The Ordered Anarchy of Playground Games

Stanton Skerjanec

I was performing my weekly teacher lunch duty at Liberty Common High School the other day, keeping the students entertained among themselves and safe from possible outsiders. The typical group of students were playing their typical games. The one right in front of me was playing a version of foursquare, which I had seen them play before. I was in a good mood and decided to join in on the fun.

I asked if we could bring in a third, and everyone shouted, “NO.” I pressed why, and they said, “We tried it. It sucked.”

The basic structure of the game is what you would expect in foursquare: one large square divided into smaller, equally sized squares (quadrants). One quadrant is designated as the Monarch’s Square. The player in the Monarch’s Square puts a ball into play. The point is to get the ball into an opposing player’s quadrant in such a way that the opposing player is unable to respond, generally by trying to make the ball “escape” the game (that is, going so far out of the giant square that it’s unplayable). When a player is out, other players behind that one can advance to his or her old spot and so on, and new players enter into the Peasant’s Square (going on to the Noble’s the Square Apparent, and then the Monarch’s.)

For these kids at my school, after those basics, the game they play looks very different from regular foursquare. In fact, it’s almost a whole different game. In their version, you don’t use hands, unlike the original game. (We are a big soccer school, and as such, the students like to prove their footwork superiority in other ways.) The ball is thus not usually bounced in the Liberty version. Instead, it is rolled (with an occasional bounce, because physics). The ball must pass-touch another player’s quadrant and then escape for that player to be out. Nothing too out of the ordinary.

Here’s the first twist of the game: those in queue waiting to play line up around the giant square, and are active participants in the game. They can rally to the aid of a player by preventing the ball from escaping, or can undermine efforts by deliberately stepping out of the way. It gives waiting players the ability to form alliances by the time they enter the game. This concept of helping while waiting is new to me, but not to Liberty. I had observed this game mechanic the previous semester.

I decided to jump in and have a good time. But to my surprise, another player entered my square as I joined. I asked what he was doing, and the students giggled. “Mr. Skerjanec, don’t you know? I’m helping you! We’re a pair!” A new and fascinating development. It appeared that sometime between the previous and current semester, the students had introduced intersquare partnerships. I asked if we could bring in a third, and everyone shouted, “NO.” I pressed why, and they said, “We tried it. It sucked.” A fair, if simple, answer. When another teacher inquired as to how this partnership rule developed, the students said nothing, but only looked at each other. Someone finally said, “I dunno. It just...kinda happened.”

Playground Society is Free Society

When I was finished with the game, I stood back to watch the game and the rest of the area. Suddenly it dawned on me that what I was seeing was the best version of the free market. I wasn’t just watching students have a good time – I was seeing individual choices being made, coming together in intricate webs, with the paths that were taken leaving behind trails that connected choices to other choices.

Not too far off from this Liberty foursquare was a game of pickup basketball, which has its own beautiful order. Caddy corner to basketball was an unusual game where students form a circle with some students sitting down in the middle as a ball flies around. Out of my sight was a game of football, a mutated version of wall ball, and students inside slowly eating lunch, playing chess or other games. And of course I could see plenty of others just walking around or standing, having whatever conversations teenagers have. I saw before me, in 30 short minutes, a fully functioning society of free persons.

Even when it comes to the “Thou Shalt Not Cheat” rule, teachers are largely absent.

The members of this society freely engage in whatever activity they find enjoyable, whatever brings them the most utility. Within the individual activities themselves you can find a microcosm of voluntary regulation. Students develop the rules and norms of the games together and by consent, and they admonish those who violate the rules. These rules fluctuate, and radically innovative changes are rapidly added. If a student doesn’t like the activity, or begins to hate the rules, that student is free to leave. And not just free to leave, but to join other activities around the area, or even create one of their own!

Regardless of the activity a student chooses, all students understand very basic and universal laws: do not leave school grounds, do not harm others or their property, do not cheat. So long as students adhere to these fundamental rules, teachers largely leave students alone. Yet, even when it comes to the “Thou Shalt Not Cheat” rule, teachers are largely absent.

Within foursquare alone, there is an underlying structure which all start from (see above), and from which new rules are developed. Students learn and accept these rules; if they do not, they are expected to leave. If a student violates the rules, they are reprimanded most often by the members of that activity, not by the not-so-watchful eyes of teachers. It’s not so much that the mob overrules the individual, but that the individual acquiesces to the common norms of the microcosmic society.

Games Ruled by Common Law

In a free society, the people must accept essential, foundational, basic principles in order to coexist. These principles, of course, are the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. Without the basics of foursquare, Liberty foursquare is impossible. Without natural rights, free society is impossible. Society needs liberty in order for individuals to engage in activities they deem to have the most utility. We need property to have the incentive to produce, to enjoy the fruits of our labor. And we of course need life to give ourselves peace of mind so we can partake in these activities.

With these basics, we can go about our lives doing almost anything we please, provided it hurts no other – even if others don’t like what we do. Add on top of all this: if we acknowledge the essentials of natural rights, we dramatically reduce the necessity of state intervention in our lives. The more responsibility the students assumed for regulating rulebreakers, the less they needed teachers.

But we know that we do still need lunch-time monitors. People are still human who often ignore natural rights. Students sometimes don’t play fairly, or worse, outrightly interfere with others trying to enjoy themselves. When students cannot resolve cheaters themselves, teachers act as judges of last resort. The authority of teachers is maximized in the event that students violate the universal rules (don’t leave school grounds, etc). In those instances, teachers exercise the role of primary law enforcement. If you wanted to go into the “defense policy” side of things, teachers act as a buffer against would-be intruders intent on causing problems on school grounds, just as a military does.

When the governing authority is limited, people flourish.

The essential and only role of the State should be to administer justice when the general public cannot, provide essential protections against foreign entities, and promote the basic tenets of society that maintain a stable, orderly, and free web of people. This structure of society is somewhat anarchic, but at its root it is a common law of liberty. Any legal authority is rarely used and highly restricted when it is used. Such a society maximizes utility of the most individuals, and minimizes the burden on the general public. It is beautiful, unorganized, and ordered.

Top-Down Games Are As Bad As You Think

The alternative to such a system is centralized control and absolute misery. I know from first-hand experience. In my classroom, I often try to develop and implement problem-based learning scenarios; games, if you will, that help students learn about the subject at hand. In the simulations, whenever some unexpected development would occur, the students would come to me for clarification. I would try and offer a new rule to deal with what had happened.

Such an amendment to the game structure had ramifications I could not realize until problems from the new rule manifested into the game. I would try to add on more rules, which caused more problems. I was miserable trying to respond to everything, and was tempted to implement outright decrees of what could and could not happen. But doing so would undermine the very reason we were playing the game – to learn freely. My students became miserable from the burdensome new rules and regulations they had to manage, and they either gave up or became increasingly frustrated. The games became fun for no one.

As I grew, I let go more. Just last week, my AP Government classes were running a Congress simulation. I gave them basic PBLs and goals, and let them run with it. They performed remarkably, and gained real insight on the necessity of negotiations, the cost of legislation, and the power of networking. They learned more from their own free exercise than I could ever impart from a top-down approach. It was beautifully wild.

Whether at recess or in the classroom, one thing has become exceedingly clear: when the governing authority is limited, people flourish. When the governing authority assumes the impossible mantle of the Leviathan, not only do the people perish, but so does the governing authority. When individuals are allowed to enjoy their own choices, and live their own lives, the whole society benefits.

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