Can boardgames explain cultural differences?

2

July 24, 2012 by JL Walker

Black and white Milan courthouseMy first game of Monopoli – the Italian version of the beloved capitalist board game
A few years ago, I sat down on a winter evening with a group of Italian friends and we decided to break out the Monopoli board. The game began as usual with the distribution of thimbles and miniature cars, the selection of a banker and a slightly confusing distribution of money to each player.
Mettiamo $50 in Free Parking?” I asked before rolling the dice.
Dove c’è scritto?
The rule book was found and consulted. One of the players was appointed the rules-reader. He responded, “Non c’è scritto, quindi non si fa!” The $50 in Free Parking rule wasn’t in the rule book, so it wouldn’t be part of the game.
We started playing and each rule was consulted before proceeding with the game play. If there was any dispute or even a simple doubt over the rules – time to break out the rulebook! This was something unheard of in my childhood rounds of Monopoly, where the house rules always settled any dispute.

Growing up and playing the game with my brother and other friends, the house rules would change depending on who was hosting. Most of those rules just weren’t included in the rule book. If tradition called for players landing on Free Parking to win $50 or the other penalties that players had paid beforehand, that rule held up. House rules usually had to be established before the game started, but it was widely accepted that not all rules had to be written down.

Why didn’t my Italian friends use the house rules that are ubiquitous in US households? What’s so important about that little rule book? It wasn’t until a few years after that first game of Monopoli that I realized these distinct approaches to playing a boardgame is part of a larger cultural difference.

I started working with a group of attornies who wanted to improve their English skills. In between grammar and vocab lessons I would ask about how the Italian legal system works so that students could practice using specialized vocabulary in a foreign language. Of course, my prior knowledge of the US legal system went about as far as Law&Order reruns (“I’d like to plead the 5th!”).

Here’s what I learned: To put it very simply and watered-down, civil law relies on a very detailed and codified collection of laws that are updated as needed; on the other hand, common law uses a variety of sources, including the laws themselves, but “binding precedent” and how judges have interpreted the law in the past is very important. So, because the Italian legal system is based on civil law, the Monopoli rule book, like the civil codes, must be consulted to uphold the rules. In the common law system, like the house rules during Monopoly games, tradition and custom are just as important as the original written rules.

Of course, I have also discovered that most of the world uses the civil law system and not common law. Anglo-Saxon countries just have a rather unusual legal tradition. But these legal systems are so deeply ingrained in the culture that they affect the way children’s games are played.

So, if you ever play Monopoli in Italy, remember that your house rules, however much may improve the game, just might be frowned upon by the other players.

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2 thoughts on “Can boardgames explain cultural differences?

  1. I think it’s fair to ask this question, but I would think that it’s more likely that games are a consequence of societal norms rather than vice versa. Interesting read!

    • JL Walker says:

      Hi Thomas, thanks for your comment! I agree that Monopoly is clearly a product of the society that created it, which is true for games in general. And the “house rules” example in Monopoly is probably also related to how often it is played in many US households.
      Don’t you think gameplay of the same game may change based on habits and customs of a society too?

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