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Parable of the Polygons

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Rating: 4.5/5 (113 votes)
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Parable of the Polygons

There are some people who believe that games should stay games and never deal with "real issues", but Parable of the Polygons, by Vi Hart and Nicky Case, shows just how great games can be about getting concepts and ideas across. Billed as a "playable post about the shape of society", Parable of the Polygons talks you through how small biases can have a bigger impact than people think by leading you through a series of puzzles where your job is to make the squares and triangles all happy by shuffling them around until their living conditions are diverse. But not too diverse. Different puzzles have different requirements to make the shapes happy, and over time you see how they grow more and more apart without really meaning to. By starting small and then working through larger puzzles and a few simulations, it talks earnestly and intelligently about how bias impacts society, without ever pointing the finger or addressing any one specific group or cause. Talking about things like this can be hard to do without people feeling as if they're being accused of something and going on the defensive, but Parable of the Polygons is well worth a read (and a play!), and a great example of the way games can get people talking and thinking.

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Very cool. Effective presentation of the two big lessons you're supposed to pull from the simulation:

Small bias applied on a large scale results in substantial segregation, and

Segregation isn't eliminated by removing bias, but by demanding diversity.


Very cute. It does especially well at creating a positive message at the end, suggesting a simple course of action to take to try to address the central problem.

uncopy2002 December 8, 2014 9:00 PM

How the segregation is calculated, I wonder? It's also somewhat important in delivering the message.

wordmanwords December 8, 2014 9:18 PM

"(just move them to random empty spots. don't think too much about it.)" says it all.


uncopy2002: I'm not sure it's said anywhere explicitly, but I believe the number of shapes who are 'meh' is the rate of segregation. In other words, the number of shapes out of the total who are not in contact with a shape who is different from them.


I probably don't want to ask, but what exactly is this supposed to mean?


@uncopy: I think it's the percentage of shapes who don't have a neighbor who is different from them.

I thought this was a nice presentation, and I appreciated its friendliness - and I'd definitely like to see this format become more popular. Interactive experiments are a great way to engage with a topic, because if the rules are correct, the ideas basically demonstrate themselves.

I think it does kind of suffer for treating racism (and other ethnic discrimination) as a situation between two equal groups that don't really mind each other, but slightly prefer their own kind. I do think most people are decent and basically feel like, "I'm definitely okay with diversity, I just don't want to be totally outnumbered." But, to start with the obvious, there's a numbers difference in real life. There's also a power difference (with some really ugly history in play) that affects why people don't want to be totally outnumbered, and also affects average income levels among groups, which affects where people can afford to live. Like, let's remember that integration is good for everybody, but for some people, integration means access to adequate resources - the biggest problem with "separate but equal" isn't that people who live in such a society are missing out diverse perspectives (though that's bad too), but that the groups with less power will never actually get equal resources.

(Think of public schools in low-income areas versus public schools in affluent areas - the people in power are always going to care more about making sure the schools their own children could attend are adequate than about helping struggling schools get enough funding to fix their problems, and because of that, the struggling schools struggle more and more over time. And because the kids from rich families got access to better resources than kids from poor families, the next generation of people in power is still going to be mostly people who grew up in affluent areas. If the group in charge of allocating the resources is made up of 90% triangles and 10% squares, then of course in areas where triangular interests are different than square interests, triangular interests are going to come first. Squares won't be hurt so badly by power differences if triangles and squares generally share a pool of resources... and that gives baby squares a better chance to grow up and become decision-makers themselves and even the numbers a bit with every successive generation.)

Because of that, it's a really bad idea to place the burden of integration on people from minority groups and people from majority groups equally.

The game also didn't address the issue of gentrification - when there's too much external interest in moving to a certain area (often by people who do want to live in a more diverse neighborhood), rent and property taxes shoot up, which often forces the original inhabitants of the area to go somewhere else.

It's a shame, because I think addressing these issues in an interactive presentation with a friendly tone could have been super valuable.


While race is the obvious parallel topic, this presentation is appropriate for any number of similar situations. It could also apply to different genders, different social groups, or just different interests.


While it's certainly simplified, I think it's just trying to illustrate that (taking the racism example) even though we've ended segregation, and implemented laws to prevent people being judged on their skin colour, we still suffer from the leftovers of that era. Things didn't magically become "un-segregated", and people still have to struggle with those disadvantages from past generations. I sadly know a fair few people who don't think of themselves as racist, but still get angry at the notion that black folks still face discrimination "because race isn't an issue anymore." That sort of thinking fails to understand that it still IS, and requires some affirmative action.

Anyway, I do love Vi Hart's stuff, and I'd really like to see more of these interactive posts. As others have mentioned, the dynamics are certainly far more complex, and maybe they can build on this to create an accurate portrait of race relations, etc.


The problem with asking "shapes" to act on "anti-bias" is that it still treats shapes as different dependent entirely on what they look like, which is the exact same thing that caused the problem in the first place, just in the opposite direction. The right attitude is not to say "that's a square first and I need to treat it differently because it's a square," no matter whether or said differing treatment is negative or positive, the right attitude is to look and say "that's another polygon like me". It shouldn't matter one way or another whether that's a square or not, the triangle shouldn't be unhappy because it's around too many or too few of any other kind of shape.


@beforeamirror - I think you're reading too much race into the game. Think of it more like Conway's Game of Life: a mathematical model of how motivation works in the abstract, rather than a political argument. (If you're not familiar with Conway's game, do Google it - you get a cool easter egg when you do!)

@Xindaris - did you play it all the way through? The game explains specifically why that logic is flawed. Lack of bias can't undo segregation without the help of anti-bias, even though it seems like it should. Remember that shapes can't move unless they themselves are unhappy, so the primary motivator for moving is that the polygons treat themselves differently depending on their shape. (Also, you're assuming that the shapes are a metaphor for something morally neutral, such as race, but the same logic would apply if it weren't.)


I love the lone green pentagon at the end.


Not even gonna play this, it's obvious trash, a type of puzzle that's been done before but this time with a "message to make it deep

Editor Note: Your comment has been edited to remove your slur against the disabled. You are free to post your comments, but anything that violates our commenting guidelines will be deleted. We strive to keep a clean, welcoming community. Thanks for respecting it.


Strangely enough, I've managed to achieve 0 percent segregation by turning the bias up to 90 percent, then making everyone unhappy.


@pheeze I read the whole thing (before I made my earlier comment) and I still found it to be dumb. The term "segregation" still relies on treating people (within our minds) as inherently different based entirely on shallow, generally meaningless details about them. I'm not sure what kind of "not morally neutral" traits people are segregated based on that don't need to be...I mean, I know this is a silly and extreme example, but I'm pretty happy about murderers not being integrated with non-murderers.


@Norman: It doesn't seem that strange - they simply don't move because they can't move to a location where they would be better off. Any move would be equivalent to their current state at best, if not worse.


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