One of the things educational games are best at is giving learners a visual and interactive experience that textbooks and lectures are…well, perhaps not so good at. I always had a difficult time figuring a thing out if I couldn’t see or try it, and so did many of my classmates. Something like angular physics might be easy to make into an interactive project, but there are a lot of complex social issues that don’t lend themselves to interactive teaching. Parable of the Polygons is one example of a game that uses visual interactivity in a really inventive way.
Parable of the Polygons is a free browser-based game. You can play it without downloading or signing up for anything. I highly recommend giving it a go if you’ve got a few minutes. It won’t take you long to finish it, depending on how much you want to explore the concept it’s illustrating. It shows how neighborhood segregation and diversity—or the lack thereof—can impact the way we live and organize our communities. Community, in this case, is purposefully undefined. Community and neighborhood can be geographical. But this game can also be be used to explore things like gender disparity in tech. Or even how kids section themselves into groups during recess.
Polygons was created by Nicky Case and Vi Hart. Vi Hart is a YouTuber and mathematician who has joined forces with the Khan Academy. Nicky Case is a game developer who has made several games and “explorables”—game-like experiences meant to simulate an idea or emotional journey.
Creating Parable of the Polygons
I interviewed Case about the game and how games can work in a learning environment. She said the idea of Parable of the Polygons came from Schelling’s Segregation Model. That’s the idea that neighborhoods might become very segregated even if people have only a mild preference for neighbors of the same race. The original model was played out with nickels and pennies on a paper grid. Case and Hart chose to replace the coins with squares and triangles. Each shape has a preference for what kind of neighbors it wants. And each has a smile and an anxious wiggle that represents its happiness about the current neighbor setup.
The goal is to make all of the shapes happy by picking them up and dropping them in a new spot. Depending on the shapes’ personal preferences, it may be more or less difficult to put a smile on everyone’s face.
Making the Game Accessible
Case and Hart encourage educators to work with Parable of the Polygons’ source code and find new and interesting ways to use it as a teaching tool. Case said it best: “Educational materials are freaking expensive! [That’s] one of many reasons why we made Polygons free and public domain, so teachers don’t have to worry about any copyright or licensing issues.”
I asked if there were any specific examples of the many neat things people had done with the game, and Case directed me to this video:
Making the game public domain has another benefit—volunteers. Polygons has been translated into 11 languages so far. There have also been projects to expand the game, like this one, which added a whole new shape to the dynamic.
Because the polygons can represent just about anyone or anything, it’s easy to use this tool to demonstrate a variety of ideas or concepts. That was purposeful on the creators’ parts. “We deliberately kept it abstract…the same mechanisms of systemic bias and diversity apply in many cases. Polygon’s message applies to race, class, and gender, but it was fascinating to see that people saw Polygons’s mechanics as also applying to gentrification, or political polarization.”
Interestingly, Case noted that the people who tended to pick up Polygons were mostly young adults and older folks. Teens were less likely to stumble across it, unlike Case’s more emotionally based interactive piece, Coming Out Simulator. To me this says that teenagers are very interested in personal experiences and perhaps less so in societal experiences when it comes to learning materials. Personal and societal are of course linked in myriad ways, but teenagers do tend to be pretty self-involved (they’re constantly growing and exploring who they are, after all). If teens are less likely to seek out programs like this, these programs may have an even greater value when given focused classroom time.
Planning What’s Next
So what are the next steps? For Nicky Case, the answer is to keep working on new projects and making learning games as accessible as possible. “I recently made a bare-bones ‘hub‘ to collect all these interactive-ed-things people are doing, and on May 1st, Carnegie Mellon University was hosting a hackathon for playable posts! (I gave a keynote there, and Polygons is cited as an inspiration there.) Also, I am currently working on a new playable post.
“It’ll help you learn about learning: it will show how neurons and conditioning work, all mixed with a personal story about (starting to) overcome anxiety and emotional instability,” says Case.
I highly recommend playing through Parable of the Polygons with kids or on your own. It’s a great example of how interactive media can illustrate a complex issue and imbue a sense of responsibility in its users. Personally I hope that the more people play Polygons, the more we’ll all start thinking about how our internal biases affect our everyday lives—and especially our children’s lives. Segregation isn’t something that “just happens,” it’s a direct result of those biases. If we want to see meaningful change, we need to look inward.