“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” – Confucius
Despite all the “isms” that already exist to describe society’s systemic injustices (racism, sexism, agism, ableism), I’ve managed to find another that you probably haven’t discovered but should also lend your undivided attention to. It’s shapism, or more specifically: the lines drawn between the squares and triangles in Parable of the Polygons, a playable post or “explorable explanation” of how small biases spiral into social segregation.
Created as a collaboration between Nicky Case (creator of Coming Out Simulator) and Vi Hart (Youtube Mathemusician Queen), Parable of the Polygons combines adorably animated shapes with simulated prejudice to create an interactive experience of Thomas Scheilling’s Dynamic Models of Segregation. Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning game theorist, revolutionized how people thought about the dynamics of prejudice, by revealing that seemingly harmless individual biases “tipped” into systemic divides.
“Schelling’s model is just so perfect: it’s simple, it’s counterintuitive, and it’s actually sort of ‘fun’ to play,” Nicky Case says, describing how Schelling famously played his own model on a chess board, with nickels and dimes.
Both he and Vi started working three months ago to create a digital playspace that both housed and expanded on Schelling’s segregation models, after Vi referenced the work in a talk she gave on women in STEM. During that talk, Nicky was “finally convinced that, yes, active measures are needed for improvement—rather than reducing your own individual bias and just hoping systemic bias goes away.”
To some, games may seem like an inappropriate space to explore a heavy subject like segregation. But, “Games are systems, so what better way to talk about systemic problems?” Nicky asks. “By definition, societal issues are systemic issues. Systems have mechanics. I think games have a unique advantage in helping the audience truly understand real-world mechanics, using in-game mechanics.”
Parable of the Polygons, an appropriately titled story about a big moral to be learned from a dilemma as old as time, not only takes players through a step-by-step explanation of Schelling’s findings, but also invites them to create entirely new models. “We even have a sandbox at the end,” Nicky explains, “that you can use to discover totally new conclusions from the model we have.” If you create more empty spots in that sandbox, for example, “you’ll find that higher levels of bias are stable solutions. Maybe this is an explanation for why sparsely-populated rural areas tend to be more xenophobic?”
Aspiring toward Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric, “a type of rhetoric tied to the core affordances of computers: running processes and executing rule-based symbolic manipulation,” Parable of the Polygons asks you to tackle Schelling’s concepts in a way only a game could. “It’s a chance for the audience to actively work through the logic themselves,” Nicky says. “I think of Socratic dialogues, where Socrates wants to convince someone of something. But he doesn’t just tell them his logic, or let their mind wander everywhere. He guides them with specific questions. Shows them how their assumptions of the world logically lead to a conclusion they didn’t believe in earlier.”
Those paying attention to the news lately know that Parable of the Polygons release comes at a poignant moment in America’s collective racial discussion. “There’s a huge gap between the racial proportions of the police force and the neighborhoods they’re policing, that both reinforces and results from racial tensions,” Nicky says. “It leads to everything from Stop & Frisk to unarmed black men getting killed on a regular basis.” In fact, Nicky says you can identify Schelling’s models in action when, a few months back at the height of the chaotic protests in Ferguson, a black officer led the police force one night. “He ordered the cops to wear regular blue uniforms, and the police were protecting the protestors and marching with the local community, rather than fighting them. Then, of course, everything went back to ‘normal.'”
The recent resurgence in unrest over the acquittals of both officers responsible for the death of Eric Garner and Mike Brown aren’t only causing nation-wide protests, either. There’s the other side of unrest: which is (mostly white) people taking to social media in order to express their own personal lack of prejudice toward black people, and thus by extension the system’s similar color blindness.
The myth that prejudice does not exist in America is an aspect of the racial debate that we as a country cannot, for the life of us, seem to shake off. “Many people believe they aren’t biased—even though the things they say or do, or their inaction, helps reinforce discriminatory systems,” Nicky explains. But in the hopes of creating an approachable and digestible experience for everyone, Parable of the Polygons is careful not to throw blame around. It emphasizes again and again that some of the personal biases we hold which lead to segregation are often unexamined, unintentional, or even unconscious.
“We want to acknowledge people’s good intentions while informing them of their actual impact,” Vi says. “We’re fighting systems, not people,” Nicky agrees. “By emphasizing someone’s innocence (or at least good intentions), you can make it easier to open up dialogue with them about it. Get them to realize that the system can be massively biased even if they aren’t. And then, get them to realize they can do something about it.”
The fundamental change Vi and Nicky made to Schelling’s work, which only demonstrated how segregation increased, was adding an “anti-bias” to his model reversing segregation. “Parable of the Polygons gives hope at the end—that harmony is possible,” Nicky explains. The final lesson that the playable post teaches is that “you only needed a small amount of anti-bias to easily offset segregation, even if some bias still exists. Best of all, it’s a bottom-up approach, not top-down, meaning that we can all start demanding diversity near us today.”
By far Parable of the Polygons greatest achievement is demonstrating a difficult reality while still maintaining a sense of actionable hope. “In the face of large systematic problems, it can feel impossible to tackle, and that small local efforts are useless. I used to feel that way,” Nicky admits. “But I now realize that not only do small local efforts help, but it’s the only way any real, lasting societal change is made.”
You can explore (and even hijack the code!) of Parable of Polygons for yourself here.