Image: Bengt Oberger

How do you revive interest in a 75-plus-year-old board game in a century increasingly dominated by video games? The ingenuous idea suggested by someone at Parker Brothers is an act of nostalgia terrorism: one of the iconic Monopoly game pieces will be discontinued, and the company is inviting the public to vote on which piece gets the ax.

If the rush to report on the threat is anything to go by, nostalgia terrorism works. The promotion has already been reported on by old media and new alike, including coverage by The Verge, The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post… you get the idea. That’s an awful lot of coverage on an announcement that is ultimately just a primer for the release of new editions of the game.

The other—and arguably more important—measure of success is consumer interest. Will people get involved, and will that involvement make Monopoly more competitive for real estate in the public consciousness? The conceit of the promotion is that people form strong preferences for the game tokens, and if that’s the case, then there’s every reason to expect that they’ll want to vote to ensure that their token is available in future editions of the game.

Monopoly is unusual in that regard. In most board games, the tokens that represent players on the game board are distinguished by more strictly utilitarian means. In games like Sorry and Trivial Pursuit , they are indistinguishable save for their color. Nor are they representational in any particular way, unless you’re inclined to infer some dharma-esque cosmic meaning from the wheel-and-spoke shape of the Trivial Pursuit token. We always referred to them as “pies,” but then, Americans do tend to think with their stomachs.

By offering players a choice between a Howitzer, a boot, a Scottish terrier, and so forth—all in faux-pewter metal—Monopoly‘s tokens manage to seem at once less flamboyant and more extravagant. The game’s rules even provide a condition for settling disputes over tokens, ostensibly devised in order to curb the frequency with which rounds of the game start off on the wrong foot. Given the sheer guile of this latest promotion, though, it seems just as likely that the rule is there to encourage players to identify with one piece or another. If you can get a player to think of themselves as the sort of person that plays as the top hat, then you beguile them into thinking of Monopoly as their game.

That, then, is one aspect of the psychology at work. There’s the potential for a certain degree of expressiveness in the token. Players may even see them as icons of their own particular style of play—implacable as a battleship, say, or swift and flashy like the race car. By forcing players to choose which piece gets discontinued, Parker Brothers makes the stakes personal. Simply voting in a new piece might give players wider latitude for projecting their personalities into the game. Taking one out of commission forces us to decide how we’ll narrow that society.

There’s heavy a meta-gaming element to the gamble Parker Brothers is taking here—the election they’ve staged, a la reality game shows like Survivor, is a game about a game. If that’s not meta enough for you, it’s a game that hopes to raise the market value of an intellectual property, which is itself a game in which players vie for properties of differing market values.

Meta-exercises of that sort tend to be more entertaining than enlightening. But as easy as it is to think of all things Monopoly in strictly mercantile terms, this new promotion is potentially a golden opportunity to observe some curious aspects of our gaming culture. There is, if nothing else, the implicit experiment Parker Brothers is performing on the hypothesis that people care about their preferred token. Assuming that they’re right, then maybe we’re wrong to think of them as tokens. That’s a pragmatic term, apt to miss all of the eccentricities that we foist onto Monopoly tokens. A better word might be talismans.

If that’s the case, then the experiment may continue even after Parker Brothers ships the last edition containing the current set of tokens. One imagines a black market arising between members of the put-upon minority of thimble or iron enthusiasts—let’s face it, they’ve got more cause for concern than fans of prestige pieces, like the race car. They’ll horde tokens from old editions of the game, carrying them like four-leaf clovers in their pockets or keeping them in jewelry boxes alongside their great aunt’s pearls. They’ll flounder when playing someone else’s thimble-less edition, causing unreasonable delays when they’re unable to locate their piece on the board, making patently bad decisions and suspecting the dice of conspiring against them.

There, too, it’s possible to see the genius of Parker Brothers’ plan. Sure, there will be a few people who fought hard to save an unpopular piece and lost. If the relationships we form to Monopoly tokens is strong enough to motivate us to vote, then might it not also be strong enough to alienate those who lose the meta-game? But by turning the decision over to a democratic process, they’ve ensured that the losers of this particular game will be relatively few, drawn mostly from the ranks of the apathetic. And in the meantime, they will have induced the rest of us to reinforce our loyalties, be they to a top hat, a Scottish terrier, or a thimble.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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