From enemy to empathy

Political scientist William Stover teaches students to understand volatile conflicts through firsthand experience. Thanks to virtual simulations, there aren’t casualties. But there is a new way of seeing.

From enemy to empathy
In-country: Foreign service officer Bill Stover in Vietnam, 1968. Photo courtesy of Bill Stover.

Empathy for the Vietcong was not on the top of Bill Stover’s mind when he was clutching a pistol, hunkered down in Saigon during the bloody Tet Offensive of 1968. As a young U.S. foreign service officer, the future Santa Clara political science professor wanted to help his nation. Years later, he found a way to teach conflict resolution with a pen—and then a computer—instead of a gun.

For the past decade, undergraduates in Stover’s Introduction to International Relations class have been using an innovative Internet simulation that lets them take on the role of an actor in a conflict—such as Israel or Palestine—and make decisions to advance that side in a hypothetical or re-created showdown. The idea, says Stover, is to give the undergraduates an appreciation for a point of view with which they might not otherwise empathize.

His experience in Vietnam forged his resolve to teach younger generations the benefit of understanding every side of a conflict—especially the sides you don’t like. After the Tet Offensive, Stover toured parts of Vietnam before returning to Washington, D.C., to brief the State Department on the progress of the “pacification” program aimed at Vietnamese villagers. He says the U.S. government didn’t understand the war from both sides. “It was so sterile to them,” Stover recalls. “That’s when I started to realize that something’s wrong here.”


Stover speaks in soft, measured tones—still sounding every bit the diplomat four decades after he left the foreign service. Next to a window overlooking a bucolic campus plaza, his computer displays the fruits of his virtual diplomacy: the simulated conflicts he developed after he gave up military conflict.

Stock image of chess piece on a globe-themed board

While earning a Ph.D. at the State University of New York, Stover became involved in the peace movement and decided to bring his experience into the classroom. His goal was to teach students how to have empathy—and understanding—for the “other.” It’s something he wishes he’d had when he traveled to Vietnam. That’s not so much in the spirit of “make love, not war” but of pure pragmatism: Who are you dealing with? Stover cites the example of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.

“Had I a sense of empathy with Ho—not his Marxism, but his sense of determination for his people to be independent—hey, I would have realized that this [war] is a non-starter.”

Stover’s classroom simulations have evolved quite a bit since the mid-1970s, when he arrived at Santa Clara and gave his students pencils and bulletin boards to create a simulated international conflict. In the late 1990s, Stover and Mike Ballen, from SCU’s media services department, moved conflict simulations into the digital age. Now, students from Santa Clara and more than a dozen other colleges, stretching from Panama to Lebanon, are able to participate in online simulations.

When a class starts, Stover encourages—but doesn’t force—students to represent a side they wouldn’t normally pick. That isn’t always easy. One time, a Jordanian student and an Iraqi student reluctantly took on roles of hypothetical Israeli officials. Afterward, “both of them came and said, ‘Thank you for making me do this. I now understand the way Israel thinks,’” Stover says. The students achieved a sense of empathy with Israel—without “liking Israeli policy.”

Stover says conflict simulations had a similar effect on a recent Jewish student when it came to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “He claimed that now, for the first time, he could see why this was such a difficult situation. Previously, he just couldn’t understand. The student thought, ‘The Israelis have been so good to the Palestinians. And yet they’re killing us.’ By acting as a Palestinian for a 10-day period, he found his views changed. He’s still pro-Israeli, but he understands a little bit more about what the problem is.”


A typical simulation starts out with a student writing a paper about the side they’re representing, using sources drawn from academia, the media, and the real-life government they’re playing. Sometimes, actual diplomats or United Nations employees help the students craft their strategies. After completing their papers, the students from each team meet to plan moves that advance their side’s agendas. The undergrads take on roles such as head of state or foreign secretary and make “moves” that are posted on the class website. Other teams respond as in a real-life conflict. The goal is to be an advocate for your team—not your individual beliefs.

“It’s not enough just to read about them,” says Stover. “You have to read from their perspective, and then you also have to act on their behalf. And by doing that, a greater sense of empathy is achieved.”

Although Stover bases the simulations at Santa Clara, students and advisors from around the world often take part. And it amazes the professor how devoted some people are to their team. In one case, a UN worker based in the conflict-ridden Gaza section of the Palestinian territories was out past curfew so he could post a move online. “I mean, the kid could’ve gotten killed,” said Stover. “But he wanted to be part of his group. He didn’t want to let his group down.”

That dedication then carries over to students at Santa Clara, Stover says.

Recent simulations have dealt with Iraq, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and the use of nuclear weapons in World War II. A simulation re-creating the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was an eye-opener for young undergrads. “They realize the stakes are so much higher,” Stover says. “And it’s a way of having another generation sort of go back and relive some event that was profound and earthshaking in many ways.”

Even if a freshman in Stover’s class doesn’t go on to a career dealing with nuclear weapons or humanitarian crises, Stover hopes that student is able to use the experience of a simulation and apply it to everyday life. “I want them to have a willingness to listen to the other person’s story. If that’s all they get—just to be able to listen—that would be a success.”

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