July 26, 2017
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This Board Game Is Training Political Revolutionaries

By Tosten Burks


Before Parker Brothers turned Monopoly into a fun and capitalism-fetishizing way to spend hours arguing with friends and family over who gets the race car, the game from which it evolved was called The Landlord’s Game. Its anti-monopolist inventor, Elizabeth Magie, wanted to teach the values of market socialism espoused by 19th century economist Henry George. It wasn’t the last board game with radical politics.

London progressives at the beginning of the 20th century designed Suffragetto to simulate a battle between women suffragists and police defending the House of Commons. During the 1970s, Class Struggle was a brief fad in America—about, you guessed it, class struggle. Progressive politics also have invaded video game consoles. The designer of Sonic the Hedgehog calls the franchise an allegory about the dangers of pollution and industralization.

From this tradition now emerges Rise Up, the latest game from the Toolbox for Education and Social Action, a Chicago-based alternative education collective. This is the same crew behind Co-opoly, a board game about starting a co-op that was played at Occupy Wall Street. TESA’s latest offers players the ability to collectively fight “the system” by building various social movements, chosen at the beginning of each game, while fending off obstacles like surveillance and smear campaigns.

Rise Up’s creators, including Brian Van Slyke, hope the game (which is currently raising funds on Kickstarter) will breed the next generation of organizers and activists while also providing fun gameplay. Van Slyke rejects the label of “educational game,” saying TESA prioritizes entertainment. Like Co-opoly, Rise Up also is designed as an instrument for affecting players’ behavior in the real world, similar to the board games about home energy consumption created at Northwestern University.

GOOD spoke with Van Slyke about the current state of activism, Rise Up’s inspiration, and board games as political tools.

Image via Molly McLeod

Image via Molly McLeod

How did you get into designing mission-based board games?

I really got into board games and board games on social issues when I was volunteer teaching at this learning center for teens who had either dropped out of school, or been kicked out. ... I tried to start doing some classes on things like controversies in U.S. history. No one was showing up to the classes. One day I decided, you know what, I'm gonna just try to spice it up and try to get some students to come by making a board game.

I'd always played board games. I enjoyed them. It just felt like a fun teaching tool and it would be something that would be different to get kids to come. And it did. Once I announced there was gonna be a board game to learn about U.S. history, a bunch of people came. After that, [in] most classes I ran, I used a game of some kind.

What inspired you to develop a game that game-ified movement politics?

Almost exactly five years ago, we brought a prototype of Co-opoly to New York City. Some people had invited us to play it with them at their conference. Then we got an invitation from people who were doing this protest to bring Co-opoly over to the protest and play it with them. It was, at the time, a little-known protest called Occupy Wall Street, which then got much bigger. We brought Co-opoly to Occupy Wall Street.

Then very shortly after we left, there was one of the first big raids on Occupy Wall Street. People came back after that raid. It was right after we had left. We were just sort of like, ‘Wow.’ Just watching this. We were like, why not build a board game that celebrates people building movements and then resisting some of the retaliation that they have to face? So the idea for it, we first had five years ago.

Why not build a board game that celebrates people building movements?

Over the last year, we really decided to make the game because of all these other movements that have sprung up and really galvanized social justice folks, from Black Lives Matter to Fight For 15 to stopping the oil pipeline. We live in a really interesting time of people building movements. It's really amazing to see. Obviously it's really heartbreaking, the injustices for why these movements have to be made and built.

Image via Molly McLeod

Image via Molly McLeod

What are your goals for Rise Up?

You're never too young or too old to become an activist. I think that a lot of people definitely don't understand how movement-building works. I do have to caution that Rise Up isn't a simulation … it's a board game. And it's more about activating people's imaginations and getting them to think about: How can I be someone who's involved in movement building? What would I want to fight for?

I think the idea of movement building is becoming much more normalized in the sense that people feel much more comfortable being like, I totally support that. But because there are so many more movements and they're really pushing against these systems of injustices, there are a lot of people who want to fight back against these movements that are being built.

You're never too young or too old to become an activist.

One of the things we really have to do on the left is try to build our imagination and get people to think about movement building in ways outside of articles and powerpoint presentations—which is all fine, I do all of those things. But we also have to get people excited through play and participation.

What feedback have you received from actual organizers?

We designed the game so that it could be appealing to both groups of people. You don't have to be an activist to play this game. But I think it hits folks on a different level. I think people who are into this, and do organizing, and play this game, they're like, ‘That's so funny. That's exactly the type of thing that's happened.’ There's a card that the system can play that means you get into an argument over something insignificant for two weeks. When activists draw that card they laugh.

How have non-activists responded?

With people that aren't activists that play the game—but obviously are somewhat sympathetic to the concept—I think it allows them to approach the subject in a fun, engaging way. … [One woman] said, 'As someone with no experience in social organizing, Rise Up enabled me to connect and discuss strategies and experiences with my teammates who have a lot more experience in social action. Rise Up created a conduit for conversation that was open and not intimidating.' That's exactly what we're going for.