Monopoly Without Jail

November 14, 2013
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I recall my first experience being incarcerated. I stared down at my little civil war cannon floundering in the jail square of Monopoly and waited, teeth gritted, knuckles trembling, for luck to ferry me on my way. As a child, and even as an adult, it was and still is excruciating (I assume what real jail is like). The jail space is a constant reminder that luck is not always on your side, and once in jail, that all is almost for nought. So, in a board game, it is obviously essential.

Earlier this year a rumor spread across the Internet (and I assume other sources of news and the like) that in the wake of Monopoly Empire, the newest incarnation of the beloved game, the jail square would be removed from that and subsequent versions. This inspired panic in many a fake businessman and woman who disagreed with Hasbro’s choice to remove the most intense part of the experience. Were the bigwigs churning out Monopoly sets going to follow the chain of changes in children’s entertainment of making things more friendly and babied? Jail in Monopoly is for children a way to cope with inevitability in the marketplace and in life.

As it turned out, the PR honchos at Hasbro had never intended to remove the jail tile. Monopoly Empire introduced new rules, but removing jail was simply wild speculation on the part of the Internet. Jail is here to stay in Monopoly, an important cornerstone of the brand. Languishing in jail is still, fortunately, an integral part of the Monopoly experience.

However, the changes made for the coming of Monopoly Empire are disquieting. Jail may still be in the rules somewhere, but now according to them same honchos, Empire is supposed to last under an hour (possibly as little as thirty minutes) and is basically a marketing orgy for children. Kids play as artifacts of current capitalism (you can play as an XBox controller) and buy and sell brands like Coca Cola instead of railroads and utilities. It’s like a panopticon of popular culture for unknowing little kiddies.

Why is this terrifying? I recall as a child that Monopoly inspired a fantasy of being a businessperson, buying and selling and trading and backstabbing. A Monopoly game would last hours and would weed out the strong children from the weak. It was cutthroat and awesome. And an utter fantasy. Boardwalk could have been anywhere (even if in NYC, a mythical version of the metropolis). And railroads suggested a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps romanticism, jail adding to that sense of an old timey rat race (you’ll get what’s comin’ to ya, see). This new version of the board game is designed for a quick game, sans any sense of family competition, almost as if a comma between a global grammar of way-too-real video games.

Sure, Monopoly was never the most fantastical game, but there was imagined danger and wealth for the kids and parents. Having a playable commercial in its place stomps on the sheer excitement of a game with a truly brutal legacy. Adults remember Monopoly jail, and very few adults can sport a Monopoly win. This new version is too easy and too real. If it is to triumph over the classic incarnation, then that’s another nail in the coffin for really imaginative childhoods and even a sense of danger, real or imagined, that kids need and are lacking in our Americanized world. Soon even Capture the Flag may lack a jail with any real umph, and that’d be a damn shame.

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