The Panopticon Comes to Atlantic City

Lee Hachadoorian on Mar 5th 2011

I’m a big game player, and have been involved (mostly just listening in) with CUNY Games Network, a great group of CUNY faculty devoted to games-based learning. Games can teach us a lot, either through being fun ways to instill content (a simple quiz game which could be adapted to any subject), or having gameplay that is based on the subject matter (like using Pandemic in a public health class). Like everyone else in the world, I first played Monopoly as a kid. But while most people seem to outgrow it, or merely tire of it, I find it more interesting as an adult. The negotiation phase that dominates the middle game, when most properties have been put into play but few color group monopolies have been formed, is the heart of the game—the most challenging and the most fun.

The negotiation phase is the most challenging because the number of possible actions is virtually limitless. A kids version, Monopoly Jr., is far inferior because almost all choices have been eliminated, leaving a purely mechanistic game. Even with children’s games, the gameplay should involve some decision-making by the players. Adult games can often be adapted relatively easily for young children just by reducing the number of decisions that the players have to make or the number of options they have in each decision. I’ve adapted strategy games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassone for play with my daughter by just getting rid of half the rules, while preserving the essence of the gameplay.

Tweaking the rules will not be possible in a new version of Monopoly recently demoed by Hasbro, because this version has an electronic tower in the center of the board which controls gameplay and ensures that the rules are followed. The function and central position of the tower immediately evoked for me the image of the Panopticon, a prison with a central observation tower designed by moral philosopher and political reformer Jeremy Bentham. The prisoners are always observable from the central tower. However, they cannot see the guards inside the tower. Unable to tell whether they are actually under observation at any given time, they must always assume that they are being observed, and thus internalize the monitoring of their own behavior.

The Monopoly Panopticon might make the game more fun if certain rules are enforced. The tower will enforce a rule that many players ignore (or don’t understand), requiring auctioning of properties that a player lands on but chooses not to buy. This rule gets properties into the game quicker, and introduces another set of choices for players. In fact, auctioning is so much fun that one variant on the game involves selling every property by auction, with no “right of first refusal” for the player who lands on it. But playing this or any other variant (dropping the auction rule for young players is probably not a bad idea) would not be possible under the watchful eye of the Panopticon.

The original Monopoly is itself a variant of The Landlord’s Game, an earlier game invented by a Quaker to illustrate the Georgist view that private property in land leads to inequality and poverty. The original game could be played by competitive rules (similar to the way we play the game today), or by Single Tax rules, which would lead to a steady state of equality among the players, with no losers. This probably makes The Landlord’s Game one of the first economic simulations ever, as well as illustrating the value of variant rules in game design, particularly for simulation games. A New York Times technology editor provides a fascinating account of University of Chicago students using Monopoly in just this way, to test the economic impacts of various rule changes. I would have been curious to see the players’ reaction to trying out the Single Tax rules in that bastion of free market economics.

The new version of Monopoly is not released, so I don’t know if it will have any variants built-in. Hopefully it will at least have the “official” rules available as a variant, as the version described in the media includes some new rules regarding betting on horse races—following the trend of adding one useless rule tweak that seems to have been established in other recent Monopoly editions. If the new version doesn’t include built-in variants, or even if it includes a limited number, it will also demonstrate a worst-of-both-worlds wedding of software games with table games. While the Monopoly executives describe the game as borrowing from the world of video games, the result is less flexible than either video games or table games. Obviously, with table games, experimenting with new rules is as easy as saying “Let’s play this way.” With video and computer games as well, many come with built-in variants—often a wide variety of alternate rules, scenarios, or difficulty levels—and releasing new variants can be accomplished with add-ons or patches to the software. But by having the software built into a product distributed through a physical distribution network, the new Monopoly enjoys the advantages of neither software games nor traditional table games. While Bentham was a reformer, the Panopticon that he devised is antithetical to criticism and reform, just as the Monopoly tower locks the players in to one set of rules.

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