For me, the language of “peacebuilding” conjures images of blueprints. Whether we’re building skyscrapers or backyard sheds, we build strategically, and with a plan.
Peacebuilding is strategic, too… Until it isn’t. In The Moral Imagination, John Paul Lederach says that peacebuilding inevitably requires creative acts and intuitive responses amidst chaos, when all our plans and maps go out the window. Peacebuilding, he says, is about “the survival of the artist’s genius and gift in the lands of violence.”
Engaging the artistry of peace can be exciting and rejuvenating, but it can also be a nightmare. Peacebuilders are often called to be their most creative selves when relationships are tense, conflict looming. How do we practice the on-the-spot creativity that defuses violence, before we’re facing those scary situations? How might we play at the serendipitous art of peacebuilding?
These were my questions when, during our in-person retreat in Asheville, I proposed a few of us play a game called The Quiet Year.
A Game of Rivalrous (and Non-Rivalrous) Space
Designed by Avery Adler, The Quiet Year is a storytelling game. Players guide a community through a challenging year in a post-apocalyptic setting. Unlike traditional board games with fixed rules and objectives, The Quiet Year encourages creativity, discussion, and consensus. Most remarkably, the game is not driven by competition, but by creativity and collaboration.
Here’s how it works:
- Map-Making: Over the course of the game, players draw a shared map that represents the community’s landscape. This map evolves during play, reflecting decisions and events that shape the community’s journey.
- Storytelling: Players take turns drawing cards from a deck, each of which prompts a scenario or challenge. Players must respond by making decisions that impact the community. There are no “right” answers; instead, players discuss and imagine how the community might react.
- Collaboration and Consensus: Players don’t represent individual characters but rather forces guiding the community. Decisions are collective, fostering a sense of collaboration and responsibility.
- Community Growth and Challenges: The game spans four seasons, and the community faces different opportunities and threats in each season. Players must balance immediate needs with long-term goals, simmering conflicts, scarce resources, and unexpected events.
- Imagination and Creativity: There are no winners or losers in The Quiet Year. The game is about the journey, the choices, and the shared experience.
Playing The Quiet Year means engaging complex themes and building a narrative together. In the hands of our Artisans of Peace, it proved a powerful tool for understanding different personalities and contexts. It allowed us to artistically explore–and challenge–our shared values of interdependence, nonrivalry, nonviolence, and justice.
“Map Better to Plan Better”
For all the powerful potential in a game like The Quiet Year, it is out of the ordinary; getting people to play isn’t necessarily easy. “I went in not wanting to play,” Lance Thomas confessed after our time in Asheville.
But as the game unfolded, Lance’s experience transformed into a journey of adaptability and self-discovery. His initial resistance gave way to an appreciation of the game’s unpredictable nature, as the “curve balls” thrown by other players and their choices forced him to abandon linear thinking. “I had a clear plan that kept getting messed up,” he says. “I had to keep being creative and adaptive.”
Lance’s experience with The Quiet Year mirrored his real-world experience managing peacebuilding initiatives, where unexpected challenges demand constant adaptation. “At some point the game will stop,” Lance said, referring to The Quiet Year’s unpredictable way of ending. “[And in real life,] at some point, the funder will pull the plug. You won’t have the full vision enacted. How do you justify yourself in the meantime? The game was an opportunity…to play out peacebuilding and project management scenarios [and imagine] real-life consequences.”
The mapping element of the game also reflected Lance’s work in South Africa, where understanding spatial dynamics helps him question why similar communities experience wildly different levels of poverty and violence: “The whole mapping element is very practical. Map better to plan better.”
To my surprise and delight, Lance came to see The Quiet Year as not only a creative exercise, but also a practical tool for peacebuilding. He sees the potential for peacebuilders in his context to overcome their own reluctance like he did, and embrace the practical possibilities of play: “People trust a process,” he says–especially if it’s introduced by a trusted facilitator. “The game facilitates a multiplicity of imaginations and asks, How do we learn to compromise? It’s a way to disarm people, lower the stakes, make us less protective of narratives and make ideas more visible. It’s [also] consistent with my experience… Confronting defeatism, throwing something out, finding my identity again. Never completely throwing in the towel.”
“A Magnifying Glass”
One of the “curve balls” Lance mentions came in the form of another player. Diana Gameros joined us partway through, learning the rules and the history of the little fictional community on the fly. “The arrival of a new mind in our conflicted spaces mirrors real life,” Diana observed. Whether it’s a latecomer to a meeting or a neutral party entering a tense situation, disruption is a part of peacebuilding. The Quiet Year’s game mechanics allowed Diana and the other players to explore the trade-offs of introducing new perspectives.
Like Lance, Diana saw practical use in the game almost immediately: “It could be used to bring a team together–like a magnifying glass. [Through it] we project and reveal [ourselves] in a fun way.”
Diana’s approach to in-game conflicts revealed her preference for restorative solutions–with a little providence mixed in. Speaking of her strategy to deal with a fictional crisis in which some members of the community threatened others, she remembers thinking, “We have to stop this. But we have to do it in a restorative way. These [people] still play a role in the functioning of the community. [We are] cells in a body.” In her contribution to the group’s collective story, the environment provided a serendipitous solution: a chemical reaction that pacified the violent mob long enough for the community to reason with them. Not only did this reflect Diana’s faith in restorative justice, it also showed her faith in nature as a collaborator, offering just-in-time opportunities for humans to behave differently.
Diana sees The Quiet Year as more than just a game: “It’s a great exercise for getting to know the people you’re working with. It allows your imagination to run wild even more so than in a brainstorming space. Maybe we [can] discover that our wild, fantastic stargazing is more realistic than we think.”
Furthering the Power of Play
Playing The Quiet Year with peacebuilders like Diana and Lance opened transformative space. The game’s ability to simulate the complexities of community underscores that games and play are not mere diversions, but vital tools for understanding and engaging with the intricate art of peacebuilding. There is rich potential here, for peacebuilders willing to explore this intersection of play and practicality. The stories of their experiments will remind us that, even in the absence of a clear map, our collective intuition and determination can guide us down the nonviolent path of peace.
Want to learn more about how unRival Network and the Artisans of Peace program are disrupting rivalry and advancing the cause of justice and peace? Click here to access our free resource, Peace is Possible.
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