Board games that teach about housing discrimination

Americans may like the real estate game Monopoly but it lacks one real-life phenomenon that a few games over the years have included: housing discrimination.

The Pop-Up City blog drew our attention last week to a great project from Toronto artist Flavio Trevisan, who has created a board-game-as-artwork enticingly titled The Game of Urban Renewal (OK, this is enticing to us, at least). The project reminded us that there is something of a history to board games dramatizing low-income and discriminatory housing policy. An earlier such game – one that looks like an antecedent to Trevisan’s, although he had not heard of it – makes a brief cameo in the House & Home exhibit currently showing at the National Building Museum.

That 1970 predecessor, called Blacks & Whites, was produced by the magazine Psychology Today, and was created to teach white players about what life was like for blacks in an era when all the housing rules were stacked against them. Not surprisingly, Blacks & Whites never went mass market (it doesn’t even appear to have gotten enough traction to have widely offended racists of the era)…

If you visit the exhibit, the game garners only a brief mention (and scanned image). But the most telling details are on the board itself and in the instructions. Blacks & Whites is organized like a Monopoly board, with properties increasing in value as you move around it. The property clusters have fantastically blunt names: the “inner ghetto,” the “outer ghetto,” “lower integrated” and “upper integrated” neighborhoods, “lesser suburbia,” “greater suburbia,” “newer estates” and, lastly, “older estates” (namely, Bethesda and Georgetown!). The board mimics the concentric housing rings of many cities as you move out toward the suburbs, from the all-black “inner ghetto” to the all-white “older estates.”

According to the instructions, the game tries to emphasize “the absurdities of living in different worlds while playing on the same board.” “White” players get a million dollars from the treasury to start the game; blacks get $10,000, and they’re restricted in where they can buy properties. Blacks and whites also draw from separate opportunity card decks.

You mean Americans don’t want to be reminded about social ills when playing their board games? At the same time, I bet it could be done if the game properly balanced between playability and concept. Pedagogically, games can be a great way to teach. By putting players into new situations and showing them what it takes to win and lose, certain values can be imparted. This reminds me of George Herbert Mead discussing how children learn about social interaction and adult life through playing and creating games and debating rules. These games also sound similar to social simulations that are occasionally used in classrooms or by some groups. Think of Monopoly: it is a game yet it also could be viewed as expressing some of the basic values of capitalism. In contrast, more recent Euro style games are built around different concepts. Perhaps some enterprising sociologist can properly achieve the gamification of an important social issue.

Now that I think about it, imagine what Simcity could be like if it had a more complex societal element. The biggest social issues that come up in Simcity are crime, education, traffic, and pollution yet there is little about social class (though one can build low, medium, and high rent residential, commercial, and industrial properties), race, immigration, discrimination, and religion/ideological differences. Similar to Monopoly, the game is geared toward accumulating higher levels of money and land values. Perhaps all of these real-life issues would be difficult to model but I bet it could be incorporated into the gameplay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s