A friend of mine had a fascinating piece of history: It was a version of the board game Monopoly that was created in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. You see, his father had been a Dutch colonial in Asia, and during the war he spent several years of his childhood interred in a Japanese camp.
If you've seen any movies or read any books about Japanese camps, they were no joke. Plenty of people died of disease or malnourishment in that environment. It could be, literally, one of the worst places imaginable. All of this makes the very existence of a hand-made version of Monopoly something of an amazement. I never did get to see the thing, but the story of it fascinated me. I imagined all the work that must have gone into its creation, from hand-carved tokens and hotels to all the pieces of scrip and property cards, all the rules and restrictions and numbers that would have to be recalled from memory.
Another thing that struck me was that, after the my friend's father was freed and grew up, and became a lifelong socialist, he never discarded the board game. Why would a socialist lovingly cling to a game that exhibits laissez-faire capitalism? It seemed to go beyond sentimentality.
That is, unless you consider Monopoly to be a sort of satire of capitalism, a game where everybody is a loser except for one person who's left holding all the property and money. In that sense, maybe a socialist could embrace the game as a playful indictment of the rampant free market.
Looking back on the games of my youth, I begin to see that there were subtle elements of satire underneath it all, a sort of sly acknowledgement that, in chasing after the chips, the ruling class was greedy, shallow, empty, moneygrubbing, and foolish.
Without going into the why and wherefore too much, I've been playing board games a lot recently. And they're not the cool kinds designed by Germans and sold at Vault of Midnight. They're updated versions of the games I grew up with, produced by companies like Milton Bradley and Hasbro.
And they're absolutely awful.
First, the Game of Life. It turns out that the game is one of the oldest board games that remains current, having been developed more than 150 years ago. It was resurrected in 1960, just in time for the height of consumerist America. The game mimicked the aspirations of a shallow upper class. Everybody got a car, and a choice of which kind of school they wanted to go to: business school, or specializing in law or medicine or various other upper-class professions. The goal was to accumulate as much money, property, children, insurance, and stocks and bonds as you went through life, which looked like a suburban highway. At the end, you'd arrive at the Millionaire's Mansion, or suffer the indignity of living at the poor house.
First of all, it's a game. I'm pretty sure everybody playing this game knew that holding fistfuls of dollars and stocks and bonds and sticking out your tongue at the losers at the Poor House was what the game was all about, and perhaps not what life should be all about.
But in the early 1990s, the game underwent a redesign that has ruined it for me forever. In a tweak worthy of the Clinton era, the game attempts to let you get filthy rich while also having a clean conscience about it. You are awarded money for finding the solution to pollution, curing diseases, recycling, and doing other socially responsible things. First of all, it's a ridiculous lie: Nobody makes a filthy amount of money by doing socially responsible things. Second, they have shattered the potent element of social satire that made the original game such a hoot: making fun of Biff and Buffy and their shallow dreams. The changes to the game might have been made by Biff and Buffy themselves: "We're not THAT bad. This game makes DREADFUL fun of us. Show all the GOOD we're doing!" End result: another game, ruined.
Or take last night's entertainment, the latest edition of CLUE: The Classic Mystery Game. It was the most recent edition produced by Hasbro. Gone was the creepy old house filled with the secret crimes of the rich. Gone were the colonel, the reverend, the professor, the socialite, all the members of the upper crust who were formerly under suspicion of murder. Instead, it was a well-appointed house filled with a multiracial cast of very typical looking 21st century Americans. It was about as realistic as Friends, in which a handful of mostly unemployed people live in a huge New York apartment. But, what's more, the class overtones have been muted almost to silence.
Whoever gave this game a makeover may have missed one of the major appeals of the original game, released in the 1940s, which was to look back from the relatively egalitarian society of its day back on the creepy undertones of the old order. In the backstabbing world of the elite, sometimes the typical white-collar crime is accented by a good, old-fashioned murder, and at the hands of the most elegant personages.
Was it simply too shocking to suggest that pastors or military leaders would murder somebody? Apparently. Because now we have a cast of suspects we can really identify with: white, black, and Latino, all looking just like, well, like us!
Wait a second! Why do the suspects in this game not look like rich people, but look just like us? What is the appeal of that? I mean, I can understand the characters in a game looking like us, but the SUSPECTS? What's going on here? How is the game improved by the update if, instead of the well-off duffers being suspect, it's a broadly representative group of our peers who are the potential criminals?
Again, as in the remake of the Game of Life, the rich are let off the hook.
A little later today, these updated games are going to disappear from my household. Rather than watch my childhood memories take it up the ass (and inflict a bunch of class confusion on the young person all this gaming inspired), I'm going to Vault of Midnight soon to get a bunch of better, contemporary games. I'm also going to encourage you to do the same. And, maybe, late at night, I'll win one of those online auctions on the classic versions of these games, so I can once again laugh my ass off, even if I end up at the Poor House.