Monopoly is Not a Board Game

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I am a teenager, and as such I am introduced to a whirlwind of new people everyday. Since my passions lie heavily in board gaming, almost all people who get past the first stages of acquaintanceship will be informed (by one way or another) of my cardboard-realm wanderlust. There are a variety of responses to this revelation, but generally the reactions fit into one of two categories.

The first is the disdain, disconnect, or disapproval. Generally followed closely by a phrase resembling: “What about video games?” These people have a lack of appreciation or, more often, understanding of the concept of modern board-gaming. These people are frustrating, but are still no match for my determination. “They will be convinced,” I tell myself whilst calculating what game-personality-type synergy would be most effective in showing them the amazing experience that is modern board gaming. “I’ll show them!” my brain announces triumphantly in my head as I wave my eyebrows with ferocity.

The second lights a fire in my heart.

“Oh, I love board games.”

I scream internally. This is it. This is the moment. Here and now, I have met the friend I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I will invite this person to all of my game nights, I will finally have someone to take to our friendly local game shop, and finally SOMEONE will understand why I NEED more board games all the time.

I have never found my board game best friend. Despite getting this response nearly half the time, not a single person has sustained that fire burning in my heart. “What’s your favorite board game?”, I ask, blinded by infatuation. I should know better, I really should. I know what is coming, I do, and yet, I ask anyways.

“I love Monopoly.”

My fire is doused in a downpour of icy cold rain.

There are so many things wrong with that statement. Who knew three words could be so disheartening? To fully understand the breadth of my disappointment, you have to imagine your own, personal compact, acidic words that could burn you from the inside out. If you’re in love imagine, “we need to talk.” If you’re an introvert conjure this picture: “it’s your turn to speak”. If you’re a dreamer imagine, “you’ve failed… again.”

My dreams have been crushed so many times, you might think that I’d be able to develop a callous to this sort of thing. But I’m far too romantic and too hopeful for such a thing to ever occur. Especially since it’s so difficult to channel my emotion in this moment. Who really is there to be upset with? The person obviously had no clue what they were going to say was so vulgar to me. And the bystanders, well I can’t help but feel sorry for them because they’re about to be caught in my tempest of board game education. I’ve even tried hating the publishers/designers of monopoly, but it is not their fault their game has become such a meaningless, cultural icon.

The problem here is not just when people say that Monopoly is their favorite board game, they are turning a blind and ignorant eye to marvel that is contemporary niche board gaming. It is not just that (even outside of my hipster-esque subculture) there are so many games that are clearly vastly superior (Scrabble, Life and Jenga come to mind). The problem is that this statement implies that Monopoly is a board game in the first place.

A board game is an art form. Board game design uses the combination of mechanics (or rules and devises) and theme (setting and art) to create a social atmosphere designed to get its players to think a certain way. This last part is the true key to the amazing things board games have been able to accomplish. Board games are impactful and fun and beautiful because they change the way we think. In the game the rules are not an arbitrary construct, they are important to their players. They may as well be the rules of life or the laws of physics because something phenomenal happens when we play a board game, our psyche shifts.

If you don’t believe me, listen to any board gamer’s account of their thought process in their latest board game. It will sound like them, but another version of them. Talk to my quiet friend Bailey about how she threw the game to be sure that I didn’t win in Cosmic Encounter. Or talk to my manipulative friend about how she altruistically sacrificed one of her cult members for the good of the team in Dead of Winter. Or pick my friend Will’s brain about how he was able to see four moves ahead and steal the all-important briefcase from someone in the wonderful Colt Express.

Board games truly are art. There are so honest an art form, I feel like a hypocrite for saying that Monopoly doesn’t deserve to be placed in the same category as other abstract, subjective constructs of love, but I feel very strongly about this. Picture your friend describing his favorite film, only to uncover that this “film” is Go, Diego Go. Imagine deciding to watch a Disney movie with your friends and have them pull out Mulan 2. I suppose, technically, these two videos could fit the description, but it just doesn’t have the same caliber as the connotation given to its art form. And in watching the movies you would discover that some of the most important elements of the art form you love and appreciate were lacking or entirely omitted.

Monopoly is my Mulan 2. It looks like a board game, was produced by someone who makes board games, but contains nothing about what I love and have come to expect from people who design them. Sure, both Monopoly and Mulan 2 can have sentimental or cultural value that makes them worth revisiting or even loving, but it does not improve the quality of the art.

I am no film critic. I’m not an art critic, and heck, I’m barely a board game critic. But I can tell you this, for me at least, what art all boils down to is choice. The beauty is in the choice. There are aesthetic, technical and production values to any good piece of art, but good art is always an expression of decision. Good art gets you to ask tough and interesting questions. Why did that character act that way? What is the right way to act in a situation like that? How would I have made that decision? Do most people really act that way? Why was that color used instead of that one? What part of society does this reflect on? Am I more like the piece or not like it? How can one really define our connections to others?

And this is where board games never fail to impress me. Board games force you to interact with the art and the people around you, and therefore they force you to start asking yourself important questions like these. The art of board gaming is such a surreal experience, because you are literally a part of the art, you have become it, and, in a way no other medium can accomplish, the art is you.

True board games find success in getting you to contemplate the meaning of existence, balance the good fortune with the bad, understand your personality and how you interact with others, think outside the confinements of social constructs, develop meaningful strategies for succeeding in the game and in life, and appreciate the fundamental similarities and differences between all types of people through all situations in life.

Now, it’s obvious that I romanticize board games, but that doesn’t make my argument any less valid. My subjectivity only goes to further the art form that is board gaming. And Monopoly disheartens me. It sends a shiver up my spine. Monopoly is an exercise of stamina in the face of boredom.

There is no choice in monopoly. You roll dice and move around the board, being more a pawn of fate and cheating than you are of your own consciousness. The decisions in this game are limited and scarce. Would you like to stay in jail or pay to get out? Would you like to build a house? What piece would you like to play? The only other real choice in the game is when you trade properties and money with other players. Here is the peak excitement of the game. It is in this bargaining that players are finally given some autonomy over their destiny. Here players are actually using skill to try to win a game.

It’s the sad sort of funny that I enjoy this game’s original rules more than the ones we tend to use today. When you land (an appropriate word to describe your lack of control over the destination of your own avatar) on a piece of property, you get the option to buy it. There are only very few times not buying this asset will benefit you (in fact, I once read an essay on how always buying property, when you can, increases your chances of winning the game) but let’s suppose you pass it up. In the way my family and countless others have played it for years, this property is static and it is the next player’s turn, however, some rules say that this property then goes to auction for the rest of the players.

This actually adds some strategy and important decision to the game, after all you may not want this property, but you also don’t want anyone else to have it. This choice even ventures into the amazing realm that board games so often enter, the realm of having to believe you know the motives and consequent actions of the people sitting around the table, perhaps even better than they do. Now you have to gamble on how well you can predict other people’s decisions. And that undoing of a social puzzle is riveting.

Try to understand what I mean by a social situation; board gaming undoes the social contracts our society holds so dear and offers its own replacement to the scripts of our days lives: the rules. A board game’s components for the most part can change, as evidenced by the fact that the decision to play the thimble or the shoe has no bearing on how you play the rest of Monopoly. But a board game’s rules are a new world to the player, and, in order to understand them, you must begin to think like you exist in this world.

This is how board gaming has been successful in tackling some of the most important social issues like sexism, love, loss, slavery, altruism, trust, prejudice, and many others. Now I’m not saying that Monopoly has to approach a contentious issue in our society, but it does have to at least approach our society.

Monopoly doesn’t give you the chance to think about trusts, or business practices in the early 20th century, or even about negotiation. It gives you no less insight into the players sitting around the table than a day at the mall. Let’s be honest, Monopoly isn’t even an enjoyable enough experience/game to finish to the bitter end.

“Oh goodie!” my grandma exclaims as she lands on California Avenue. In my house we play that you can’t add houses or hotels to properties until you land on them. Whether or not this is actually part of the rules is a discussion not worth having, because, as I said before, the rules of this game really don’t matter, we play it, in spite of all of its flaws, for its history.

“Grandma, can we play I different game?” I plea, exhausted from the two hours of this mess we’ve played so far.

“Just as soon as we finish,” she tells me placing her golden bank notes into clearly defined stacks.

We didn’t finish that game, my brother and had were going out that night and nearly two hours later the game wasn’t done boring us. So we left her and my sister at home to watch a movie. The next day, before I woke up, she left and I wouldn’t see her until Thanksgiving in two months.

I’ve always wanted to learn more about my grandmother since this one day when I was in eighth grade when she told me that her father had abandoned her at a very young age, and her mother remarried because she didn’t feel quite confident in being a working woman, mostly given the social situation during the depression. She had told me these things, and suddenly a new side of her opened up, something I hadn’t ever seen from her. I desperately wanted to see more of it, but, for one reason or another, I never found the right time to ask her.

I was angry at Monopoly for, once again, taking away my quality time with my grandma and replacing it with meaningless hours spent towards an unfulfilling goal. I was angry, but I had resolved myself to not allowing to take our precious time away from us at Thanksgiving.

So at last the big holiday came and the dinner came and went quickly, like it always does. Afterwards my giant family sat around on couches, debating what to do next. I gave my subtly prepared speech and pulled out a modest blue box I had strategically brought to my uncle’s house. I suggested we play Dixit.

Dixit, as a game, isn’t particularly important to the story, except that I know that this game is art. I know this because later that night my grandma remarked a card in the game reminded her of that story she told me long ago, and I was finally in a position to ask. I didn’t ask much, and the answer wasn’t particularly riveting, but it was insightful, and I went home appreciating my grandma more that night.

I set out (believing it would be a cute gesture) to make my first post here a review of Monopoly. I never meant to preach about the complexities of board gaming as an art form. Something about the way Monopoly interacts with the art form was intriguing though. Why is Monopoly not a member of the category of art I am so obsessed with despite evidence to the contrary?

Art means something different to each person, the word ‘art’ itself has a contentious history in out legal system and our society. Solipsism is the human idea that every single person on this planet can only ever see things from their perspective. It is the idea that we are locked in our own conscience, that we can never know what it is like to think outside of our own thought process. This is the appeal of art. This is why so many of us become obsessed with it. Art allows us to bend solipsism. It allows us to, even just for a moment, feel and think with the same emotion and vigor that someone has. Art, by defintion, is the power to, momentarily bend solipsism. And the art of board gaming, in particular and in contrast to other media, allows us to see the perspectives of those important few who are sitting around the table with us. I can think of no greater experience to have.

My dear reader, I have mislead you. This article is not about Monopoly or my grandma or even board gaming. This article is not about art or the human experience or about me. This article is about you. Like all good art, this article is about my interaction with you. And, my dear reader, I would be remiss if I continued to lie to myself. I told myself this article would be about announcing my own passion for board gaming, and I convinced myself that my goal was as such. My dear reader, this is about my undying hope that this article sparks the same passion for you in your chosen art form that board gaming has for me. And while I’d be a little disappointed if you too cannot find your own love for board gaming that I have found, I suppose art wouldn’t be quite as meaningful if solipsism was an easy thing to bend.

My dear reader, art is a call to action, and I’m calling out to you.

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3 thoughts on “Monopoly is Not a Board Game

    • You have no idea what it means to be able to put myself out there in such a way I was afraid no one would really understand, and have you say something like that. Thank you.

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      • You’re welcome, you totally deserve it! You’re an AMAZING writer and I think it’s so great that you can put yourself out there like that. Props to you, Max. You’re my goals. 🙂

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