I live in Jersey City, NJ. It’s a unique environment, because it combines its own energy with that of New York City, which is right across the Hudson River.
It’s not often that I get to talk about a subject that crosses board games with where I live, but last month, Jersey City commissioned an artist to draw a giant Monopoly board in the middle of a busy pedestrian plaza, about seven blocks from my house.
We first heard about it from a tweet from Steven Fulop, Jersey City’s mayor.
Let’s take a moment to set aside how we feel about how good or bad Monopoly is as a game. Many fans of board games, myself included, have very strong feelings about Monopoly, and how it affects the perception of modern board games. But this post will focus on Monopoly’s cultural effect on people at large, and its unique position to influence our culture as the world’s most famous board game.
As you can tell from the tweet above, the Jersey City Mural Arts Program commissioned artist Gary Wynans, aka Mr. AbILLity, to paint a 33-foot floor mural in the form of a customized Monopoly board. It was to be painted in a busy pedestrian plaza, a block from the heavily-trafficked Grove Street PATH subway stop that links Jersey City to New York City and Newark.
Then things went south.
Some people took offense to the “Cool Statue” space. This was a reference to the nearby Katyń Memorial, which commemorates the gruesome killing of thousands of Polish war prisoners by Soviet troops under the order of Joseph Stalin in April and May 1940.
Wynans dutifully renamed the space to “Katyń Memorial.” But then public attention focused on the figure painted in the Jail space.
This drew criticism from Pamela Johnson, who runs the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement. She objected to the depiction of a minority in prison, on the grounds that it reinforces negative stereotypes.
Wynans defended the space by saying that the image was a self-portrait, acknowledging the time he himself was arrested. The city took matters into its own hands and painted over the self-portrait, turning all but the “safe” area of the Jail space a solid orange square. Wynans quipped afterwards, “I wish they had come to my rescue the time when it actually happened”.
Image credit: ncac.org
Then the public learned of one more peculiar encounter. It turns out that a representative of a property developer who contributes to the city program had requested that his company be included in the mural. In Wynans’ own words…
On almost my final day out there, I ran into a fella named Paul. He asked me if I could put his name on the mural. I jokingly asked his name and said I’d add “Paul Avenue” right away, and just continued to work. He stopped me again and said, “No, I meant my company.” This guy wasn’t joking! I told Paul that all the squares were already taken, and that City Hall had made the decisions quite some time ago. He then got on his phone for about ten minutes. Fifteen minutes later, Brooke called me. “How can we incorporate ‘Charles & Co.’ on the board?” she asked me.
What the hell is “Charles & Co.”? Well, apparently they’re the company that has been building condos, and they help out the city with funding. Sponsored squares. Wow, is this what its come down to? I would have calmly explained what a terrible idea that is, but at this point the butting of heads had peaked and no rational discussion could take place. Paul got his square. Take a chance on Charles & Co. Know you know who’s really in charge of your fine city. And my heart broke.
Wynans renamed the “Take a Chance on Love” space to the “Take a Chance on Charles & Co” space. But he drew a crack in the heart to show how he felt about the change.
Image credit: nj.com
It seems that the project had generated too much controversy. So on July 25, the city painted over the mural.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and the incident has raised discussion about exactly how Jersey City decides on commissions for its mural programs. There also seemed to be a disconnect between the city’s desire for a harmless, family-oriented mural and the artist’s intent to comment on the city’s inexorable gentrification. But what I’m interested here is why this all arose over something from a board game.
Jersey City has many murals gracing the area. What is it about an element from a game that draws this kind of reaction? Why didn’t we get this reaction from other murals, even murals that referenced films or TV shows?
I think there are two reasons behind it. First, games demand interaction. While a mural showing a scene from a movie is content to simply be observed, a game board, especially one drawn on the ground, literally invites people. It wants to be interacted with. There’s something so compelling about a game board, especially one with a form that almost everyone is familiar with, beckoning us into its magic circle.
Second, I think that interaction extends to the design of the board. One element of Monopoly’s success that Parker Brothers and Hasbro has profited from immensely is how adaptable it is to specific locations. You can theme Monopoly from your local city to a massive sci-fi franchise like Star Wars.
This brouhaha wouldn’t have happened if Wynans had simply painted a chessboard on Newark Avenue. A chessboard didn’t have the cultural resonance he was looking for, because it lacked flexibility for him to adapt it to our hometown.
So as the board started to take shape on Newark Avenue, it was inviting everyone to have a say in its formation. And trust me, as a game designer, I can tell you: there are many directions in which you can take a game. A good designer knows when to say “no.”
This project suffered from a lack of a unified vision. Perhaps the city should have trusted the artist. Perhaps the artist underestimated the city’s appetite for subversiveness. Either way (or both, if you’d like), I’ve discovered that if you don’t have a single person calling the shots, or a small team running the project that knows how to work together and compromise, the end result suffers. When you create a large-scale, highly-visible art project with a huge dependency on a well-known game and the creative vision behind the work is compromised, the whole thing is going to go pear-shaped.
Games need to be taken seriously, as seriously as film and literature. They are cultural artifacts, providing commentary and resonance. Most of them may not instill the emotions that people feel from other forms of art, but I’m starting to understand that other forms of art are incapable of making people feel the way they do after having played a game. That’s why we play them.
There’s one more angle to this. As Eric Zimmerman (one of my favorite thinkers about aspirational game design) says, “Enshrining something as art is death.”
We should only look forward to games becoming art when we really are sick of them and culture has already moved on. Once games are just another department in the academy, just another section in the newspaper, just another kind of festival or marketplace or catalog then they no longer have the disruptive power that makes them so special.
Art is the name for establishment culture – works that have ceased to challenge and offend.
Rather than trying to figure out how games can become more like art, we should do the opposite. We should be desperately trying to rescue them from becoming art, delaying their installment into the hallowed halls of art.
This whole episode resulted from the vitality of games as a cultural medium. Games are alive, and they reflect us in a way that other forms can’t. Which is not to say that games are “better” than other media. But right now, they have a vibrancy that few other forms have.
We need to listen to games on a frequency that is unique to them alone. And those of us who are game designers need to keep paying attention. The better we understand how games reflect who we are, the better we can hone our craft to resonate with our players.
In the meantime, Mayor Fulop, if you haven’t lost your appetite for large-scale board game adaptations in the Newark Avenue pedestrian plaza… how about Age of Steam: Jersey City?