Bennington College teacher Divine Bradley uses play help others see world around them – Bennington Banner

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Mostly cloudy with occasional light rain…mainly this evening. Low 44F. Winds light and variable. Chance of rain 80%.
Updated: September 29, 2021 @ 10:18 pm
Divine Bradley is teaching “Play” at Bennington College. Of his early life, he says: “I had to design my character within the game just to survive, and in designing my character, I became this sort of Ghetto Peter Pan that believed in other people’s dreams. I became that for young people. I’m going to not be in a gang, I’m not going to sell drugs. I’m going to create this place of love.”

Divine Bradley is teaching “Play” at Bennington College. Of his early life, he says: “I had to design my character within the game just to survive, and in designing my character, I became this sort of Ghetto Peter Pan that believed in other people’s dreams. I became that for young people. I’m going to not be in a gang, I’m not going to sell drugs. I’m going to create this place of love.”
BENNINGTON — Divine Bradley knows a thing or two about games. He’s been around them his whole life. Now he teaches others how to use play to enhance skills through games.
“How do we turn something like tic-tac-toe or Scrabble, games we love to play, and turn those into in-person experiences?” he said. “I’m in experience design, but always with the north star of creating fun supplemental learning experiences. That’s what I do.”
Bradley teaches a seven-week course called “Play” at Bennington College. The class highlights the benefits of play, extracting game mechanics from the games we love to play, and applying those mechanics to learning adventures.
“Kids love to play Pokemon Go, where you’re out looking for Pokemons, using your camera to capture them. So, I take the concept of Pokemon Go, and I’ll send students out to find different objects — flowers and mushrooms, things of that nature — taking the concept of one thing we love and applying it differently to a learning experience.”
Bradley’s goal is to create what he calls a “social theme park” of learning.
“It’s really about applying a layer of experiences on top of what the college already has to offer. It’s an incentivized way to deepen their understanding, try new things, new ideas, but most importantly use it as an opportunity to collaborate with other students and faculty on campus.”
In one assignment, students find and photograph items and places on campus. But, instead of just heading directly over to the objects, they are asked to find different ways to get there, as a squirrel would, or a butterfly, taking the task and flipping it to learn to see other ways of looking, other ways of experiencing their journey. It’s the mechanics of games to teach openness to new paths of seeing, he said.
“This generation is all digital,” Bradley said. “The phone can handle this or the computer can handle that task. I’m inspired by past generations where people worked human-powered machines hands-on, physically touched their work, and tools and play. There’s this physiological intelligence gap that’s happening now, where many don’t know that their hands can be useful in doing a task. So, what I’m doing is reverse-engineering simple tasks and having them figure out how to use what you have. How do we, using games and role-playing, typical things these students love, how do we use that to make it fun and useful.”
Bradley is From New York City, Brooklyn-born and raised. “When I was 17, I dropped out of high school. My school had thousands of kids, which made learning challenging. I decided I wanted to create an opportunity for others to learn in a more supplemental manner. I wanted to create a place where people can learn to play the game, not just in school, but in life as well. Graduating, it’s really just a game that you have to get out of, if you can figure it out.”
On a different path, Bradley enrolled in a GED program at his school. “At some point I was notified that I’d failed the predictor test for my GED, even though I’d been studying my tail off. I asked a teacher how that could happen, how I’d failed. He didn’t have any real answers. Later, he pulled me to the side and told me that if they passed all the students that actually passed the test, they wouldn’t have any students to teach,” he recalled.
“That’s all I needed. That was the light switch for me. It forced me to see the neighborhood, my school as more of a stage, that this was a game. Conditions were created that when you left school and you became angry, it leads straight to being locked up. When you are at that point and someone approaches you to sell drugs, it becomes like a video game, like ‘Mario Brothers.’”
“It’s not that you just have to get through school, though. You also have to get through the neighborhood, bypass these people, bypass the crime, bypass the temptations. You had to get back home.”
He said, “I had to design my character within the game just to survive, and in designing my character, I became this sort of Ghetto Peter Pan that believed in other people’s dreams. I became that for young people. I’m going to not be in a gang, I’m not going to sell drugs. I’m going to create this place of love.”
Bradley said he eventually started tinkering with the idea of turning other institutions into learning experiences.
“I had the opportunity to work with Ralph Lauren, converting the headquarters into a fashion school as a collaboration. Executives had the opportunity to become deans with students, learning both the fashion and business side of what went on there. Others called as well, community leaders, social entrepreneurs, I got recruited. People heard about my story. I was invited to do tours, speeches, winning awards from organizations. I became the poster boy for change,” Bradley recalled.
At Bennington College, Bradley said he was able to trade in his life credits for undergrad credits.
“I’d decided in late 2019 to go after my biggest dream; how to take these experiences and turn them into something bigger,” he said. “I figured if I can come to a school that can enhance its value, more students would want to come here. The goal is how do we bridge that gap between the school and the community. Bennington doesn’t have a culture around sports. I was like, how can I create the arena for the artistic athletes, the creative athletes? That’s what these games are all about. How could gamification help people to enhance their skills that can then be useful for an industry? I’m committed to that.”
The magic of the games-into-life experiences happens with the participants, he said.
“I’m just the conductor,” he said. “The beautiful thing about play is it bridges ideological differences. People cannot like each other for their beliefs or whatever it might be, but once you get into a space like work, banning together for a common goal that impacts everyone, it creates an aura of empathy, seeing people as they are, what they stand for beyond their individual differences.
Bradley is committed to staying in Bennington until his dream is achieved. “It’s been great,” he said. “Vermont is like the afterlife for me.”
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