Gamifying the Dialogic Method: Why we love (and hate) the board-game, Monopoly.




By Meghana Gudluru

Playing Monopoly is a lovely way to energise the better part of one’s day with family and friends. On many a dull afternoon at the office when we are feeling stuck or in need of a quick boost, you will see us at Kshetra playing this board game. As a team screaming “Dialogue!” and “Co-Creation!” from roof-tops, the irony is not lost on me that this game filled with intense strategies, deals, and Win-Lose scenarios, has become our guilty pleasure.

As an amateur game-design enthusiast, I got to searching for the elements in Monopoly which bring out the best and worst of people playing it. I think we can learn from it to create behaviour change at scale. If behaviour change needs elements of design thinking and repeated iterations can bring about change in people, we need to design a game which people wilfully (almost addictively), will want to play – again, again, and again.

Here’s some of what I found, and an account of my aimless thoughts that were sparked as a result:

Early Monopoly Had Space for Collaboration

In the early 1900’s Lizzie Magie, the head of her household (which was then unheard of), a practicing ‘progressive’ who even taught at her home about her political views, was finding that she couldn’t reach enough people. So, she embarked on a journey that I think all visionaries embark on – iteration. Drawing and re-drawing, she entered the wildfire fad at the turn of the new century – Board Games. The Landlord’s Game actually had two versions. The version which did not catch on was the one which ensured that every player received some money when any player generated wealth, and the game concluded when the poorest player doubled their wealth.

The popular version where those playing either hang on to dear life by mortgaging everything they own to just stay in the game, or, in contrast, crushing their opponents so they can be the last ones standing – almost always leaves me feeling unsettled. Once I started wondering why, I came across Brian Stout’s blog, “What if Darwin was wrong?”. Perhaps, we humans in our natural state, were MEANT to collaborate and co-create, and our socialisation and systems have (de-)evolved to pit us against each other. Not to say that a little healthy competition here and there isn’t useful, but the intense level of polarities in our current operations and interactions leave little room for finding meaning and purpose – the very things that motivate us to keep carrying on.

But where did these competitive systems come from, and how do we find our natural state again? How do we create space for meaning-making that is intentional? I don’t have the answers – now back to Monopoly.

Entrenching Power-Differences

What we at Kshetra absolutely love about Monopoly is the agency. The players can make the game what it is at every step of the journey. Despite there being dice and the ‘luck-factor’, it feels like the players’ choice is the ultimate game-changer and thus, like a somewhat accurate reflection of our lives in the real world.

What then makes me uncomfortable? The game’s a little too accurate. It also replicates the power-imbalances and the adverse impact they have on agency. For example, if due to sheer luck, one player was the first to land on and purchase a full set, the rest of the players will scuttle amongst each other and perhaps even to this ‘powerful player’ for a property trade which could make the rich, richer and hurt the rest of the players in the long run.

Interestingly, what irks me most, and perhaps many others can relate to this, those who have had luck favour them a tad bit, seldom seem to be able to acknowledge this factor. An experiment with altered Monopoly game-play conducted by psychologists at the University of California, Irvine showcased not-so-optimal behavioural changes in the more powerful people playing the game. They, not only ceased to consider that the rigged aspects of the game (which gave them double the cash and dice to play with in comparison to the other players), but literally and figuratively, began to take up more space from other players. There were also obvious effects of narcissism, jibes putting others down, and entitlement at play (pun intended). The power-imbalance crossed over from the imaginary world into the material one.

Here’s the flipside: In a recent Dialogue Game Night we organised, during the debrief, a player mentioned they felt they did not have agency in the game. “There only seemed to be two choices to make, and I would not have chosen either if this had happened in real life. I wanted to keep playing, but I was frustrated and at some point I didn’t want to do it anymore”, they said. This reminded me of phenomena which continue to emerge in our work – Initiative Fatigue and Resistance. If those who occupy more space in the dialogue process continue to operate from their positionality, the other stakeholders could begin to feel a sense of futility in investing their efforts. This could possibly lead to a breakdown of dialogue and a lose-lose, even if the stakeholders involved, strategically had the best possible alignment of interests.

What’s more, if we are contemplating worst-case scenarios, like in the movie Parasite, the perceived less-powerful, who experience their space being encroached upon time and again, could go to any lengths to reclaim it or even work to have the balances tip in their own favour more drastically. And, I don’t think I would blame them.

The Dialogic Method has techniques to manage this situation which we currently discuss in our capacity building workshops, but how can we bring these management techniques, and more importantly, a safe space with collective ownership and a self-correcting mechanism for power-imbalances into a game? Also, can we? Because if this can be done, perhaps like in the rigged Monopoly experiment, these elements can cross over from the game into reality instead.

Serious Gaming, Space-Design & Behavioural Change

The mechanics of Monopoly’s game-play which are a big hit for me are these:

  • The feeling of hope in iteration – While playing, have you ever felt like, “Maybe in this round, someone will land on my hotels and have to give me a a ton of fake money!”, “Maybe in this round I’ll roll doubles and get out of jail”? Well, that’s hope. This, makes players want to play the game again and again, keep trying no matter what. How wonderful it would be to harness this element so that change-makers find a way to navigate initiative fatigue!
  • Interaction is essential – Imagine playing Monopoly where there were no trades and everyone had to play with whatever properties they purchased through the roll of the dice. The result? It could be a very quick game or a never ending one. But more importantly, it’s just no fun! It is essential to interact with other players, and co-operate with them at least in the short term, to keep at the journey. A study involving pre-schoolers and their behaviour changes after playing cooperative games reflected that in all kinds of games (even the competitive ones), the children most gravitated to the socialising, interaction and engagement with each other.

These critical elements which keep Monopoly addictive and fun, are modelling concepts like The Attitude of Abundanceand Authentic Curiosity in the Dialogic Method. These sometimes, are difficult to harness within oneself without continuous iteration and reassurance from a return on investment on one’s efforts. The best way to have changemakers feel such effects and water their garden of internal motivation to engage, is, I feel, serious gaming. As the intention to engage and one’s self determination are at the core of the Dialogic Method Framework, any such behaviour change game may perhaps need to be anchored to these. Apart from many contemplations on this out there, what struck me most was Playing for Real, which discusses how Social Cognitive Theory and Elaborate Likelihood Modelling harness the steps of attention, retention, production and motivation in players in the game so that they can process new information and perform accordingly outside of the game as well.

If Nothing Else….

There is ample Design Thinking and Systems Change literature on methods to bring about large-scale systemic transformation. Some of it, like Donella Meadows’ thesis on leverage points in a system was mind-bendingly brilliant to consume. A well-thought-out game like Monopoly, could contain the mechanics that could perhaps go viral. The best case being, as a method to inculcate the principles of the Dialogic Method and enhance the evidence on the necessity of co-created value for sustainable change. But if nothing else, at least to improve ancillary skills needed for us to better engage with each other.