"This is a story of how harmless choices can make a harmful world," reads the introduction on playable post Parable of the Polygons. Just above this text, a crowd of yellow triangles and blue squares wiggle amicably.
These little figures, the post explains, are slightly shapist. They enjoy diversity, but are most comfortable with a specific ratio. In the first example, they'll want to move if less than a third of their neighbors are the same shape. It's an easy ratio to manage ... at first. As their population grows, however, this bias begins to form — and segregate — their groupings in a very visual way.
Half game, half informational post, Parable of the Polygons wants to encourage people to talk about topics like racism and sexism in healthy, constructive ways. Using shapes and math-driven simulations, it offers examples of how communities can become segregated due to individual bias.
Sound familiar? That's because it's based on an old examination of segregation. Published in 1971, "Dynamic Models of Segregation" was written by economist and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling. Old though its source material may be, its creators believe his findings are just as relevant today.
Parable of the Polygons is the joint project of Vi Hart, a "mathemusician" who runs a popular YouTube channel discussing mathematics, and Coming Out Simulator 2014 developer Nicky Case. Work on the playable post began three months ago — though as Hart recently noted on her personal website, "matters of systematic bias [are] even more topical now."
"In some ways, 2014 is depressingly similar to 1971," Hart told Polygon via email. "But one thing has really progressed: computing! What would Schelling have done if he'd had a 2014 computer instead of a chess board and loose change? What if his model could have reached more than a small academic audience?"
The duo teamed up following a talk delivered by Hart. She was discussing her frustrations with a lack of diversity in tech events. Case says it was this talk specifically that convinced him of the necessity of active measures.
"In her talk, she showed how Schelling's model doesn't just describe racial segregation in physical neighborhoods, but also any kind of systemic discrimination in any group of people," Case told Polygon. "And more importantly, that left unchecked, small biases will spiral into big systemic ones."
In bringing Schelling's work to modern day, the idea was to keep things simple. Clarity ruled out over cleverness. As players scroll, they're met with few words, and the ability to move pieces around the board is introduced slowly and deliberately. Parable of the Polygons is a mix of doing, showing and telling.
"We don't have equality in 2014, but we do have the internet."
"The post starts off telling you that harmless choices will create a harmful society," Case said. "Then, it lets you do those harmless choices, moving slightly biased shapes around, until you create a segregated society. And it shows you what you've done."
Case describes Schelling's model as perfect — simple and fun to play. When asked why games are ideal for exploring this model, he quotes Confucius: "I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand."
"Games are systems, so what better way to talk about systemic problems?" he said.
But there was an effort made to keep players from being scared off by the big stuff, Case said. Its creators made cute, friendly shapes and sprinkled in jokes and slang to make math and social justice topics more accessible.
Schelling's original work remains largely untouched in Parable of the Polygons, but it does include one notable change: a conclusion its creators describe as happy. At the end of the post, players will find encouraging words on how to enact change, even when it seems impossible. Big change requires small efforts, and the goal is that players who spend time to Parable of the Polygons will learn to demand diversity.
"We don't have equality in 2014, but we do have the internet," Hart said.
"Most of us have better dynamic system simulators sitting in our pockets than even existed in theory back then. We can see and share systems in a way that just wasn't possible before, so maybe now we can finally tackle systemic problems."