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Around the Foothills

Each student was to represent 1% of humanity, or 50 million people.

September 21, 1989|DOUG SMITH

About 400 Occidental College freshmen learned the hard facts about life on Earth the easy way this week. They played the World Game.

It was part of Oxy World Tour '89, a weeklong exercise to impress upon freshmen at the small liberal arts college in Eagle Rock that the cloistered environment of the campus is not meant to make them indifferent to the world outside.

Events include "Celebration of Diversity," which was held Tuesday; "L.A. the Magnificent" today and an "End-of-Summer Dance" on Friday.

The World Game, held Monday night in the gym, is a large-scale parlor game using 100 people as players. The game was devised 20 years ago by visionary Buckminster Fuller, who coined the term "Spaceship Earth" as a metaphor for the planet passing through the technological age. The game is a visual metaphor for the condition of Spaceship Earth.

Attendance was mandatory for all freshmen. They had formed a line a block long when the gym doors opened at 7:30 p.m.

The students had not been told that they were going to become navigators of Spaceship Earth and "actors in an epic drama." Their first clue was an unusual map of about 20 by 60 feet taped to the wooden floor. The Arctic region was in the center with the continents spreading out like pterodactyl wings--the Americas and Antarctica on the right, Asia, Africa and Europe on the left, the oceans ringing the landmasses in the shapes of triangles and trapezoids.

One of the evening's two coordinators, Medard Gabel, explained that it was the Fuller projection, designed by Buckminster himself to correct the distortions of the 500-year-old navigational map that shows Greenland as larger than Africa.

Gabel then summoned 100 pre-selected students from the bleachers to "play the greatest role of your life." Each was to represent 1% of humanity, or 50 million people.

Their first exercise was to populate the Earth. Following printed instructions, each stepped barefoot onto the map as Gabel and the other coordinator, Kate Joyce, called out years. The first players stood on Asia and Europe by 2000 B.C. By the year 1200, there were still only six. The left side of the map was already getting crowded when the first people stepped onto North America shortly before 1900.

By 1950, Asia, Africa and Europe seemed full, even with half the people still waiting on the side. Finally, in 1989, about a dozen were comfortably spread around the New World as all the rest squeezed onto the Old. Gabel then asked them to all sit down, where they were.

"Looks like we've got a few boat people here," Gabel said.

In this posture, they played the game.

"The theme is power," Joyce said.

In Round One, the players received small light sabers symbolizing energy and boxes symbolizing food. The United States and Soviet Union got more light sabers than their people could hold. In the Third World, many people got none. There was also green scrip for money, red scrip for debt and other scrip for intangibles, such as literacy and good will.

The teams from each region had to set up their own economic policies and then trade. For drama, Gabel appointed all the audience gods, complete with instructions for divine intervention in the form of such things as hurricanes, toxic chemical spills or epidemics.

He also recruited half of the front row to be multinational corporations and the other half to be journalists.

After everyone had scurried around for about 15 minutes, Gabel stopped the round. The international news media reported such wonderful events as Japan's decision to trade its massive resources for good will, and that Europe had lowered its consumption and "literally wants to give away its surplus for literacy in the world." India had traded fertilizer from its cows for food, and North America was visited by a meteor and confusion in trade.

Gabel pointed out that the reports said nothing of the multinationals.

"They are out and about amongst you all," he said. "Let's hope the media will be able to track down some of their nefarious doings in the next round."

For realism, some teams got balloons representing weapons. The news media grew more inquiring, reporting on arms negotiations and the attempted takeover of Africa by the Multi-National Corp. for Energy. Unfortunately, many of its stories proved false or confused, and the reporters missed a major earthquake and the purchase of 100 million Indians by the Multi-National Food Corp.

For a climax, Gabel and Joyce asked the people to move to the ocean while they spread 50,000 black plastic chips on the continents, representing toxic landfills, nuclear weapons, starving children and wasted rain forest.

After a long pause, the students swept them up in silence.

The finale was cheerier. The students wrote their addresses on sheets of paper and folded them into gliders. Then they tossed them across the globe.

Then everyone picked one up, gaining an environmental pen pal.

The game was meant to suggest options rather than prove that the world is destined to win or lose. Whatever happens, though, the news media will undoubtedly get it wrong.

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