World Peace Game creator, award-winning educator speaks about teaching, compassion at Elizabethtown College
Clustered around a four-level Plexiglas tower that’s strewn with land masses, military personnel, aircraft and ships, students take on the roles of president, tribal leader, diplomat and military commander. Dealing with budgets in their assigned country’s money—Euro, rupee, dollar, yen—they work with the World Bank. There’s famine, ethic tensions, environmental disasters, endangered species, water rights disputes.
Through negotiations, battles, summits and standoffs, they aim to resolve a sequence of interconnected scenarios ranging from nuclear proliferation to tribal warfare.
They are taking part in the World Peace Game … and they are just 9 years old!
The game, a hands-on political simulation that explores the imminent threat of war and the connectedness of a global community through economic, social and environmental crises was created for elementary school students by award-winning educator John Hunter.
There is never a predicable moment.”
When he first imagined the World Peace Game, Hunter’s end goals were purely academic. He wanted the students to learn about world events and history. Left to themselves, however, they developed the game toward a completely unexpected direction.
It became more “fully human.”
“It was completely inadvertent,” Hunter said of this educational awakening. His administrators had given him no specific goal or way of going about things, and he “tried to do what all teachers are trying to do: develop curriculum for children that will serve them best.”
In the end, the students learned about world events and history, as intended, but also “how to decrease suffering and how to increase compassion in themselves and others,” said Hunter.
“They arrive at that on their own. I don’t teach it or preach it.”
Hunter is this year’s Elizabethtown College Carlos R. and Georgiana E. Leffler Memorial Lecturer. In his talk, “World Peace and other Fourth Grade Achievements,” he will share inspiring stories such as this from more than 30 years of teaching.
Hunter also will spend time with Elizabethtown College Department of Education students and local educators who were invited to a conversation with Hunter on how to teach peace as an everyday practice, said Dr. Rachel Finley-Bowman, associate professor of education and Department of Education Chair. “We wanted to make it practical,” she said. “How can I incorporate his ideas in my own classroom?”
A native Virginian and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, Hunter is an award-winning gifted teacher. His March 2011 TEDtalk has been view almost 1,260,000 times, and was selected by TED and the Huffington Post as the most influential idea of that year. For his innovative and impactful teaching approach, Time magazine named Hunter one of “12 Educators to Watch in 2012.”
“Peace is in my nature,” Hunter noted in a recent phone interview. Growing up African American in the 1950s and ’60s gave him a unique perspective, he said. “I learned a careful strategy to live by: We stayed under the radar but worked hard.”
During his university years, Hunter traveled and studied comparative religions and philosophy throughout Japan, India and China. He became intrigued by the principles of non-violence and how his profession might contribute to world peace.
The game’s objective is to disentangle each country from dangerous circumstances and achieve global prosperity while employing the least amount of military intervention. As nation teams, students gain greater understanding of the critical impact of information and how it is used.
The game tower emulates the makeup of earth. The lower level is undersea; the next is sea level; third is aircraft space; and the final layer is outer space. Then, “there are thousands of game pieces—hills, valleys, ships, factories …” and four major country teams, said Hunter. Troops, tanks, air defense, and marine defense are all allocated to each country in proportion to their wealth and developmental status.
“There’s the United Nations, an arms dealer group … we provided the full range of options,” he said.
The physical game occupies almost a quarter of a typical classroom and needs to remain secure and undisturbed for the duration of gameplay—typically eight weeks. There is no technology involved—no smartphone, no app. It’s all played on the tower with tiny moveable pieces.
“It’s real human-to-human interaction,” Hunter said, noting that the game is designed for massive failure. “It cannot be won, initially.” And the students end up feeling truly responsible for the planet. “There is a lot of emotional intensity.”
The game is stared with inherited situations. “Immediately, they try to extricate themselves,” Hunter said of the players. “They want a peace treaty right away.”
Or, said the educator, little boys come into the game and want to blow up things. “Eventually they learn that their budgets can’t afford it and it doesn’t make sense.”
Also, built into the game is a player who brings about random events and a saboteur who is usually a “high-functioning student who is asked to secretly destroy the game.”
Hunter does not interfere with the game, staying neutral and detached. “(The students) are in complete control.”
As time goes on, the students begin to understand consequences. If a soldier is lost, for example, they must write a letter to the families to explain what happed and why. “It’s a solemn moment,” Hunter said. “They must read it out loud.”
After all these years of developing and playing the game, Hunter said he is perpetually surprised by the actions and wisdom that come from the students. “There is never a predicable moment.”