CHICAGO -- How I love it when my eclectic reading tastes coincide with weird news!
Last week, as I ate up Mary Pilon's tour-de-force book, "The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game," I plotted about how I could get away with writing about the sleepy, 2014 business book.
Perhaps only hard-core Monopoly fans would even consider picking up such a tome. But once in its pages, all readers would be hard-pressed not to be enthralled by the epic saga of how the real estate game went viral well before Parker Brothers mass-marketed it during the Great Depression.
The book manages to touch on everything from Abraham Lincoln to the Quakers to a feisty feminist who invented a nearly identical pastime called "The Landlord's Game." It culminates in the tale of how one man nearly bankrupted his family and lost his marriage in his quest to uncover the full truth of the board game's origins. "The Monopolists" is nothing short of fascinating.
And thus I was filled with glee when I saw a news report about Secret Hitler, a so-called social deduction game that models the rise of fascism in a democracy. Gameplay revolves around five to 10 players who take on the identities of fascists and liberals as they attempt to find and stop a Secret Hitler among them.
Apparently, this game has taken off like every other entertainment touching on the anxiety of the Trump presidency, including the new TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel "Brave New World."
Secret Hitler got an extra publicity bump in February after one of the creators sent a copy of the game to every U.S. senator with a message that read: "We thought you and your staff might [find] our game relevant as you negotiate the balance of power with the Trump White House."
What excited me was one story about Secret Hitler that included this quote from a market researcher at Euromonitor International: "People 18 and over have been steadily playing more board games in the last several years, with sales continuing to pick up for" independent titles that are launched on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.
This is stunning in the era of ubiquitous online multiplayer games and the immersive, collaborative game worlds that attract young people. But it almost pales in comparison to the cultural currency that board games held in the late 19th century.
According to Pilon, at that time, even though newspapers held a prominent place in American life, board games engaged people in a way few other media could. "Newspapers provided instant gratification, but board games provided community and intimacy. People played them for hours and formed fond associations with them whereas newspapers were eventually discarded and inherently replaceable. Board games were intimate keepsakes."
(I still have, and play on, the Monopoly set I got as a gift when I was a little kid.)
And indeed board games' popularity swelled such that, by the early 1970s, college students were holding Monopoly marathons and aspiring to national and world championships.
Even more captivating is the real-life connection between Monopoly sets and World War II.
"During World War II, the Allies used a variety of objects, including games, to smuggle goods in to prisoners of war. Radios were hidden in cribbage boards, silk maps in decks of playing cards, and compasses in buttons or in the lining of clothing," Pilon writes. "In America, military officers purchased Monopoly boards and steamed off their top layer to create a center cavity. Inside, they placed maps. The process was tricky -- some boards steamed open more easily than others -- and bypassed the direct involvement of Parker Brothers. Other game companies participated in the war effort. Milton Bradley turned its game-making factories into ones that manufactured missiles, submachine guns, rifles, and joints used in aircraft landing gear. The company also continued to manufacture some games for soldiers -- as their founder had done nearly a century earlier during the Civil War."
Some of this lore made Monopoly internationally representative of what was good about America and a positive symbol of capitalism, which is somewhat ironic given that the game was originally conceived as a critique of American greed. It also lifted the spirits of the members of the armed forces who could well use the diversion.
Alas, I'll have to wait until my Secret Hitler game ships and arrives in the mail so I can play with my family. But until then, Pilon has armed me with insider strategies for winning my next Monopoly match.
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com.
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