Just about every adult in America has played Monopoly at some point. But in our increasingly digital, screen-focused era, the maker of the iconic board game feels it has to shift with the times, too. So Hasbro’s next update to the classic game will replace paper money with debit cards and scanners, among other changes. And while that may seem more relevant to kids who rarely see their parents pay with anything other than plastic, it’s also taking something vital, tangible — and educational — out of the game.
So how important can one old board game be, and what impact will changing it really have? To find out, the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 talked to Mary Pilon, author of the best-selling book “The Monopolists,” about the history of the game, and Geetha Ramani, an assistant professor specializing in human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland, and director of its Early Childhood Interaction Lab.
An edited transcript of the interview appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is it a surprise to see this happen with such a legendary game as Monopoly?
Mary Pilon: No, not at all. Hasbro has actually done this a few times. They acquired the Monopoly brand when they acquired Parker Brothers in 1991. They will revamp it to add things like debit cards, credit cards. There are all of those different “opoly” games, often times based on your alma mater, different cities and things.
But what’s so ironic about this is, Parker Brothers acquired Monopoly in 1935 as a brand, but the game had a full life before that. It was invented by a woman in 1904 as kind of a left-wing protest against monopolies. It was played as a folk game for 30 years before Parker Brothers even touched it. And one of the things that those early folk players did was, they modified the game to make it their own, to reflect their times. They put their own cities in. They made it their own. So it’s funny to me that over a century later, we are going full circle again, and the game’s still evolving.
Knowledge at Wharton: We’ve talked on this show about financial literacy and the problems that we have with it. Will the learning element of Monopoly, in some respects, be taken out if there’s not any more money in the game, and it’s all debit cards?
Geetha Ramani: That’s right. I think part of the beauty of Monopoly is the simple things, like making change and understanding whether you have enough funds. And all of that, it’s my understanding, is going to be done by the machine. So even though that there’s a lot of complexity that’s being added to the game, some of the simple components that are being removed, I think, are going to hurt the learning elements that Monopoly has built into it.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think there’s a possibility this version of the game may push a lot of people back to the old version, especially parents that are playing it with their kids?
Pilon: I think that’s true…. On the book tour, I was really surprised at how many parents came up to me and said that they use Monopoly with their kids, not only as a bonding tool — which it is, you know. That was the case in my family — I think it’s been the case for generations. But their kids — I hate to use the expression “kids today” — but kids today don’t understand cash because they see their parents use credit cards and debit cards wherever they go.
That’s something that I think that all of us take for granted — that there is a generation gap. In a previous life, I wrote about credit cards and banking at The Wall Street Journal, which is actually, ironically, how this whole Monopoly thing came about. It’s a really good point, that it is a game where you can use cash — you can count things out. I think with kids, that tactile piece is a huge part of it. But at the end of the day, it’s the parent who has to buy the set. So, presented with two options, I think that the parents who are buying the game are going to veer towards the more traditional option.
“Kids today don’t understand cash, because they see their parents use credit cards and debit cards wherever they go.”–Mary Pilon
Knowledge at Wharton: The price on the new one is right around $25. I don’t remember what the price of the old version is, but realistically, it’s not a huge change in price, overall, correct?
Pilon: Well, it depends. On Black Friday, Monopoly and a lot of Hasbro board games are deeply, deeply discounted. And a huge percentage of board game sales happen in November to December. Plus there are so many of these sets in circulation. Used ones are ubiquitous at garage sales now. If you wanted a traditional set, you could get it for, I don’t know $5, $10. Not a lot. But they revamp these brands every couple years. And the game also lives on the iPad and the iPhone with the more traditional world set, where you still have money. It’s not quite as fun as physically handing out the cash. But there are other versions out there for sure, that are cheaper.
Knowledge at Wharton: Even not having the “cash” in there, the game will still offer kids and teens some financial literacy education. It’s just going to be a little bit different, correct?
Ramani: I agree. I’m sure it’s going to be very interesting and novel at first. Having the concrete dollar bills there, having the money that you can work with, is really important. The numbers that might show up on the screen, that you use with the cards, are going to be really abstract for younger kids to understand.
Having concrete cues about the money and how much you need, and how much you have, is really important for kids if you’re trying to teach them about the worth and how much things cost … and what’s more and less than other things. There will still be opportunities there, with the card and the electronic billing and talking about these kinds of things. But removing the concrete materials is going to make it harder for lots of kids to understand.
Knowledge at Wharton: From what I understand, there also is the possibility of raising and lowering the prices of the properties. So, in some respects, this is going to be a little bit more of a learning process about wealth in general.
Ramani: Absolutely. And I think that will definitely add an interesting component to it. But it might depend on how old the kids are. For younger kids, that element’s going to be really challenging, I would imagine. Even for adults, right? But for older kids, perhaps maybe it’ll make an interesting piece of financial information to talk about while they’re playing the game.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the other changes they made? We’ve talked about debit cards, and that they’re going to have a scanner. Did they change any of the properties?
Pilon: Those are the biggest changes. As far as I know, the properties are the same. The design of the board itself is quite different. And Mr. Monopoly himself got a revamp a few years ago. So, it’s visually quite different – [along with the colors of the] houses and hotels. But it’s really the digital piece that you two have been talking about.
I heard from a few readers who would joke about Monopoly — where do you draw the line? Are we going to have a Monopoly with securitization and bundles of mortgages? There’s also a whole school of thought that Monopoly itself doesn’t actually teach people the right things about capitalism, which is probably a whole other book — the idea that it’s a winner-take-all, as opposed to real life, where you can have more than one billionaire.
So, I’ve heard a lot from people who just take issue with the core of the game, whether you put digital bells and whistles on it or not. We’re criticizing it, and it’s kind of like criticizing a Model T. Game designers love to rip on Monopoly too, because yes, it was one of the early board games. There are some things about its design that really changed gaming and changed the marketing of gaming. But at a certain point, we have to appreciate what it was. But I don’t know if we should be total purists.
“Having concrete cues about the money and how much you need and how much you have is really important for kids, if you’re trying to teach them about the worth, and how much things cost.”–Geetha Ramani
Knowledge at Wharton: Monopoly is still the number one game in 20 or 25 different countries around world. So, while we’re talking about this in a U.S. context, it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out across the globe.
Pilon: Right. I was just in Cambodia and Thailand a couple of weeks ago. And it’s funny you mention this, because payment processing and the use of cards and such, that’s everywhere now. It’s so ubiquitous. In some ways, the U.S. is actually behind. You see this with the chips in credit cards; in Europe, that’s been around for a lot longer. So if that’s the case, and that’s the trend that the game is mimicking, then absolutely, I think it will do well globally.
Knowledge at Wharton: Geetha, you have done some research into how some of these board games — especially ones like Monopoly — can really help kids that may come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Correct?
Ramani: Yes. We’ve done some research with simple board games, mostly that we’ve designed, to look at children’s early numbers skills, to try to promote those skills, thinking that giving kids a fun way to learn about numbers and their magnitudes, or how big and small numbers are, can be a very fun and developmentally appropriate way to teach kids about numbers.
So we develop games and think about the design, and try to use as many cues about the numbers and their patterns, to really help them to understand them.
Knowledge at Wharton: Would it surprise you if it would be a success, given that so many people are so reliant on their debit cards these days?
Ramani: I bet it will be successful in the sense that it will be novel and interesting. There was a previous version with electronic banking, and that was also successful and popular. But in my household, that novelty wore off very quickly, and the regular versions with the dollar bills get played a lot more, because that one was just too challenging to understand. Having the concrete dollar bills keeps it more engaging for the kids.
Pilon: But also think about this: We’re talking about debit and credit cards. You and I, and a lot of your listeners know the difference. One is a line of credit, and you can acquire debt. One is a check card. That’s a fundamental difference in your financial life, how you use those. But again, they’re two pieces of plastic. They’re indistinguishable, even though the consequences of using them are so different. So in the game, I do think there’s a really good point to be made. I think parents’ trouble with it is you have to teach kids the difference between credit and debit, but if in a game they’re all the same — then yikes! –that raises a lot of questions.
“Most people play the game incorrectly. And one of the reasons why is, they don’t read the rules, because you learn it from your mother or your father and aunt and uncle — whoever played it before.”–Mary Pilon
Knowledge at Wharton: The older version of Monopoly with digital banking that Hasbro did a few years ago — how successful was it?
Pilon: Hasbro is publicly traded, but they don’t break out game sales by title. They won’t even break out Monopoly vs. Candy Land vs. Clue, let alone the different kinds of flavors of Monopoly. For that reason, it’s really hard to say. And Monopoly is such a different game, because it’s not one that hardcore gamers are going to play and review. It’s considered more mainstream.
I think it did well, but the other thing that’s really interesting about whenever these kinds of public relations switches happen is, people make it sound like, “They’re changing Monopoly and they’re not going to make any new ones,” which is always ridiculous. You can always get the old version. They sell a lot of the more classic editions and revamp them. So, even when they launch a new game, it’s not like they’re totally shoving out the old product line to do so.
Knowledge at Wharton: You mentioned how they have expanded Monopoly in general, with all kinds of different Monopolies. Pretty much every major university has its own version of Monopoly these days. A lot of cities and sports teams have their own versions of Monopoly. They have marketed this to the “nth” degree, because obviously they can.
Pilon: Exactly. And that’s what makes games so interesting. A company like Hasbro that has all these brands — they’ve acquired Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley — if you go to the game shelf in a big box retailer like Target or Walmart, they control a lot of that. Yet they have to walk this line between nostalgia and knowing that parents are buying these. But also, the truth is kids want screen time. Look at how our habits have changed — and that’s true for adults too. The video game industry is this mammoth, powerful thing that wasn’t around in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s when a lot of these games were becoming really, really popular.
Now, they have to walk this line between taking their old brands and making them contemporary, but still playing to the warm and fuzzy family game night feel that they’ve been trying for generations to cultivate. And I think this is a great example of that.
Knowledge at Wharton: This digital banking version without the physical cash — that style of game, you obviously believe, presents a bit of a negative issue for kids going forward. But are there other pieces that you see Hasbro is still missing? Maybe changes that they still need to make to this new version?
Ramani: I think that there are a lot of things that Mary said that are right. Like, trying to keep promoting family game nights is a really good idea. Trying to teach kids about different skills in the game is not a bad idea.
Thinking about certain math skills, or even certain literacy skills, while keeping them fun and engaging is a nice way for family game nights to be more than just fun. They can be important, a learning opportunity as well. I think those are always things that could be further built into games.
Knowledge at Wharton: Did I read that they’re also talking about adding some sort of auction function to this new version of the game?
Pilon: Here’s what’s funny about that — I’ve written about this in the past, and it goes to why Monopoly is a unique game. Most people play the game incorrectly. And one of the reasons why is, they don’t read the rules, because you learn it from your mother or your father and aunt and uncle — whoever played it before. In the actual Monopoly rules, that have been around for years and years and years and years, there is a rule that says if you land on property and you don’t buy it, it should go up to auction anyway.
It’s always so funny that people don’t realize that, because people play with their own house rules. That’s part of why the game gets a bad rap for lasting so long, because if you don’t auction off the properties, it takes longer to unload them all. People also have this tendency to inject a lot of cash into the game, which also makes it longer, because it takes longer to bankrupt people.
So, every now and then, Hasbro decides that’s worth highlighting again — and I have to give Hasbro props for this. Because whenever people say Monopoly is a long game, I’m like, “No, it’s actually not. If you play it by the rules, you’re in and out in under two hours, if that.”
“Are we going to have a Monopoly with like, securitization and bundles of mortgages?”–Mary Pilon
Knowledge at Wharton: It truly is a generational game. You play it as a kid and you pass it down to your kids. I know I play it with my son. And that’s I think a little bit unique in this realm of games.
Pilon: I think so too. To go back to what it teaches kids, I think that a huge part of it is teaching cooperation and getting along with people, and the deal-making aspect of the game, the social aspect. What I love about games, in particular — this is the case in my family, but I think it’s true with any group of people — is they bring out a side of people that you don’t see ordinarily. I feel like I’ve learned so much about my aunts and uncles and my siblings, and a lot of it is because of having a game like this. I’m the youngest in my family, so having an arena where I actually had a shot at winning was really exciting. Still is. So I do think that it’s going to be with us for a long time, for a lot of those reasons.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the articles I read noted how not having the money in this particular version of the game may actually cut back on the potential for cheating.
Ramani: That probably is true. But part of the fun is having a banker who counts out the money and can make the change — and watching them and talking about whether that was right or wrong or how much you still owe me. There’s a component of that where it involves discussing the money, and the social interactions, and talking about how much, and how much less, and how much more, that is an important part of the learning. That’s all going to be taken care of now, by the machine. Yes, it’ll speed things up and prevent some cheating. But in some ways, it’s part of the fun and the learning that goes on with that game.
Knowledge at Wharton: What level of success do you foresee for this version of the game?
Pilon: I think it’ll be fine. But I don’t see it as some extreme, huge, big trend. I think what’s interesting about Monopoly now is that because of Kickstarter, the financing of game design is so different that, now a lot of these traditional brands have more competition from more upstarts — like, Settlers of Catan, or other games that parents now have even more access to. I think it’ll come and go, but I still think that most people will gravitate toward the traditional game.
Ramani: I think it’ll be successful. But I’m not sure it’ll replace the older version. I think there will be a lot of great novelty to it. I think that there will be a lot of excitement with the new version. But I don’t expect that the old versions will be removed from the shelf any time soon.