Parable of the Polygons: A Game of Bias

The Parable of Polygons, created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case, is a “playable post” version of Thomas Schelling’s model of neighborhood segregation that suggests small neighbor preferences can make up larger, divisive issues. Segregation is often overlooked as an issue of the past, but this game brings up a subtler, less intentional version of segregation that is largely unknown in more recent times.

By immediately grouping the characters in the game into squares and triangles, and then declaring that the shapes are “100% slightly shapist”, the game starts getting its point across early. The object of the game is to move the “unhappy” shapes to a different, empty space in order to make them “happy”. The twist, however, is in the reasoning behind what makes the shape happy or unhappy. Each shape has the same, shared preference that “[They] wanna move if less than one-third of [their] neighbors are like [them]”, and if this preference is not fulfilled at the moment, the individual shape affected will be unhappy until the preference is fulfilled.

Then, the interactive part of the game makes you arrange the shapes to completely accommodate their one preference, and by the time the task is completed, the division of shapes is fairly evident. You perform the same task again, but with a larger number of the two shapes, and the result is even more telling than the previous task. What was most surprising was that lowering the preference from thirty-three percent to ten percent didn’t effect any change at all either. There was no real change until the game introduced a new preference: the shape would demand to move “if more than eighty percent of their neighbors are the same”, to go along with the “less than ten percent” preference already in place. When the shapes are arranged according to this new set of boundaries, the world is much more intertwined. The point that the game is attempting to make here is that the only real way to solve this discreet segregation issue to take action, to demand diversity. According to the game, simply lowering the preference, or bias, didn’t change a thing. It was only when each shape began demanding they not solely live around the same shape all the time that any real difference occurred.

This game is clearly a metaphor for the current segregated socioeconomic situation happening in America. Many public schools have almost exclusively one ethnicity in their demographics, which is a direct result of neighborhoods at large having the exact same problem. This creates an even larger gap between different ethnicities and cultures, which only further escalates the problem of segregation. I feel like this game could seriously educate the country as to what the problem is, because simple lack of awareness is the biggest fuel to the fire at this point.

The game has three main points that it blatantly tries to get across at the end during a “WRAPPING UP” section:

  1. “Small individual bias à large collective bias: When someone says a culture is a shapist, they’re not saying the individuals in it are shapist. They’re not attacking you personally.”
  2. “The past haunts the present: 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.”
  3. “Demand diversity near you: If small biases created the mess we’re in, small anti-biases might fix it. Look around you. Your friends, your colleagues, that conference you’re attending. If you’re all triangles, you’re missing out on some amazing squares in your life – that’s unfair to everyone. Reach out, beyond your immediate neighbors.”

The first point is representative of the moment in the game where you lower the preference to ten percent, but nothing changes. Most people do not consider themselves racist, but that’s not what makes up larger segregation. The small, sometimes subconscious, biases that we carry are what keep communities divided. A lot of little decisions can lead to a big change.

The second and third points tie in with each other very well because at the end of the day, they both boil down to one ideal: the only way to make any real change is to take action. “In a world where bias ever existed, being unbiased is not enough! We’re gonna need active measures.”

The way the gameplay, and the game as a whole, come off is similar to that of a children’s’ educational video. The controls are very simple and the overall objective is extremely straightforward and basic. Even throughout playing, the game often explains the uncomplicated metaphors in a way that’s like an elementary school teacher attempting to implement basic mathematics into a student’s brain. The game is very short and does not waste any time. It gets to the point without being too direct. Overall, the game is fairly close to being just a blog post, but a few interactive parts qualify it as a game. I think the decision to make it a game rather than a blog post plays into the reasoning behind the Confucius quote: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”. The combination of interaction and education in this game was spot on.

The game, however, did have on major flaw in my opinion: the solution at the end was a little bit oversimplified. The idea that society could just call to action and demand diversity all at once and the issue would be solved is a little bit unrealistic. But I suppose you have to commend them for going with an overly optimistic solution rather than a depressing ending. The game as a whole succeeded greatly in educating its audience, however old, about a very real, below-the-surface problem that is happening today. As far as video games go, I would have to say it’s fairly subpar. As far as interactive, awareness-raising, blog posts go, I would have to say it’s fairly effective.


Works Cited

Bliss, Laura. “An Immersive Game Shows How Easily Segregation Arises-and How      We Might Fix It.” CityLab. N.p., 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

Parable of the Polygons. Nicky Case and Vi Hart. 2014. Video game.


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