The World Peace Game: Teaching Children Collaboration, Communication, and Compassion
by Sam Crespi
As adults, we’ve learned how to cope with today’s climate of fear, but just coping isn’t always enough. And all too often, as a culture we make fear-based decisions with negative results. Our children pick up on these emotions and they will be living with the results of our choices for decades. Is it possible to create a world where less violence occurs? How would it function? How can we help our children become conscious participants in creating a more peaceful future?
In pursuit of answers, I found myself inside a fourth grade public school located in a quiet working-class neighborhood. The room has a lively balance between order and disorder. On one side is a banner with large colorful block letters. Have you used your brain today? Directly across is another. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
The World Peace Game (WPG) is about to begin. A noisy group of students surround a large Plexi-glass game board. Four feet tall, a four foot by four foot square, it has four levels cluttered with hundreds of action figures. Terra Firma has expanses of water surrounding large landmasses and islands. Troops, tanks, and military transports are scattered through, around city infrastructures, factories, and on bridges. Spacecraft, planes, killer satellites, and storm clouds hover overhead. At the lowest level, submarines and underwater mining operations are visible.
Prior to playing the children are informed that the game is over when global peace and unilateral prosperity are reached. The bottom line: Military intervention must be kept to a bare minimum.
Created and developed by the award winning African-American teacher, John Hunter, the WPG was first played in the 70s at an all African American Community High School for the Gifted. A robust dark-skinned man with curly close cut hair and thick glasses, John Hunter’s center of gravity is rooted close to the earth. He seems to open space rather than crossing it. The children adore him.
After reading an article about an international peace force based on Gandhi’s principles of non-violence, Hunter began to wonder how his profession could contribute to world peace. He quickly concluded that the existence of violence had to be accepted. But was there a way to decrease violent events? How could one go about creating more harmony? Whatever he devised needed to stimulate the critical thought process. And it needed an element of playfulness to keep students engaged.
Using a technique employed by Eastern gurus, he would isolate students from familiar support systems. Throw in enough complexities over a short period of time and the herd mentality that leads to clichéd conventional thinking would disappear.
Learning about ambiguity and bias was vital. “Ambiguity is similar to traveling on a straight line through different countries,” Hunter explained. “In the first country, you’re a hero, the second, you’re a criminal, the third, you’re a fool and the fourth, you’re a martyr.”
To support that learning curve, a wild card is added, an undercover spy who carefully inserts rumors that stir up uncertainty and provoke decisions based on hearsay.
Initially, the game had a total of ten crises. Reflecting the complexity of today’s world, the game now has fifty; handpicked by Hunter and chosen by students who track the daily news.
At the onset, students are purposely lured into traps that cause “reactive behavior,” sending them into freefall that ends in chaos and isolation. Once they understand the consequences of reacting, they’re ready to learn more insightful approaches.
The team players comprise four major world powers. The team leaders are the prime ministers who are advised by high-ranking military officers. Other key players are Secretary General of the UN, and World Bank officials.
Off to one side are mercenaries and arms dealers. Across from them a small but clutch of “goddesses” stand ready to draw cards covering everything from the stock market, monetary movements, to random factors like tornadoes, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis.
Each cabinet receives a) a Sit Rep, or situation report, where they develop economic, military and social goals and strategies to meet these goals b) a copy of the game crisis report (usually four pages) including twenty specific crises where nation is pitted against nation in every (complex) way on each game level (including undersea, ground and sea, air theater, and space level) c) each country, wealthy, mid-level, and poor, has a budget of multiple billions of dollars, or whatever currency has been decided upon before hand, i.e. yen, Euros, rupees) an inventory sheet to tally material assets, military strength, ships, etc. Each country makes its own nametags and logos.
Hunter rings the opening bell. The goddesses announce that the world markets have taken a multi-billion dollar hit. Immediately after, mercenaries destroy two major factories.
The Prime Minister of LeSand jumps to her feet. Hair in cornrows and wearing ice cream pastels, Josayia’s country has undergone a coup d’état. She’s on the move, changing troop positions and selling oil.
“Trades and sales, ladies and gentlemen are the way to prosper,” Hunter
The tiny brunette UN Secretary announces everyone must pay their dues or there will be penalties.
The bell rings. Three minutes for the parliaments to convene. Teams huddle, noisily strategizing.
There are no benchwarmers in this game. The pace accelerates when a secretary of state steals a large chunk of money. Shocked cries ring out when a military strike destroys a solar plant. Silence fills the room as everyone waits to hear if a killer satellite has gone online. (It did not.)
The impoverished ice-bound Arctic Ice (AI) has discovered an oil deposit worth billions. Located mere miles from an environmentally protective country, everyone speculates about what Zeco will do if AI starts drilling offshore.
The students learn about military strategy from the principles of Sun Tzu who used force as a last resort. They study Clausewitz who coined the term “the fog of war” and promoted “limited objectives”—goals less likely to end in large-scale disaster.
As Guthrie Brown, aka, Einstein due to his passion for math and quantum physics explains, “You can’t fight a war, beat someone, and have real peace because the people you beat will be unhappy.”
One of the boys, a mercenary, approaches Hunter. Usually, it’s the young males who initially fantasize how to express militarily despite the stated game goals.
The thrill of using a couple of ICBMs is visible in the boy’s expression, but before choosing that option, he solemnly asks Hunter, What will happen if I do?
“What do you think,” Hunter asks. “Will the strike be too hard on everyone? Will you make too many enemies? Doesn’t it pay to have friends?”
Looking off into space, the mercenary chews his lip.
”If you bomb someone, you could be next,” Hunter probes. (The ICBMs are kept in reserve for now.)
Females generally pursue team building and consensus decisions. They’re often selected for positions in the UN and the World Bank. Since the first game, twenty-seven years ago, girls have consistently emerged as military strategists and tacticians. They launch unexpected coups, risk wars to secure global peace and become benevolent despots.
Over the next few weeks, the gamers’ world falls apart repeatedly. They ride out ethnic turmoil, undergo the perils of toxic and nuclear clean up, and missile threats. They mount undersea and asteroid mining expeditions. Repercussions spread across the globe when alien from outer space lands on earth. Daring rescues from black holes in space occur. And finally, the culprit who launched a misinformation campaign is brought to trial for espionage.
Years of research have shown that peace building traits and values can be developed at an early age. As communication and collaboration skills are improved, children learn to be more compassionate; less inclined to bullying. They will even work toward non-violent solutions during periods of hardship and unfairness.
At six weeks, Hunter’s class is ripe to move to a deeper level of understanding of what’s needed to be more effective as a team. Prime Minister Brennan Lee explains, “You need a unifying idea, but that can be pretty difficult since everyone wants to go in different directions.”
With the game nearly over, a list of questions is passed out. Hunter explains that there are no right or wrong answers:
1. What is power?
2. What is justice?
3. What is honor?
4. What is peace?
The responses range from pragmatic, thoughtful, and idealistic.
Power is being smart. It’s the ability to control situations by words and actions; or placing oneself in a position where it’s impossible to be ignored. One student wrote “power requires having people you trust involved in decision making.”
Justice is commonly linked to fairness. Justice couldn’t occur when someone offered a truck shipment worth a lot less in exchange for one that was worth a great deal more.
Honor translates into “respect—not cheap respect, but real respect which happens when both sides are allowed to share their point of view.”
Peace requires proof that you were trustworthy to yourself and your teammates.
The final bell rings. Hunter announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, all teams have prospered financially. The wars are over.”
The children scream and jump. Friends lift friends off the ground in wild exuberance. As Hunter passes out M&Ms, I think about the seeds for peace he’s planted. It’s impossible to know whether these fourth graders will grow up to play active roles in creating world peace. Student by student, Hunter has worked hard to discover where their personal fires burn. “Then I threw on fuel,” he laughs.
A week later, Guthrie takes Hunter’s concept to the next level. In his basement, he’s engaged the neighborhood children in his own version of the WPG.