Feb 16, 2006

Gameopoly

This post is gonna come off as preaching to the choir, but I feel the need to take the pulpit.

Prolific game reviewer Tom Vasel interviews one of the "top" Monopoly players. The very thought of playing that game makes my skin crawl, so I was interested in seeing how someone can continue to play such a flawed game when we have really entered a golden age of board games. I personally believe that Monopoly's single greatest asset is cultural intertia. It is, at least in the United States, one of those games that are just played.

You know the ones. Battleship, Candyland, Risk, Scrabble, Uno, Yahtzee, and Monopoly are passed down from generation to generation as parents assume that what they played as children are what their children should be playing.

Now, I know that just saying "everyone in the country would abandon Monopoly if only they knew about Power Grid" doesn't constitute proof. And I can't prove it. I can, however, show that there are equally plausible explanations for Monopoly's monopoly on America.

A defender, or Moldier (see: a+b), of these games might want to start listing their "virtues". To them I would ask, "so these games are better than [insert Spiel des Jahres winner] because?" And of course I would receive a blank stare. They can talk for hours about why Monopoly is fun but can't begin to argue why it is more fun than, for example, Settlers of Catan.

Why? Because they've never heard of it.

The Moldier could be inclined to counter that capitalism works, and the fact that Monopoly continues to be a household name that sells well after all these years is proof of how good it is. Toys R' Us knows who holds the pursestrings: parents. When it comes time for a birthday, Winter Holiday, or "just because" gift it will be Mommy and Daddy (or not) choosing the gift.

And if that parent wants one less plastic gun around the house, they will be well served by the board games section. Go to your local Toys R Us and take a look at the game shelves. In order to maximize shelf space, as any good retailer does, Geoffrey shows only the thin edge of each game. Game makers know this, so they maximize this space to get the parents' attention.

Now put yourself in the place of this harried parent. There are a multitude of choices, and examining any individual game for more information, say, on the back of the box, is a non-trivial task. You certainly aren't going to compare every single game available. So your eyes automatically gravitate towards the familiar logos and names. You remember playing them as a child, so you toss it in the cart and take off.

Things get worse when you look at the perspective of the retailer. They know that this is exactly how most of their customers act, and will act accordingly. They remove the games that sell only occasionally, as the worst thing possible for a retailer in a Wal-Mart world is inventory that gathers a speck of dust. Now Monopoly sits on the shelves unchallenged.

Of course, everything mentioned here is self-reinforcing, as customers will now be even less aware of alternatives to their "childhood favorites".

There is a trend of foreign companies buying underperforming or outright failing American businesses. Take a look at the Thinkpad. Last year, Chinese computer company Lenovo bought the Thinkpad brand from IBM. They bought more than that, really, but the Thinkpad name was what they were really after. Another Chinese company went after Maytag. These companies weren't interested in American factories, designs, or inventory. They knew that those parts of the American businesses were subpar, because the Chinese were the ones beating them.

However, the Chinese understood that American cultural inertia was powerful enough to defy all reason. They have long since passed us in ability to manufacture low-cost, high-quality consumer products, xenophobic "Buy American" commercials notwithstanding. But they can't succeed in the American marketplace without a name that Americans know, because we are prone to praise the familiar without even trying to justify such an evaluation.

Let's get back to the interview. All the expected notes were hit, but there are two specific quotes I want to draw your attention to. First off:
Tom: Do you think a lot of the reason for the popularity of Monopoly is simply that it's been around so long? With today's shorter attention spans, do you think Monopoly, introduced as a new game, would be successful?

Ken: No. I do not think that is enough to sustain a game for so long. I am sure that the fact that there are generations of adults that introduce it to their children because they have pleasant memories playing is a factor. However, the bottom line is that it is fun to play. People like you and your readers who enjoy gaming love trying new games every year but we are only going to continue to play the ones that are fun.
Well, no surprises here. He first spins the inertia as proof that the game is fun. This without recognizing how few adults still play Monopoly. If all of these parents teaching their children had such pleasant memories of the game, why did they stop playing until it was time to torture their children with it? The next part had me laughing for a good half-minute:
Tom: There are many new board games that have been quite popular lately, commonly known as "German" games. These include games such as Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan. What is your opinion on these?

Ken: I'm sorry but I am not familiar with those types of games.
I was sad that Tom didn't press forward on this point. I understand the need for politeness, but this ignorance, which lies at the heart of the problem, needs to be highlighted. Here is one of the highest-profile Moldiers and he can't defend his game against modern classics. I don't mean to make sport of this fellow, but there couldn't be a clearer signal that this guy is wrong than his inability to respond to that question.

Why do I get overheated about these games? Because they stand in the way of innovation. Part of this is blatant financial self-interest. The more money that is poured into indistinguishable versions of Monopoly (where's the version where you buy different versions of Monopoly instead of properties?), the less that will be available to publishers that might use some of that money to try one of my games out.

But even if I abandoned game design tomorrow (a thought that runs through my mind every night), I would still want to see Monopoly disappear. The massive vacuum left by Monopoly would force the American public to learn games that I enjoy. The next time there is a family get-together or I'm hanging out with friends and I say "How about a game of Ticket to Ride?", I don't want to hear "What's that? Why don't we just play Clue?"

3 comments:

  1. I didn't press forward on the one point simply because I didn't feel that it would be overly productive - he would simply have been mocked even more - and that would lose me interviews in the future.

    I found his interview quite fascinating, and if I ever meet him again, will attempt to teach him a game such as Settlers of Catan.

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  2. Point taken, but would it perhaps have been possible to ask a followup that suggested he explore those games without offending him? After all, he had no problem declaring that the reason you and your readers didn't like Monopoly was because we didn't play by the real rules.

    It's common for journalists to treat their interviewees gingerly, but there are ways to get a point across. One of my favorite interviews ever is here:http://www.1up.com/do/feature?cId=3147131&did=1

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  3. Cloud9:06 PM

    Monopoly is fun because its something that most of us know we can never accomplish, playing with money is always fun if u have any...

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