Developing a game that sparks meaningful conversations on systematic racism requires nuance and balance, Nathaniel Bozarth explained, noting the goal is to create an emotional impact while not causing harm to the player.
“It’s tough because you want to teach a topic that’s really hard — and you want to do it delicately enough that you’re not hurting people, but strongly enough that you’re creating a memorable experience,” said Bozarth, who created the game “Shapes” with Christopher Cook.
“Shapes” was designed to simulate how racially-biased policies — paired with self-interested financial actions — led to segregated neighborhoods throughout the United States, and notably within Kansas City, Bozarth shared.
“Historical policy bleeds into the present day and contributes to the racial wealth gap,” he continued. “… The game models redlining, white flight and even a little bit of gentrification. We started this process by asking ourselves, ‘What discussion do we want the game to facilitate? What are the racist policies that we want to cover?’”
Within the game, players are either a circle (which represents a white person) or a triangle (which represents a person of color). The game takes place on various islands where the goal is to accumulate wealth through land acquisition. Circles have certain game advantages, which are intended to represent white privilege. The player with the highest points wins.
The twist: “Shapes” is presented as a fast-paced socioeconomic game; players are not aware there is a connection to segregation and racist policy, Bozarth noted.
“There’s this moment of reveal at the end of the game,” he said, “which causes this emotional reaction, because the winner feels bad for winning.”
Importance of reflection
The first time Bozarth played “Shapes” with a group, it caused the desired outcome: reflection.
“Someone who was a circle in the game talked about how she had a very strong reaction when she saw triangles moving to her island, because that meant her property values would go down,” Bozarth recalled. “… We want to model that unfairness in the game, so that we can have robust conversations about it afterward.
“We try to stress with all partners who play that you can’t play the game without having a discussion afterward,” he continued. “It can be tough, but it’s so vital.”
Shapes best works with 12 or more participants to accurately depict residential segregation, Bozarth noted. The duo has tested the game on more than 100 different students so far and is continuing to collect feedback.
“Our biggest thing right now is we’re looking for partners to play test the game this summer or in the coming fall,” Bozarth said. “We are open to almost any type of group doing that … whether it’s a high school classroom — recently there was a church — or a university class.”
The duo is testing both the virtual version of “Shapes,” as well as an in-person version of the game — which was the original design of the game until the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We tested it in March 2020 with a group of students at Blue Valley North, and that test went really well,” Bozarth recalled. “And just a few days later, COVID happened and knocked out our plans for future testing with that same group of students.”
Over the summer of 2020, the duo worked to create the virtual version known as “Shapes” and also collaborated with educators to create a curriculum surrounding the game.
For more information on “Shapes” and how to test out the game, reach out to Nathaniel Bozarth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dividing Lines Tour
As a white man who has witnessed his peers of color being denied equal access to opportunities, Bozarth said, he is passionate about using his white privilege to make a difference.
“My long-time creative partner [Christopher Cook] is also a white male,” Bozarth noted. “We both seek to hold ourselves accountable to people of color in our lives, as well as do our work as white males trying to speak to other white people in order to disrupt and destroy white supremacy.”
Before “Shapes,” Bozarth and Cook partnered with the Johnson County Library to produce the Dividing Lines Tour — a driving tour that guides participants throughout Kansas City to learn about the history of segregation in the Kansas City metro. The tour was created as part of the Johnson County Library’s Race Project KC.
Click here to read more about the Dividing Lines Tour’s launch.
The duo also made a virtual version of the Dividing Lines Tour that utilizes virtual reality to provide a 360-degree view of various locations in Kansas City, Bozarth said — noting that the experience is free and can be done from the comfort of one’s couch.
“We’ve been really happy that the Johnson County Library has been a really valued partner in this effort — both on Dividing Lines and they’ve supported the creation of this game as part of Race Project KC,” Bozarth said. “We’ve been really blessed to do this work.”