An adorable new computer game accurately illustrates how individual biases can create racially segregated neighborhoods.
Created by programmers Vi Hart and Nicky Case, Parable of the Polygons begins with the statement "This is a story of how harmless choices can make a harmful world," and it features a community of blue squares and yellow triangles that are "slightly shapist."
The polygons want to live in diverse neighborhoods, but they won't be happy unless a third of their neighborhoods are the same shape as they are. Ideally, they don't want to live in a homogenous neighborhood, but they'll tolerate it.
When playing the game, you can move only the unhappy shapes, and the shapes make only one request: Move them if less than one-third of their neighbors look like them.
It's the player's job to ensure all the polygon residents are happy; however, once you play a few rounds, you'll notice that in catering to everyone's preferences, you quickly end up with segregated neighborhoods.
The game is a playable version of Nobel-Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling's model of racial segregation.
Schelling demonstrated that a preference that one's neighbor be the same, or even a preference for mixture "up to some limit," could lead to total segregation — even when motives aren't malicious.
He demonstrated this with pennies and nickels on graph paper, moving them one at a time if they were in an “unhappy situation."
Scroll through the Parable of the Polygons website and you'll have the opportunity to increase or decrease the shapes' bias, making them more or less willing to live among each other.
Play through the game a few times and you'll see how Parable of Polygons illustrates Schelling's three major findings.
First, even a small bias among individuals can create a large collective bias. As the creators note, you can say the polygons' culture is shapist without calling an individual polygon shapist.
Secondly, how the game begins matters. A highly segregated neighborhood is more likely to remain that way if it begins that way just as more diverse neighborhoods are more likely to remain diverse.
"Your bedroom floor doesn't stop being dirty just coz you stopped dropping food all over the carpet," the website reads. "Creating equality is like staying clean: It takes work. And it's always a work in progress."
And finally, Parable of Polygons shows us that intervention is often necessary in creating and maintaining diversity.
"If small biases created the mess we're in, small anti-biases might fix it," the creators write. "Look around you. Your friends, your colleagues, that conference you're attending. If you're all triangles, you're missing out on some amazing squares in your life — that's unfair to everyone."
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