SAN DIEGO — On a summer day so gorgeous that it cries out for everyone to flock to the beach, several dozen volunteers are instead convened in a gymnasium to play a mind game about illiteracy, food shortages, plagues, energy depletion, nationalistic rivalries and other global unpleasantries.
The contest is called World Game, and it is one of the enduring legacies to popular culture left by Buckminster Fuller, the author, designer, mathematician, environmentalist, geodesic dome inventor and protean thinker who died in 1983 at age 87.
Although he might blanch at such a comparison, the Fuller game might be considered Monopoly for serious-minded globalists. Instead of navigating to Park Place, players scramble to feed, clothe, house and warm the citizens of their country, making deals with other countries, dodging high-interest loans from unscrupulous bankers and sometimes even making war.
And instead of a board spread on a coffee table, the game is played on a 70-by-35-foot Dymaxion map, one of Fuller's inventions in which the globe is flattened out with a minimum of proportional distortion. For the untutored in Fuller lexicon, dymaxion is the word Fuller coined from dynamic, maximum and tension to incorporate his views of getting the most from every ounce of energy.
Fuller invented the game during the late 1960s after being aghast at discovering the Pentagon playing war games. Why not invent a game, he said, to fight the real enemies of mankind: starvation, disease, illiteracy and rapaciousness?
Fuller may have conceived the game as a subversive jab at the techno-military-corporate power structure, but that has not stopped it from being embraced by a bevy of Fortune 500 heavy-hitters as a way to encourage large-scale thinking and sharpen--careful, here comes that buzz phrase-- those interpersonal skills.
The goal is geopolitical verisimilitude. Players from countries with high illiteracy rates are not allowed to speak or ask questions when the rules are being explained. The idea, of course, is to demonstrate the crippling effect of ignorance in a highly complex and technological world.
"There are no fistfights, but it is possible to wage war, although it is very expensive," said Medard Gabel, a onetime Fuller acolyte and now chief executive officer of the Philadelphia-based World Game Institute. "High school males, often in the presence of high school females, will want to wage war more than anybody else."
Gabel organizes, either in person or long distance, up to 175 World Game contests a year around the globe for corporations (including Chase Manhattan, Motorola and AT & T), schools and universities, and nests of activists wherever they are found.
Gabel and Charles Dingee, the World Game Institute's regional representative from Bellingham, Wash., organized the World Games in San Diego as part of a Fuller centennial symposium put on by Global Energy Network International. GENI is a nonprofit think tank dedicated to Fuller's idea of a worldwide grid of energy that would provide bush-dwellers and city folk alike with a minimum ration of kilowatt hours.
"If Chuck and I have done our job, you should all be thoroughly confused,
as you would be in the real world," Gabel tells the several dozen symposium attendees who have ventured to San Diego State University for World Game.
With those words, the teams are sent to roam the flattened-out globe, looking for opportunities and alliances. The players this morning are Fuller fans (a.k.a. Buckyites) who have come from around the country for the symposium, several days of lectures, demonstrations and even a display of the last Dymaxion cars, Fuller's dream of an energy-efficient automobile that looks like a large cigar on wheels.
If World Game has its Monopoly touches, it also is akin to a stock exchange, where traders and sharks prowl the floor, talking and dealing.
"Would you like a loan?" asks World Bank "representative" Paul-Michael Dekker, a security analyst from San Diego. "I'll take natural resources. I'll take technology."
"No thanks," says Julie Asper, a San Diego health food wholesaler representing Latin America. "We have to define our needs first."
Players learn that morals have price tags. A suggestion floats that more be done for the health needs of women and children. "We can't take care of that unless we have food and water," responds Linnea Mercer, representing China and East Asia.
Part of the game's realism is that some players are identified as media and assigned to try to find out about the quick-fix diplomacy. "The deals are going down so fast, it's hard to catch them all," says media representative Michael Powers, a GENI worker from San Diego. "There is a lot of good happening in the world, but a lot of bad too."
Ever was it so.