Playing for World Peace

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 traveled and studied comparative religions and philosophy throughout Japan, India and China. It was while in India, the cradle of Gandhian 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.”

Here is his story.
John Hunter

The beginnings
I was born into a black middle-class family in 1954, in Richmond, Virginia. I belong to the African American Community, and grew up at a very interesting time. There were major changes in the legal system around how black people were treated. We were a close-knit and quiet family, and though my parents were activists and participated in the movement against segregation, they were very quiet about it, and went about their activism silently. You have what’s called the spotlight school, whose work was seen by everyone, and the shadowed school, whose work was more behind the scenes - and my family belonged to the latter.

I went to an all black school, and the change in the law on segregation came in my twelfth year.. My parents brought me up as an outdoors person. My father was a mechanic, and my mother was an elementary school teacher. I was actually her student when I was in grade 4. I became an Eagle Scout when I was 12, and grew up with a deep connection to nature.

I was one of the seven kids who were handpicked to go into the white school. I still remember walking into the principal’s office thinking that we were in trouble - which seemed strange because we were the goody-two-shoes. When the superintendent came in, I was certain I was in trouble - but when she spoke up, it seemed like something very important was happening. She told us about how segregation was drawing to an end, and how the school and the students’ parents had decided that seven of us would be the first ones to integrate into a white school nearby. It was a huge change, not just for me, but for my entire country.

I then went to a liberal arts school, and dropped out and dropped back in - and this happened thrice. On each occasion when I dropped out, I went to Delhi, Rishikesh, and Bangalore, in India. My trips to India were transformative, because I was drawn to the powerful ideas that the country stands for, particularly Gandhi’s views on Ahimsa. It was incredible to know that one man’s efforts made such waves and drove the colonial power out. It was around that time that I decided that my career would be in education. This time, when I returned to school, I took on the “Experimental Program” in which I gained insight into a radical model for teacher training that would also place the teachers in classrooms as teachers, almost immediately after qualification.

It was around that time, that I created the World Peace Game. I kept it on the down low, though, because I didn’t want my supervisors to think that I was a radical leftist.

The World Peace Game
The game began as a simple geopolitical stimulation that I invented in 1978. I was teaching a social studies course, and focused on African studies. The game began informally when, one day, I printed out a massive map of Africa and set it on the ground, and labeled the countries. I looked at the problems challenging each of these countries. Mind you, there was no internet at the time, so any and all research I did involved looking up books and newspaper articles. I went back to my students, divided them up and allotted each of them particular countries, gave them the problems that each country was facing, and told them to solve it. They did - and did so beautifully.

From then to now, the game has evolved tremendously. The World Peace Game is now a much larger game with a 4x4x5 dimension, that sometimes towers over my nine-year-old students! It was fundamentally created to make young people see the reality of the world - the idea is not to teach peace, but to help the children see the world, see things that happen as they do, and then to respond  to those things accordingly. As it happens in the real world, in the game, there are several problems happening all at once. You have about four or five country teams, four agencies, legal counsels, arms dealers, a world bank and a weather goddess too - who controls all things that are beyond our control. Students are divided up into teams that have national cabinets comprising prime ministers, defense ministers, financial officers and other portfolios. They are given different degrees of wealth, energy resources, assets, and raw materials. They are also given military and defense forces - some countries get air and space weapons, too. They are given a four-page crisis document, and they have to solve these crises, while increasing the asset value of all nations without war, as far as possible. The students have to figure out, for themselves, a way out of the fifty different interlocking problems that manifest across four levels: air, space, ground, ocean (and undersea), and across all countries of their world. These problems include all that we see around us: global warming, endangered species, oil spills, toxic nuclear accidents, natural disasters, rogue satellites, water rights disputes, border disagreements, insurgencies, religious and ethnic tensions, and breakaway republics are a few of the situations going on simultaneously.

Amidst all these students, there is one who plays a saboteur. Before every session, I walk into the principal’s office and ask for the troublemaker in the session. We need that little troublemaker’s energy to channel it, and to harness it in the game. The saboteur plays secretly, and strives to destroy all progress in the game. The saboteur is allowed to pretend, to mislead, and to confuse - but not to lie. By the end of the game, the children find themselves applauding and appreciating the saboteur’s efforts for leading the challenge forward.

I do not interfere in this in anyway, my job is just to ring the bell when the session ends. They arrive at the understanding that war is undesirable, all by their own game play. It has been forty years since this game began, and I still never know what is going to happen. It's a complete mystery and blank slate with each group of students who play.

The Impact
I relinquish all control over the game, so it is always interesting to see what happens. There have been times when they came so close to a complete collapse after many weeks of efforts - only to find themselves on track to winning. The object of the game is simple - a win is possible only when the assets of all countries improve. On one occasion, I was with a group of children who had been at the game for a good seven weeks, and were in their last session. Their parents had come to pick them up, and were peering in through the glass in the windows to see what was happening. There were about ten minutes left, when the students realized they were going to lose. One country had very little money, and was in great debt. At that moment, Brennan, one of the students, marched up to my table and took my bell away. He rang the bell and called everyone to them. I watched as there was yelling, papers being thrown in the air, tears being shed, and finally, Brennan announced that a donation would be made to this country. The child who was the Prime Minister of this country was blank: he didn’t know what to do! Everyone cheered him on to accept the donation, and with two seconds to spare, he accepted the donation.

At that moment, the children were jumping, rolling on the ground with joy. This was powerful: and it was compassion, live, in action. Adults may have made a loan - but the children just gave the country in need the money.

In my experience, the game has been incredibly transformative. I have always found that when I go into a classroom, I am the one that’s getting to learn - they have one teacher, while I have thirty or more. It feels like living in paradise every time I am with a group of children playing the game. It’s not the same thing each time - the game is played very differently, and grows with time. The children have never lost a game with me in all these forty years, and have taught me that the object of the game is to increase compassion and decrease suffering.  

The children have been invited to speak at the United Nations, and have visited the Pentagon twice, to offer advice on ways to solve global crises - it wasn’t a photo op or a lighthearted visit, but a powerful, real worldly visit that made an impact on ground.

When I see these children play, it gives me hope. Once, when I went back to speak at Virginia Commonwealth, an old man in the back raised his hand and stood up. He had white hair at the temples, and his glasses were perched on the edge of his nose. He asked me if I remembered him. I said I didn’t. “Mr Hunter, I am Terry. I was in your first batch of students that played the game!” Terry had gone on to work in the field of Educational Policy in Washington DC, and told me that I had taught him the art of looking at things through multiple perspectives. We set a date and talked on Skype a few weeks later. Terry then told me that he had learned a gesture I made - using my hand, I had presented a “rounded” movement - sort of like the movement one would use to describe a globe - and suggested that one should look at something through multiple perspectives. He then told me he had something to show me, and called his 21 year old daughter, and told me that she had just applied to the World Bank and had interviewed for the position a couple of days ago. He told me that he saw her speaking to them about the need to look at issues through multiple perspectives, making the same gesture. Then, he beckoned a toddler into the room - and told me that he had taught them this, too.

It was powerful - tremendously validating - to know that I had unconsciously reached through time and impacted three generations, and impacted children I would never meet, never know, and possibly never ever hear about. Every little bit counts, every little bit.