Scholarship | Game Diplomacy

Gavin Jesse VanHorn


It’s obvious the nation has a mental health crisis on its hands, specifically in schools, but less obvious is the solution. One will often find politicians, police, and reporters with a general, broad sense that something must be done after each school district crisis, but heavy polarization throughout the political spectrum often ends in inaction. Even so, the two popular solutions (less guns [progressives]/more security [conservatives]) only focus on countering school violence after the incentive to be violent is present. This means that while the weed has been cut, the root has not been pulled, and further unpredictable manifestations of a lack of mental health will come about, regardless of these current solutions.

I present a simple answer based in logic. Firstly, if someone is violent or edging towards violence, there must be a cause. Secondly, if they’re willing to act out fatally in school, there is a fair chance that the cause is at least partially imbedded at school. Thirdly, if the cause is at least partially imbedded at school and the manifestation is violence against others, it’s likely that, in some magnitude, that student’s relationships with their peers is leading them towards violence. So here is at least one root cause of adolescent’s mental health problems: relationships with peers. Of course, these are likely negative relationships, so the question is how to improve such things. 

It’s plausible that anger and hatred of others will manifest in small ways before it lets loose into extreme, deadly cases of violence. These might be schoolyard fights, arguments, drama, etc. Often enough, a school district deals with such things through punishment; suspensions and lunch detention are the popular culprits. Obviously, these will do nothing to improve peer relationships; such things are instead meant to disincentivize emotional reaction through fear of punishment. (This is much like the current day prison system, which does little to rehabilitate.) That being said, with around 83% of released inmates being arrested again within 9 years-according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics-it’s unlikely punishment will stop children from acting out either. 

As a policy maker, I would propose that school districts focus their efforts on bringing students together, literally, instead of punishing them after acting out against each other. In psychological theory, the mere-exposure effect is a predictor of people’s relative liking of others; as it turns out, exposure to others increases positivity towards them. Exposure is the primary predictor of friendships; hence, one likely doesn’t have a best friend living across the world. Therefore, when small manifestations of aggression appear, why not sit students down and simply play games. Yes, games. The problem should not be addressed immediately, as built tension may erupt. Such tension must slowly fall before problems can be addressed. 

These games should be cooperative and conceding, so that students learn to come together and rely on each other in miniscule ways before they are forced to tackle the larger issue of fractured relations. Further theory behind these games is based in Graduated Reciprocation in Tension Reduction (GRIT), which is an international diplomacy technique. Using GRIT, one side offers small concessions-perhaps a positive acknowledgment of some sort or even a gift-to the other. From here, concessions grow until diplomacy can be made. For example, GRIT appeared through ping-pong diplomacy between China and the US during the Cold War. When each country’s ping-pong team offered the other a gift, their exchange represented not only appreciation between teams but between countries, allowing for relations to begin improving on a national scale. If ‘game diplomacy’ can work through ping-pong between nations, why can’t something similar work miracles for students too?

I do not propose that ‘game diplomacy’ will solve mental health problems among adolescents, but I do assert that it will improve them. As someone who was forced into states of severe mania and depression thanks to my relationships with peers throughout high school, I can say with certainty that setting differences aside and interacting with them positively would have been much more effective in halting issues and bringing us together than having each person punished for their wrongdoings. Those struggling with mental health, whether or not they have the potential to do serious harm, will certainly be less incentivized to do so among peers they enjoy and appreciate. And as for the healthy, students with bright minds that may simply be going through the peer antagonism that is high school, they too can benefit from the building of bridges among each other through the games. Game diplomacy could be the next step for schools, but its support in the public policy sphere would be necessary. If I were a policy maker, it would be one of the first things I try to implement.

toru izumida

New York, US