John Hunter, a teacher from Virgina, developed the World Peace Game over thirty years ago, teaching it all over the world to students as young as nine-years-old. A documentary covering the game process was made and in 2011, he gave a TED talk on his experiences, which Arianna Huffington named the top talk that year. Since, he has been named by Time Magazine in 2012 as one of their 12 Education Activists and just released a book on the Game, available now. Mr Hunter was kind enough to talk with us before its release.
My supervisor for first teaching job I had in '78 told me there was no plan. She said 'What do you want to do?', and I had no clue what I wanted to as I thought there was a plan. It was the late seventies, a time of experimentation, and being hired into the gifted program, the guidelines and parametres didn't exist. It was such a wide-open territory, deciding what kind of curriculum you going to try and nail down to. Not being told what to do actually really made the difference. The space she gave me made things more interesting and creative and so the Game almost came out of nothing. One of my greatest mentors, Ethel J. Banks, who had taught underprivileged kids, said 'You build the curriculum around the children's interests and passions. You find out what they really love, who they really are and what they really care about, and you listen to them respectfully' and that point develop curriculum you are bound to teach to and around them. That's the motor that drives the learning. Because it's their love and their interest, there's much more commitment and dedication from them. My students, inner-city 9th grade, mostly minority and gifted students, liked board games back then. I knew I had to teach units as well, so I combined the two. At the time one of the hottest teaching techniques at the time was problem solving, so I mixed that in, and that's how the first World Peace Game came about. It wasn't the only thing I did, but it was one of the first.
In the early days, I put in too many real-life countries, and kids just imitated those countries or their parent's opinions. So we kept the real-life crisis, but made the countries fictional, which liberated them to be more creative. I introduced a saboteur, someone who could disrupt everything, further pushing their creative thinking, not only questioning events more but themselves. They don't know who the saboteur is, having to learn to trust within themselves to do the right thing either way. Even in every game, the major-crisis and sub-crisis are designed to cause massive failure and they start the game off out in despair every time, overwhelmed and confused. They stumble and at that point that their relationships are the only things they have. They then begin to experiment, and begin to ask for help from other countries in solving certain crisis leading them to become hyper-collaborators, and then there's a click. Every game, sometimes by just one person at first, sometimes altogether, where they realize 'we're not playing against each other, we're playing against the game!' They become one huge group, knocking off problems left and right, 1, 2, 3. They go into a state of flow without any effort in practical, reasonable ways that work. It happens every time, even when I fear it won't and they always show a relentless desire to make the world better and right again.
In running the Game in so many different situations, both around the world, varied age groups, economic backgrounds, education-levels, the one thing that is vital to succeed in the game, is that you really need a relationship with the players. If you have underlying relationships, you can make it through the joys, pains, hardships in the game, and each child becomes a socio-economic microcosm themselves. Despite where they come from, their race, financial situation etc., the children almost always have a default for compassion, relentlessly making efforts to make sure everyone is taken care of & safe. There's no one way to win the Game and they always find different ways of solving it with so many different solutions.
Post 9/11 Game:
While the Game started at the end of the Cold War, the kids were not really part of that world and perhaps a bit more care-free about engaging in warfare, just for the fun of it. After 9/11, there was a much more spirited, thoughtful approach. They were more hesitant and deliberate about why they chose what they did. Having to write a letter to fictional parents of the fictional soldiers they lost in battle is very sobering, even for these young kids, because it shows the consequences for their actions. The main product, which I wasn't aware of when I created the Game, was students would become more compassionate over time. With social media, kids are coming back, letting me know the effect of the Game on their lives. The ultimate assessment is actually the students' lives over 20 to 30 years. It's not just a snapshot at that point, but rather a portfolio or photo album.
Countries that Don't 'Negotiate with terrorists':
If you close the door, that door is closed. Before the Game, we study Sun Tzu's 'Art of War' and the students sometimes even challenge him, coming up with an entirely different approach and trying it out, even if they fail. The key component is they could fail. They have a fearlessness, an attitude of wanting to try different avenues, in negotiating and solving problems.
One child, who I detail in the book was a bully I assigned to be a Prime Minister, thinking that perhaps him having the responsibility, leadership and caring of others would change his ways as he was known throughout the school for. As it turned out, I was wrong as soon the Game began, he began bullying, now through the parametres of the Game. He was taking over country after country and I couldn't do anything, once it starts it's the children's game. So he's essentially ruining and destroying this Game, and I'm terrified and broken-hearted because these poor kids are going to be scarred for life concluding bullies can use might to do right. Finally, one country outstanding, he's surrounding them with his army and my heart's sinking. Then one little girl stood up in the country and declared a coup d'État, which you can do in the game and the game stops because there's a coin toss. It's weighted in his favour and a big risk, but she lost, and she ended up having to exile from this last country to his. And just as he was restarting his attack, a second child from the team called a coup d'État, and again, all play stopped, but that child lost and had to exile. At this point the bully was disturbed, no one had ever really challenged him and he had always been the instigator and avoided punishment for years. And one by one each of the remaining members of that country called a coup d'État, they all lost and exiled, until the sixth child when the bully finally lost. He then had to go to over to their country, very humbly, and the children were so gracious. They allowed him to come onto the team and take a lesser position in helping working towards peace. But what surprised me most is that the children had actually planned to set the coup, saying 'If he goes down, then you call a coup. If you go down, then she stands up'. All 15 of them were metaphorically essentially 'laying down their lives', so that his tyranny wouldn't stand. I don't know if that Game changed the bully's life, but I know it certainly changed that group. They showed the victimizer he wasn't in complete power. As a teacher, it was something I couldn't have planned or imagined.
After the Ted talk, I was approached by a well-dressed woman who handed me a card and said 'Mr Hunter, we'd like to see you'. I looked at the card and it said 'Defence Department, Pentagon'. So the filmmaker Chris Farina and I went & when we got there that the film had already been screened 4 times, and a fifth when we arrived. Afterwards, we had the most profound discussion for two hours in the under-secretaries office with policy and military people, who'd been in war and battle. They were having the same feelings the kids did; the doubt, the fear, the confusion. About a week later, we got a phone call; they had asked us to return, this time with the kids. And so the kids studied for a couple months, real facts about real countries, to become experts and develop questions to ask the Pentagon themselves. They got a full-day tour with 2, 3, 4-star generals, from every branch of the service, having genuine talks with them, not for photo-ops. They would present real-life scenarios and how they dealt with it and asked the kids opinions. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta initially even had ten minutes to spend with them and he ended up with his coat off spending a half-hour in an actual back-and-forth talk, as someone looking for answers in unexpected ways. The kids got a special coin, a military honour, Panetta's own office stamp. We were invited back this year to bring the new class, and told to bring the Game because their Generals want to play and want to find out how the kids actually do this.
The book, I hope, which I try to convey through story, is that these experiences the children go through are the same as what we all go through in life. The crisis, the fear, the ups and downs, the hopes, the joys: it's all typified so much in the Game. I like to think of the stories as onion layers, even, in that they could stick with you for years, something you keep going back to, and years down the road, peel back to show a new layer as you evolve and change. It's lastly a tribute to my teachers, the ones who taught me and the children who shared their passion and insights with me. And the students, who today still continue to amaze me.
Changes You've Had Over Thirty Years?:
I've really learned that I'm human just like the students are that they're teachers just as much as I am, in that I learn things from them every day. Sometimes I'm the student, sometimes they are, but I've had so many great teachers, 25-30 great teachers even today that teach me to things like to be kinder, more compassionate, more thoughtful, to realize appearances are not always what they seem, and there is such a benefit to living in the moment. I've been the beneficiary of the Game more than any of the students.
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