Simon Carr's Week

The Game of Monopoly Turns Politically Correct
Jan. 23 2002 2:00 PM

Simon Carr's Week

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You can buy a local board game in shops around Oxford. It's been franchised, by the look of it, to give local appeal to a global brand. It's the old Monopoly game but presented with Oxford streets and places. My younger son likes playing Monopoly because he always wins. I hate playing it because it takes so long to lose. And it's such a realistic game that the loss is personally hurtful. As others land on the right squares and buy up everything they can, you have fewer and fewer stepping stones to help you round the board. You pass Go only to then run out of money. You mortgage your properties. You're forced to sell for almost nothing that which cost you a fortune. It's all so depressingly like life. And then you go to jail.

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Oxford Monopoly has something even more depressing about it. Our new social sensitivity has intruded into the game on a fundamental level. As we know, Oxford real estate is finely graded, perhaps even more so than London property. Everyone recognises the gulf that separates the leafy, sun-dappled streets of Central North Oxford from the driving winds and social squalor of North Oxford. And indeed within that definition of Central North Oxford, the East side knows well how superior its status—not to say its value—is compared to the West side. So imagine the mental dislocation to find in the Oxford Monopoly set that streets of comically different value have been set next to each other. Iffley Road and University Parks (what?). Cowley Road with Martyrs Memorial (no!). Botley Road with Norham Gardens (argh!). It's like having Vine Street and the Old Kent Road sharing the two blue-chip squares right at the end of the game. The designers must have decided that the children who play this game should not be taught that living down the back end of the Cowley Road is in any way inferior to living in a Georgian house in St John's Street with the Playhouse round the corner. The idea that any one address is less good than another fosters social exclusion and reinforces the sense of hierarchy. It generates inappropriate values. It's insensitive. It's stigmatising.

And put like that—and there are those who put it like that—perhaps it's true. Of course, children shouldn't be made to feel awkward at living on the wrong side of the roundabout. Auntie living behind the Abingdon Road, brother in Blackbird Leys: What's wrong with that? Much as we might want the answer to be "Nothing at all", the hierarchy of value remains stubbornly in place, reflected inexorably in property prices. Crime, health, education, poverty, drug use—all the heavy social statistics—improve the further round the traditional Monopoly board you go. It's one of the facts of life that aren't allowed in children's games any more. I rang up Monopoly to check these assumptions. A spokesman said: "It's not really a property guide to Oxford. We tried to take into account the fact that London streets have, shall we say, a bit more cultural significance to them. So we tried to make the Oxford game a bit more of a cultural Monopoly." If that means something, it's hard to say what.

On a more practical level, it appears that some of the squares are sold to corporate sponsors. That's why they contain shops and shopping centres, a brewer, a football ground. Business concerns "don't queue up to appear on the cheap squares". Usually we blame politics for this sort of bowdlerisation. When politicians involve themselves in a going concern, they drain it of its original vitality and culture. Church schools are a case in point. In order to encourage them, the government is proposing to fund them. But to prevent charges of discriminating against other faiths, the schools will be required to become "inclusive"—that is, open to and catering for children of other faiths. Thus, in order to promote "faith schools", they have to destroy them. It's a small thing, then, the Monopoly problem, but typical of our times. And nothing good will come of it: the first rule of property (location x 3) is too powerful to be ignored.

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