Alumni Profile • Peter Hart '66, Roland Hart '98 and Michael Van Houten '93
Helping to make war archaic

Left to right: Michael Van Houten, Roland Hart and Peter HartDoes anyone learn to swim by reading a textbook? Would you trust a heart surgeon who had learned the procedure only by attending lectures?

Learning the skills needed to resolve conflict is no different, said Peter Hart ’66. “People just need to do it, and learning to do it in the aftermath of September 11 is more urgent than ever before.”

Even before September 11, Peter, along with his son, Roland Hart ’98, and son-in-law, Michael Van Houten ’93, had begun to develop a practical tool that would help people learn conflict resolution by doing it. Over the past four years the three collaborators in Scenorama Studios have created Elysia, an online simulation that allows players to participate in an emotionally loaded conflict and experiment with different strategies for negotiating it to an end.

Here’s how it works: Registered participants — optimally, students in a class — go online to the Elysia Web site. There they learn about a San Francisco group — the Elysians — whose members have persuaded an 18-year-old girl to be their newest recruit. The girl’s older brother and his friends are determined to spring her from what they fear is a cult.

After taking a personality profile, each player chooses the character he or she will become during the course of the simulation — either an Elysian or one of the girl’s friends. Each character represents a particular style of conflict management, from aggression to accommodation to avoidance. Web site links provide players with background information on the conflict and negotiation tools they might try. All negotiation happens from players’ personal computers via threaded discussions and private group forums. The two opposing groups choose at each stage of the drama what strategy — from violent to non-violent — they will use to achieve their end. An online newspaper, The Conflict Chronicle, written by an overseer, such as a professor, reports on what the situation looks like as a result of the decisions that the players have made. But there is no script. Players themselves determine the conflict’s outcome.

An important feature of the simulation is that each player, behind the mask of his or her character, is anonymous to all the other players. This, said Peter Hart, encourages “out-of-the-box thinking. People can even choose to play their opposite. That’s the most effective way to learn to deal with conflict — to step into the other person’s shoes.”

One of the Elysia simulation’s features — an interactive 3-D “Rotunda” — won the 2004 Apple Design Award for best QuickTime content for education.

While now marketing the Elysia simulation, Hart and his sons are also working on new simulations that spring directly from recent world crises. One, for example, involves negotiating with Saddam Hussein.

Hart knows firsthand the urgency of learning how not to demonize an opponent but, rather, to understand his or her worldview. In 1990 a cult recruited one of his children. In the 1993 Waco, Texas, debacle involving the government and the Branch Davidians, Hart saw parallels to his own experience. Now there is the Iraq war — and innumerable other “conflicts of identity” around the world.

“Tribalism runs very deep,” he said, “but we can become more aware of what goes on in our minds and learn to think differently. In fact, it’s clear to me that war is an idea that will someday be archaic.”

For a preview of the Elysia simulation and others being developed, see www.conflictlab.com.