The Parable of the Polygons (2014) is a playable post made by math enthusiast Vi Hart and indie game developer Nicky Case. Although the game’s aesthetics may suggest that it is a lighthearted experience of shifting around cute polygons, the message communicated to the player is a much heavier one that addresses segregation in society. The game makes a great procedural argument that speaks about the social divides that cause injustice in the world. While the game mostly alludes to racism, it is a parable that also can be used as a template to speak of issues surrounding sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other oppressive intolerances.
The game has a simple goal: the player must move triangles and squares around so that none of the shapes are unhappy. The happiness of the shapes is based on a single rule:
“I wanna move if less than 1/3 of my neighbors are like me” (Vi Hart & Nicky Case 2014).
A shape can only be moved if it is unhappy with its neighbors – so if a shape is neutral, it cannot be moved. A shape is the happiest when there is diversity amongst its neighbors, meaning that the shapes actually prefer slight diversity in their surroundings over complete homogeneity. From these rules, it already begins to become evident how the game is mean to illustrate a lesson about larger societal issues.
As the player scrolls down the page, new spaces are introduced and the player is instructed to continue moving the shapes around until they are content. After the player grasps an understanding of how the shapes like to be organized, they are shown a more complicated setup, which is a mathematically driven simulation where the shapes arrange themselves according to their 33% bias level. Next to the simulation, there is a graph that tracks the segregation percentage over time.
The next simulation is slightly more complex, allowing the player to adjust the amount of bias that each shape has. After tinkering around with the settings, the player learns that when each shape has little to no bias, they constantly move around, and when each shape has a higher percentage of bias, the shapes quickly organize themselves into segregated communities and cease movement.
The final message of the game is communicated to players when they successfully move the shapes into the box of friendship, which can only be done by moving each shape closer together in small increments.
The culmination of this is “At first, going out on your own can be isolating… but by working together, step by step, we’ll get there” (Vi Hart & Nicky Case 2014).
Even though the game does not have a plot or storyline with avatars and playable characters, it strives to express a message to demand diversity. The simulation shows that small biases actually lead to large-scale segregation, and individuals benefit from being surrounded by people of diverse backgrounds. The game grants its players the agency to move objects around, and it holds a rich narrative that critiques real world segregation and prejudiced attitudes.
Despite the fact that it is an imaginary game with a simple world and cute vector graphics, it models weighty social issues and requires real-world knowledge in order to hold metaphorical value. In this way, the game is an example of what Henry Jenkins refers to as transmedia story-telling. He argues that “we inhabit a world of transmedia story-telling, one which depends less on each individual work being self-sufficient than on each work contributing to a larger narrative economy” (Jenkins). Our pre-existing knowledge of the world is what helps us understand and interpret games, and The Parable of the Polygons (2014) is no different. It allows for a constructive conversation about sensitive social issues in a safer environment. The cute and minimalistic graphics of the game can be overlooked as a simple design preference, but they actually serve two key purposes. The first is that they demonstrate to the player its goals in a simple and understandable way. The second is that it allows discourse about prejudice in society in a way that avoids serious controversy.
The Parable of the Polygons (2014) was inspired by the work of game theorist Thomas Schelling, who is known for his research about neighborhood segregation, and game scholar Ian Bogost, who wrote about video games as procedural rhetoric. The Parable of the Polygons (2014) takes a procedural approach to critique segregation in our society, and uses procedural rhetoric to inform and persuade players to make active efforts to seek diversity. The game requires the player to experiment with the elements of the game in order to vividly experience the consequences and effects of their actions.
Developer Nicky Case says:
“The post starts off telling you that harmless choices will create a harmful society. Then, it lets you do those harmless choices, moving slightly biased shapes around, until you create a segregated society. And it shows you what you’ve done” (Farakmanesh).
Like any quality example of procedural rhetoric, the game’s message is “made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (Bogost 29). One must actually play through the simulation to understand the message trying to be communicated. Arguments of procedural rhetoric induce the player to actually do things, and the agency given to the player makes the experience more vivid than verbal or written descriptions about inequality and prejudice.
In terms of controls, Parable of the Polygons (2014) only requires the player to click, drag, and scroll down a page. However, as Bogost argues, “procedural rhetorics don’t always need sophisticated interaction, we explore the possibility space its rules afford by manipulating the game’s controls” (Bogost 43). The simple elements of the game serve the purpose of representing something larger and more complex in real life. Specifically, the triangles and squares are meant to model two different groups in society, and their level of happiness is an indication of their willingness to be surrounded by different people. The fact that they are unhappy when surrounded by too many shapes of the different kind is meant to model how humans don’t want to be isolated, and the fact that the shapes are the happiest with slight diversity is supposed to show how humans can benefit the most from a mixed environment.
In this way, the game is a representation of contemporary society, even though it accomplishes this through fictional means. In an interview with Hart and Case, Case states, “hey, games are systems, so what better ways to talk about systemic problems?” (Farokhmanesh). Rather than other games that are merely themed around social issues, The Parable of the Polygons (2014) is a didactic one that teaches its message in an interactive, fun, and harmless way.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen includes an excerpt from Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media, in which he views games as a reflection of culture rather than as separate from it. McLuhan stressed that games are tied to the culture in which they exist, and thus reveal the nature of that culture. “Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man and of the body politic. . . Games are dramatic models of our psychological lives” (Egenfeldt-Nielsen 28).
This relates back to Jenkins’ theory that games exist within a larger narrative system, and in this system, games offer a unique experience because of their ability to “[create] an immersive environment we can wander through and interact with” (Jenkins). Rather than being idle play objects, video games are in fact communication media that relay ideas and values to their audiences. The Parable of the Polygons (2014) strives to make players address micro-biases in order to break down collective biases in society. By taking the player through the experience of how small biases lead to complete segregation, it argues that “if small biases created the mess we’re in, small anti-biases might fix it” (Vi Hart & Nicky Case 2014). The game aims to motivate players to act on a macro level and tackle the out-of-game issues that The Parable of the Polygons (2014) model in the first place.
Bogost, I. 2008. Persuasive Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (pp. 28-46) ISBN: 978026202614-7.
Calleja, G. 2011. In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (pp. 35-46) ISBN: 9780262015462.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S., Smith, J. H., & Tosca, S. P. 2008. Understanding video games: the essential introduction. New York: Routledge – Chapter 3: “What Is A Game?”
Farokhmanesh, Megan. “A Visual Guide to Bias, as Explained by Adorable Shapes.” Polygon. Polygon, 11 Dec. 2014. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
Jenkins, H. 2004. Game Design as Narrative Architecture in Wardrip-Fruin, N. – Pat Harrigan (eds.) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, Game. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Vi Hart & Nicky Case 2014, The Parable of the Polygons, video game, PC, NCase.