Ben Hsu

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

I Hate Monopoly

Monopoly is a terrible game. I know this opinion is becoming much more popular of late, but I think it bears repeating: Monopoly is a terrible game. Yet for some reason, I played an absurd amount of Monopoly when I was a kid, in after school clubs (glorified daycare), at friends’ houses, with any family member that I could annoy into playing, etc. You’d think my first indication that Monopoly is a terrible game should have been the fact that every time I went to a different house there was a different set of house rules in effect (which caused no end to arguments due to the fact that eight year olds don’t understand the concept of “house rules”). No game that is actually enjoyable should require that much after market modding.

The problem with Monopoly is that it rewards winning too much. Kind of a counter-intuitive statement isn’t it? It seems natural to reward winners for winning and punish losers for losing; that way you’re using both reward and punishment to incentivize people to do well. Theoretically the idea is sound, but only if the rewards and punishments are distributed after the event. Otherwise you’re just creating a gap in which the losers have no hope of catching up and the winners can stop trying after a certain point. Can you imagine, for example, a race where after each lap the fastest people get a cup of sports drink, and the slowest people have weights strapped to them? Admittedly, it would be pretty funny to watch (at least the first couple of times), but in terms of actually being a competitive sport the concept is absurd; barring a few extreme incidents, the winners would be decided within the first lap. Monopoly plays exactly like that; within the first few rounds all the property has been bought up and there’s one player that’s clearly ahead. At that point, barring some really lucky rolls at the exact right time, they’ve basically won and it’s just a matter of slowly whittling the other players down. The end result is two plus hours of one player actually having fun and every other player having fun under the delusion of ‘making a big comeback’ only to be frustrated into anger and hopelessness bit by bit.

There’s an analogy here about how Monopoly perfectly simulates the American economy and society (which I just made), but the real reason I think Monopoly is a terrible game, the reason I hate the game so much, is that it normalizes these types of interaction. Specifically, it teaches children that competition is ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’ and it ‘pushes us to improve ourselves.’ All of which is true, in specific circumstances. Example: Professional sports. Professional athletes put themselves into competition with other athletes and are constantly working to improve themselves beyond their fellow players. The result is bunch of people in amazing shape, playing a game they (presumably) have fun playing, entertaining millions of people. But  every sport is a functionally closed system. Sure, between seasons no one is going to hire the shitty quarterback that can’t throw worth a damn, but overall each player and team knows exactly what to expect going into any given game. And what they expect is a fair game, where both sides are on even footing at the start of the game. But games of Monopoly don’t play like that do they? It’s a game that heavily pushes for extreme competition, without giving any actual benefits for being competitive. The most you’ll get by being a ‘better’ Monopoly player is the joy of making your friends and family miserable more often. Worse still, unlike professional sports, there’s no culture of good sportsmanship surrounding games like Monopoly; quite the opposite, if the main point of enjoyment is winning, then the winner is probably going rub the fact that they won into the loser’s faces. Yay them. Yet, the game is still a ‘classic’ pastime, and there are literally hundreds of franchised variants on the market place.

You’d think, given that Monopoly famously started as way to illustrate certain economic principles, that at some point we’d have collectively realized that our own economic system is fundamentally untenable. Every simulation (game of Monopoly) ends the same way: one person owns everything, and more often than not the winner is not a particularly nice person. While there have been occasional attempts to change the nature of the game; for the most part we’ve not only continued to play this real life Monopoly game, we’ve completely embraced it. We teach our kids, “this is how the system works, these are the rules of the game.” We grow up thinking it’s okay to be cruel to those less fortunate because, “if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser.” Worst of all, we’re told over and over that we, “might be the winner this game.” There’s not going to be a winner because this particular game of Monopoly, the one we’ve all been born into and forced to play our whole lives, has been going since humans first created economics and isn’t going to end. Everyone just passes their position on the board to their kids, who pass it on to their kids and so on until humanity either dies out or we all wise up and play a game that’s actually fun.

You know what’s a really fun game? Space Alert. Space Alert is a board game where you and your friends are spaceship pilots; your ship has plunked down in the middle of a random part of the universe and you have to work together to survive the ten minutes it takes for your ship’s engines to warm up. In that ten minutes everything in the area will try to kill you, the ship will start falling apart at the seams, and you’ll all rapidly realize you weren’t trained nearly enough to handle any of the situations occurring. It’s the perfect combination of intense, thoughtful, and admittedly hilarious. It’s a game where you all win together, or you all lose together, but no matter what, everyone has a pretty good time. Pretty much the exact opposite of Monopoly.

The one thing Space Alert and Monopoly have in common is they both do a really good job of mimicking real life. But where Monopoly simulates an intricate and confusing system we created for ourselves; Space Alert shows us what the universe is really like. Because like it or not, we’re all stuck together in what is basically an actively hostile universe. We can only survive on this tiny speck of dust we decided to call Earth, and we’re not even really good at living on Earth. Over 70% of our own planet is uninhabitable (unless we suddenly learn how to breath underwater). The parts of the planet we can live on are infested with diseases, organisms so hostile and omnipresent we’ve only just recently found reasonably effective ways to combat them, and they’re already adapting around our techniques. And on top of all of this mess, we’ve somehow let a group of sociopaths convince everyone that we need to finish this endless game of Monopoly to decide who gets to be the leader. It’s asinine. We don’t have time to play Monopoly! Diseases are getting more lethal, the air is becoming harder to breath, we’re running out of food, and on the off chance we manage to solve all these problems we still have to deal with the Sun eventually going supernova. The universe decided we’re playing Space Alert, whether we like it or not, so we all better get off our asses and start working together before some giant, space squid eats us.

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

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