Monopoly

As someone who advocates for tabletop games in libraries, I often have to talk about Monopoly. It’s one of the best-known and best-selling board games in the world, but (while I can get it at a discount for libraries if they want it) I don’t include it in my bundle of games, and I don’t recommend libraries spend their limited games budgets on it, except if they are planning on pursuing more advanced active games criticism activities. Why is this?

The answer is bound up in some really interesting broader questions about games and libraries, and also some of the more fascinating aspects of the history of Monopoly and of board games more generally.

 

Libraries – just for books?

Libraries exist to make the world of human thought, culture and information accessible and discoverable to our communities. This is why most libraries now include not only books but music, television, movies and videogames in their collections, and why we increasingly offer access to creative technologies as well.

In pursuing this mission, there is often a tension between quality and popularity: between giving our community what they know they want, and ensuring that they have access to the kind of high-quality material that our professional experience and judgment indicates they are likely to need as they develop their knowledge of and engagement with the wider world. In other words, to give them the intellectual room and resources to stretch their developing tastes and capacities.

To some librarians, those other collections – movies, music, and so on – are only bought at all because they fall under that “popular” rubric. However, most librarians now acknowledge that a picture of our culture that ignored media other than books would be woefully incomplete; while books are still a major focus, we do try to offer some sort of collection of other media according to the same mix of popularity and quality. So movie collections will include Casablanca, Citizen Kane and maybe some Kurosawa; popular music collections will include the Beatles; and so on.

When it comes to tabletop games, though, we generally just throw some dollars at a staff member and send them off to a nearby department store to buy with an eye to value. This has the same results for quality that would result for our book collections if that was how we did book-buying. We wouldn’t consider a small bundle of mass-market paperbacks of mixed age, some reprinted multiple times, an adequate collection – but that’s what we usually end up with in the tabletop game department. (One library service I know of recently opened an incredible new central library with the latest consoles and maker tech, and all the most up-to-date equipment you could want. Its board game collection? Scrabble, Twister – which seems to have been swiftly removed from public display – Monopoly… and Avengers Monopoly.)

The irony is that if there’s any single medium that most benefits from the kind of showcasing of excellence that libraries do, it’s games.

 

Games and the network effect

All creative works are subject to some sort of network effect – the more other people know about a work, the more likely it is that any given individual will hear about it and decide to take a look. But with tabletop games, this effect is magnified by two key facts: (a) that games are more easily learned in play than self-taught from instructions, making it more daunting to pick up a game cold than a book; and (b) they need other people to play with – so popularity affects not only recommendations and retail availability, but ability to engage with the work at all.

This means that the normal bias towards novelty is counterbalanced by conservative pressures that keep people playing games that are already widely known. In this context, libraries’ roles as discoverers and curators of excellence becomes even more important.

But surely this only matters if the most widely-known games are also not good games?

Yes. Well. Let me ask you: do you seriously believe that in the past 100 years, there have been no advances in the art of game design? That nothing has been learned about human nature and psychology, or the nature of fun? (And fun, again, is not trivial but the active aspect of joy.)

In fact, all these things have been rich veins of discovery, and games have been the single greatest area of cultural innovation in the 20th and 21st Centuries. This is true even setting aside the obvious originality of videogames, possible at all only thanks to recent technological advances. In the past 70-50 years, tabletop games alone have given us several major new subdisciplines, some of which were spawned during the modelling of existential threats such as nuclear war and ecological catastrophe, and others of which (roleplaying games, story games) are closely linked to libraries’ undisputed interests: narrative and literacy.

So obviously games will have improved in the past 100 years. But aren’t the classics classics for a reason? Mightn’t some old games be worth having too?

Some, yes. Chess unquestionably belongs in a library, for instance. But looking at Monopoly from any angle other than popularity or historical interest isn’t especially favourable.

 

A note to the reader: no disrespect intended

Before I continue, let me be 100% clear about one thing: I’m not saying that it can’t be fun to play Monopoly, or that those who find it enjoyable are wrong or bad people. If you enjoy it, good for you! I’m saying that what fun there is comes from the players themselves rather than the design of the game; it reflects well on your playgroup that you can enjoy it. And perhaps, if you were to try games that are actually better designed to produce fun, you might enjoy yourselves even more.

Certainly the evidence is that this is the case; international board games website boardgamegeek.com allows users (a diverse global crowd whose primary shared characteristic is to have played a wide range of games; BGG is the tabletop games equivalent of goodreads) to rank games on a few different scales. On its overall ranking, which at the time I checked (6 June 2016) contained 12,288 games with enough ratings to be able to sort them into a ranked order, Monopoly was #12,280 – the 9th-worst game of all of them. This isn’t just hobbyist snobbery; in its family game ranking, which contained 1481 family games, Monopoly was #1480. Clearly, people who have played with any kind of “breadth” (in the same way one might “read broadly”) think poorly of Monopoly.

 

Monopoly is bad, and that’s for a reason

Monopoly is widely known, but it’s as legendary for spawning bitter family fights and for dragging on interminably even though it’s obvious who’s going to win as it is for being widely played.

It’s also notorious among tabletop enthusiasts for making some people loathe the entire medium of board games; pretty much any tabletop game aficionado has at some time had to convince a potential player that actually, most board games are nothing like Monopoly in order to get them to even consider playing a board game.

The structure of the game is such that players lucky enough – and it is hugely dependent on luck – to secure an early advantage almost invariably find that it snowballs into more of the same. The only thing that offsets that early luck, other than extreme good luck later in the game, is the ability to persuade, manipulate or bully others into making the deals you want.

And this isn’t a coincidence.

The myth of Monopoly is that it was created during the Depression by an out-of-work salesman named Clarence Darrow. The truth is that the game Darrow sold Parker Brothers was stolen: it was invented in 1904 as The Landlord’s Game by a feminist and social campaigner named Lizzie Magie, as an educational tool to demonstrate why capitalism’s concentration of wealth is a bad idea. Her original game had an additional set of rules that produced a more balanced, sustainable outcome, modelled on her Georgist economic principles, designed to be played in contrast to the capitalistic rules of the game we all know, and to produce a steady increase in wealth for all players.[1]

Take a moment to absorb two points. First, far from being trivial, games were being used to deliver serious (though not necessarily correct) systemic arguments on pressing social questions over 100 years ago. Second, the game we’ve all played was actually designed to be tedious and divisive, to be increasingly unfun for most of its players, and to reward blind luck, bullying and conniving.[2] Magie clearly underestimated the appeal of schadenfreude[3] and of playing the role of being one of the lucky few at the top of the pile.[4]

 

If Monopoly was a book: literary equivalence

To translate this into literary terms, I’d hark back to the kind of sentimental pulp novels about poor but virtuous orphans exploited by rich and powerful people but saved at the last minute by marrying one of those self-same exploiters whose hearts they have suddenly melted through their patient, noble, non-resistant and above all steadfastly apolitical suffering (and never mind all the other employees who are still being exploited, maybe with a slight raise).

These schmaltzy novels were rip-offs of the kind of trenchant social critique offered by Dickens and similar authors, recognising the power of tugging on the heartstrings but doing so simply to sell copies without offering solutions to, or motivating change in, any of the broader structural social ills that occasioned the very real suffering they depicted.[5]

Now, these trashy poor-orphan-married-into-wealth novels were immensely popular in their time (Wodehouse readers may recall him sending up the type repeatedly), but were recognised as junk even then. Literature as an artform was taken seriously enough that, despite their popularity, the obvious unoriginality and implausibility of the novels meant they were (rightly) denied serious attention. They made their money and then they faded away. (Though it is worth noting that they are immediate ancestors of the Mills & Boon school of formulaic button-pushing.)

Imagine if one of those novels had spawned a vast fortune, and the possessors of that vast fortune had dedicated it to ensuring that that particular novel was regarded as The Novel, emblematic of the entire medium. They spent fortunes promoting it, made sure that everyone had read it, and that such reading was bound up with memories of family spending time together.

This wouldn’t actually work with fiction, of course. Novel-reading is solitary, so it’s less easily associated with family rivalries or fond family time together. Moreover, our hunger for novelty – pardon the semi-pun – militates against such endless repetition of a single work. But in board games, the network effects discussed earlier push us towards known works to a greater degree than in literature, and the injection of play from the audience means that outdatedness is less immediately obvious and repetitiveness is reduced. And the fact that games are not taken as seriously as literature has meant that the obvious flaws in the game have not been as widely noticed or critiqued, until now – though among aficionados of games they have been widely known for some time.

 

Why it matters that Monopoly is bad

To be clear once again, the problem is not that the game exists, nor that people enjoy it – indeed, more power to them!

Rather, the problem is that it’s considered emblematic of the medium. Again, this is a game which – by design – causes fights, is tedious, plays on negative emotions, and does little to exercise the brain (when engaged with as intended by its current publishers; clearly it’s fascinating as an object of critical study). It is such a bad example of its kind that it is known to frequently deter people from the entire medium of tabletop games.

Given a limited budget for books (or music or movies…), no sane librarian would spend it on a novel that was so antagonistic and tiresome that it caused a fair number of people who read it to give up on fiction altogether.

Of course, we might buy such a novel if it was requested enough, or if it was going to be used to study the medium. But given the kind of really limited budget for books that is typically on offer for board games, would we waste it in this way instead of buying something better? I submit that we would politely explain that our priority was to help people access the good stuff, and put a little effort into helping people find that. (My tabletop games bundle is designed as a decent start.)

And I further politely submit that, until such time as our board games budgets are more than the crumbs from our programs and collections budgets, we should do the same with Monopoly.

 

Endnotes

[1] This paragraph is a potted summary of an excellent book on the subject, Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists. I recommend it as a fascinating, well-researched piece of the best sort of cultural history, one that goes deep into its particular subject but maintains an eye for the wider connections and import of its topic.

[2] And one can’t help but feel that Magie would take it as further proof of her views about the worst of corporate capitalism, as an act of intellectual theft covered by brute-force legal and PR shenanigans, and a co-opting of a radically critical voice to make profit.

[3] Safely contained within the magic circle of play, of course; idealists don’t always anticipate how that can transform the subject matter they’re so earnest about.

[4] To be fair, the appeal of such roleplaying would have been even greater during the Great Depression, when Monopoly became such a massive hit, than it was during the age of robber barons that came before it.

[5] Note the parallel to the co-option of Monopoly from its intended purpose.

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