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Ms. Monopoly: Critical Game Design Gone Wrong

Adriaan Odendaal
Sep 10 · 10 min read

Journalist Megan Garber recently wrote an incisive takedown in The Atlantic of board-game conglomerate Hasbro’s latest instalment in the Monopoly multiverse (a new edition to the ranks of Star Wars Monopoly, Monopoly Millennial, 007 Monopoly, Pokemon Monopoly, Ultimate Banking Monopoly, and over 1500 more absurd editions, spinoffs, and branded licensing). The headline of Garber’s article on this brand new edition called Ms. Monopoly got straight to the point:

“The Board Game That Turns Feminism Into a Joke”.

Garber’s article itself quickly gets to the gist as she argues that (and illustrated how) the new Ms. Monopoly board-game is a blatant and often confounding commodification of feminism. Yet there is something more to be said about what Ms. Monopoly tried to accomplish as a game, and why it failed so spectacularly: Ms. Monopoly is an attempt at critical game design, gone horribly wrong.

What is Ms. Monopoly?

Writing about a game I haven’t played myself is a cardinal sin in game criticism. Yet, as the social-sharing tagline of Gerber’s Atlantic article states: “I played Ms. Monopoly so that you don’t have to”. For that reason (and because Gerber writes with such wit), I will freely quote from her descriptions of the game:

Amongst its feminist reterritorializing of standard Monopoly mechanics are:

As well as Chance and Community Chest cards that contain instructions such as:

The game seems to ooze retail industry performative corporate activism or ‘woke washing’. The examples above, as well as the box-art tagline: “The first game where women make more than men”, makes it seem like the designers scrolled through Twitter to scrape keyword, slogans, emblematic (yet non-politically divisive) expressions, and complaints that superficially exemplify contemporary Western feminism.

Perhaps, despite its glaring flaws and contrivances, it is too reductive to say Ms Monopoly is a mere case of commodification at work. Because the designers obviously made a concerted effort to turn Monopoly into a socially progressive game. There clearly was some attempt to do something meaningful, using the system of Monopoly as a vehicle. So why did it seem to have gone so wrong? Why does it seem contradictory, contrived, and a completely misguided application of feminist criticism?

Designing Games As Social Critique

Author of the book Critical Play: Radical Game Design Mary Flanagan states that “[o]n some level, systems such as games must, due to the conditions of their creation, represent cultural norms and biases in their realization”. Games are cultural artefacts, and in their rule-based structures and codified content they invariably contain some of the values, belief systems, biases, social stigmas, and philosophies of the societies that spawns them. However fantastical their themes might be (i.e. Pokemon Monopoly), games work by offering us a rule-based simulacrum that is systematically relatable to us on some level. And to do this, they need to filter cultural values — normative ideas about how the world works — through into a fun and entertaining ludic experience.

Critical game design (also known as ‘radical game design’, ‘critical play’, ‘critical gameplay’, ‘activist games’, ‘persuasive games’, or ‘critical design games’) inverts this relation between game system and social system by asking: if games are inherently reflective of their cultural contexts, can we subversively use games as social criticism as well?

Flanagan writes that critical game design emphasizes the use of games as directed tools “for artistic, political, and social critique or intervention, in order to propose ways of understanding larger cultural issues”.

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For examples of such critical games, you can take a look at Branda Romero’s Train, the games of TerrorBull such as War on Terror, or even our own experiment in critical game design: Unveiling Interfaces.

Monopoly itself has a long history connected to critical game design. While modern Monolopy is exemplary in showing how a board game can be inextricably embedded with a universalised capitalist ideology, the game’s progenitor was an ostensible ‘activist game’ designed in 1904 by Lizzie Magie. Monopoly was originally called The Landlord’s Game and was used by Magie as a playful medium to promote the progressive ideas of economist Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879) which postulated that land monopoly was the principal reason of poverty. Magie was inspired by George’s proposal for the Single Tax Movement as an alternative to free market capitalism, which argued that a high, uniform tax be applied on all land, raw or developed.

The Landlord’s Game provided players with two modes of play, one based on George’s Single Tax solution, and the other on the existing free market system. The dual modal design allowed the game to be used as a subversive space to show the benefits of George’s proposal. It is then in an ironic twist of fate that the second mode of play became the only mode of play after the patent of the game was acquired by Parker Brothers and the game was aptly re-branded as Monopoly. It has since become a game that, instead of subverting the social order, reifies the status quo — a game that, like actual monopolies in the real world, purports a system that brings out the worst in all of us.

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However, if you watch the promo for Ms. Monopoly above, it is clear that this game is trying to (re)position itself as a progressive ‘activist’ or ‘critical play’ game. Yet the problem here is that despite rhetorical intentions, the game, like the 1500 other spin-offs, remains ostensibly Monopoly. And Monopoly is inherently a board-game expressive of ruling-class hegemony and historically white, male, neo-liberal capitalism.

Ms Monopoly As Critical Game Design

Following the strain of Flanagan and critical game design, it can be stated that the rules of Monopoly are inherently ideological — regardless of what the content itself might consist of (whether it’s catching Pokemon, or investing in female inventions). And as such, the interchangeable content invariably conscribe to the ideology presupposed by the rules. The titular Ms. Monopoly is a Silicon Valley-style investor focusing on investing on the ideas of women. She is the niece (and surrogate) of Mr. Monopoly, the archetypical white male capitalist. Ms. Monopoly is playing the same game that Mr. Monopoly set-up.

Critical theorist Nancy Fraser writes that second-wave feminism, carried through in contemporary intersectional feminism, was “as a radical challenge to the pervasive androcentrism of state-led capitalist societies in the postwar era”. And as critical theorist Marcuse wrote: “Feminism is a revolt against decaying capitalism”. There is something inherently patriarchal about capitalism. Gerber herself hints at this problematic in the game as she writes:

The point here is that Monopoly at its core underwrites the socio-economic status quo, while feminism is inherently about upending that exact status quo. And here the inherent rules of Monopoly become salient over the superficial ‘reskinning’ of the board game as ‘feminist’. This carries over to social or corporate ‘woke washing’ in general. Rectifying the gender wage-gap is not simply about making tokenistic adjustments within the existing system, but should be about changing the underlying institutional structures that caused this systemic undervaluing of female participation in the public sphere.

A earnestly feminist-informed board game would not offer players participation in the same simulated hegemonic socio-economic system that standard-edition Monopoly presents. Even if you exchange buying ‘Boardwalk’ with investing in Mary Anderson’s invention of windscreen-wipers, you are still playing within the same rule-set. As Gerber writes:

“Ms. Monopoly, turn by turn, echoes the logic of the original”.

Game designer and scholar Lindsay Grace writes: “The fundamental critique of affirmative design is that it simply fails to ask the important social questions […] It fails to reevaluate its own practices”. Ms. Monopoly seems like a misguided attempt at critical game design, instead ending up as disingenuous ‘affirmative design’.

What Would a Feminist Monopoly Look Like?

Critical games, as Grace writes, create their playable critique by “providing new game experiences that question the status quo or emphasize the assumptions in it”. This entails creating not only socially-conscious in-game content, but moreover subversive game rules or mechanics that ostensibly simulate a progressive social system or critique of a social system through gameplay.

Perhaps in Ms Monopoly the whole paradigm of scientific study and invention should not be tied up in the paternalistic structure of financial patronage, patent ownership, and an end-goal focus on monetization and consequent generation and accumulation of wealth? Perhaps the very mode of play would need to change: the Trump-esque core-mechanic of Monoploy is already inherently paradigmally anti-feminist as you need to win at the explicit cost of others. Perhaps a feminist Monopoly would need to change from competitive gameplay to co-operative gameplay, as in games like Pandemic where players have to work together instead of compete to complete the game. But then Ms. Monopoly would cease to be Monopoly! It would become a completely different game (Does anyone remember the inadvertently critical detournement of Monopoly by the cartoonists of Mad Magazine, in which the Carnivalesque point of the game was to lose as much money as possible?).

There is another avenue however, to keep the core of Monopoly intact while turning it into a convincingly critical game. Critical pedagogist Francesco Crocco did a more conscientious (and conscientizing) re-design of Monopoly as a way to critique the capitalist myth of meritocracy embedded within standard Monopoly:

The purpose of this modification is, according to Crocco, that as “students come to identify with their disenfranchised characters, they will become alienated from the game’s competitive economics and false promise of upward mobility”.

What if in the same vein, rather than making women start with more money than men, Ms Monopoly actually accurately reflected the reality of the wage-gap? Wouldn’t this injustice express more centrally the feminist critique than creating a fanastical utopia where roles are magically inverted? This re-design would make players more aware of the cumulative effects of wage gaps, and other gender-inequalities, as the game unfolds. Rather than drawing a Chance card that ‘shatters the glass ceiling’, what if you draw a chance card that makes the glass ceiling painfully real for players by putting a cap on the earnings from their inventions?

Yet, why would you make such a difficult, and unfair, game to play? Because the power of critical game design is in that it can be socially transformative; that it can provoke players to reflect on the social-systems simulated by the printed squares, cardboard playing field, and rolling of the dice on the living room carpet. Gerber, maybe a bit too glibly, states that “[w]e understand that this is a board game intended for ages 8 and up and probably shouldn’t be overthought”. It is especially this persuasiveness that makes games so important to critically interrogate. For as long as we play games that reinforce the status quo, we slowly internalize it’s rules as governing more than just play.

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We started giving shape to our design & research studio during our own experiments in critical game design. Doing these kinds of designs are exactly the type of service we would like to offer clients, companies, organizations, and individuals. We aim to do design that is not ‘affirmative’, but sits somewhat uncomfortably between social critique and design work. Straddling both critical theory and industry practices is a way for us to offer others an avenue to deliver their messages while making a cognizant choice in terms of medium, experience, and cultural consideration. We believe in the power of non-conventional projects to promote social change, and curiosity, and through that help companies and organizations that want to drive progressive, forward-thinking, and creative ways of doing work in the world.

References:

  • Crocco, F. (2011). Critical Gameplay Pedagogy. In The Radical Teacher, 91(Fall), pp. 26–41.
  • Flanagan, M. (2009). Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Flanagan, M. (2010). Creating Critical Play. In Artists Re:Thinking Games, 49–53.
  • Fraser, N. (2013). Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. New York, London: Verso. Available:
  • Grace, L. (2014). Critical Games: Critical Design in Independent Games. [online].
  • Grace, L. (2014). Critical Gameplay. In Designing Games for Ethics, (December), pp. 128–141.
  • Marcus, H. (2006). Marxism and Feminism. [online].

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