Let’s talk about board games for a little bit. It’ll come around to movies and other things eventually, but for now, the discussion will be starting off with board games. Specifically, one particular board game: Monopoly. A while back, I was reading through the archives of a webcomic, and in the author’s aside, he starts going off on Monopoly. He declares how much he hates the game, how it’s terribly designed, how it leads to families fighting and is never fun, and how if you want your kids to hate board games, raise them playing Monopoly. The rant itself, hyperbolic though it was, isn’t all that remarkable. The truth of the matter is, I’ve seen similar rants dozens of times from different people, especially board game enthusiasts. Go anywhere where people are discussing board games, particularly online, and you’ll eventually be witness to a tirade against Monopoly. It would seem that the game is particularly prone to being loathed.
But if the game is so terribly unfun, why is it the best-selling board game?
It is vitally important to note that there is a difference between a commonly expressed opinion and a commonly held opinion. I remember something my Marketing teacher said in high school: a happy customer will tell one friend, and an unhappy one will tell ten. This is probably from the De Asinum School of Statistics, but it’s good enough to explain the disparity. People who like something at a normal level, but aren’t fanatic, will generally be quiet about their like of it. People who hate something are seldom quiet — they’re typically louder than a positive fanatic because they’re just as passionate about it, and also feel betrayed or perplexed by the way the majority of people don’t hate this “terrible” thing.
Hating the popular thing of course tends to lead to recommendations for some other, less popular thing. The website BoardGameGeek.com maintains a user-voted ranking of all board games in their database, which includes pretty much anything even the most diehard gamer could dig up. The top 100 includes only two common parlor games that I could find — and that’s only if you count Crokinole and Go as common, a questionable assertion as many people nowadays don’t know how to play either. (Yes, Chess is somehow missing from the top 100. It turns out to be #277. I find it unlikely there are 276 games that are better than Chess.)
I’m not sure the average American today has even heard of Crokinole, let alone knows how to play.
Perhaps the most “populist” games in the top 100 are collectible miniatures games such as Mage Knight. Monopoly — the straightforward vanilla edition — is #9055, which stands in rather stark contrast to its place in the market. By way of comparison, Puerto Rico is a perennial top ten member (currently #4; I remember when it was #1). I’ve seen it brought up several times on different sites discussing board games. I have never seen it in a store, however. Not just the department stores such as Wal-Mart and Target (and most people buy their games at department stores or Toys ‘R’ Us), but also not at toy stores, be they big chains such as Toys ‘R’ Us or small dedicated hobby stores.
Is this really one of the all-time great games? Most people have no means of having an idea.
Those of you who have studied logic in high school or college will recognize the last few paragraphs as sounding familiar to the Appeal to Obscurity Fallacy — i.e., if something is obscure, then it’s either unimportant or poor. This is wrong, of course. Just because something is obscure doesn’t mean it’s bad; just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good. But it cuts the other way as well. Just because something is obscure doesn’t mean it’s good; just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s bad. (And no doubt most of you have been on the receiving end of someone asserting precisely that fallacy, probably about music.) This becomes a little more complicated, of course, when there isn’t an objective standard to look at; what makes a game “good” anyway? It’s a subjective thing. Ratings are particularly weird; they’re objective facts that result from an aggregate of subjective evaluations. Monopoly is #9055 on BoardGameGeek.com; this is a fact, nobody can claim it’s really ranked #3 or #50,000. But it’s a fact only because a lot of people on the site have decided to rate it low. Whether this ranking is significant is another subjective evaluation.
Whether a game is good or bad is completely subjective. There’s a vast disparity between how board game sites rank Monopoly and how the game ranks in sales. So where does this difference come from? There’s a saying that people will give up a weekly steak for daily McDonald’s. It’s meant to be a disparaging comment about the tastes of the masses and how laziness and convenience trump quality. I’ve always found it to have a significant flaw, though, even beyond the arrogance of assuming that one’s own views are paramount. Food is an essential item. A weekly steak is not enough to sustain a person, while a daily meal at McDonald’s would be enough to sustain a person, if not pleasantly. The saying might work a little better with board games, in that it could be argued that people buy Monopoly instead of Puerto Rico (or some other obscure “Top 10” game) simply because of the superior marketing and brand recognition behind it. Certainly plenty of worthy items remain obscure simply because there isn’t a strong enough marketing push behind them. There’s nothing wrong with using the lack of marketing as a justification for why something good may remain obscure.
But there’s actually something significantly wrong with using a strong marketing push as a justification for why something “bad” can be popular. Board games are not food. They are not essential goods. They are the epitome of a luxury item, in that people can and do live their lives without even thinking about them. Your body will not wither away if you go a year without rolling a pair of dice. Your girlfriend will not break up with you because you don’t know how to play Settlers of Catan. Hardly anybody is expected to socialize with the corporate bosses over a game of Mahjongg (maybe at Google.) A board game is, in every possible way, an unnecessary purchase.
Which means there is only one reason why Monopoly is the best selling board game in the U.S. It’s because people want to buy it. Because they find it fun. They aren’t wrong. They aren’t mistaken about whether they find it enjoyable. And who can gainsay them the right to enjoy it? It’s pure arrogance to assert that just because you don’t enjoy something, anybody who does is just an unsophisticated plebeian.
And that’s something I always try to keep in mind when I talk about movies and other entertainment (see? I told you it’d come around to movies eventually.) I wouldn’t say entertainment is a luxury, exactly. While you can survive without it, entertainment is one of the things that make a distinction between an enjoyable life and mere survival. I’m a firm believer in the upper echelons of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But any particular form of entertainment is a luxury. The value we put on them varies, because we all have differing opinions, and we can all do without a particular form of entertainment. Some people obsess over board games; some haven’t played them since childhood. The same could be said for video games. Some people are avid readers, others hardly ever touch a book. Some people watch TV all the time, others don’t even own a set. And some people blog about movies while others don’t watch them.
Just because I like or dislike a particular film doesn’t obligate anybody else to agree with me. When I write a review, it’s based on what I feel, and it’s there so people can tell what someone like me thinks of the movie. If I’m not like you, your appreciation will vary. And this is perfectly fine; better than fine, in fact, as it can lead to fun discussions. And my decisions on what to watch are based on what I expect to like — not on what I think people in general should watch. That’s not my call to make, and even if I expect that I would hate a film, I try not to bash those who do enjoy it. I have never watched a Twilight movie and probably never will. It’s not my kind of thing, it doesn’t appeal to me. I’ll admit to being baffled as to how it’s so popular. But it is popular. All those legions of fans have found something about it that they like. I don’t know what that is, but I don’t need to know, either. If they enjoy it, who am I to look down on them for it? Granted, I do still take the occasional potshot at the franchise, but only on those aspects of it I know about, and not at the fans themselves.
Because ultimately, none of this is important. If a board game or a movie is a luxury, then ranting about them is doubly so. And there’s a $75 tax for that.