Blue Eyes Brown
It seems that simulation games can be used to simulate almost every kind of literal social interaction. But often there is need to focus on only a few aspects of integral reality, and for this purpose a game or model needs to be not literal but metaphorical.
Blue Eyes Brown is a game that Patsy Parker and others designed for a conference on racism in 1968. Its purpose was to provide a fresh and experiential input on discrimination, as a way of heightening the consciousness that the conference’s talks and seminars were raising cognitively. Its principles were simple: blue-eyed people were to be discriminated against, by the conference staff (game-keepers), and this behavior was not to be discussed.
Discrimination began with registration, when blue-eyes were crowded into inferior housing, given the last choice of workshops, or reassigned arbitrarily; and continued in the dining hall, where the staff, unquestionable, directed them into their own chow line with plastic utensils, cheaper food, and slow service. Every conversation that staff had with a blue-eye was subject to interruption whenever a brown-eye came by; and in group discussions blue-eyes were not called on, not listened to, and cut off. Talks and workshops by blue-eyes were given tiny rooms or wrong addresses.
As a game, it had a quite oppressive character, which the staff found hard to maintain at times when they were called on to act in quite piggish ways. But oppression was precisely its point. That this oppression was the result of the literal plot of a few people did not necessarily simulate the literal truth of social discrimination, but it did give rise to similar social-psychological processes. The brown-eyes became a master class. Without any explicit structure of cues or direction, nor any consciousness of themselves as oppressors, they first accepted their privileged status and then took over its enforcement, eating and working together, not responding to blue-eyes nor valuing their input. The blue-eyes developed actively complementary behavior: they became withdrawn and mute, or sometimes angry and incoherent, from a multitude of small frustrations that could not quite be focused on. Many came to carry themselves timorously, in and out of discussions; others joined in private pariah friendships.
Though pervasive, the gamekeeping was casual enough for the game rule to remain undiscovered for nearly two days, until a few blue-eyes finally recognized it. A current of unrest multiplied quickly among the others and then flared into open revolt, disrupting some organized seminars. It was real, for many people had real anger at the cruel trick that had been played on them. Some brown-eyes were furious at how they had been tricked into perpetuating the discrimination; others were chastened by their discovery of how easily they had slipped into and enjoyed a game of privilege; others yet chose to continue it even in the process of discussing it.
Once the emphasis of discussions passed beyond outrage at the game’s organizers and into taking the game seriously as a learning experience, its dimensions became apparent. Blue-eyes described the creepy senses of malaise and self-doubt that had brooded in them during the game; the flash of relief at the recognition that something objective had been done to them; their mingled impulses of vengeance and of interest in a different way of being with each other; their curiosity about people they had distrusted. The broader mechanics of resistance and revolt received attention too.
Besides being an example of an allegorical game, Blue Eyes Brown illustrates a broader notion of gaming. Rather than being played in a concentrated way, this game embraced and permeated a whole structure of other learning-games, all the other events of the conference. Its play was conscious and deliberate, but only on the part of the gamekeepers. In this regard it was manipulative, and dangerous. The risks involved ranged from ruining individuals’ experiences of the conference and raising personal antagonisms, to undermining the whole purpose and usefulness of the conference; the possible benefits lay in a deeper and more integral learning, of a sort not common among the white middle-class players. (Some conference workshops had them digging into their own private experiences of discrimination; but to play this game together gave them a common and immediate body of experience to share.)
There are always risks involved in playing serious games which look into deep emotional complexes; and nothing to do but to judge them well, plan carefully to minimize them, and provide for what may happen (of which more later). That Blue Eyes Brown played successfully was not surprising, for people are usually friendly to a spirit of relevant play, if its stresses are at all kept within bounds. As for manipulation, we were against it on principle, but pragmatic: there are some things about manipulation and oppression that it is hard to learn about save through their experience.
I don’t know whether this justifies the morality of playing Blue Eyes Brown or not. For clearly, this argument extends to the subjects of death and torture; and while from some angles it might be an appropriate learning-game to have the State Department aides supporting the brutal Brazilian regime undergo torture first-hand, from others it would not. A good principle to go on is that the players of a game should consent to it explicitly and with all necessary knowledge about the benefits and risks of playing it. This guide is conservative and moral, and would rule out games like Blue Eyes Brown; and almost all of organized schooling as well, were it rigorously followed.