Can a board game help fix gender equality? Hasbro hopes so. The company announced the release of Ms Monopoly last week, “the first-ever game where women make more than men”.
The game attempts to flip gender inequality on its head: female players collect $240 when they pass go, while men collect only $200. It’s a concept that feels like deliberate catnip for online outrage and think piece writers.
“At Hasbro, we have always believed in promoting equality and inclusion across our business and our product,” said Kristina Timmins, a spokeswoman for the company. “That’s why we decided to give the franchise a new mascot: Ms Monopoly, an advocate whose mission is to invest in female entrepreneurs. We want to recognize and celebrate the many contributions women have made to our society and continue to make on a daily basis – because it’s about time!”
Hasbro has taken stabs at girl-centric games before. It first released the cringe Girl Talk in 1988. The game was a quiet, moderate success and special Hannah Montana and One Direction editions were released in the 00s. Girl Talk felt like a company’s idea of what young girls liked. Inspired by Truth or Dare, the game focused exclusively on boys, sleepovers, and talking on the phone. Unlucky players were forced to wear “zit-stickers”.
Ms Monopoly is part of a larger trend in the children’s toy and board game industry. One where companies are trying their hardest to make playtime more woke.
A new “quarter-life crisis” version of The Game of Life (which promoted the American Dream for decades with its neat path of job, marriage, kids, retirement) now sees players work to pay off $500,000 worth of student debt.
When GMT games, a mid-sized publisher that specializes in strategy games, announced its new game, Scramble for Africa, earlier this year the response was outrage. The war game sought to shine light on colonization, as players acted as European powers fighting for control of Africa. But that’s not how the public saw it. The game’s release was quickly cancelled (both in the literal and figurative sense).
Even Barbie has read some critical theory and undergone a “wokeover”. Mattel recently released a Rosa Parks Barbie (as part of its Inspiring Women series) and a Día de los Muertos version to commemorate the Mexican holiday. They join a growing list of inclusive Barbies and Kens. There’s now a Barbie that uses a wheelchair, a black Barbie with a natural hairstyle, and a Ken with a slightly higher BMI.
Public response to these inclusive products have been mixed. Some critics and commentators call them inclusive and empowering. Others call them “woke-washing.”
“If Hasbro is serious about women’s empowerment, perhaps the company could start by admitting that a woman invented Monopoly in the first place,” Mary Pilon, author of The Monopolists, wrote in the New Yorker.
“There’s already this vibe in the [board] gaming community that anything Monopoly does is a cash-grab,” says John “Hex” Carter, a board game designer and consultant. “Because the market is already flooded with so many different versions of it. So the motivation behind a game like Ms Monopoly is transparent: to make money.”
Carter praises the educational components of Ms Monopoly. For example, how players land on the various achievements women are behind (Wi-Fi, chocolate chip cookies, shapewear). But he fears the pay disparity aspect will only be frustrating, not educating, to male players. “In the gaming community, we call something like that a ‘feel-bad moment’. Where something frustrating happens to you for no reason at all. The more feel-bad moments you have in a game, the less people want to play.”
“My question is how will Hasbro go beyond this name change and special edition,” says Nadya Okamoto, a consultant at JUL Consulting. At only 21, Nadya focuses on advising major companies on how to best market to Gen-Z audiences. “We’ve seen this with other companies, like when iHOP changed its name to iHOB in search of a viral moment. This feels similar to that.”
Hasbro has been in search of creating a conversation with its Monopoly brand. The game has already been reimagined over 2,500 times (from Bond to Wizard of Oz special editions). In the last year, the company has come up with two controversial editions of its cash cow. Monopoly: Socialism, Winning is for Capitalists sees players draw cards that poke fun at organic waste, dairy-free beverages, and minimum wage increases. Every player is given a $50 “living wage”. While Monopoly: Millennials sells itself with the tagline, “Forget real estate. You can’t afford it anyway.” Of course, dozens of outraged, reactionary pieces were written in response to the two games. It’s easy to suspect that was always Hasbro’s goal.
Carter says board game designers are increasingly having conversations about their responsibilities to be both politically correct and inclusive. He points to games that have drawn criticism for including slavery in their gameplay. “There’s now sensitivity players in the industry, to help make sure designers are respecting different cultures,” he says.
Hasbro says Ms Monopoly is different. When pressed on appearing to use feminist values for profit, Timmins pointed to several initiatives at the company – from improving conditions for female factory workers to expanding parental leave policies – as a sign that the company is committed to gender equality.
Timmins declined to reveal if Hasbro has any more progressive versions of its classics in the works. For example, what if a new Operation commented on the lack of access to healthcare plaguing Americans? Or if a new version of Guess Who tackled implicit bias?
Regardless, Hasbro will soon find out if its conversation-starting release has paid off. Mattel has. The Día de Los Muertos Barbie is sold out everywhere.