Break out of our comfort zones: Play Szociopoly!

Ferenc Szigeti

By Ferenc Szigeti, on February 16th, 2017

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How to inspire in a meeting? How to make participants imagine the life of others and of hard choices?

In October 2016 I was preparing my next CHANGE! study visit, which was – partly – about how to generate deep insight into the needs of local communities to create meaningful outcomes and thus redesign public services more effectively. This is really a key topic, and it was our first meeting to help partners explore different aspects of collaboration in public services. I was almost ready with workshops and presentations, but I really missed a ground-breaking, illustrative tool to tackle this “insight” issue. You know, when you prepare a meeting, especially the first one, you want to inspire the audience. Then the solution, as quite often, came from the ground.

Budapest Bike Maffia

A couple of weeks before the meeting I read a post from Budapest Bike Maffia, a progressive, innovative NGO which helps homeless people by organising different activities, including joint cooking sessions with volunteers (like me) who also deliver the food by bikes. The post was about a new board game called Szociopoly that they had played during one of their sessions. I felt that I had found my magic wand to illustrate for partner cities the importance of having deep insight…

Budapest Bike Maffia

Szociopoly is a Hungarian board game, which aims to reduce discrimination against poverty by using the emotional energy of gaming. Players can experience the tension to survive when money to cover everyday expenses is running out. Based on concrete regulations and figures in force in Hungary, Szociopoly models the life conditions of low-skilled, long-term unemployed people living in the most deprived rural areas of Hungary (ca. 0,5 million people), without job, money, resources and hope.

The game founder, university teacher and well-known researcher of poverty, László Bass regularly plays Szociopoly with various people to raise their awareness of poverty: with pupils in special school classes as well as with corporate people during team-building sessions. When I contacted him, he invited me to his next session held in an elite grammar school in Budapest to see how the game works. As in many other cases, gamification also worked within this special environment: wealthy children really enjoyed Szociopoly, but their astonishment was – therefore – deeper and more honest at the end of the game.

After László convinced me there is no need to translate difficult regulations behind the game and explain to foreigners how different types of social benefits work in Hungary (there is a short, but excellent explanation attached to the game), I bought my own game. I chose the workshop version, but there is also a basic version for smaller groups, while László also shows Szociopoly with alternative theatre groups, where the impact is even bigger thanks to the actors involved (e.g. they can act the criminal money lenders – the money sharks – in a more convincing way than László).

By using Szociopoly, my aim was to illustrate to CHANGE! project partners that looking outside our own realities and going beyond what we already know is always inspiring and in most cases fruitful – not only regarding public services, but in public policies in general. However, related to social services it is indeed essential. Since public authorities typically know less about the real needs of their citizens, not to mention their assets, capabilities, resources or networks, I thought that playing Szociopoly can create a common emotional basis enabling participants to better understand good practices we intend to discuss and to create policy implications more effectively based on that.

szociopoly_nora3 Playing Szociopoly at the CHANGE! meeting

During the game each player (who can be a small group of people too) represents a family and goes through a month by throwing the dice. By stepping on the different fields (representing days of the month), the family has to decide a whole bunch of burning and rather realistic questions. In the beginning players must decide what family structure they want to play (live) with. For example, with more children, not only more social benefits (a flipchart paper shows the different amounts eligible for different families), but more expenses can be expected as well. Furthermore, questions like what to do if unexpected family expenses occur (stepping on the given field) like buying glasses or medicine for the children or organising a birthday party (this latter is not only about having fun, but can be a super important opportunity to decrease the exclusion of these families by getting together with “other” families from the village). What to do if the player takes a black-market job? To stay on the safe side and get the salary legally (smaller amount) or to do it illegally (higher amount)? But in the case of the latter, the player has to throw again (without moving among fields) and if it throws 1, its monthly social benefit is lost (along with the foreseen salary), symbolizing the consequences of getting caught.

bills to pay What to do if we cannot pay living costs (the amount to be paid is also varied according to family status), especially if the player steps on a field which requests extra costs (e.g. electricity is switched off, food is rotten)? Just like in real life, doing shopping also means a real challenge for poor families. The question here is whether we should buy food in the more expensive local shop week by week, where players can get interest-free credit from the shop keeper, or should we do it once in the supermarket, but it is possible only at the beginning of the month. These sharp questions always generate vital debates within the groups. Often, however, all budget-wise questions are shadowed by the fact that families may get a loan from the criminal money-lender (money shark) – with a 200 percent interest.

I translated the fields and created a one-page summary about the rules. Even with an international partnership the game worked very well, players easily understood the translated rules and the Hungarian context did not cause any difficulties for them. But the game is never the same. In my group for example, the family with the most children was successful, but they tried to do everything legally. And sometimes, in the game as well as in life, some families have simply no luck: they always step on a wrong field. In my group the “loser” family was also with children, but other players managed to help them. In the end, even though the dynamics and atmosphere is always changing, I am sure participants learnt a lot about the importance of looking outside our own realities. And we can learn from every single interaction among people!

Travelling back to Budapest I realised that this topic is more burning than ever. By coincidence, while I was on the train I read a fresh URBACT BLOG article which summed up the key political message behind the Brexit and the US elections: the emerging gaps between large dynamic cities and “stagnating or shrinking small towns and ‘backwater’ rural areas”.

Social policies have also been changing rapidly in Europe and cities can act as engines in this field too. I believe that playing Szociopoly (even virtually) can help actors and policy makers to understand the size of the challenge. Of course, Szociopoly works best if the parameters behind are translated into the local context (e.g. regulations regarding benefits, amounts valid in the given countries). But without that it is still able to generate deep and valid discussions about other people’ realities…

The Game Szociopoly is available only in Hungarian (like the website), but if someone has an intention to adapt it to local context, I am more than happy to negotiate with the authors (


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