Mr. Peter Rothman
Senior Partner
Avatar Partners
13090 Central Ave. Suite 3
Boulder Creek CA 95006
VOX 408-338-6460
FAX 408-338-6462


Conflict confronts everyone daily. Some people have learned how to mange this conflict in pro-social, constructive ways. Many others respond destructively, with discouragement, withdrawal, or even violence. Students who are Seriously Emotionally Disturbed (SED) or experience the frustrations of Learning Disabilities (LD) are particularly vulnerable and more likely to handle conflicts inappropriately. However, with assistance they can learn to internalize the strategies of good conflict management. These strategies include accurate listening, clear explanations, humor, postponing, compromising, seeking assistance, negotiating, and so on. When students practice positive responses to conflict, improved mental health and learning are likely to follow.

This paper describes the design and development of cooperative multi-player games employing virtual reality technology to teach SED and LD children conflict management. Virtual reality technology is useful in teaching conflict management because conflicts can be resolved in a non-threatening virtual world. Additionally, the excitement level which VR based games generate encourages involvement in the learning process. The games under development feature real-time three-dimensional sound and graphics, voice control, and intelligent agents. The current state of the first of these games to be developed, and the virtual reality system implementing it, will be described in detail.

Approaches to Teaching Conflict Management

Psychologists' beliefs about the origin and nature of human behavior and misbehavior vary. Therefore, approaches to teaching conflict management also vary.

Behaviorists focus on conditioning, including reinforcement, extinction and stimulus control. More specific processes include systematic use of social reinforcers (teacher praise and attention), tangible rewards, self-monitoring, modeling contingency contracts (formal arrangements negotiated between a teacher and a student), group contingency contracting, and response cost (taking back rewards previously given). (1) (2)

Glasser's Control Theory and Reality Therapy approaches identify several basic human needs:

(1) to survive and reproduce, (2) to belong and love, (3) to gain power, (4) to be free, and (5) to have fun...I italicize the need for power because, unlike the other four needs that are shared to some extent by many higher animals the way we continually struggle for power in every aspect of our lives seems uniquely human. (3)

His strategy for teaching healthy interpersonal relationships focuses on responsibility helping and caring for one another. He recommends cooperative learning team approaches, so that students can learn to contribute to one another constructively.

Adlerian psychologists emphasize social responsibility and state that children misbehave and mistreat each other only if they are discouraged and do not believe in their ability to succeed with useful means. (4) (5) The antidote is encouragement, which implies faith in the child and belief in his or her strength (6). Good conflict resolution strategies are developed when students learn that they: are capable, are significant, have self-discipline, and can make choices. (7)

Applied Conflict Management Programs

Applied programs also address conflict management. The Human Development Training Institute's A Curriculum in Conflict Management provides practical methods for helping children explore creative alternatives in dealing with conflict. It gives an "approach to getting at feelings, frustrations and relationship problems which cause conflict and result in inappropriate attempts at resolution". (8) Specific conflict management strategies are explored:

Positive Consequences

Negative Consequences

Lesson guides, films role-playing outlines, discussion techniques and activities are also provided. The Quest International programs are popular in schools and encourage, among other things, skills in healthy interpersonal development, including the management of conflict. The Skills for Adolescents program has been presented in more than 12,000 communities internationally. Their other programs include Project LEAD, Skills for Growing, Skills for Living, and Somos el Futuro.

When Winning Means No One Loses is a video program with an Adlerian approach to social-conflict resolution. Four steps are illustrated through a family interview and discussion. Establishing mutual respect, pinpointing a real issue, finding new agreement and involving everyone are all addressed. Another applied Adlerian program addressing social skills is Cooperative Discipline. (9)

Additional programs provide structured experiences to facilitate the development of healthy interpersonal relationships. A few include:

Innovative Teaching Strategies and Virtual Reality Games

In the past, conflict management has been addressed with psychological theories. Paper-and-pencil workbooks have provided limited success in enlightening students. Film strips and videos have enlivened student interest. However, structured experiences and simulations have been even more effective.

Rockler (10) describes how the process of simulation/gaming "always engrosses students". Furthermore, "game playing is a basic part of culture and fun is an important need of human beings". After an extensive examination of innovative teaching strategies, Rockler concludes that:

Several other conclusions in Innovative

Teaching Strategies relate to the need of our target population. "The role playing aspects of gaming foster the development of improved mental health." Therefore, both the subject matter (conflict management) and process (gaming) seem to support the healing needs of our seriously emotionally disturbed (SED) subjects.

Furthermore, Rockler also concludes that, "the strategies of facilitating creative behavior, simulation/gaming, and the study of the future support a variety of learning styles." A multiple approach to learning is valuable for most students, particularly those with learning disabilities (LD). Teachers of special education realize the value of teaching in four modalities: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. A fifth curriculum consideration is the presentation of high interest materials.

Virtual reality based games hold great promise for developing interactive games for SED and LD children. Virtual reality systems provide a set of tools which can be used to create sophisticated gaming and simulation systems.

Virtual reality games potentially can employ all four sensory modalities: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. Additionally, a game based on VR technology is extremely useful in the development of high interest teaching materials.

Within virtual reality, conflict situations can be introduced in a safe and controlled environment. The consequences of destructive conflict resolution strategies can be defined and controlled at least to some extent by the game designers.

Finally, with a multi-user virtual reality system a teacher or facilitator can monitor the children while the game is being played from within virtual reality. This allows for the facilitator to intervene when necessary, or for the children to ask for intervention or help from the facilitator.

Current Games Under Development

Currently, Avatar Partners is working with Dr. Oliver to define a series of game environments in which students are presented with situations in which the students must resolve conflicts using constructive conflict resolution methods in order to advance in the game or receive a reward. Presently, several separate game worlds are being developed. Eventually these separate worlds will be combined into a complete multi-level gaming environment in which the students will progress toward a goal by completing each of the levels in sequence.

The current set of games are graphically rudimentary. Instead of developing flashy graphics, the focus of our efforts to date has been on exploring different ways of introducing conflicts and providing the students with the opportunity to employ different strategies in resolving these conflicts.

All of the games being developed are multi-player networked games in which two or more students must interact in order to achieve a mutual goal. In the eventual implemented system, the teacher/facilitator will also be included in the virtual environment.

All of the games are being developed entirely with Avatar's Amber C++ tools for Sense8's WorldToolKit . Amber provides a set of C++ classes which make it easy to construct worlds which utilize gravity or other physical characteristics to control the behavior of objects. Additionally, Amber provides a set of classes which enable the development of multi-user and distributed virtual reality systems using multiple PCs and serial connections.

The following sections briefly describe some of the concepts for game worlds under development.

Gate of the Silver Key

In this world, the players encounter a series of floating three dimensional objects. The players are able to interact with the floating objects by touching them. Most of these objects give the players points, small prizes, or other rewards. Players also have the ability to pick up and drop objects which they find. Two of the objects reveal keys when touched by the players. These keys can be used to unlock the gate leading to the next level by inserting them into the keyholes next to the gate. However, the gate will only open if both keys are placed into the keyholes at the same time. Since the keyholes are spatially separated, this can only happen if both players possess one key and coordinate with each other to unlock the gates at about the same time.

Paintball World

In the paintball world, the players find themselves in orbit around a strange planet which is itself orbited by a series of polyhedra. The players are "armed" with paint balls with which they can paint the surface of the planet. In order to complete the paintball world, the players must cooperate to paint the entire surface of the planet. However, the polyhedra which are also orbiting the planet are "erasers" which erase the players paint as fast as they can spray it. The players need to work together to paint the planet fast enough so that the planet is completely painted before they can progress to the next level.

Guardians at the Gate

In Guardians at the Gate, the students need to approach and enter a glittering gateway in order to proceed to the next level. Surrounding the gateway are several "guardians" which fire spheres towards the players. The guardians appear as faces which are animated to make humorous expressions, and which stretch and distort as they orbit the gateway. The spheres fired by the guardians cause the players to be pushed back away from the gateway when the balls come in contact with the players' avatars (11). One player possesses a "shield" which deflects the guardians projectiles, while the other player is able to fire projectiles which repel the guardians. The gateway can only be activated when both players are close enough to the entrance of the gate.


Virtual reality based games hold great promise for developing interactive games for SED and LD children. Within virtual reality, conflict situations can be created within a virtual world in manner such that these conflicts can be introduced in a safe and controlled environment, games can be developed which employ multiple sensory modalities, and teaching materials which will attract and hold the interest of students can be developed.

We have begun the development of a set of games within which to explore methods for teaching conflict management strategies. In developing the concepts for even the simple game worlds currently under construction, it immediately became apparent that it is much more difficult to design the sort of non-violent games discussed here than simple video game "shoot 'em ups."

The game needs to introduce conflicts between the players in a non-threatening and non-violent manner. The players need to be able to perceive a means to resolve these conflicts constructively, and need to be rewarded for resolving the conflicts in this manner. Additionally, the players need to be prevented from employing destructive conflict resolution strategies or from being penalized for employing these strategies. These elements make the design of conflict resolution games a delicate balancing act between the introduction of conflict into a situation and the resolution of these conflicts through constructive means.


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