74 International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012
Copyright © 2012, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.
fasterthananother.”-the Shah of Persia HL
p. 39, 3rd Century B.C.
Babies cry when they are born. But fairly
soon, they also quite naturally crow with plea-
sure. Certainly, we are all driven by existential
needs for food shelter, warmth and comfort.
But somehow, at a very deep level, we also
desperately want to play.
To put it more academically: the last two
decades have revealed the biological basis for
a social predisposition in humans and many
Introducing Cool School:
Where Peace Rules and Conict
Resolution can be Fun
International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012 75
Copyright © 2012, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.
non-human animal species (Aureli & de Waal,
2000). Rather than being solely focused on
the need for nourishment and safe environ-
ments, the desire to engage in positive social
exchanges, and particularly playful ones, has
been well demonstrated empirically (Biben &
However it is phrased, play is a primordial
and universal human requirement, a fundamen-
tal impulse shared not only by all people, but
by all higher animals. It is an integral part of
our very nature. Even more than homo sapiens
or homooeconomicus, we are first of all homo
ludens: creatures that play. The institution of
games and play is older than civilization itself.
Historical records describe competitive game
playing dating back at least to Assyrian game
boards in 8,000 B.C., and we have been playing
ever since, in all manner of games, all the way
to the 2010 World Cup, passionately viewed
and followed by an estimated 3 billion people.
Indeed, without play, civilization is hardly
possible. For as the great play theorist Huizinga
(1949) reminds us, civilization presupposes
limitation and mastery of the self. It starts with
our ability to create and freely accept certain
bounds to delimit our actions, a space for play.
And it is in that space that we develop the rules
and rituals that define as a culture. We create
games, those great amplifiers of the imagination.
All higher animals play, but only humans
laugh. And only humans codify rules. For we
not only play, but we know that we play, and
we know that it is irrational. For play is, tech-
nically seen, completely unnecessary. It has
absolutely nothing to do with utility, duty and
truth. It just feels good.
Through play, and use of the vehicle of
metaphor, we create a second and more poetic
world for ourselves. Play enchants us. It offers
us a glimpse of another dimension of human
experience, one that is governed by delight,
wonder and awe – what psychologists call
“flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008; McGonigal,
2011). And we crave to taste that dimension just
as much as we are bound to satisfy our more
All of this is perhaps in tension with what
Huizinga calls the “agonistic” impulse: the need
to compete and strive, even to win against our
peers. We get flow from immersion in beauty,
but we also get it from the exertion of reaching
for the prize. Left untrammeled, this need can
easily draw us into war and violence. Tempered
by play, it becomes a game, with its energy
channeled more benignly. In a game, we can
learn to use naturally motivated cooperative
skills to resolve conflicts with non-aggressive
means; as a species advances, the ability to use
more complex negotiation skills creates positive
social interactions and healthy developmental
And herein lies an opportunity.
WHAT IS A GAME?
Various play scholars have defined “games”
in different terms, perhaps most significantly
Wittgenstein, but also Huizinga (1949), Sut-
ton Smith (2001), Suits (2005), and Berne and
Karse (1996). Games can be physical, mental,
mathematical, musical, political, sociological
or theatrical. They can be entertaining but also
serious. They are played in almost any context,
real or virtual. Some would say, with Shake-
speare, that all of life is a game, and that we
are all players, consciously or unconsciously
assuming and shedding roles.
Certainly, games are played by children,
but they are also, increasingly, engaged in by
adults. Recent statistics show that 69% of all
heads of households play computer and video
games, and one out of four of these is over 50
(McGonigal, 2011). Perhaps most surprisingly,
by their own admission, 61% of CEOs and CFOS
take game breaks at work. Games engage us all.
What is a game? From modern video game
philosopher McGonigal (2011) comes a defini-
tion along four elements. It is:
• Engagedinvoluntarily, as we choose to
step out of “real life” into a temporary
sphere of activity all its own, with specific
76 International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012
Copyright © 2012, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.
boundaries of space and time. It is an il-
lusionary environment that we embrace,
and, if you will, a stage. While it enchants
and absorbs us intensely and utterly, we
know it for what it is. We realize that we
• Purposive, deliberately equipped with
“unnecessary and artificial obstacles” to
overcome. While we derive pleasure from
succeeding in mastering those challenges,
the satisfaction is largely intrinsic (Suits,
2005). There might but needn’t be material
incentives to keep us engaged. We want
to win, but not too quickly. We enjoy the
dance along the way at least as much as
reaching the prize.
• Governed by rules. These rules are volun-
tarily embraced, but they are constitutive.
Breaking them ruins the game and therefore
the fun. While cheating is always possible,
it is pointless. Fairness is not imposed on
the players, it is required by definition, if
we are to play the game at all.
• Characterized by a built-in feedbacksys-
tem, with provides constant information
as to how we are doing. As we improvise,
learning as we go along, the game remains
alive. This is what creates the feeling of
tension and joy, and produces what psy-
chologists call flow and gamers call fiero.
We keep playing because we can measure
our progress and thrill to its completion.
This is a wide definition indeed. While
games can be identifiable and contained leisure
activities, digital or otherwise, the sphere of this
kind of human activity goes well beyond this.
Certainly music is play, as are most of the arts.
Sport is definitely play, as is politics1 (especially
the art of negotiation).
War is certainly aggressive but even here
there is also an element of play, albeit very
serious play. Even at its most extreme, it is,
across most cultures, clearly defined by elabo-
rate rules and expressed through rituals such as
dueling, chivalry, prisoner-taking and treaties.
Participants need to understand the rules of
engagement. And so it is not surprising that
the military is, as we know, one of the largest
proponents of gaming.
Anything involving rituals, uniforms and
theater is play. Religion as play, as we embed
symbols and practices in what we regard as the
sacred order of things. Even as we contemplate
the deepest mysteries of life, we do it playfully,
through rites that we cannot explain cognitively.
We trust in ludic power.
It even seems artificial to separate play
from work, for games teach us most essential
life skills. From them we learn about achieve-
ment and competition, but also about col-
laboration, self-improvement, communication,
self-expression and learning itself. As Albert
Einstein has said, games are “the most elevated
form of investigation” (McGonigal, 2010) and
as we pursue that investigation, we can even
learn how to rediscover our identity as homo
pacens, practicing the art of conflict resolution.
In the end, games may indeed not have a
useful purpose. But they do go well beyond
that: they give us meaning. As the Germans
(Huizinga, 1949) put it, they are “zwecklos but
sinnvoll.” Even without engaging in religion
(yet another form of play), one might say that
they are the supreme human Good, the only
thing we do for its own sake. It is the central
human activity, the element that gives verve to
our lives, the basis of all art and wonder, in short
of civilization. Play is the vital essence of life.
A GAME FOR CONFLICT
Many in the academic gaming community have
marveled at the explosive growth of the “Serious
Games” movement. As digital games in 2010
overtook the film, music and DVD industries
with $50 billion in revenue, it was this segment
that led the way: serious games. Far more than
was ever possible with cards and dice, the
revolutionary technology and new platforms
spawned by the Internet offer a bold new way
to engage players, and especially children, in
activity that teaches as well as entertains.
International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012 77
The central idea to re-channel the poten-
tially destructive potential of this new force
especially on younger and more impressionable
players is a compelling one indeed. Since the
genie is now out of the bottle, it would seem
that the best response is not to condemn children
for yielding to the seductive draw of this new
form of entertainment, but instead to move
to harness that power for good. If games can
captivate kids and adults alike, why not use that
fascination to teach civics, health, social studies
and natural sciences? By harnessing the power
of play in this new fashion, serious gamers are
literally seeking to change the world. And they,
as well as the children, are having a good time
in the process.
As we develop serious games for kids, we
are guided first of all by the insights of Piaget
(1932), the founder of developmental psychol-
ogy. For it was Piaget who first discovered, in
his seminal TheMoralJudgmentoftheChild,
that children’s rituals in constructing a game
of marbles provide the basis for their larger
set of rules, conventions and traditions, and
that it is their sense of restraint and fairness in
games that forms the foundation of morality
and moral judgment (Killen & Rutland, 2011;
Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 2006).
But subsequent thinkers have gone well
beyond Piaget. First Lieberman (1977) took
the notion of playfulness to a different level,
defining it as a creative and inquisitive disposi-
tion, one that allows children literally to create
their own fun out of uncertain environments.
More recent studies have focused on games’
innate ability to teach perspective-taking and
empathy (Zhu, 2012), both key skills in the
field of conflict resolution. Eberle (2012) and
Gardner (2010) have explored the power of
games in developing multiple and especially in-
terpersonal intelligences. And Henricks (2012)
playfully considers games as a “pathway” to an
emotionally balanced relationship with others.
But how is all this to be applied specifically
to the field of conflict resolution? Is it possible
to teach this rather dry and abstract skill through
games? On this front, the literature to date is
fairly thin on the ground, at least as far as video
gaming is concerned, despite the decades of
research on the importance of games as a basis
for constructive conflict resolution (Aureli & de
Waal, 2000). Surprisingly, to date only a handful
of games (PeaceMaker,AForceMorePowerful,
also GlobalConflicts) have been developed for
this application, most of them focused on bigger
picture issues of war and peace. But how can
children be enjoined in a playful way to learn
to get along, not to bully, to share, to take turns,
win and lose graciously and make appropriate
behavioral judgments in the classroom and on
the recess field? Children are faced with vari-
ous conflicts in their everyday interactions at
school. Learning how to resolve interpersonal
conflicts offer opportunities for children to
grow socially and morally (Killen & Rutland,
2011; Chen, Fein, Killen, & Hak-Ping, 2001).
This is the particular need which fostered
the development of CoolSchool. The result is
the creation of a virtual place where children
simply want to be. It is an arena, they have
discovered, where conflict resolution is fun.
COOL SCHOOL: A DIGITAL
GAME FOR KIDS
The idea for the CoolSchool game was born
out of the Columbine massacre, as the US
Congress responded by quickly funding a new
initiative directed to the FederalMediationand
ConciliationServices of the U.S. government,
to create a digital game designed to teach con-
flict resolution in schools, hoping to reach kids
with a positive message before they even get
to the age of serious bullying and violence. An
interdisciplinary team of software developers,
animators, developmental child psychologists
and game entrepreneurs banded together to cre-
ate an innovative and fun animated PC based
game aimed at children in grades K through 3.
Part computer game and part educational
classroom tool, CoolSchool:WherePeaceRules
is an interactive PC-based computer game where
children, ages five to nine, can journey into a
fanciful computer-animated school world, a
place where everything from erasers to desks
78 International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012
to books to basketballs come to life to teach
them conflict resolution skills. The atmosphere
is fun and vibrant, and thoroughly interactive.
In the game, the children are challenged
to test their own ideas about how to resolve
conflicts when confronted by animated char-
acters with a variety of 26 specific situations
in ten different activity areas, all grounded in
empirical research about the real life conflicts
of kids their age (Killen & Turiel, 1991). The
positive feedback (as well as the trophies for
their trophy case) they receive from these
discussions are powerful motivators to think
further about these dilemmas and also transfer
these lessons to real life.
In CoolSchool, the child is asked to pick
a method of conflict resolution in the midst of
an ongoing conflict (when the action freezes)
and to watch the unfolding of the conflict and
its outcome as a function of their choice; thus,
children received direct feedback about the
result of their choice (whether their technique
exacerbates or resolves the conflict). Thus the
game has intrinsic value, even when it is not
The game can be played either alone or
against a competitor, either in school or out
of school. The object is to successfully (and
quickly) fill a trophy case with letters of the
alphabet. These are won when conflict resolu-
tion scenarios are successfully solved: dilem-
mas are engagingly presented by the animated
characters, and the player is offered multiple
choice options for resolution. Each choice is
equipped with a feedback loop explaining the
consequences of that choice.
CoolSchool engages on several levels. The
characters are cute, the animation exciting and
the problems posed thought-provoking. The
child is addressed personally and remains in
charge of the school tour all through.
A Pilot Test
In order to test the social impact of the game (a
key question for any funder), our team recently
conducted a systematic after-school pilot test at
an elementary school in a middle size town in
suburban Maryland, USA. The research team
(all developmental psychologists) was drawn
from the University of Maryland, College Park,
with co-authors Dr. Jennie Lee-Kim serving
as project manager and Dr. Yoonjung Park as
Based on a classic pre- and post-test inter-
view design as described, we worked with two
groups of 30 children each, roughly balanced by
gender (50% girl), age (50% k-2nd grade, 50%
3rd-5th) and ethnicity (25% European Ameri-
can, 30% African American). The first group
was made up of volunteers from the general
population of the school, while the second was
drawn from at-risk lower-income kids from an
established academic after-school program.
Both sets of children were first interviewed
using the SocialConflictResolutionInterview
designed by the University of Maryland Re-
search Team, then (separately) played the entire
game over the course of three sessions in the
school computer lab. Finally, children were
re-interviewed with the same tool to measure
impact, for a pre-test/post-test design.
In the interviews, the children were asked
to evaluate (open-ended questions) the six
different scenarios which underlie the game
design and depict hypothetical conflicts drawn
from empirical research. Finally, the interview
responses were coded into four main categories
of conflict resolution response: conciliation,
authority, ignore and retaliation, with norms
established, again drawn from academic and
empirical research, on the appropriateness of
each for particular situation. Using multivariate
analysis, the data from the test were analyzed by
group, gender, age and scenario, and measured
against the norms.
The conflict scenarios at the heart of Cool School
are not just fictional, but rather drawn from years
of empirical research (Killen & Turiel, 1991;
Chen et al., 2001). Developmental psycholo-
International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012 79
gists have studied children’s spontaneous social
interactions for the purposes of categories dif-
ferent forms of conflicts and conflict resolutions
(Killen & Turiel, 1991). The goal has been to
determine whether children treat all conflicts
the same and what they understand about the
underlying principles associated with interac-
tions that create conflicts. The main category
distinction identified, and adopted for Cool
School was the difference between conflicts
stemming from moral issues such as inflicting
harm or denying someone resources (e.g., “He
took my toy and I want it back”) and issues such
as regulations and disorder (conventions) that do
not involve a victim but a disagreement about
how to structure an activity (e.g., I want to build
the bridge this way, not that way”). Children
understand this difference early, and develop-
mentally appropriate conflict resolutions are
those that match the nature of the act (for a
moral conflict, making the victim feel better
or undoing the wrong act; for a conventional
conflict, reaching consensus and establishing
order). Due to the extensive literature validat-
ing these categories, the types of conflicts and
resolutions for the Cool School video game
were adapted from the developmental science
The game addresses the six most typical
dilemmas faced by children of this age group:
1. Physical Harm (e.g., Line Cutting);
2. Distribution of Resources (e.g., Sharing
3. Destruction of Property (e.g., Food Conflict
4. Psychological Harm (e.g., Exclusion From
5. Pragmatic/Prudential (e.g., Playing Pencil
6. Social Conventional (e.g., Game Protocol
During Indoor Recess).
In each scenario, the player is asked two
donext? This tests the child’s imaginative
capacity to produce multiple potential out-
comes to a problem, and reflect on these
before taking action.
Responses were assessed based upon
both the child’s ability to produce the most
appropriate solutions as well as the number of
possible solutions he or she could supply. The
more strategies children have at their disposal,
the better able they will be to solve conflicts
2. What could X (the transgressor) have
donedifferently? Here the game assesses
the child’s understanding of the initial
transgression and the appropriateness
of her judgment in making a normative
The intention of Question 2 was to ascer-
tain whether or not the children understood the
conflict as a whole, meaning what caused the
conflict to occur and what could the transgressor
have done differently as a means to correcting
the behavior before a conflict arises.
Pilot Test Design
The two groups of children attended an after-
school program three times for an hour and
fifteen minutes each over a five-week period.
In the first session, they were given the pretest
evaluation in individual interviews, followed by
gameplay. In the second session, they played
the game for the entire time. In the third, they
played the game briefly and were then inter-
viewed for the posttest evaluation, finally also
giving feedback on the game design and play
experience, before receiving a small token prize,
an award certificate and their very own copy
of CoolSchool on a CD.
All evaluation and demographic data was
organized and reviewed for consistency and
face validity prior to statistical analysis (SPSS
80 International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012
program). For analysis, the team used five cat-
egories of conflict resolution categories based
on prior research:
1. Conciliation: Resolve conflict by means
of compromise, negotiation or other means
to make amends for transgression.
2. Authority: Resolve conflict by appealing
to a person in authority (usually a teacher)
or adhering to rules.
3. Ignore: Resolve conflict by ignoring it or
walking away from the aggressor.
4. Retaliation: Resolve conflict by verbally
or physically threatening the transgressor.
5. Uncodable: For nonresponses or incom-
Preliminary analysis was conducted using
a multivariate Analysis of Variance (ANOVA)
with repeated measures, also testing gender,
age, ethnicity and group effects on children’s
conflict resolution skills.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The results were impressive (Figure 1). Overall,
there was a significant difference between pre-
and post-test responses across nearly all the
conflict arenas, F (1, 56) = 25.07, p < .001, η2
= .31. The children’s menu of available options
for responding successfully to conflict clearly
expanded dramatically as a result of the game.
Even at this young age, they learned to think
in a nuanced way about what to do when they
encounter violence or bullying.
Certainly there were demographic differ-
ences across the findings. Older children showed
a higher number of successful resolutions than
did younger children, F (1, 56) = 7.52, p = .008,
p = .12, although the younger children argu-
ably benefited more from new exposure to
hitherto unknown conflict situations. The at-risk
group reported that they enjoyed the game even
more thoroughly than did the non-at-risk chil-
dren. And interesting, there were no measurable
differences by gender.
International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012 81
After the lessons of the game the children
naturally gravitated to the most appropriate
conflict resolution scenarios of conciliation
(most frequent), pairedt (57) = 3.34, p <.001,
and authority (second most frequent), paired
t (57) = 2.57, p <.013, and also showed good
judgment in ascertaining the situations in which
each of these was appropriate. In doing this,
they clearly moved away from the less desirable
strategies of ignore and retaliate. Across nine
of the ten activity areas, the change in behavior
was at least statistically relevant and in some
cases remarkably large. 2
Some interesting differences arose between
the scenarios as well. When safety issues (hurt-
ing someone’s toe, pencil sword fighting) or
school rules (such as in the cafeteria) were
involved, children tended to (appropriately)
seek authority more quickly. The few instances
when “ignore” was chosen were usually in the
context of play (indoor recess and tire swing).
Intuitively, these are all good judgments.
Perhaps just as significantly, the kids clearly
had fun playing the game. We know this from
watching the delight in their faces, but also
because of their responses to more systematic
empirical questioning about this “fun” was
overwhelmingly chosen as their most favorite
factor, and 83% said they “really liked” playing
it, while 17% said it was “okay.” No children
reported that they did not like the game. Par-
ticular aspects that they commented on were
“the chance to help people,” “the challenge of
solving problems” and especially the comical
The children also offered us a collection
of remarkably sophisticated recommendations
on how to improve the architecture, scope
and technical platform of the game, which
will be taken into consideration as we move
forward with national marketing and distribu-
tion. (For a firsthand look at the pilot test and
results, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/
Building on this initial success, we are now
working to move forward with installing the
technical improvements to make the game
more accessible especially for schools, ex-
panding the accompanying curriculum for the
game so that it can be played in-school as well
as out-of-school, and using social media and
other targeted multiplier networks (guidance
counselors, youth organizations) to distribute
and market the game nationally. We have also
moved the game from a general teacher website
to a cloud-supported location at http://www.
coolschoolgame.com, greatly improving access
and ease of play.
It seems clear that especially at-risk chil-
dren can benefit powerfully from this game,
even given the access challenges of computers in
these schools, so that this will be our particular
focus. We have also begun to explore conver-
sion of the game to a mobile platform, as well
as an IPad application.
We think Cool School is an idea whose
time has come.
The Way Forward
Certainly, we intend to continue down the path
that has been opened to us. After Cool School
has been made available to children all across
the USA and to an international audience, we
intend to explore this genre further, perhaps
developing other more specifically targeted
conflict resolution games. Anti-bullying is an
area that could be well addressed more particu-
larly through game play, as can the power of
nonviolence. Perhaps (online?) competitions
such as those hosted by ChangeMakers, Global
Game Jam or Imagine Cup might harness gamer
creativity in finding appropriate vehicles to
transport these and other topics in the wider
conflict resolution field.
82 International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(4), 74-83, October-December 2012
As gaming matures, especially in the seri-
ous games segment, developers and funders
will also have to think more creatively about
platforms. Increasingly, the traditional PC
based game is moving onto mobile networks,
hand-held devices and other hitherto unknown
forms of delivery. Animation progresses at an
exponential pace. Technology is outpaced only
by creativity as we think together about new
ways to solve social problems and promote
constructive social engagement by harnessing
the power of play to teach conflict resolution.
The genie is out of the bottle. Rather than
fear her, let’s ask her to dance.
We thank the children who had fun playing the
game during our data collection and the staff and
parents for allowing us to conduct the project in
the schools. CoolSchool:WherePeaceRules
was created by a team commissioned by the
Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services
of the U.S. Government. F.J. Lennon was the
producer and the software developer for Cool
School:WherePeaceRules, Dave Warhol, as
president of RealTime Associates, was responsi-
ble for the animation, and Melanie Killen, along
with Nancy Geyelin Margie, Jennie Lee-Kim,
Yoonjung Park, at the University of Maryland,
was responsible for generating the types of
conflicts and conflict resolution outcomes in
the game content. Mark Young, President of
Rational Games, Inc. led the effort to conduct
the pilot test described in this article. His firm
is responsible for the worldwide distribution
and marketing of the new and improved Cool
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1 The Roman reference to “bread and circuses”
comes to mind.
2 Interestingly, the tenth was “indoor recess,”
where the psychologists tell us that concilia-
tion is not always the best strategy.
andnegotiation skillstrainingand analysis;hiscompany,Rational Games,Inc.(http://www.
istheauthorofChildren and Social Exclusion: Morality, Prejudice and Group Identity(2011),
co-editorofSocial Development in Childhood and Adolescence: A Contemporary Reader(2011),
andservesastheEditoroftheHandbook on Moral Development(2006).Shewascommissioned
Fund,FreedomSchoolsprogram.Dr.Park earnedherdoctoratedegreeinHuman Develop-