Back in 2011, I discovered John Hunter’s World Peace Game (WPG) when he gave his initial TED Talk (see below). I fell in love with the elegance and brilliance of this “game”. This was a teacher really attempting to prepare children as young as 9, to solve the world’s biggest issues. I thought then what I think now, that this should be an obligatory exercise in all schools, in all countries in the world and I am amazed that this study has offered me the opportunity to talk to this education visionary about his great initiative and better understand his aims and thinking about preparing children for the 21st century. John was amazingly generous with his time and gave me very detailed answers. I decided not to abridge them to share with you the entirety of our conversation.
As I would not do justice to the complexity of the WPG, I invite you to watch John describing it himself at TED. Regardless of the rest of the interview, I guarantee you this will be the best spent 20 minutes of your day.
Q : As an introduction, now that it exists, maybe we can start by you describing the nature and the goal of the World Peace Game Foundation?
Sure. There is now and since 2014, a World Peace Game Organisation and our mission is to share and disseminate the World Peace Game and its practice globally. It evolves mainly around an educational tool that I invented in 1978, called the World Peace Game but also subsequent tools I have developed since following the same philosophy.
We offer Master Classes to educators from all over the Globe wishing to use the Game in their classrooms, in conjunction with a Live WPG with roughly 35 students aged 9 to 12. And though the primary focus is Elementary and Middle Schools, the WPG can also be played with High School students.
Q : According to you, at what age is it best to play the Game? What differences exist between the games played by the different age groups?
The “sweet spot” as I call is 9 through 12. Particularly, the 9 year-olds bring the wonderment and the freshness of spirit that young children have: the openness and creativity and the lack of preconceptions and inhibitions. Yet they are also old enough to facilitate and survive the complexity they are thrown into. You see, the Game doesn’t teach them to do anything really. It is just there to allow them to explore and discover for themselves what works, how it works and even to invent new conceptual tools to solve the problems they face. The students are the last line of what is right, of what is appropriate.
The framework of course is built around childhood development and understanding so it is appropriate for all children. Middle Schoolers bring another layer of sophistication to the games they play, both in content but also in social interactions. A lot of humour comes out, and though it often inadvertent in Elementary School, it definitely becomes more deliberate in Middle School. The Game allows them to try out personality and behaviours.
High school students have impressed me so much that I often think they should be the ones actually solving global issues. Their range of innovative solutions and their critical thinking are at their peak so far in their lives and are coupled with a huge sense of idealism. They believe things really can work out. Their life is just beginning and so they bring that positive self to the Game and they are able to solve problems with incredible sophistication which continue to boggle the mind. The solutions are still practical and realistic but are more adventurous that what adults seem to be able to bring.
I have played with adults and let me tell you, it is a different animal all together. The Game has already been discussed at the Pentagon and the United Nations, and played by the audience at TED. However, it’s not something I train people to do and don’t advise it generally, because adults have an entirely different set of components that they bring to the game. As a psychiatrist friend of mine says, it requires Group Process Therapy training, which I don’t have, though we may have recently found a way to work with adults in specific settings. It seems that playing in reduced time and increased pressure seems to work better for that population.
Q : You’ve been facilitating the Game for over 30 years and I was curious to know if you had seen a change in the mindset of children who have played the WPG. First, some players are now adults; do you have any knowledge on how they see the Game having impacted them? Secondly, over the last 10 years say, have you seen changes within a same age group of children?
It is bitter-sweet to be a teacher. You put everything - your heart and soul – into the time you have with a child which could be as little as 1 to 3 years. You work with them nearly as peers and then they leave and you may never see them again. As teachers, you sometimes lie awake at night thinking about what happened to this one or that one. This means, I don’t always know what has come of them.
However, I have been lucky. Some have come back and have told me what the WPG has meant to them and it has been humbling, it has been mind-shattering. One example is Irene Newman, now a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in International Diplomacy and Security Issues, who played the Game maybe 10 years ago now. She wrote me a letter in which she tells me that all her professors are astounded at her ability to take apart a case study, solve it and put it back together. She told me that when she got a problem like that her hands would start trembling from the excitement because she had been studying global policy since she was 9.
In the Game, students are allowed to do anything they want if it meets with three conditions: They have to be able to pay for it, it has to make sense and they have to be able to deal with consequences (which of course they cannot see initially because they only play one step ahead at a time). In Irene’s case, she had become a black market arms dealer and wanted to create her own island nation. At the time, her parents had been a little worried about her but she wrote me to say that she was now able to achieve what she has because in part, she remembers having felt such a feeling of empowerment during those formative years.
Ryan - now a Junior at High School - is another example. At that time in his school, the WPG was only played by students in the gifted program. Though Ryan - 9 at the time - had not technically scored high enough to be part of that program, he had still been allowed to partake in the Game.
At the game's end, students may award special prizes; the Human Rights Award, the All-round Best Player Award and the highest, a kind of Nobel Peace Prize Award. Ryan was awarded that award then, and then again twice more, in two other games he played with completely different groups of children. When you meet him you understand why. To further illustrate this, I would like to read an excerpt from a letter he sent me this week, the original of which was written to the US State Department.
"The single biggest thing I took away from this game though is something that will stick with me the rest of my life. The game taught me what it means to be a leader. At Agnor-Hurt Elementary the World Peace Game was only played by students identified by their teachers as "gifted". This means they were the smartest and brightest our school had to offer. These were the kids meant to become leaders later in life and the ones who were going to change the world. I was not one of these "gifted" students. When I met Mr. Hunter he saw something in me that other teachers and I myself did not see. He invited me to come play the World Peace Game even though I was not in the gifted program. I ended up leading the poor country of Icelandia to become the most powerful country in the world and I even won the peer elected most outstanding player award. In a room full of the smartest kids, I had become the one that would lead the world to peace. This taught me that the best leader is not [necessarily] the best writer, mathematician, or historian but the one with principles that people can follow. It's the one who speaks their mind without fear of people disagreeing and the person with the compassion towards others to do what is right when the easy way is to do something wrong. It made me realize that a true leader is not measured in the classroom but on his actions towards others."
This is typical of what we hear from students and it is just so heartening for a teacher, especially since you don’t always know what happens to them after they leave you.
To answer the second part of your question, we have only just begun conducting research on the impacts of the Game on students. As a busy classroom teacher, there was no time to collect large scale data on the long term results of this practice. Now that the Game has moved into the international sphere, we realised that we have a responsibility in developing some sort of data on what happens to the students afterwards. So unfortunately, I cannot answer your question in detail but I can share with you one aspect that has not changed since the very beginning.
By design, the Game invites the players to be selfish, to be divisive, to be impulsive, to be revengeful, to be reactive. We are trying to allow them to be fully human, to go through that experience and come out the other side, having done what they wanted and needed to, in order to survive. They all come to realise that their survival depends on the survival of others. I don’t teach that; I don’t preach that. This awareness comes about viscerally, through their experience. It comes out in every game that compassion and the lessening of suffering for everyone is the best way forward. They do this game after game, year after year, generation after generation and without me having to say anything.
Of course, The students know that I personally hope for peace; they know me. But for the game to provide maximum learning opportunities, things must go "wrong" even against my best hopes. In fact, my personal entire experience during the game is one of difficulty and struggle. Teachers who train to do this must first understand that the Game will be out of their control, that they will have no real power over what is going to happen. Students will do things that are contrary to what we believe in, even what we think "right", but they need to be able to do try everything within the appropriate parameters of the game. WPG Facilitator-Teachers are taught to give very deadpan reactions. It’s a very hands-off practice where, as a teacher, you are there only in a procedural/facilitation role: calling out time and so forth. The idea is that children can and must fail. They need to have stakes be that high (that they may lose the Game!) to be sufficiently emotionally involved so that true learning can take place.
So back to my answer [laugh], in one game that’s portrayed the movie, Amelia Thompson, a fiery little girl, suffers for giving away part of her country stemming from a loophole in a contract she made with another country, and she was very upset about that. The year after that game, she reads in the school’s weekly paper about people dying in Mozambique from lack of access to clean water. She starts organising a charity drive where her friends give her pennies, dimes and quarters and they manage to raise over $100. Amelia did this basically to save lives in the real world because she had the same problems in her country in the Game. That kind of transfer in learning is indicative of true learning though we have not, as I mentioned, been able to measure it systematically up to now.
However, the real assessment of this practice is what kind of people they become, and our school systems are not designed to measure that. Actually on that note, I was invited with three former students to give a talk à TEDx Charlottesville and there you can see three examples of past players and what they have become.
Q : Though I should have probably asked this question before, I am curious. What is your objective when playing a game?
I started with just what teachers always hope for - I am no different – creating or using a piece of curriculum so well that it reaches the students and changes them for the better.
The one thing the Game is based on is advice given to me by my undergraduate mentor, Ms. Ethel J.Banks, who taught me that teachers should develop curriculums not based on textbooks, but based instead around the students’ loves and desires. First, you need to build a relationship with the child, discover their loves and passions, and then build a curriculum around that knowledge. They will believe the curriculum is theirs and from that feeling of ownership comes learning.
Their love will drive the learning!
So in 1978, the Game came from the realisation that kids back then loved board games. At the time, an innovative problem solving technique had just been created so I put that in too. The WPG wasn’t born out of any great deduction on my part. Further down the line, there were some epiphanies about the formal way of playing the Game but the initial idea just came from doing what teacher always do, which is just creating a curriculum that gets used for what is best for children.
Q : As an educator, what values do you think 21st children need to learn?
There is such a high signal to noise ratio and so much information today, on what is proper, what is right, what is best, what should be done… that I try to avoid giving my own opinion on that. To do so only leads to people making decisions based on what feels good or how they feel about you, and that just adds to the difficulty of choosing. I would just be adding to the noise, in a sense. I should contextualise my answer before giving it, here.
I believe the universal thing that we can all agree upon is introspection: Know Thy Self. From that point, you may gain a lever to move the world, so to speak. Immediately, if you truly, regularly, minutely examine and come to know yourself, you start seeing interdependency, and then compassion arises. Caring for others and self-knowledge are the primary, universal, overarching and deepest skills for me.
Early in my teaching career, I thought that school was about learning information and knowledge. I have abandoned that theory. Surely, that is a part of teaching but my experience has shown me that the children are the teachers. Maria Montessori said “the child is the book”. The real lesson in life is that the knowledge, and static understandings can become obsolete very fast. Understanding that, we must teach universals. Compassion and introspection are tools that allow that.
True deep compassion – not just love but real caring - only arises through continued self-discovery. That is how I train teachers in for the World Peace Game now, actually. Before teaching them the WPG, they need to go through some personal introspection. What teachers need to understand is that the Game is really not about the Game. The Game is a Trojan horse, a pretext for a deeper learning, a deeper understanding.
Q : This is a very interesting point. I understand about teaching skills more than knowledge but I would imagine that it is also important to find some facts to anchor a person in reality. How do choose that knowledge?
As I mentioned, for a long time, what we proposed to teach children was a set of skills or specific "known" information" and understandings that would be useful throughout their lives. That doesn’t work anymore. Today, it is not about the skills themselves, it is the ability to address a situation with limited or no presupposition. It is most important not to superimpose our beliefs over reality. That ability to meet a situation clearly, honestly and squarely, comes from self-knowledge, a lack of self-deception or delusion. This allows you to accept reality and in turn, to use or create tools appropriate to the situation.
You are right though, anchoring is important but if you take textbooks for example: who’s anchor points do you end up giving? The textbook writer? the national directive? the local school district's point of view? I don’t know how to do decide really. Deciding what knowledge appropriate and useful is difficult and at the same time necessary. So it is important when imparting knowledge to children, to also show them the relativity of that knowledge.
To give you an example. A few years ago, I taught a class on how to use the internet. I asked the children to visit a website dedicated to the Pacific North West Tree Octopus, a rare and endangered species. The kids loved it and the website had all kinds of knowledge and facts, it looked very professional. Of course, all the information was fictional, there is no such animal. That example was used to show that we need to see beyond presentation, to show students that they must discern what’s true. Looking at mainly by who is saying it and how it is being said, is not enough.
Our big problem is to know what actually is. Today there are so many people competing to tell you what "is". The issue I have found with students in the last few years is that because of this overabundance of information, their creativity has been stifled. Children today, seem to not even need an imagination really. Imagination has been pre-packaged for them 24/7 so as to keep them engaged.
Recently, I gave an exercise in creative writing to 3rd graders--they just love creative writing. However, I told them they could write about anything but; this time there couldn’t be any monster, any pets or any explosions -no one gets killed or hurt – or any aliens. They stopped abruptly and one boy asked incredulously: “Well, what are we going to write about, then? What's left?!”. If you knock down the convention – and that is my job as a teacher, to wipe out conventional thinking to some degree - the kids struggle but it is important for them to do so. You need to take away what they think is so that they can discover what actually is in their own lives.
Ii you look at the current electoral race going on in America, you get main parties explaining that their candidate says this is going to happen contrary to what the facts indicate and people believe it. Identifying what is, is definitely one of our biggest issues.
Q : Finally, since you brought up the example of internet research, I was curious to know if the children used external sources of knowledge during the Game or if they used technology in any way.
I made a decision a few years ago on that topic. The kids are allowed to do any kind of research at home while they are playing the Game. There is no harm in that since the Game is designed so that all the problems are interlocking. So even if the children think they have found a solution to a given problem it will impact other crisis in new ways.
Years ago though, I decided that there would be no technology within the Game itself. I have had offers from app developers and even universities to develop tools to allow Game play of several hundred or thousands of participants at the same time, to be allowed to play with strangers, to create kid networks… you name it. It was enticing and intoxicating to think about for a while but I realised that the real value of the Game was the visceral human contact and relationship between the players and their teacher as well.
We experimented with computers on several occasions, but a virtual version of the Game takes away its essence. Once we had grad-students come in with laptops and I suggested that the children could ask the young adults for a "white paper" on any given issue (a one-pager synthesized from their research written in 4th grade language). It was exciting and hard work for the grad students but it did not impact the Game much. We have current proposal to us to consider using Augmented Reality. Technology is evolving constantly so, who knows? It might happen one day but for now, I haven’t changed my mind.
There is only one answer for teachers on how to decide on an teaching issue: what is best for the child.
Q: I always like to finish my interviews by asking: What did I not ask but should have? And Who should I meet with in my study according to you?
For the first one, a bit of information I did not volunteer but should have is that as a young teacher not knowing what to do, I did not have any grand designs or huge ambitions. Nevertheless, the Game is now in 15 countries and in 30 cities in the US without any intention on my part. It is a testament to the mobility of ideas. They are like a virus. I am not being modest. I haven’t done much besides showing up to work and teaching. That is an important lesson for me.
As for who you should meet, I have recently put in contact with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the ground breaking book, Flow, because he has recognised that state of consciousness, of living in a state of mastery, which he calls flow and he is wishing to study our WPG children. He could be an interesting person for you to meet.
A native Virginian and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, John Hunter is an award-winning gifted teacher and educational consultant who has dedicated his life to helping children realize their full potential. Employing his background as a musician composer and filmmaker during a three-decade career as a teacher, Hunter has combined his gifted teaching and artistic talents to develop unique teaching programs using multimedia software programs in creative writing and film courses.
During his university years, he travelled and studied comparative religions and philosophy throughout Japan, India and China. It was while in India, the cradle of Ghandian thought, Hunter, intrigued by the principles of non-violence, began to think of how his profession might contribute to peace in the world.
Knowing that ignoring violence would not make it go away, how could he teach peace in an often-violent world? Accepting the reality of violence, he would seek to incorporate ways to explore harmony in various situations. This exploration would take form in the framework of a game – something that students would enjoy. Within the game data space, they would be challenged, while enhancing collaborative and communication skills.
In 1978, at the Richmond Community High School, Hunter led the first sessions of his World Peace Game. Over time, in a synchronous unfolding with the growing global focus on increasingly complex social and political conditions, the game has gained new impetus. As Hunter succinctly explains, “The World Peace Game is about learning to live and work comfortably in the unknown.”