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Saturday, December 2, 2023

In This 'Socially Conscious Monopoly' Game, Race and Privilege Are Currency

“You’re listening and learning and your DMs are open. So brave. Collect $50,000,” reads an opportunity card reserved for players of white characters in Blacks & Whites: 50th Anniversary Edition, a “socially conscious” tabletop game about privilege and inequity in real estate and American society. “The government begins an ‘urban renewal project!’ Lose all property in the Ungentrified Zone,” reads one coined only for Black characters.

Blacks & Whites is similar to Monopoly, but with a twist: The character’s race is crucial to the player’s success in the game. The privilege is clear from the get-go, when white characters are granted a sum of $1,000,000 to go and purchase property with. Black characters, encouraged to pool together their assets in a form of collective action, are given just $10,000 (that’s 40 grand short of the cheapest two properties). In my first turn, playing as a Black character called Rico, I rolled a 10 and landed myself a round detained at the police station. Had I been white, I could have posted $20,000 in bail, rolled again, and pretended it had never happened.

From then on, things only got harder. Players can land on opportunity spaces, draw a card and get an advantage or disadvantage. But card stacks are segregated, and the stack reserved for Blacks contains more bumps in the road than the one for whites. For the first many rounds of the game, Black characters are only allowed to buy property in two of the four property zones (the Ungentrified Zone and Integrated Zone) while white characters can also buy in the remaining two (the Suburban Zone and 1% Zone) from the start—not that I could afford it anyway.


There are a few ways to get a foot in the door of the Suburban Zone: buying privately from a white player, jumping at the opportunity to bid at a white player’s bankruptcy auction, or lucking into an opportunity card that permits them to buy there. Additionally, Black players can only buy into the 1% Zone if they own $1 million in assets. A long way up from the starting $10,000.

My own best chance happened when I accidentally applied too much sunscreen, got to play the next three turns as a white player, and was granted $100,000 just because—woo!

“It addresses something very serious and very not-funny in a way that is extremely antithetical to that—boardgames. It’s family friendly, it’s a fun time, it’s lighthearted,” says Nehemiah Markos, the Black half of the comedy duo Neversad. The other half is constituted by the “very white” Jed Feiman, and together they take on difficult topics like race and inequality in a humorous way to start conversations about privilege.

“We thought it could be effective in kind of making people laugh, but also making them think,” Markos tells me.

The first edition of Blacks & Whites was released more than 50 years ago, in 1970, but has since disappeared. Only on a few occasions has a copy surfaced to be auctioned off. The game was spearheaded by the late Robert Sommer, an internationally renowned professor at UC Davis and a pioneer of environmental psychology, the study of how human behavior is affected by the design of the world around us, in collaboration with Psychology Today. The original version was popular as an educational tool to teach people about privilege from a young age. Markos and Feiman said they hoped to carry on this tradition.

“In the 1970s … I had three kids and we used to play board games, the most popular being Monopoly,” wrote Sommer, who passed away in February 2021, in the revamped edition’s foreword, written while it was still being developed. “As we played, I was struck by how unrealistic it was … In Monopoly, everyone starts out with the same amount of money. That certainly doesn’t fit the real world.

“I decided to change the rules and introduce disadvantaged players … Just as many parts of the county were covered by covenants and agreements which forbade Black residents, the Black players of our game would not be able to buy property everywhere on the board initially. They would start out with less money and were subject to many penalties that did not affect white players.”

Robert Sommer lived in California during the sixties, where he had started working on the game following a wave of race riots that swept the United States, beginning in 1965 with the Watts Rebellion in Watts, Los Angeles. The protests were triggered by allegations of police abuse against a 21-year-old African American man who was pulled over for drunk driving, along with bystanders at the scene when the man was arrested.

“The sad part is that things are not that different from 50 years ago,” says Barbara Sommer, Robert Sommer’s wife, whom he was “courting” while he worked on the original game. Society is fundamentally different in many ways, but in too many ways the same challenges for minorities from the ’60s still exist half a century later, she said. “They were able to keep the same basic structure and only needed to update the characters and properties. Things are definitely better, no question about that,” said Sommer. “But what’s shocking to me is how appropriate the game still is.”

Fifty years later, Markos and Feiman reached out to Robert Sommer just after the murder of George Floyd, which also sparked mass protests against police brutality. He gave them the green light to go ahead and revamp the game. In the foreword he wrote that it was a “great idea” to revive Blacks & Whites. Much had changed since the ’70s, he wrote, but “race relations have not become much better.”

“The game was great at the time, and we had the time on our hands. Then George Floyd was murdered, so we both knew we had to do something with it,” says Feiman. “The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate.”

The premise of the game—to include race and privilege in Monopoly to make it more realistic—remains the same in the 50th anniversary edition. The design of the game has been updated to fit 21st century society, as have some of the properties players can purchase, opportunity cards, spaces to land on, and political topics (like reparations, which offers free money to lucky Black characters, and gentrification, which confiscates the property of a not-so-fortunate Black player). Players can also land on the Peaceful Protest space, where whites have to dish out 20 grand to the Reparations Pool and Black players get “busted and taken directly to The Police Station.” In the original game, Black players could pull opportunity cards like “Mayor [Richard] Daley of Chicago has been re-elected. Go directly to jail.” For white characters, a card reads, “See a psychoanalyst about fantasies that you are a Black Panther—pay fee of $30,000.”

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal from April 1, 1970, the first edition of Blacks & Whites had to be updated and rereleased because Robert Sommer had “built so many obstacles into the game that players often ‘became frustrated and didn’t want to play again after the first experience.’”

Barbara Sommer showed me some of Robert Sommer’s old notes for the game, which revealed that the professor objected to the “meta goals” of the original Monopoly: getting a monopoly on property, raising prices, and squeezing people out. He never intended for the game to be a 1:1 simulation of society, the notes revealed.

“Simulation?” he wrote. “No more than the expressionist painter who tries to convey an essence of feeling or social comment. No, he leaves the … representation of reality to the photographers. [I] am willing to delegate certain tasks to photographers, journalists, and social scientists—the tasks of documenting what is happening. As to what it all means, I will turn to poets, songwriters, artists, novelists, and a handful of columnists and social critics.”

In the new edition, Black characters, unlike their white counterparts, cannot go bankrupt. If they do, they’re kept in the game by qualifying for benefits, financed from the pockets of the White characters. But when I played the game in a group of six, with half of the characters being Black, it felt like, despite the fact that we couldn’t technically lose the game, we were never really in the game in the first place—even if we did manage to pool together our meager resources and acquire a single property, Harlem. Blacks and whites were essentially playing two different games, with different rules.

At one point during our game, oblivious to the fact that I had just received benefits for the third time, the team of white characters started collectively complaining that they were too short on money to start buying properties like Palm Beach or Palo Alto in the 1% Zone. Shortly thereafter, to the Black squad’s joy, one white character—Hugh, a middle-aged, salt-and-pepper-haired investor type—went bankrupt after drawing a series of unfortunate opportunity cards. First his wife divorced him and took half his assets with her. Then he was spotted in an old photo with Jeffrey Epstein and had to pay up to make it go away. Game over.

In the best case scenario, a young person will come across the game, bring it to Thanksgiving with the family, and convince their racist uncle that white privilege exists by playing. But Neversad’s real expectations are not too far from that: making difficult topics more approachable in cozy or educational settings by using humor and caricatured characters, like the Karen who calls the cops on a Black barbecue, or the Black professor Stokely, who calls for collective action to fight gentrification.

But the stereotypical style has attracted an onslaught of angry commenters on Neversad’s YouTube channel, under a promotional video for the game’s Kickstarter. A conservative YouTube channel posted a video about the game, and some viewers followed up by attacking the comedians online, calling them racists and accusing them of milking George Floyd’s murder for profits. Some also emailed the comedy duo directly, with one person telling Feiman “you arent white” and drawing anti-Semitic comparisons of him to the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein—all because of a board game. Barbara and Robert Sommer experienced nothing of that sort after the game’s original release.

The game is intended to balance on the edge of comedic exaggeration and a reflection of reality. These people, it seemed to the Neversad duo, had missed that point entirely when they attacked Blacks & Whites for being unrealistic.

“It’s a testament to how the internet has made us more divided,” says Markos. “But if you dig a little deeper when you look at it, you might actually find out that there’s a message to it. That it was divisive was the favorite trigger word for the people, who said we were tearing the country apart,” Markos continues. “It’s like, we’re actually doing the opposite.”

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