Urban Cipher game teaches players the effects of redlining

Amy Scott Jul 1, 2024
Heard on:
Lawrence Brown, creator of Urban Cipher, explains how racially coded federal maps dictated lending practices in cities like Baltimore. Amy Scott/Marketplace

Urban Cipher game teaches players the effects of redlining

Amy Scott Jul 1, 2024
Heard on:
Lawrence Brown, creator of Urban Cipher, explains how racially coded federal maps dictated lending practices in cities like Baltimore. Amy Scott/Marketplace

In the auditorium at Patterson High School in Baltimore, a bunch of adults seated around tables prepared to play a board game. They’re staff at Baltimore City Public Schools, here for a day of professional development.

“All right, who’s ready to play Urban Cipher?” said Lawrence Brown, a research scientist at Morgan State University and creator of the game.

You’ve probably heard the term “redlining” — the now-illegal practice of denying credit and other services to people in certain areas based on race or ethnicity. But how well do you know the history and lasting effects in American cities? Brown, a public health expert and Afrofuturist, developed the game to let players experience that legacy firsthand.

The game is sort of like a rigged version of Monopoly. Players are assigned colors — red, yellow, blue and green — that correspond to coded maps created by the federal government in the 1930s to steer lending to certain neighborhoods. That code is what “cipher” refers to. As in Monopoly, players roll a die to move around the board, collecting money and buying property along the way, but how far they can move depends on their color.

At one table, a group of four players quickly realized they were each playing by different rules.

Tiara Evans, assigned the red pawn, rolled a five. A card explained she could move three spaces. Next to her, Scott Johnson, as yellow, rolled the same number but moved seven spaces. Then, Anabella Hunter, as blue, rolled a six and traveled almost all the way around the board on her first turn, collecting a college scholarship, parental inheritance and grandparents’ trust fund.

“Can that be real life?” she said, as she counted out $700,000 in game cash.

As they pass certain spots on the board, players also collect cards — sort of like the “chance” and “community chest” cards in Monopoly.

“OK, so this one says ‘highway construction,’” Hunter said. “’It’s time to build a new highway in our city. The highway must cut through one red and one yellow neighborhood.’”

She had to choose which neighborhoods to cut through.

“Then, that neighborhood will be gone,” Johnson said. “That’s cold-blooded.”

Finally, green player Rhys Cox rolled a six and moved 24 spaces, all the way around the board, collecting $700,000 and drawing two cards.

“‘Since your neighborhood is helping keep red players out, artificially inflating property values, collect an extra $100,000,’” Cox read. “That’s wild.”

It went on like this, with red and yellow advancing slowly and blue and green cleaning up, until everyone had rolled three times and the game ended. Green and blue had each amassed at least $1 million. Yellow had a few hundred thousand dollars and red had just $100,000.

Afterward, Brown debriefed the group, asking all the red players to say one word to sum up their experience playing the game.

“Stuck,” one man said. “Disadvantaged,” said another.

“Reality,” Evans said. “This is how a lot of our students and ourselves have come through.”

Evans was raised in a historically “yellow” neighborhood in Baltimore by her grandmother and was the first in her family to graduate from college.

“You really had to have somebody strong connected to you, to make those kind of moves,” she said.

Then, Brown asked how the green players felt.

“I felt blessed,” one woman said. “You felt blessed,” Brown repeats, to laughter from the group. “Barely stressed and highly blessed, is that what you’re saying?”

“Kind of greedy,” another said.

Four people play Urban Cipher, a Monopoly-like board game, at a card table.
From left to right, Anabella Hunter, Rhys Cox, Scott Johnson and Tiara Evans play Urban Cipher at a workshop for community school coordinators in Baltimore. (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

Next, Brown passed around printed maps of the city of Baltimore to help decode the game. They were copies of the original 1937 Residential Security Map, created as part of the New Deal, to grade the perceived risk of lending in certain neighborhoods. Red and yellow neighborhoods — identified as having more Black residents, immigrants and low-wage workers — were considered risky. Blue and green, with more white people and higher incomes, were deemed safer.

“Red and yellow neighborhoods would not get loans, or would get very few loans, or subprime loans, maybe, whereas green and blue neighborhoods would receive all kinds of resources, all kinds of loans, good interest rates,” Brown explained.

Those policies have had lasting effects. Many formerly redlined communities remain racially and ethnically segregated, and research has shown that people living in formerly red- and yellow-lined communities have worse health, social and economic outcomes. Brown said he created the game as a teaching tool, but he’s seen how it also helps build empathy — especially when people who grew up in green or blue neighborhoods play as yellow or red.

“The thing about segregation is that it keeps people apart,” he said. “So, I think even for 30 minutes, if this game can help, people say, ‘All right, now I understand what it means to struggle, and it’s based on the way that the rules of the game are laid out — not effort — because we’re rolling the same thing, but we’re getting different results,’ I think that is incredibly valuable.”

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