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Dalhousie students design game to help peacekeepers deal with child soldiers

Last Updated Mar 11, 2016 at 4:03 pm EDT

Mimi Cahill, a third year informatics student, left, and Brian Yip, a fourth year computer science student, are seen with the video game they created for the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative at Dalhousie University in Halifax on Friday, March 11, 2016. The game presents interactive scenarios for peacekeepers who encounter child soldiers. It's based on a training manual issued by Dalhousie's Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative meant to help peacekeepers communicate with child soldiers without provoking confrontation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stringer

HALIFAX – As the computer game flickers to life in a Halifax university lab, a small helicopter darts across the map on the screen, and with guidance from the operator settles down in a small village outside Mogadishu, Somalia.

A keystroke later Brian Yip, a Dalhousie University computer science student, is suddenly a peacekeeper about to come face-to-face with a child soldier.

The story of the encounter then unfolds with a series of questions designed to test the ability of the peacekeeper to deal with the armed child without provoking a potentially deadly confrontation.

“Instead of just reading from a handbook you can just jump into an encounter and just feel immersed right there and then and just be put right on the spot,” said Yip.

It’s a written training manual given interactive life, and it’s the brainchild of a group of informatics students at the Halifax school.

Developed over three semesters by 11 students, the game is set to be tested with peacekeepers in the field as part of training offered by Dalhousie’s Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative.

Josh Boyter, who works with the Dallaire initiative, said the game is designed so it can be deployed in some of the most difficult hotspots around the world without having to utilize the Internet or wireless connections.

“This game can sit on a USB key,” said Boyter.

“It’s all locally based, so as long as they have a browser on their laptop . . . the game won’t break. It’s purely designed to be as robust as possible.”

Boyter said his organization plans to give the game to the first child protection adviser to be attached to an African Union peacekeeping mission. The adviser will use it to help train soldiers and police.

“We are really excited to see how it actually is going to help in terms of our ultimate mission, which is to end the use of child soldiers,” he said.

The game presents a range of scenarios and roles in which child soldiers could be encountered, including as spies or even suicide bombers. Each scenario presents a list of choices for dealing with the child soldier and the game user is ultimately told whether those choices are right or wrong.

Dalhousie student Mimi Cahill said although the game is currently designed for Somalia, it’s built to be versatile and can be easily adapted for situations that may arise in other peacekeeping missions around the world.

Cahill said the project has had a profound effect on a group of computer science students who otherwise may have remained uneducated about the subject of child soldiers.

She said the group became passionate about what they were doing by the time the project wrapped up.

“Many put in extra work I’d say just because they enjoyed the cause,” said Cahill. “It really is engaging and it’s something that a lot of us will take with us and think about in the future.”