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An Immersive Game Shows How Easily Segregation Arises—and How We Might Fix It

"Parable of the Polygons" is playable version of Thomas Schelling's model of neighborhood segregation, with an optimistic ending.

Parable of the Polygons

The violence of segregation has threaded through too many stories this year.

The arrant racial divides that exploded in Ferguson following Michael Brown's death. "The New Jim Crow"—segregation by black incarceration—as the seed in the police brutality that led to Eric Garner's death by a white police officer. Or #GamerGate, with its hideous online threats to women who dared criticize the male-dominated world of video games. Or the racial and gender politics trickling out of the very white, very male New Republic's media meltdown.

Multimedia online storyteller Vi Hart and game developer Nicky Case released on Monday an "explorable explanation" of one way these damaging social divisions arise—and how they might be solved. "Parable of the Polygons" is a playable version of Thomas Schelling's model of neighborhood segregation, the 1971 mathematical demonstration of how small preferences among individuals for their neighbors to be like them can scale up to stark divides.

"We never thought our project could get more timely than when we started," says Hart. "Yet it just keeps getting more relevant."

"Parable" players learn Schelling's model by manipulating "neighborhoods" of cute-ified polygons, guided by impressively clear language: "This is a story of how harmless choices can make a harmful world," opens "Parable." "These little cuties are 50% Triangles, 50% Squares, and 100% slightly shapist. But only slightly! In fact, every polygon prefers being in a diverse crowd."

They have just one "rule":

Even with the "reasonable" preference that 33 percent or more of their neighbors look like them, the shapes don't get happy until divisions look pretty stark. Here's a grid of jumbled, 33 percent-shapist shapes. Some are "happy," and some desperately want to move:

Click "start moving" to get the polygons to their favored positions, and here's what happens:

It's a segregated shape society. And that's just with a 33 percent bias—a preference that seems relatively low. When bias is increased, things get even more drastically divided.

Lowering individual bias in an already-segregated world doesn't do much good, either. Here's a grid of shapes who started out with that 33 percent preference, lowered to a 10 percent preference:

No one has shuffled. "In a world where bias ever existed, being unbiased isn't enough!" says "Parable." "We're gonna need active measures."

And this is where "Parable" departs from Schelling's original model. With enough individual "anti-bias," it shows how the effects of segregation can actually be reversed.

Here, the world starts out with that 33 percent bias. But if shapes demand to move if less than 10 percent and more than 80 percent of their neighbors are the same, the world looks pretty different.

"Most game theory is really pretty depressing," says Case, the game developer. "The prisoner's dilemma, the tragedy of the commons, they’re all pretty depressing. But here, we thought it was cool to have an optimistic ending, and even a call to action."

"All it takes is a change in the perception of what an acceptable environment looks like," says "Parable." "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."

Getting those shapes into the rainbow box is actually rather tough and subtle to crack—but it's worth it. There's confetti at the end. And, you know, an inclusive society.

Schelling's model represents just one small way segregation creeps up, and "Parable" presents what might feel like a frustratingly simplistic solution to it: "working together, step by step, we'll get there." But educators have already started including the game on syllabi to teach systemic prejudice, Case and Hart say, because of its immersive, playable approach.

"There’s one great quote that’s attributed to Confucius: 'I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand,'" says Case. "I really believe in the potential of the interactive mediums."

Case and Hart met at a conference in September, as #GamerGate was broiling. They wanted to collaborate on an interactive about diversity, and Case brought up Schelling's model of racial segregation. "Vi noticed that Schelling’s model can not just apply to race, but anything that can turn into institutional bias," says Case. "It applies not just to physical location but also the conference you’re at, your group of friends, your workplace."

Hart, a woman working in games and mathematics ("a field which is somehow amazingly more gender-skewed than computer science," according to Case), hopes "Parable" will give guidance to those who want to see change but feel uncomfortable taking that first "anti-bias" step.

"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," she says. "There's no need to feel guilty for seeing people for who they are. That's how we're going to make change."

Now, go play.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.