Parable of the Polygons

By Alex Wolmart

Parable of the Polygons touches upon things that go far beyond just the video games industry. Especially in the United States and following the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as the most powerful man in the free world. Interestingly and brilliantly so, this “experience” is a combination of both a game and a blog post. It does with great effectivity as an educational game/tool and as a piece of analysis upon our society. Formatted as an article with several different mini-games placed without to stimulate a form of “hands-on” learning, Parable of the Polygons draws from Nobel Prize winning game theorist Thomas Schilling’s neighborhood segregation model. But one of the greatest disagreements that I can extract comes right at the beginning when they claim there overall “mission statement,” “how harmless choices can make a harmful world.” In theory, this makes a great amount of sense – and it is still true on many levels – but I believe the worst of our society, the greatest collective bias, arises out of people with their only intention on being harmful and bias because that is how they were taught. This made itself most evident during this past presidential election, both during the primaries and the general election. There was an unprecedented sum of bias and racism floating throughout the United States, more so during the general election when Donald Trump ramped up his campaigning and aggression towards both Hilary Clinton and his own policies. The worst of it was seen at Trump’s campaign rallies that grew in chaos more and more throughout the election, and this is where you saw U.S citizens displaying their collective bias to their neighbors with harmful intentions. These people didn’t exercise their right to be bias with different or positive intentions in mind – it was not a harmless choice – rather it was a choice made out of spite.

Parable of the Polygons was created during a particularly interesting, rather confusing, and somewhat chaotic time in the recent history of the United States, especially since 9/11, the year 2014. Seemingly enough all of the pent up frustration and “bottled up” racism that was in the underbelly of our society for years all burst out during this time. In the summer of 2014 the killings of two unarmed  Black men – Eric Garner and Michael Brown – as a consequence of police brutality resulted in nationwide outrage, protests, and riots particularly in Ferguson Missouri after the death of Michael Brown in August. The treatment these police officers showed these men were, in a sense, representative of the way we treat our own citizens in American society. And what emerged out of these events was what is known as the Black Lives Matter Movement, a movement today that is still strong and representative of these problems in the country. Even one of the creators, Vi Hart, talked about how they most certainly did not expect this game to become more relevant after they began creating it. It shows how the issue is not only not improving, but rather it’s getting worse. Another type of bias, particularly in the video games industry, also arose during the summer of 2014 in the form of #Gamergate. Gamergate – which was going on during the same time the creators first met and began to discuss ideas around Parable of the Polygons – displayed the harsh and unequal treatment/representation of women as both gamers and executives in the game industry. Granted, this “burst” of social change has made some differences but there is still much to be done. This idea of progress made but much more to be done is directly referenced and touched upon in the “wrapping up” section of the Parable of the Polygons when Vi Hart and Nicky Case make three concluding points. In one of the points, “the past haunts the present,” they claim, “Your bedroom floor doesn’t stop being dirty just coz you stopped dropping food all over the carpet. Creating equality is like staying clean: it takes work. And it’s always a work in progress,” (Hart, Case, Parable of the Polygon 2014). While it may be a little trivial to boil an institutional problem contained within the underbelly of American society down to a metaphor about cleaning your room, it is still remarkably effective. If we truly care about keeping our room clean, then we wouldn’t sit back and hope the room will clean itself or somebody else will do it for us.   

Parable of the Polygons differentiates between bias, un-bias, and anti-bias. This is shown  in the middle of the blog post when they state, “In a world where bias ever existed, being unbiased isn’t enough! We’re gonna need active measures,” (Hart, Case Parable of the Polygon 2014). In an inherently bias society, simply not being bias, or being “un-bias,” is just not enough but rather it takes active “anti-bias” for the overall idea of bias and segregation to be diminished or completely obliterated, and this is shown in the later board simulations displaying the charts on the sides with segregation on the y axis and time on the x axis. You can chose the percentage that determines at what point the shapes will have the urge to move. By lowering the meter below 33% you are displaying active “anti-bias” and the table will then show how the segregation can be “reversed.” Another powerful section comes right after the first large simulation board when the authors are discussing how “small individual bias can lead to large collective bias.” In this section there is one triangle that is unhappy while the rest are and to make it so that all of the shapes are happy the gamer must change the mixed pattern between square and triangle into a segregated board with squares on one side and triangles on the other. The one triangle – in individual bias – caused a segregation of the entire group, a collective bias. This is a mirror of the conformity our society faces. When an individual sees all of their friends, family, and/or colleagues supporting something it’s instinctual for them to join rather than be “left out” of the group. Even the title of the game shows the message the authors are attempting to send. A parable is a simple story or anecdote used to illustrate a moral and/or spiritual lesson, and that is exactly what this game does. Parable of the Polygon elegantly uses simplicity to explore a deep and complex issue in American society, and we see this most towards the end when the creators give us a “call to action” type of conclusion with the rainbow box. Figuring this part out is probably the most difficult thing as it represents the achievement of a truly inclusive society, “All it takes is a change in the perception of what an acceptable environment looks like. So, fellow shapes, remember it’s not about triangles vs squares, it’s about deciding what we want the world to look like, and settling for no less…by working together, step by step, we’ll get there.” The gamer has to drag one square and one triangle inch by inch, together, until all four are in the rainbow cube. It is a literal depiction of achieving an completely un-bias society step by step with different types of people working together. The creators establish a simple, yet difficult, solution just as they used a simple idea to portray and speak upon an issue in American society that is far from simplistic. The time of a 100% inclusive society may never come, but Parable of the Polygon surely does make it seem not only possible, but simple, as long as enough of us partake in “active measures” of anti-bias.     

Works Cited

Hart, Vi. “Parable of the Polygons.” Parable of the Polygons. N.p., 2014. Web. 03 Apr. 2017. <http://ncase.me/polygons/&gt;.

Bliss, Laura. “An Immersive Game Shows How Easily Segregation Arises-and How We Might Fix It.” CityLab. The Atlantic Citylab, 11 Dec. 2014. Web. 03 Apr. 2017. <http:// www.citylab.com/design/2014/12/an-immersive-game-shows-how-easily-segregation- arisesand-how-we-might-fix-it/383586/>.

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