This is how board games spark social change

People playing Rise Up: The Game of People & Power

I grew up playing games: board games with my family, video games with my friends, and sports with my classmates. 

The thing is though, I also grew up in an activist family. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents taking me to protests and rallies. So, it’s probably no surprise then that I grew up to be a nerdy activist. A nerdavist, if you will. 

Today, I channel that nerdavism into making board games that are about changing the world: games like Rise Up: The Game of People & Power, Space Cats Fight Fascism, Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives, and STRIKE! The Game of Worker Rebellion

But sometimes when I tell people I make board games for a living, the responses are akin to, “Oh… my 8 year old nephew plays board games…” or even just, “People still play board games?”

Oh yes, people definitely still play board games. And in fact, more people are playing board games now than ever before. Roughly five thousand board games are released every year, and the board game market is booming. The board game industry has become one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world, and millions upon millions of people around the world play board games regularly. In some arenas, board games, with their ability to foster social interaction, are even out performing video games

People sitting around a table and playing a card game
A crowd gathered to play Loud & Proud at a 2017 conference.

Like movies, TV shows, and books, games are often a reflection of our cultural values. They can also impact and shape what we think about and what we do. That’s why The TESA Collective makes and publishes games that are about fighting for a better future and trying to envision the world we want to live in. It’s also why we team up with other organizations to build games for their causes. As more games are published every year, reaching millions of people, our movements for social change need to make sure we are represented. We need to make games that reflect and promote our visions for a more just and equitable world – and so there aren’t just games about war and exploitation.

So far, TESA’s games have been played by thousands of people all over the United States – as well as in more than thirty other countries. Families, friends, organizers, and students have played them in homes, community centers, classrooms, and beyond. In Rise Up, players get a chance to build a movement they believe is worth fighting for; in Space Cats Fight Fascism, they must stop the rising tide of fascism; in Co-opoly, players are tasked with cultivating a cooperative economy; and in STRIKE!, they work together to stop a mega-corporation from taking over their city.

In each of these games, players see and experience themselves as advocates for change.

And yet, we’re not the first to make these kinds of games. TESA is following in the footsteps of an untold history of progressive games. People have been making games about changing the world for over 100 years: from The Landlord’s Game (1904) – the precursor to Monopoly – where players were supposed to learn about the realities of economic exploitation, to Suffragetto (1908) where players took on the role of women fighting for their right to vote, to Class Struggle (1974) where players built worker power. There are also recent examples, including our games and others, such as Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012), Dawn of Peacemakers (2018), and more.

One of the only remaining copies of Suffragetto. Image shared via Creative Commons license, by BoardGameGeek user avapoet.

Games are also scientifically proven to be powerful tools for advocating for social change. According to a research paper produced by the Game Innovation Lab:

Learning science has shown that humans learn more effectively via active learning (such as that offered by games) than via passive learning. As such, games have great potential for communicating a shared understanding of complex social phenomena. Today’s game designers have the ability to take these and other powers inherent in games to help have a positive effect in the world.

And that, to us, is what defines the power of games. As we argued previously in a guest blog post for Jobs with Justice:

Games can reach people in an interactive way that even books, articles, documentaries, lectures, trainings, and presentations cannot. People learn best by doing. They become invested and interested in concepts when they are active participants. And games allow people to engage in concepts through play and excitement while generating moments that won’t be forgotten. 

So go play some games, and change the world.

Support Our Work

TESA is proud to lead the development of games, tools, and programs for social change. You can support our work while having fun: buy our games about changing the world. TESA can also work with you to build a game, program, or tool for your cause!