If you’re any good at Monopoly, like me, you know how to position yourself to win.
Choosing this position isn’t cheating, per se. Maybe, I explain to my competitors as I lick my thumbs and count my stacks, it’s just because competitive, type A freakshows like myself naturally gravitate towards controlling currency as the banker. We’re the winning kind. It’s simple.
This is nonsense, of course. But an updated version of the game, called Co-opoly, reverses the Social Darwinist psychology espoused in the former set. Its players are members of a cooperative business, and the banker, a remote force in the game, plays the bad guy. In order to win, players must band together and work towards a common prosperity.
Co-opoly is meant to educate players about the realities of participating in a worker-owned cooperative. Its creators, four former Hampshire College students, belong to one called TESA, the Toolbox for Education and Social Action based in Northampton, Massachusetts. By selling Co-opoly and providing services like democratic audits to organizations looking to infuse their workflows with more social justice, TESA sustains itself and its mission of spreading democratic education. The first pressing of the game in November of 2011 sold out within a year. And in 2014, the organization will be issuing a second pressing of 2,000 sets across Europe, and expanding to South Korea and the Philippines.
Co-opoly, as you might imagine, differs from its predecessor in several important ways. First you draw a character card. But instead of playing a boot or a Boston Terrier, a character in the game might be a 35-year-old single mother, struggling to make ends meet. Or you might play a retiree. Each player has different costs of living, accounted for by “points,” also the currency of the game. And while players have to pay their individual costs, their paychecks are tied up in the success of the cooperative as a whole.
The coop could be anything. “An art school for dragons!” suggests Brian Van Slyke, the game’s principal creator. Moving across the board generally works the same way Monopoly does, with a roll of the die. But when players land on “work” spaces, they’ll draw cards that demand a game of charades, or Pictionary. This is how the coop earns points.
Drawing a challenge card also presents an eerily realistic aspect of the game. A challenge card might tell you that there are sudden, unexpected medical bills to pay. Another might inform the coop that a big box retailer has come to town and is undercutting their success. Hard decisions must be made. Sometimes, everyone has to take a pay cut.
If one person can’t pay his or her cost of living, the whole coop loses. The players win if they’re able to launch another successful coop. Supposedly, this is realistic enough to be instructive, but not realistic enough to be un-fun.
“We’re hoping for the idea of collaboration and mutual aid,” Van Slykes explained. “This idea is sort of we’re all in it together. If I go bankrupt, I’m not knocked out of the game. We all lose.”
I haven’t yet played the game, so I don’t know how fun it actually is. But I do know that Co-opoly, like the one-off Berlin art event Commonopoly, echoes the original Monopoly’s intentions more closely than the mass-produced Parker Brothers version of the game.
Few people know that before Charles Darrow began cranking out Monopoly sets during the Great Depression, a Quaker socialist named Elizabeth Magie had developed a proto-Monopoly, called the Landlord’s Game, meant to educate players on the evils of unfettered capitalism. The Parker Brothers turned this version of the game down, twice, before accepting a game that riffed on the Landlord’s Game, but twisted the message. As everyone knows, they made a buck on this, or two.
TESA sells Co-opoly online on a sliding scale. The recommended price is $40, but buyers can chip in smaller amounts. Curiously enough, however, most pay the recommended amount, according to Van Slyke.
“I was very surprised to see that it does basically average out to our suggested price,” he said. “I think we’re conditioned to think that if people see if they can take advantage of a situation, they’ll just do it. That’s kind of what we’re taught.”
Co-opoly isn’t the only educational game TESA’s working on. Soon, the group will be issuing “Loud and Proud,” a social justice trivia game. As TESA explains:
Players sit in a circle and flip over cards, if the symbol on your card matches another player’s, you face-off, and race to answer each others’ card prompt first. Your card might say “Civil Rights Leader,” and their card might say “Renewable Energy”—the first player to correctly answer the other player’s prompt (“Malcolm X!”) wins their card.
Sounds like catnip for activist types. But Van Slyke preaches cooperative business to non-activists, too. And one group of people, he says, could easily benefit from cooperative structures almost immediately: The tech world.