Of course, I played Monopoly as a kid. What American kid didn’t? And Life, and Chutes and Ladders, and Risk. They were fun games that everybody had, and a great way to pass the time on a cold and rainy weekend afternoon. And, as I was moving my little tin race car or cannon around the board, trying to purchase selected properties, work out trades to establish my monopolies, build hotels before everyone else did, and then hope that other players would land on my properties and pay me lots of that colorful Monopoly money — especially those rich gold $500 bills — I wasn’t thinking that basic cultural and social training was being drilled into me with every move.
But, of course, it was. Part of the training was just the idea of a game that had rules that you and every other player had to follow, or else the game wouldn’t work. Monopoly players, for example, couldn’t just move their pieces to whichever spot they chose or freely take money from the bank; they had to roll the dice and count out the spaces and pay for houses and hotels to make their properties more valuable and take their medicine if they landed on Boardwalk and accept getting knocked out of the game if their money was gone.
But while kids moving their pieces around the board might not realize it, there was deeper social and cultural training, too, in the sense of what you needed to do to win the game. If you played Monopoly, you wanted to buy property, make the most advantageous trades imaginable even if it meant ruthlessly taking advantage of your kid sister while doing so, accumulate every monopoly, drive other people out of business and into bankruptcy, and have the biggest bank account ever. What better introduction to the American capitalist model of the world than Monopoly? And you learned about the desired behavioral norms in other games, too. In Life, you wanted to get that college degree and land on those pay days. In Chutes and Ladders, you saw that if you landed on a space that showed good behavior, you could climb up the ladder to the top, but if you landed on a space where the kid had broken a window with a baseball, it was down the chute to the bottom. And in Risk, you wanted to build armies in your corner of the world and then have them sweep across other territories until you conquered and dominated the entire globe.
I thought about the social and cultural aspects of board games when I saw this article about board games sold during the Nazi era in Germany. When you think about it, it’s no surprise that some Nazi board games would reflect core concepts of the Nazi system. The games feature swastikas, goose-stepping and Seig Heiling soldiers, and heroic defense of the Fatherland, and encouraged players to plot attacks on the English coast, shoot down Allied planes, or defeat troublesome Jews. What kid growing up in Germany playing these games wouldn’t be subconsciously channeled into specific, officially sanctioned ways of looking at the world? And the same is true of the early Soviet Union, which featured games like Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Maneuvers: A Game for Young Pioneers, all of which tackled pressing issues that the country was confronting in the ’20s and ’30s and indoctrinated the players in the accepted, official view of those issues along the way. (Presumably people didn’t have to pay for the communist games.)
It makes you wonder what the board games in North Korea, Iran, or ISIS-controlled territories look like. I’m guessing that, in North Korea these days, they play a lot of their version of Risk.