The Story of John Hunter’s World Peace Game, Roger Ebert, and the PLATO System

Here is a never-before-published chapter that didn’t make it into my book The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, offered here in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the start of the PLATO computer-based education system at the University of Illinois, a computer project launched the first week of June 1960, and also in celebration of the late Roger Ebert, the acclaimed film critic and fan of PLATO, and also educator John Hunter, who simultaneously met Ebert and learned about PLATO for the first time, in a most unusual and unexpected way. . .

Image from the TED video at YouTube

John Hunter feels star-struck, thunderstruck. A disarming man with a warm smile, he describes himself as a “small-town schoolteacher” from Albemarle County, Virginia, who loves teaching kids, something he has been doing since the late 1970s. On Friday, March 4th, 2011, Hunter is in Long Beach, California, in the last place he ever thought he would find himself: backstage at a TED conference, that prohibitively expensive annual gathering of luminaries and big ideas.

The TED organizers had heard about an award-winning documentary, World Peace Game, that tells the story of Hunter and his fourth-grade students, and suddenly he finds himself here today, wearing an amazing, bright, multi-colored short-sleeve shirt and black pants, a tiny head-mounted wireless microphone, and a dab of makeup on his face, while he waits to go on as the conference’s penultimate speaker. It’s one thing just attending a TED conference, but for him to be invited to be a speaker, among so many accomplished doctors, musicians, technologists, engineers, millionaires, billionaires, writers, master chefs, artists, scientists, historians, futurists, corporate titans, paleontologists, poets, military commanders, photographers, physicists, filmmakers, and biologists! Most have climbed to the very top of their career’s pyramids. A group so distinguished, it’s nearly incomprehensible. For Hunter the experience feels like “NASA and Hollywood getting together” and “going to another planet.”

While he’s waiting, he spots the conference’s final speaker, legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who for years has commanded the very tip of the top of the movie industry’s pyramid, reclining quietly with his wife Chaz on a nearby couch.

Hunter and Ebert make eye contact. It’s the first time Hunter has ever seen Roger Ebert in person. Nothing is said.

And then it is time. Hunter goes out and gives his talk. (You can watch the video of this talk at this YouTube page.)

“I’m very fortunate to be here,” he says from the round, red-carpeted stage. He tells the audience that he called his wife and described the TED conference to her as a place where “there’s so many good people trying to do so much good, it feels like I’ve landed in a colony of angels.”

“It started out like this,” he says, describing the game he invented that has gotten so much international attention. “It’s just a four-foot by five-foot plywood board in an inner-city urban school, 1978. I was creating a lesson for students on Africa. We put all the problems of the world there, and I thought, let’s let them solve it. I didn’t want to lecture or have just book reading. I wanted to have them be immersed and learn the feeling of learning through their bodies.”

Over the years the game evolved from the single plywood board to a four-foot by four-foot by four-foot multi-level Plexiglas structure, the topmost layer representing the sky and space; the next layer representing the ground with its cities, factories, farms, mountains, lakes, fields, and forests; another layer for the sea; and a bottom layer for what goes on under the sea. There is no electrical cord. There’s no computer powering this. It’s all simple and physical and hand-built. “The kids make up the names of the countries — some are rich, some are poor,” he says. “They have different assets, commercial and military. And each country has a cabinet.” The kids play the roles of Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Minister of Defense, and a finance minister. “I choose the Prime Minister based on my relationship with them. I offer them the job, they can turn it down, and then they can choose their own cabinet.”

For the next fifteen minutes, Hunter mesmerizes the audience with stories and anecdotes about the effect his World Peace Game has had on generations of kids. While speaking, a large video display above him shows clips from the documentary film, showing how kids dive into their roles with commitment, focus, passion, and uncanny smarts, deftly juggling war, financial crises, political problems, and trade negotiations with other countries.

Hunter describes other game situations and how the children managed them and in the process, learned wisdom they’ll be able to take with them for the rest of their lives. “Every time we play is different,” he says. “Some games are more about social issues, some are more about economic issues. Some games are more about warfare. But I don’t try to deny them that reality of being human. I allow them to go there and, through their own experience, learn, in a bloodless way, how not to do what they consider to be the wrong thing. And they find out what is right their own way, their own selves.”

And then it is over. A standing ovation. While the audience claps, he presses the palms of his hands together as if in prayer and bows to one section of the audience, then turns to another and bows again, turning and bowing once more to yet more people, then walks off the stage. Soon, TED staff rush black leather chairs onto the stage and line them up front and center, ready for the next presentation.

Backstage, Hunter sees that Roger Ebert is no longer quietly sitting. He’s up. He’s preparing for his own talk which is about to begin. He’s excited, enthusiastic, smiling. Making gestures, Hunter notices. To him. Roger Ebert is gesturing to him. Gestures that indicate he wants Hunter to come out on the stage. With him. Right now.

Ebert, whose health condition had permanently taken away his voice, had prepared a script that he’d picked two others to read for him: his wife Chaz, and a TED regular, renowned clinical professor of medicine Dean Ornish. With no warning whatsoever, here is Roger Ebert now signaling small-town schoolteacher John Hunter to join the three of them onstage and read a portion of Roger’s script as well. Ebert, his wife, and Ornish are ready to go out. The TED people, as unprepared as Hunter is for this surprise change to the agenda, scramble to bring a fourth chair out to the stage and line it up with the others. Ebert has his assistant fetch another copy of the script. He shows it to Hunter, points out to Hunter the section he’s supposed to read.

That’s it. That’s the entire preparation. Now Hunter’s about to go back on stage. Sometimes life has a way of making plans on its own. It’s as if Hunter is being swept along by forces beyond his control.

The four of them go out to the stage and sit down in their chairs. The audience greets them warmly.

Ebert wears white pants, a black shirt, a black jacket, and a black cloth carefully draped around his neck and the bottom of his face to conceal what is missing beneath. The cancer he’s been fighting for years and the surgeries he’s endured have caused jarring changes: doctors have had to remove his lower jaw, and it has left him with the flesh of a chin that lacks the support of any bone. Without a jaw his mouth is permanently open, his face an expression of permanent surprise.

These dire circumstances have not fazed the man one bit.

Before thousands of attendees gathered in the auditorium and looking on from remote broadcasts, Ebert is about to give the last presentation of the final group of speakers during the closing session on the last day of what had been an intense, week-long TED conference. On his lap is an open laptop computer.

He’s the only speaker at TED in 2011 who never speaks.

Suddenly the audience hears words come over the auditorium’s loudspeakers — Ebert’s words — but his open mouth is not uttering them. “These are my words but this is not my voice,” an audio signal from his laptop says. “This is Alex, the best computer voice I’ve been able to find, which comes as standard equipment on every Macintosh.”

To his right sits his wife, Chaz. On his left sits Hunter and to Hunter’s left, Ornish. Each holds a script in their hands, each following along as the Mac computer continues speaking Roger’s words. “I’ve decided to recruit some of my TED friends to read my words aloud for me,” the disembodied voice says, Ebert explaining that he felt a computer voice reading his entire 18-minute presentation would be too boring for the audience. While the voice says this, Ebert places his hands together and rests his head on them at an angle as if he were about to go to sleep. The audience chuckles.

(You can watch the Ebert TED talk at this YouTube link.)

Chaz then begins reading the next segment of the script, relating Roger’s harrowing account of the medical operations that attempted to restore his ability to speak, but only made matters worse. As Chas reads on, an ebullient Roger, perhaps attempting to lighten the mood of the auditorium, perhaps just being himself, cheerfully mimes along, gesturing, pointing here or there, offering two thumbs up, raising his eyebrows, and at one point giving Chaz a knowing look, causing her to pause and look back, as laughs arise from a slightly uneasy audience.

After a few minutes of Chaz, Dean Ornish and John Hunter take turns continuing through Roger’s speech, here and there stopping to play brief video clips or audio demonstrations, one of which is downright eerie: Roger showing off a more recent advance in computer-generated text-to-speech, a voice sounding nearly identical to that famous Ebert voice familiar to millions of his TV show’s viewers.

In John Hunter’s script segment, the audience hears how far technology has advanced in such a microscopically short time, when viewed from the very long span of Earth’s geologic history. “For almost all of its millions and billions of years, there was no life on Earth at all. For almost all of the years of life on Earth, there was no intelligent life. Only after we learned to pass knowledge from one generation to the next did civilization become possible. In cosmological terms, that was about ten minutes ago. Finally, came mankind’s most advanced and mysterious tool, the computer. That has mostly happened in my lifetime.”

Hunter reads on. “Some of the famous early computers were being built in my home town of Urbana, the birthplace of HAL-9000 [the computer from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey]. When I heard the amazing talk by Salman Khan on Wednesday, about the Khan Academy website that teaches hundreds of subjects to students all over the world, I had a flashback.”

Salman Khan’s TED talk two days earlier had been entitled, “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education.” It echoed a sentiment that others, many others, over many decades, have expressed before, probably unbeknownst to Khan. For Khan, the notion came to him as a result of trying to remotely tutor his young cousins in New Orleans while he was working as a hedge fund analyst in Boston. “I started putting the first YouTube videos up really just as kind a nice-to-have, just a supplement for my cousins,” Khan said, continuing:

As soon as I put those first YouTube videos up, something interesting happened — actually a bunch of interesting things happened. They told me they preferred me on YouTube than in person. And once you get over the backhanded nature of that, there was actually something very profound there. They were saying that they preferred the automated version of their cousin to their cousin!” They liked that they could watch the videos when they wanted, pause them or re-play sections of them at their own convenience. At their own pace. His other discovery was that other people, total strangers, started watching these YouTube videos. And they started commenting on them. More and more strangers started watching and offering comments. Positive comments. The videos were helping people . . . Here I was an analyst at a hedge fund. It was very strange for me to be doing something of social value.

He made more videos. More people watched them. So he made even more, in varying subjects. Over the next couple of years, the project grew to the point where he formed the KhanAcademy, with thousands of videos and millions of people watching and learning from them. Salman Khan had unwittingly become a pioneer in what quickly became known as MOOCs: massive online open courses.

All during his talk, clips of videos and interactive learning displays ran on the screen above the TED stage, showing examples of some of the lessons and quizzes available to the now millions of students worldwide who take advantage of his Khan Academy. Some of the lesson examples he showed are simple arithmetic, displaying in a web browser page (festooned with the Khan Academy brand, logo, and, in a McDonald’s-like “billions served” count, the ever-growing number of “lessons delivered”), a series of subtraction problems, like “3 -1 = ?” and “8 - 2 = ?” and “7 - 7 = ?” and on the far right of the screen, a box into which the student would type in her answer and then receive yes/no feedback on that answer. “The paradigm here is that it will generate as many questions as you need,” Khan explained, “until you get that concept.”

He spoke of encouraging students to master successive bits of knowledge leading to eventual mastery. To keep at it until they get it, not worrying about how well anyone else is doing — learning is something you do inside, at your own pace:

So when you talk about self-paced learning, it makes sense for everyone — in education-speak, differentiated learning — but it’s kind of crazy when you see it in a classroom. Because every time we’ve done this, in every classroom we’ve done, over and over again, if you go five days into it, there’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you say, “These are the gifted kids, these are the slow kids. Maybe they should be tracked differently. Maybe we should put them in different classes.” But when you let every student work at their own pace — and we see it over and over and over again — you see students who took a little bit [of] extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they just race ahead. And so the same kids that you thought were slow six weeks ago, you now would think are gifted. And we’re seeing it over and over and over again. And it makes you really wonder how much all of the labels maybe a lot of us have benefited from were really just due to a coincidence of time.

Khan, an analyst at a hedge fund, had discovered the benefits of self-paced, individualized learning, along with the benefits of immediate feedback to the learner. These are two Big Ideas that a lot of people have been pushing for, experimenting with in various forms, in classrooms and using devices both mechanical and electronic, for the last one hundred years. It is not clear if Khanor the audience realized this. But that did not matter that Wednesday at the 2011 TED conference. The audience loved Khan’s talk, his vision. They ate it up. This was clearly the future. This was so obviously a better way to go. Why not use Khan’s videos to reinvent education?

Ebert had attended Khan’s Wednesday TED talk, and during it he had experienced that flashback, back to a time, long ago, at the dawn of his own career, long before he became a film critic, back when he was just starting out as a teenage cub reporter for the News-Gazette newspaper in his beloved hometown of Urbana, Illinois.

John Hunter continues reading Ebert’s prepared remarks. He describes the flashback. “I was sent over to the computer lab of the University of Illinois,” Hunter says, “to interview the creators of something called ‘PLATO.’ The initials stood for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations. This was a computer-assisted instruction system. Which in those days ran on a computer named ILLIAC. The programmers said it could assist students in their learning. I doubt on that day 50 years ago they even dreamed of what Salman Khan has accomplished.”

Ebert may have doubted it, but PLATO’s creators did dream of that level of accomplishment, and they dreamed of that scale. But they were starting early. More than sixteen years before Khan was even born. PLATO began in 1960, long before any of the infrastructure that Kahn would years later be able to take advantage of for free, existed or had even been invented. In 1960 the original PLATO team had no choice but to invent an infrastructure because there was none to take advantage of. They had to invent systems, communications, hardware, software, everything, all of it from scratch, every step of the way. They were guided by their abundant, youthful self-confidence and by a vision of the future so crisp that they could simply reach out and grab it, its achievability to them obvious.

How many TED attendees have any idea what Ebert’s talking about here? It’s doubtful more than a handful. I will learn years later when I interview Hunter that not even he had heard of these words before. PLATO? ILLIAC? These are not common terms, not even in the annals of mainstream, canonical computer history. PLATO and ILLIAC are not legends like the Apple Macintosh, the IBM PC, or the Xerox Alto, or Google, whose tales of mythic proportions are still told with reverence and awe among the technorati of Silicon Valley, or in the pages of the technorati bible, WIRED magazine. Neither are PLATO and ILLIAC famous inventions from that other computer coast, MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hunter continues reading. “PLATO was only fifty years ago. An instant in time. It continued to evolve and operated in one form or another on more and more sophisticated computers until only five years ago. I have learned from Wikipedia, that starting from that humble beginning, PLATO established forums, message boards, online testing, email, chat rooms, picture languages, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multiple player games. Since the first web browser was also developed in Urbana, it appears that my home town in downstate Illinois was the birthplace of much of the virtual online universe we occupy today!”

Ebert’s speech continues for several more minutes through the voices of the three seated next to him. At the end, the audience stands and cheers. The very long week of intense, mind-expanding 2011 TED conference presentations is over. Everyone gets up and heads to the picnic awaiting outside.

“It was a very moving experience to be out there with him . . . a special moment in time,” Hunter would tell me later, thinking back on his 2011 encounter with Ebert. “I gather that TED orchestrates their talk sequence. Unofficially I heard they were appealing to the head in some talks and the heart in other talks, so that Roger’s talk was calculated to be the very emotional closing that it was. My talk was in a way a segue into his talk.” It was the first and last time John Hunter would ever see Roger Ebert.

On April 4, 2013, the illness would finally take Ebert’s life. On that same day, the New Yorker published on its website an unfinished short story that Ebert had written in a hospital bed shortly before he passed away.

He was reviewing films right up until the very end, but his wife Chaz thought it might be good for him to try something else for a while. “I suggested that he take a break from work-related writing,” Chaz says, “and write something creative that made him feel like he did when he was writing science fiction articles for fanzines when he was a boy.” And so Roger did. The resulting story was called “The Thinking Molecules of Titan,” which opens with three university researchers dining at a table in a bar in Ebert’s hometown, Urbana. One of them gets a cryptic text message on his phone and gets up to leave. As for the other two, who stay seated, Ebert described them this way: “They were leaning over shoeboxes filled with punch cards, part of their project to rebuild a museum working model of PLATO, the old computer program created on the Illinois campus in the 1960s.”

PLATO gets no further mention in the story. Whether the system would figure further into a larger plot had Ebert lived longer is unclear. Whether any New Yorker editors or any New Yorker readers, or readers elsewhere — Ebert’s little sci-fi story was republished online in numerous sites — had any idea what this PLATO reference was about: was it a mere invention in Ebert’s fictional story, or something real that Ebert wanted people to know about? That part is clear. PLATO was real. People did not know about PLATO. And Roger Ebert wanted them to.

Even in his final days in the hospital, Ebert was still thinking about PLATO. Two years after bringing it to his audience’s attention during that TED presentation.

Ten years earlier, back around 2003, I had emailed Ebert, to inquire about the whereabouts of this long-missing News-Gazette article he’d written about the PLATO project while just starting out as a reporter in Urbana in the early 1960s. Did he have a copy of the article? Did he know where one might be? Despite years of looking, I had not found one anywhere.

“I think I remember writing a story about PLATO for the News-Gazette when I was a reporter there,” Ebert said in his very brief email reply, “You may be able to find it in their files.”

Yes, the News-Gazette had files. As did the library at the University of Illinois. But no-one had a decent index. Neither the library nor the newspaper could pinpoint what issue, what year, what day, what page number Ebert’s article appeared in print. Nobody had any idea.

That meant the only way to find Ebert’s long-lost PLATO story was going to be by diligently paging through every single issue — of a daily newspaper — from June, 1960, when PLATO started, until — probably? — maybe? — the end of 1962 if not end of 1963. It just was not clear when the story had appeared. Or on what page. Was it a front-page story? Or buried somewhere inside? Was it in a thinner daily edition or the thicker Sunday edition? It could take days, months to find it, by brute force, camped out in the dusty basement archives of the University of Illinois. It was not an undertaking any author takes on enthusiastically. I repeatedly put off the endeavor for years, in the hopes I might find the article some other way.

But then on April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert had died. I decided to make plans to go back to Illinois and find the article once and for all.

That summer I returned to Urbana and camped out in the U of I library. What I expected to be a long, unpleasant effort revealed itself, within mere minutes of viewing the first of multiple canisters of microfiche film, fruitlessly slogging through a dozen daily issues’ worth from 1960, to be far more fruitless and impossible and unrealistic than I could possibly have imagined. This effort was simply not going to work. It would not take hours. It would not be done in days or weeks or months. This was going to take years. So I stopped.

I got up, returned the microfilms to their little cardboard boxes, and took them back to the research librarian, thanking her for her help, but explaining, sadly, that all was lost. There was just no feasible, or affordable, way this undertaking could be done.

I went downstairs to another part of the library to look for other things, and while there had a chance meeting with the head archivist of the University of Illinois’ Library. I described the situation to him. The archivist took pity on me and disappeared into a back room.

Ten minutes later he came back, cool as a cucumber. “Found it,” he said, handing me a folder of newspaper clippings.

There it was. From 1962. Probably the only copy in existence in the entire world. (As I have said many times: archivists rock.)

Roger Ebert was first and foremost a film critic, but something deep and long-lasting struck him about the PLATO system, a system that had come to life just when his journalistic tendencies in high school had turned into a paying job. A system that would grow and expand and evolve and flourish in the 1970s and 80s, much as Ebert’s own career took off and gained a loyal audience.

As Ebert had mentioned at the 2011 TED conference, he had first been exposed to PLATO very early in the lifetime of the project. It was on a cold Tuesday, January 2, 1962, that Ebert stopped by to learn more about this teaching computer and the system’s two “stepfathers,” as Ebert called them, Donald Bitzer and Peter Braunfeld, both just back from Denver where they had given one of the first public presentations about PLATO, a project which had started from scratch back in June 1960.

By January 1962, PLATO was only slightly less of a scrappy but still rather tiny project at the Coordinated Science Laboratory within the engineering buildings in the north side of campus. Ebert, then only 19, seemed quite taken by what he saw with PLATO. His article appeared in print on January 4 and opened this way: “The Greek philosopher Plato is often pictured drawing diagrams in the sand — but Plato preferred to teach by asking questions, and so does his electronic namesake at the University of Illinois.”

The following week he ran another article about PLATO. For Ebert, these were just little two news stories of hundreds, maybe more, he would write during his time in Urbana. When he entered his undergraduate college years at the University of Illinois, he would eventually become the editor of the Daily Illini, the university’s student newspaper. He went on to fame as a beloved film critic for decades, but never completely forgot his brief early exposure to PLATO or his delight at what the PLATO system became.

To learn more about the PLATO system, consider starting with my book The Friendly Orange Glow (Pantheon, 2017). There’s more to learn at the PLATO History website, including links to all of the presentation and panel session videos recorded at the conference celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the PLATO system in 2010. To learn more about the World Peace Game, visit The World Peace Game Foundation’s website.

Author of THE FRIENDLY ORANGE GLOW: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE PLATO SYSTEM AND THE DAWN OF CYBERCULTURE from Pantheon Books http://amzn.to/2ol9Lu6

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