Racism: the board game

In 1970 Psychology Today published a board game where players were divided into white and black, and had to make economic progress while competing with each other. Based on Monopoly, the idea was to demonstrate how the odds were stacked against black people in society by having different rules for each race in the game.

Whites started out with $1 million, blacks with $10,000 and each race had different opportunity decks. While whites could buy property in any part of the board, blacks were limited to certain areas until they had accumulated at least $100,000 and were outright banned from property in the ‘suburban zone’.

Needless to say, it turned out to be one of the most controversial board games of all time and even merited an article in Time magazine:

The game, produced by Psychology Today Games (an off shoot of the magazine) now on sale ($5.95) at major department stores, was developed at the University of California at Davis by Psychology Department Chairman Robert Sommer. It was conceived as a painless way for middle-class whites to experience—and understand—the frustrations of blacks. In Sommer’s version, however, the black player could not win; as a simulation of frustration, the game was too successful. Then David Popoff, a Psychology Today editor, redesigned the game, taking suggestions from militant black members of “US” in San Diego. The new rules give black players an opportunity to use—and even to beat—the System.

Although turning Monopoly into an attempt to draw people’s attention to social issues seems a little bit of a long shot, it’s worth noting that the original version of Monopoly itself, called ‘The Landlord’s Game‘, was designed to demonstrate how the current economic system led to inequality and bankruptcy.

Psychology Today’s board game division seems to have been short-lived but other titles included The Cities Game – that involved ‘urban tension, corruption and the undercurrents of city politics’; and Woman and Man where ‘Each woman must accumulate enough Status Quo points (100) to prove her equality to men. Each man must collect enough Status Quo points (100) to prove once and for all a woman’s place is beneath his’.

Fun for all the family.

Link to 1970 Time article on the ‘Blacks and Whites’ board game.
Link to game details and photos on BoardGameGeek.

25 thoughts on “Racism: the board game”

  1. I developed the first games for Psychology Today. I was a senior editor at the time. In the late 60s and early 70s, during Psychology Today’s first 7 years, the magazine published several games in issues that focused on social problems.

    The Blacks & Whites game was included in an issue that explored racial problems. It was the second game to be published in Psychology Today. The first was the Cities Game, which I developed for an issue on urban problems. It later was sold as a board game, and so was B&W. The Cities Game gained attention in the press [for example, a one paragraph mention on the front page of the Wall Street Journal], but the Blacks & Whites game generated many more press clippings.

    A third game, which I created with the help of Isaac Asimov, was call the Robot Game. It generated, by far, the most mentions in the press, radio, and tv.

    The Woman and Man game was created by another editor, Carol Travis.

    The idea for bringing a social issue to life in a game came from Mary Harrington Hall, the first managing editor of Psychology Today, who also created the famous Psychology Today interviews with the leading psychologists of the day.

    1. somehow assuming that all white people in 1970 had a million dollars to use is exactly the kind of nonsense i would expect from a socialist psychology professor. the realism is so stunning…………

    2. David,

      Do you remember the sequence of the games? I bought Society Today (and we play it with friends). I notice the spine of the game has a “V” as in “5.” Can I assume Cities Games was “I,” Blacks and Whites “II,” Man and Woman “III,” Robot Game “IV” and Society Today “V?”

      1. Evan P. reply. I do not know what the “V” stood for because I left Psych Today in 1971 to join the board of editors of Scientific American.

        The Robot Bame was not commercialized, so it cannot be “IV” but it is not unlikely that the Psych Today games group published another game before Society Today.

        FYI, the Man and Woman Game was created by Carol Tavris, not Travis.

      2. Blacks and Whites has I on the side of it. I’ve just ordered Cities and will update on that once it arrives.

    3. Mr. Popoff – I’ve got a copy of Blacks and Whites (I work for a Civil Rights non profit). Do you know how many pieces/ cards should be in the game? I would like to know if I have the whole thing! Also, any chance you might be available for a quick little interview? At your convenience and all. It seems like an awesome resource and everyone in our office is excited to play it. I think it will help us in our education and outreach because it will help us think of new points to make and new questions to ask of people!

  2. I actually own the Blacks & Whites board game. In pretty good condition, and it’s more fun then Monopoly.

    1. Frisch- I’ve got a copy of Blacks and Whites (I work for a Civil Rights non profit). Can you tell me how many cards are supposed to be in it? And how many of the other pieces? I would like to know if I have the whole thing!

    2. saw your post. any chance you’re willing to sell your full copy of “Blacks & Whites” ?
      Please let me know, I am EXTREMELY INTERESTED.
      Thank you

  3. There was an interesting irony about the B&W board game. I no longer have my copy, but I had it back in the 70s and played it on numerous occasions. I’m not sure that the irony was intentional; it might have been simply bad game design or even peculiar to my own game-playing experience. But in the numerous times I played the game, I found that the player who was playing a black person NEVER LOST. Despite the seeming advantages held by the while player, there were enough perks built into the system that the white player always ended up losing. I’m not sure whether this was intended at a subtle message about expanding social programs or just a glitch, but I certainly found it interesting.

    1. I had the same experience my family played it a lot in the early/mid 70’s and I don’t remember a “white” player ever winning.

      I do remember it being very entertaining and replacing Monopoly for awhile in our house.

      1. The Cities Game was designed to allow the Black player to win if the White players did not share willingly. The destructive power of the Riot card enabled the Blacks to level the playing field. Whites could win if they cooperated and shared their wealth willingly early in the game. Another way to win was to cheat.

  4. nconmadman0 spotted a hidden feature in B&W game.

    Blacks can win most of the time if they play consistently in a certain way.

    When designing the win/lose mechanism, I first tried out giving both sides roughly equal opportunities to win, but that led to stalemates in the game. So I decided to push the game in the direction of the underdog, and weighted the opportunities according.

    The game can be modified by anyone simply by making changes to the opportunities decks, taking out those that are no longer relevant and adding new cards that reflect current issues.

    1. David Popoff, I keep reading that you redesigned the game with the guidance of militant members of US in San Francisco. Is the version of the game you are describing above (in which you pushed the game in the direction of the underdog) the redesign? I would be interested in talking to you about the entire experience. I am a law professor who writes about structural inequality; I am scheduled to publish a book this fall about racial monopoly.

      1. The Blacks & Whites game first published in Psychology Today magazine [and later issued as a board game] is the final version of the game that I developed. Originally the game was closely modeled on Monopoly, but the prof [Sommers?] who came up with the idea did not have the time to modify it for the magazine, so I volunteered for the task. I previously had created the Cities Game for Psych Today.

        The entire staff of Psychology Today pitched in to design the B&W game, suggesting appropriate names for the various properties and actions on the opportunity cards. Mary Harrington Hall, the managing editor, came up with the name for the game, and helped in the final selection of names and actions. A black group from San Diego played early versions of the game and made valuable suggestions. My task was to integrate all of the comments and suggestions and come up balanced, playable game. However, the balanced reward mechanism almost always led to a boring stalemate, so I altered the rewards mechanism to give the Blacks an edge if they played in a certain way.

        I am not keen on games that rely on the roll of the dice to move the game along. My previous game for the magazine, the Cities Game, relied on voting scores to determine outcome. No dice, but chance did play a role in the form of opportunity cards that were drawn at certain points of the game. In several ways, the Cities Game exemplified the results of racism even more than the B&W game did. The original version of the Cities Game had a wide variety of power options for players, but because the game was to be printed in a magazine, I had to condense the options to only a few per player.The free-ranging interactions of the game players are key to the game results.

        I think the original version of the Cities Game would work very well if players made their voting choices on a computer, which then would calculate the outcomes according to a hidden algorithm. I also have considered turning the Cities Game into an interactive computer simulation game, but it seems to me that the interactions between individuals and groups would be greatly diminished.

        Psychology Today also created the first in-depth questionnaire survey that any reader of the magazine could participate in. I was the editor selected to develop these reader questionnaires. One questionnaire examined urban issues, and analysis of the answers of Psych Today readers revealed for the first time a fear of integrated schooling. Educated middle-class whites who said it was okay for their son or daughter to date or marry a black person did not always extend that acceptance to having blacks attend their white schools.

  5. I, too, am interested in purchasing a copy of Blacks and Whites. I had one in 1976 and it was stolen. My college epidemiology students would find it very informative in the study of the social determinants of health. If anyone knows of an available copy, please let me know.

    1. I do have a copy of this game, and have noticed just today that it’s compared on some know-nothing blogs to truly racist games like the Nazi anti-Semitic production “Juden Raus!” This is ridiculous: it’s clearly intended, whatever its faults as a balanced game, to illustrate racism in America, and used terminology that was current in the day e.g. “ghetto”.

      I think that the millennial generation too quickly confuses all discussions of race with racism, hence placing this on a “most racist game of all time” list. It also shows that you can say whatever you want on the Internet and some idiots will believe you. It’s far too easy to condemn a game like this that tried to make a social statement, than to actually play it and understand its message.

      Anyways, if anyone’s interested in buying a copy, I might sell mine for the right price.


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