Seven years ago, as part of the penultimate issue of my gaming web fanzine Critical Miss, I wrote a short filler article about an interesting fact I’d discovered about the board game Monopoly (which was that if you land on a property but opt not to buy it, it gets auctioned off by the bank). Critical Miss was never serious; pretty much everything in it was very tongue-in-cheek and not to be taken literally. I’m not actually expecting you to start invading people’s space at wedding receptions or introduce yourself to complete strangers in the street, for example.
I always aimed to give Critical Miss articles a good angle and a snappy title; for my Monopoly article I wrote it using the narrative conceit of a “campaign for real Monopoly”. There was never any campaign. It was just a neat story angle and an eye-catching title. The issue came out and a good few people read it, but I don’t recall there being much in the way of comment about that short filler article about Monopoly. And that was that. Except that it wasn’t, because in the digital age of the Internet, nothing truly dies; like Great Cthulhu it merely waits, sleeping.
The article first woke nearly two years ago, after someone – I was never able to track down the “patient zero” who’d started it all – found it, read it, and tweeted about it, causing it to go viral. For three days the link was passed around the digital world. According to the web stats of my web site, around 40,000 people read it during this period, and it even found its way into an online blog published by the Washington Post. That was cool, but it pretty much passed me by. The pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook (pre-blog even) technology and design of Critical Miss was so old that none of it traced back to me in any way. It wasn’t my Tweet that was being retweeted, and so I got no “digital dividend” from the attention my article was getting.
Then, last Wednesday, when I was on holiday in Spain with my family, I received a text from my friend who back in the Critical Miss days had gone by the nomicker of “Bubba”:
Your monopoly post just hit twitter, buzz feed and gizmodo.
This was news to me, as with data roaming turned off on my phone, I was completely out of the digital loop. I didn’t expect this to be anything other than a rerun of the “viral event” of two years before, but I figured I ought to just touch base with what was going on. So when we got back to the hotel I bought a 24 hour wifi card and hauled out my laptop. (I wouldn’t normally take a laptop with me on holiday, but I’m just in the process of finishing off my latest novel, prior to submitting it to agents, and so had been sitting in beach cafes for an hour or so a day, working on it).
What I found waiting for me was pretty stunning: an email from someone working for the BBC World Service, asking if I’d be available for an interview. Within hours, other requests were coming in, from stations in the UK, Australia, Ireland and, for British expats, in Spain.
The next day things got even stranger, when my article hit the newspapers, with pieces referencing it being published in the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Metro and the New Zealand Herald to name just some, to go with the online articles at Buzzfeed, Gizmodo, AOL, news.com.au, the Huffington Post, Yahoo Games, FoxNews.com, Time.com and Penny Arcade (who might have been the people who started the event, as their piece was dated 16th May). Even my favourite paper, the Guardian, mentioned it, albeit tacked onto the end of an article about single mothers.
But the newspapers had completely misunderstood the nature of my article as well as getting certain details incorrect (in a manner that showed all their articles had come from one common news source). The situation was actually summed up rather nicely by Mark Green (@mgreen) in a post on Facebook:
I can’t believe that several actual newspapers today are running a story about “Are you playing Monopoly properly?” and talking about the “Campaign for Real Monopoly” run by Johnny Nexus and his “London-based gaming blog”, Near Miss.
– The guy’s name is Jonny Nexus, not Johnny Nexus.
– The site is a fanzine, not a blog.
– It’s called Critical Miss, not Near Miss.
– The “Campaign” thing was just the article title, not an actual organization.
– The article was written in 2005.
Seriously, what the heck news agency managed this one?
When I talked to the various radio stations, they all turned out to be operating under the same misapprenhension: that this was an actual, real campaign that I was running now, as opposed to merely an article I wrote seven years ago. Obviously, I wanted to get onto the radio. What aspiring author wouldn’t? But equally I didn’t want to go on under completely false pretences, nor have to pretend that I was actually running a serious campaign on this issue. After all, while being on the radio is one thing, being an apparently obsessed nutter on the radio is something quite different. So when I had a chance to discuss things in advance with a producer I made sure to explain the full situation to them, whilst stressing that I was still keen to go on and discuss my “tongue-in-cheek” campaign.
BBC Radio 5 Live dropped out after this discussion, although in a very nice email they said it was because they’d decided to go with stories about the Mary Rose and Simon Schama, and I’ve genuinely no reason to doubt that. I’d also been in talks with a programme on the BBC World Service (which apparently also goes onto NPR in the US), but that fizzled out. And finally, I was asked if I’d be available for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with John Humphrys, but while they did go ahead with the feature, it was with a Monopoly world champion explaining what I’d said rather than me, a decision which I am in no way bitter about. Honestly. But I did end up doing four interviews:
- The Peter Levy Show on BBC Radio Humberside.
- iTalk FM (an English-language station broadcasting in Spain to the expat community).
- Call Kaye (with Kirsty Wark standing in) on BBC Radio Scotland.
- The breakfast show of Phantom 105.2 in Dublin (this is a pre-record that will go out some time this week).
In each one, I ended up making the same points. I wasn’t running a campaign, but if I had been, it would have been for people to see board games as a reasonable leisure pastime for adults.
That in the English-speaking world we have a weird attitude to board games. Unless it’s Chess, Scrabble or something that uses playing cards, we think it has to be targeted at children. As a result, we dumb down and sanitise games in order to render them child-friendly – making them, as a result, boring for adults – only to then make the circular argument that board games are only for children because adults find them boring.
And finally, that the way we consider Monopoly to be the archetypical board game which defines what a board game is and who it should be enjoyed by is a stupid as it would be were we to use the Wizard of Oz to define what a feature film is and who it should be enjoyed by. Children can be entertained by a cardboard box; do we really want to restrict and retard an entire category of leisure pursuits to fit in with their tastes?
It wasn’t all plain sailing. It turned out that the direct line into my hotel apartment didn’t work, so I did the first interview standing up at the reception desk after sprinting across the complex, using the reception desk’s phone, and hoping to God that no-one tried to check in or complain about their toilet not working or ask when their bus to the airport was arriving (because they’d have been standing right next to me). For the other three interviews, the hotel was kind enough to let me use their admin office, although this might just have given me more time and space in which to worry.
Since getting home, I’ve listened to two of the interviews via the wonderous tool that is the BBC’s iPlayer. I think that narcissists aside, listening to yourself being interviewed on the radio is always going to be a cringe-worthy experience. It’s bad enough hearing your voice as others hear it, rather than as it sounds after vibrating up through your skull; but to know that tens of thousands of people were listening to you is a truly weird thought to have. I’ve always hated the sound of my recorded voice; to me I sound a bit posh and just a tad pompous. But having listened back to two of the interviews on iPlayer, I actually think I came across okay.
Since then, I’ve been interviewed by the local Brighton Argus, and hunted down a few links, but I think that for now my little viral Monopoly adventure is over and it’s time to get back onto the novel. I’ve enjoyed it though. It’s been fun. It’s very cool to be able to put appearing on radio on my writers’ CV. And I’m walking away knowing that in one trivial, but hopefully fun way, I’ve changed the world a little bit. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of thousands of people now know something they wouldn’t have known had I not wrote that article seven something years ago.
And you know what? That’s a pretty cool feeling.