Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Chess in Colour

I was recently contacted by Dominique Beyens who was seeking to promote her idea of Chess in Colour (for which she has a blog and a website). It's a chess game with a different strategy and lots of color. It uses the same moves and pieces as traditional chess but changes it from a competitive to a cooperative game. When pieces of the same color capture, they both leave the board. The object is to collaborate in order to finish the game most quickly.

I think that "chess in colour" is really less a game than a puzzle, since there is likely a single "best solution"--though I can imagine there being a number of possible solutions if the colors were rearranged each time you started. But if it gets little kids to learn the basic rules of chess in a fun and non-competitive environment, that's all the better for chess. It might even have the advantage of encouraging more girls to learn the rules. There is something about chess "in black and white" that encourages the sort of competitive, hyper-masculine, and even autistic thinking that tends to turn girls off.

Maybe a game like this one can even change our culture to make us more collaborative. But I think more likely the culture will reject the game--especially if its author persists in spelling the word "color" with a "u." :-)

Seriously, though: I can see it as a great vehicle for getting little kids or girls involved with the game, but the cooperative angle just will not sell beyond Kindergarten, at least not in the U.S.

There have been experiments with similar cooperative games among various groups internationally, and they all find that Americans quickly get bored with non-competitive games or seek to play such games in a competitive fashion. In one example, children in various countries were presented with a checker and told that the object of the game was to get the checker across the checkerboard as quickly as possible by each player taking turns in moving it. Kids in Mexico did it right away and then wanted to do it again. U.S. kids, meanwhile, were immediately bored or else got in fights over whose side the checker should end up on.

I have had similar experiences with a game I play in a class I teach. It is called "The Commons Game," and it is based on the Tragedy of the Commons by Garret Hardin. There are many versions of the game around, but the one we play presents students with an imagined common resource that they have to manage as best they can working in three different groups, yet the reward of the game only goes to the single player on the highest-scoring team who earns the most points individually. According to the psychologists and ecologists who first developed this version of the game in the late 60s, when they ran tests of it in various countries they discovered that Americans did the most poorly because they tended to play it in a short-sighted, individualistic, and competitive way that did not recognize the advantage of cooperating to lift all boats. In my own class, in fact, students who discovered the best cooperative strategies for succeeding at the game eventually got bored with cooperation and decide to play it competitively again.

I think a game like the "commons game" (or even TV's "Survivor") is actually more interesting than a purely collaborative project such as Chess in Colour since it more clearly mimics real life situations, where you must collaborate to succeed but rewards are handed out on an individual basis. Not everyone gets to be president. But you don't get to be president unless you are something of a team player.

Most Americans are focused on winning the game, but not enough on understanding the cooperative practices that can help you get there. I see that there was a class at Stanford, for example, titled "Toward a Literacy of Cooperation." As the title suggests, Americans are "cooperation illiterate" and we really need to change our thinking if we are to recognize the value of cooperative action.

This is not to say that there is not some rather unselfish collaboration out there. Clearly there is. Just look at the internet, after all, which could not have been built without many people generously donating their time and energy to put information at our fingertips. Of course, many people are on the web to make money for themselves. But I think most web content is still free (or wants to be) and, in chess at least, the motive is rarely to make money. Look through the blogs listed on my blogs page, for instance. What motivates these people to post? For people who play a very competitive game, I do not think their main motive is competitive--or at least not rationally so. But more on that in a future post, where I'd like to survey the world of chess blogging generally.


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