AUSTIN (KXAN) — Josh Lafair can’t vote yet, but the 17-year-old probably knows more about gerrymandering than most people who can, and he and his siblings have created a way to making understanding it fun.
“We want to help start conversations around the country about an issue we don’t think is discussed enough,” he said.
Josh and his 23-year-old twin siblings Louis and Rebecca are from a family that loves games, as evidenced by the bookshelf in their home filled with a variety to satisfy any competitive (or non-competitive) craving. So, when Josh started learning more about gerrymandering, he realized it could provide the basis for a really interesting game.
“Gerrymandering has much of the same mechanics as a board game,” Josh said, including scheming and strategizing. He said he’s always been puzzled by the fact that although he lives in Austin, his home district 10 stretches all the way to Houston.
“We’re in Austin and our district stretches all the way to Houston which is a three and a half hour drive away [that”s] kind of ridiculous,” he said.
Lawmakers periodically re-draw voting district boundaries, and they’re allowed to create lines based on political parties (but not based on race, which was the focus of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that put Texas in the spotlight) that mean a district may be majority Republican or majority Democrat.
However, some districts end up looking very odd and are given the name “gerrymander,” a word coined after a district that looked a bit like a salamander was drawn during Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s term in 1812.
“Gerrymandering is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, but people don’t always have a clear awareness of how it actually works,” Louis said.
While the explanation of gerrymandering can be complicated, Josh says his family’s board game Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game helps educate people how it works, and it’s designed for people age 8 and up. People will have to learn about a few concepts and be able to add and subtract.
Creating a game simple enough for a third-grader took about a year and hundreds of people play-testing it, Josh said.
The first version of the game, which they created last July, used the board for the game Settlers of Catan (a family favorite). As they kept developing it, they used pieces from other games in their collection, refining the rules over time and eventually designing their own board and pieces.
The family is using that same publisher, Go! Games based in Austin, to launch the gerrymandering game. Josh remembers being his brother’s “guinea pig” game tester back then, but going through the process again had its own challenges.
“It was maybe a little harder because we understand more about how to create a game,” Josh said, adding that there’s always more to do to make it better and better.
Soon, that perfected game will be in people’s homes, ready for anywhere from one to four people to try at a time.
While people learn how to play, they also will be able to learn about what gerrymandering is, thanks to an explanation of how it works in the real world in the rule book. Proceeds from every game — which will cost $38 — will also go to a nonpartisan, anti-gerrymandering charity, Josh said. There will also be packs on the Kickstarter, where people can pay more to also send a copy of the game to a state lawmaker, governor or to all the U.S. Supreme Court justices.
“While this is a game, gerrymandering is becoming much more of a deal in politics today,” Josh said. “And, we want to make a difference in that.”