John Hunter is an award-winning fourth grade teacher who in 1978, while working at the Richmond Community high school in Virginia, US, invented a board game challenging children to come up with solutions to global problems such as chemical spills, environmental disasters and famine, peacefully. The World Peace Game, a hands-on political simulation for nine and 10-year-olds, has now been played around the world.
Being thrown in the deep end in my first job gave me the creative freedom I needed. It was 1978 and I was given a ninth grade group in inner-city Richmond, Virginia. These were mostly ethnic minority students who were not well off. My assignment as a social studies teacher was to cover the subject of Africa, but this was the kind of school that didn’t have many textbooks; you had to create your own curriculum. I relied on my former mentors, my teachers, for inspiration.
There was one in particular who told me: “Hunter, just find out who these kids really are. Find out what they love deeply and then build the curriculum around that.”
Back then we didn’t have any social media – it was a complete desert. So I relied on their interests in board games and tried to incorporate that into the lesson. The hottest new teaching technique at the time was problem solving and I matched that up with the games, as well as the topic of Africa. They were the components to creating the World Peace Game, which started out as a simple four-by-five plywood board on the floor with a map of Africa taped on it. I gave them all the problems I could find and said, “Let’s solve them.”
In 2006, I was ready to put the game away because there was no interest beyond my classroom. I thought it was a good piece of curriculum and wished I could share it. But it was physically so large, with many moving parts, and I didn’t think there was much chance of that happening.
Along comes a documentary filmmaker called Chris Farima and he suggested we make a movie. They brought in a small film crew for about eight to 10 weeks and filmed one of the World Peace Game cycles in my fourth grade classroom. Four years later in 2010, it was shown at the South by Southwest film festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. Out of 145 international films that were shown there, we received the number one audience prize. Chris and I had to wipe our tears away after receiving it.
It’s astonishing how a little film about education led to my game being played by world leaders. We were invited to speak at a TED conference in California and I began touring the world, sharing my game with other teachers. I was invited to attend a screening of the film at the UN and then we were invited to the Pentagon, where the film had been screened four times already. They brought my students in for another visit and four or five generals spent an entire day having serious strategy and tactics discussions with my nine-year-olds. Although it was a game, it was taken quite seriously and with due respect. While the leaders know how to do war, they don’t always know how not to do it.
The students are human agents in the game. I allow them to be completely human and reactive – there is nothing to constrain them. That means they can choose to behave badly in the game. The rules state that I can do nothing to interfere. I can only ask questions and point out whether they have considered the consequences of their actions. It’s a huge risk every time, but my faith and confidence in the children makes me think they can. There is something in children, and all humans at some level, that means they simply want to do what feels good, helpful, useful and kind.
I don’t always expect it or think it is coming because sometimes they do some really dark deeds, but the game allows them to see, experientially, the consequences of their positive and negative actions. They can choose to do the right thing because it simply feels better. It’s not something you have to teach or preach to them. They discover it themselves.
Students might be able to solve the world’s problems in the future if we can develop a plan with them now. With space and time students can be made ready to address these issues when they are adults. We are not just teaching a child in the present moment, we’re teaching that child’s children and grandchildren. That gives us the motivation to continue.
The game is designed for nine year olds and at first I didn’t know whether they could do it or not. But I had great confidence in them and thought we’d give it a go. And sure enough, they were able to do it in a unique, unpredictable, astounding, innovative way every time. It gives me great confidence in what is possible and quite a few of those students have gone on to work in diplomacy and leadership positions. It’s had a real, long-term impact on their lives.
I see the game as an apple seed, which will one day grow into an orchard producing thousands of bushels of fruit. The possibility of one seed is so great. So what I am trying to do now is simply give the seed out for other teachers to plant. But it is not for every student, every teacher, every class. Teachers have got to deal with and be comfortable with the unknown, giving control and power to the students in the classroom so that the children become co-teachers. They are the sole source of authority and information in this game. Teachers need to deal with their own fears, expectations and hopes around that concept.