Thousands of Massachusetts teenagers find their lives intertwined with the juvenile justice system every day. They serve time in prison, live with system-involved relatives, or enter foster care. Many are pulled into a cycle of incarceration.
A small group of Boston youth recently transformed those lived experiences into a tabletop game called The Run Around. It’s designed to be impossible to win, said lead game designer Bernardo Semis, as it traps Black and brown children the way the systems of power do every day.
“You can’t win the game,” he added.
Each player starts with three characters of color placed in maximum security prison. They draw numbered cards in the hopes of eventually finding their way to “home” base. But players hit a barrage of obstacles, like a lengthy parole journey of gray spaces and trap cards. Those can subject characters to forget court fees, be caught with a felon, or lose housing.
Players often return to prison again and again as a result — a pattern Semis finds demoralizing and frustrating.
“Even when you get out,” he said, “you’re stuck.”
The completed product won a gold medal at the Serious Play Awards this summer. But the game design process started with Semis, 23, during his correctional facility sentence in 2019.
There, he laid down The Run Around’s foundational elements in collaboration with iThrive, a nonprofit games foundation with roots in Newton.
Months later, the project expanded beyond Semis.
iThrive executive director Susan Rivers received a $370,000 grant from the William T. Grant Foundation early last year. And starting in September 2020, that money helped pay Semis and similar system-involved 17- to 25-year-olds involved in the creation process. (Creators live in Boston and are involved with the Department of Youth Services, District Attorney’s Office, or Sheriff’s Office.)
On Saturday mornings, Rivers, educational consultant Janelle Ridley, and Lesley University associate professor Beverley Evans led the group in discussions about the failures of the justice system — and the trauma it caused them. Responses found their way into the game.
“There are stories on the board — their stories,” said Ridley, a former Boston Public Schools teacher who now works at the Mayor’s Office. (She also founded the S.E.E.D Institute, a partnership between iThrive and Ridley’s nonprofit Transition H.O.P.E.)
The team used their lives to create everything from the rules and colors to the fonts and discussion cards.
The Run Around builds on some designers’ experience going to jail and then reentering the world without family support. It also references probation, community violence, and the widening achievement gap for children of color — topics the group spoke about at Roxbury’s Black Ministerial Alliance. Some designers mirrored characters’ physical appearance after themselves, too.
Brookline-based Agncy Design brought the physical product to life in February, but it has not been mass-produced for purchase, Ridley said.
Rivers said the game is constructed without fun in mind. “Lonely and boring,” she added. “Even dice felt too enjoyable.”
But it requires the same level of critical thinking as Monopoly or Sorry Sliders. Designers had to deconstruct a broken justice system, and players are charged with coming to terms with its senselessness.
“It’s an exercise in asking, why is the system designed this way?” Rivers said. “Why are there not more opportunities? And why are there not any elements in this game — and in reality — that provide care and concern for the players?”
Ahead of the Serious Games conference, creators field-tested the game on police officers and educators at the Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity. The goal? To reveal lapses in the current justice system structure to those with influence, Ridley said.
“There is a lack of understanding and communication between youth and adults in the education space, which is why Black and Brown [children] are disproportionately suspended, expelled, and subjected to the cradle-to-prison pipeline,” Ridley added. “This could be a solution.”
Between 2009 and 2018, nearly 7,800 youth arrests were made in Boston, according to the state data.
Though the grant money is winding down, Rivers said iThrive and the S.E.E.D Institute are fund-raising for the future.
They hope to continue weekly meetings and to produce Run Around boards for distribution. The game could be utilized for professional and school environments to facilitate conversation and encourage solution-focused discussion. Three projects — including a social worker game modeled on Ridley and a Run Around version that can be won — remain unfinished. Also in the works is a spate of workshops where more players will attempt to beat The Run Around.
For Semis and his peers, the true goal of the game is still in the distance.
“We want change,” he said. “We did not create The Run Around for us — it’s for the kids growing up. I don’t want young Black kids to figure out about the system the way I did.”