Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why the Communist Versions of Monopoly Failed

You’ve probably heard about how the USSR banned Monopoly during the Cold War. But have you heard about what they did to replace it?

According to a Mental Floss article, “Soviet leaders even tried coming up with their own Marxist-themed spin-off games designed to highlight the virtues of frugality. The title of one such knockoff from Communist-era Hungary loosely translated to ‘Save,’ while another in Russia had a name that roughly meant ‘Manage.’”

What, never heard of these? Why on earth did these communist reboots of Monopoly not immediately take off?

Because they were trying to create culture in a purely reactionary way.

There was a cultural movement out there (capitalism) that was being encouraged by a wildly popular bit of creative property (the game Monopoly). If we’re communists, inherently opposed to capitalism, we’ve got to make our own bit of creative property to combat the one from the other side, because otherwise our people are going to be sneaking around covertly buying up Boardwalk and Park Place into the wee hours of the night. And we can’t have that, now can we?

Don’t even try to say that it’s “just a board game,” and that it doesn’t affect how people think. By entering into a game where you are a greedy landlord trying to get rich at others’ expense, you are accepting that philosophy, even if it’s in a small way. We create culture, and then it creates us.

The problem is, if the culture we create is weak and poorly designed—the Hungarian game “Save” sounds pretty compelling, doesn’t it?—people will reject it, no matter how careful we’ve been to infuse it with the right values.

Okay, let’s stop pretending we’re communist board game developers for a minute. (What? You were never pretending? Oh, come on, where’s your imagination?)

Instead, let’s talk about Christian fiction. Or Christian music. Or Christian art in general—or any area where “Christian” is used as an adjective. And let’s ask the question: are we simply reacting to the culture around us?

Last summer, I read Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making. In it, he talks about believers creating “a safe haven from the mainstream” and the limitations of this strategy: “Any cultural good, after all, only moves the horizons for the particular public who experience it. For the rest of the world, it is as if that piece of culture, no matter how excellent or significant it might be, never existed….When we copy culture within our own private enclaves, the culture at large remains unchanged.”

(Seriously, read this book, especially if you’re a writer or a musician who is also a Christian and have wondered what to do about the whole most-Christian-art-is-junk trend. And also watch this short video that parodies the Christian knockoff culture in a way that made me giggle out loud while researching this post.)

The solution to the problem of Christian copycat culture? Create excellent things.

Okay, so it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. The problem of a separate Christian market/audience that pays for corny stories (“Another Amish romance?”), the fact that some knock-offs—the blog Stuff Christians Like is my favorite example—are better than the original, the limits of our own creativity (and by that I mean that I personally am too young and inexperienced to write anything really excellent yet). But the general idea is pretty simple.

Our calling as Christians is to glorify God. And God isn’t glorified by knock-offs.

Now, part of the problem is that it takes time, work, and practice to create excellent culture, so I’m not going to go off on a rant about particular authors or artists who I think produce sub-par art. Maybe they’re still just learning. I’m still learning. That’s cool. We need to show a little grace, I think.

But if the only adjective people can use to describe a song is “family-friendly,” if the only positive words in the book review praise the “strong Christian themes,” if the religious version of a product costs twice as much because of the Biblical pun in its name, then maybe there’s a problem.

If the communist government had been able to create a genuinely quality board game that also showed the value of their point of view, who knows what would have happened? (I’d argue that the tedious, money-grabbing, slow-death game of Monotony does a good job of pointing out the flaws with capitalism on its own, but you get the point.)

Let’s learn from the communists and create culture instead of copying it.

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