Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Can a Video Game Really Reduce Racial Bias?

January 15, 2015
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Can a Video Game Really Reduce Racial Bias?
“Parables of the Polygons” demonstrates how small preferences among individuals for neighbors to be like them can transform into big social divides. Screen capture via Parables of the Polygons
It offers a way on how we might fix neighborhood segregation.

As the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown stir sentiments over race relations and social divide in America, one game is aiming to discuss the subject through a mathematical model from more than 40 years ago.

Multimedia online storyteller Vi Hart and game developer Nicky Case created a game that’s an “explorable explanation,” looking at how segregation easily creeps up using a simple game of shapes. Parables of the Polygons turns Thomas Schelling’s 1971 mathematical model of neighborhood segregation — demonstrating how small preferences among individuals for neighbors to be like them can transform into big social divides.

“We never thought our project could get more timely than when we started,” Hart tells CityLab. “Yet it just keeps getting more relevant.”

Using personified polygons, players learn Schelling’s model by interacting with different shapes in different communities and “how harmless choices can make a harmful world,” as the game states in the beginning. It introduces the polygons as  “50% Triangles, 50% percent Squares, and 100% slight shapist. But only slight! In fact, every polygon prefers being in a diverse crowd.”

Sarcasm aside, the game points out that even with the preference that 33 percent or more neighbors (aka, shapes) looking like them, the polygons are actually not happy until divisions are pretty drastic. When a player increases individual bias, things get even more divided while lowering the bias in a community that’s already segregated doesn’t change much either.

“In a world where bias ever existed, being unbiased isn’t enough! We’re gonna need active measures,” the game explains.

Which is where Hart and Case diverge from Schelling’s model to prove that we can reverse the effects of segregation through encouraging more individual “anti-bias,” as CityLab explains. In a community that begins with 33 percent individual bias, if shapes demand to move if less than 10 percent and more than 80 percent of their neighbors look the same, the world becomes more inclusive.

“There’s a weird mindset that people have, that by giving special consideration to including someone who is a woman, or who is black, is somehow sexist or racist by itself,” Hart tells CityLab. “There’s no need to feel guilty for seeing people for who they are. That’s how we’re going to make change.”

The game is meant to illustrate how people can affect change even as they feel unnerved by taking the first “anti-bias” step.

“All it takes is a change in the perception of what an acceptable environment looks like,” the game poignantly points out. “So, fellow shapes, remember that it’s not about triangles versus squares. It’s about deciding what we want the world to look like, and settling for no less.”

That’s a lesson we can learn in shaping our own society.

MORE: The Surprisingly Easy Way to Make People More Tolerant

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