'We want a new mayor!': inside the Berlin city game for children

Nate Berg in Berlin

The landowner and the mayor had been meeting – secretly, it seems – and new plans had been hatched to develop an empty plot of land into an apartment tower. Their goal was to offset a housing shortage, but the plan was unwelcome news to many community members: they’d been rallying to turn the long-vacant space into a community garden.

At a town hall meeting, they were livid. “You only want to make money,” one person called out to the landowner. Another grabbed the microphone and yelled, “We want a new mayor!” The room broke into cheers.

This scene of municipal discontent, not unfamiliar in public hearings the world over, played out among a group of 13- and 14-year-old Berlin students. Their “town hall” was the back corner of an art gallery, and the plywood “city” they were furiously debating was the setting for an urban role-playing game.

Built as a microcosm of Berlin (and, really, most cities), it features a town hall, a cafe, a bank, housing, and a late-night corner shop. The participating students are each given roles – deal-making mayor, out-of-work bus driver, police officer, activist, landowner – and a set of issues to address, including rising rents, thefts, drug dealing, well-paid jobs and unemployment.

The model city, and the game, recreates a project that ran in Berlin from 1969-72 in which kids created a small model city and operated mock shops, school spaces and civic institutions. This new iteration, organised by the arts organisation nGbK, aims to give kids a chance to play the roles of the varied actors of city life, but also to build a testbed for ideas to address real urban challenges.

“The thing we wanted to do was to focus on the capitalisation of cities, with the question what happens when the houses are for money-making instead of for living in,” says Claudia Hummel, one of the project’s coordinators.

Played in rounds, the game quickly becomes tense. Students playing the “landlord” role collect rent from the other participants – and just as in real life, as rents rise, some of the “tenants” struggle to afford their apartments. One game with a class of 7- and 8-year-olds led to anxiety, says Heather Purcell, one of the game guides. “That’s very stressful for them. The rent feels like a real problem. So you can see them experience it and they come to you like, ‘What do I do with this problem?’” she says.

For kids with little, if any, experience of real money, financial strain led to some interesting responses. When one student playing a nurse faced eviction, better-paid workers decided to pool their money to pay for everyone’s rent together. “Often, if they’re working with their friends, they think of a collective solution,” Purcell says. “I think kids come to that quicker than grown-ups.”

Could the responses offer lessons for adults in real cities? The group upset about losing their community garden site decided their solution should be political. They called new elections and held a hustings. One candidate declared herself a member of the Green party and pledged to plant more trees. A group of boys proposed creating equal rights for everyone in the city – “women also,” one clarified – and offered supporters €10 per vote. A third candidate, wearing a Napoleonic bicorne hat, said he wanted to rid the city of drug dealers and thieves. Every candidate vowed to lower rents. “Almost every kid in Berlin knows this experience of rising rents from their families. They understand the problem,” says Ann-Christin Janzen, the students’ teacher.

Related: Kids and the city: how do you build the perfect space for children?

The tough-on-crime candidate prevailed. As for the landowner, she told the new mayor she would make her proposed apartments available to anyone working for a charity. But by then the citizens had scattered, and other concerns had arisen. The operators of the cafe were opening a second location; the newspaper editor was writing up the election results; the police officer was back on the beat. Life in the city kept turning.

Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to join the discussion, catch up on our best stories or sign up for our weekly newsletter