We have become, through sheer force of habitualisation and indifference, so accustomed to some of the weird conventions of news reporting that they have ceased to appear weird to us. For example, we don’t bat an eyelid at the bizarre three-stage life cycle of any news story in which it is news that something is going to happen, news again when it does happen and news a third time as people react to it. And we have become inured to the ‘PR as news’ phenomenon in which an event fabricated for the sole reason of generating media coverage is treated as if it were, in fact, an actual event.
Last week saw a prime example of this with the ‘announcement’ that Hasbro, the makers (i.e. rights holders) of the Monopoly board game were planning to give the game’s fans the opportunity to choose which of the game’s playing tokens should be replaced, and what it should be replaced with. Except, that’s a rather dull account of what Hasbro has in mind. In fact, of course, one of the game tokens was due to be “axed” and “you” would be making the key decisions. In case you were in any doubt of the significance of this responsibility, you were reminded that Monopoly tokens are “iconic”. Wow. Basically, the fate of Western civilisation is in YOUR hands. Decisions this momentous haven’t been offered to the general public since Shakespeare’s publishers ran their legendary “which Plantagenet king should he write about next?” competition four hundred years ago.
The story got blanket coverage. I doubt there was a news outlet anywhere in the Western world (and probably in much of the non-Western world) that didn’t report this, debate it, write columns on it, invite their audience to send their views in and speculate on the final outcome. (My personal view is that they should replace the car and the top hat with a badger and a wind turbine, just to annoy Daily Telegraph readers). And, as far as I can tell, absolutely everyone reported this ‘story’ with a completely straight face. I didn’t see anyone who reported this as a PR stunt (please send me a link if you did). This was treated as an actual event, worthy to be considered ‘news’ in its own right.
But, of course, it is entirely possible that the journalists of the world know something that we mortals do not. Might there actually be something behind this apparently innocuous attempt to remind people of a board game they once played?
Could there actually be a huge Monopoly development lab, perhaps deep underground Hasbro’s Pawtucket headquarters, or maybe in some shiny research park on a California university campus? There, Monopoly paradigm engineers (‘Monopoliers’, please – if you call them ‘Monopolists’ you lost the right to collect anything when you land on Free Parking) sit among vast super-computers capable of playing a billion games of Monopoly every hour, and they work on ways of perfecting the game for its millions of followers and disciples.
For months, they’ve been trying to deny what the data have been telling them. ”We have to accept it,” they admit one day, at the end of a Community Chest Textual Reinterpretation meeting. ”Replacing the iron with a Segway would have a profound effect on gameplay dynamics, the beauty and complexity of which will be hard for most even to perceive, let alone comprehend.” As they would later explain to Hasbro’s board (the secret ‘Monopoly Conceptualisation and Modernisation Board’, not the ordinary board of directors – and don’t call it ‘the Monopoly Board’ or you’ll suddenly find you can never throw a double when you’re in jail): “computer analysis of some 18 billion exabytes of game completion data clearly shows that replacing one of the player tokens with a new design will ensure that the user of that token, if he or she also owns the orange set on the board, will add roughly 7-10 days to their life expectancy.” ”My God,” the board members would say, in shock. ”No one was even looking at the oranges. We all thought it was the yellows.” And so they agreed to the change.
They knew the public couldn’t handle the truth. Monopoly player tokens are iconic. What Monopoly player hasn’t taken their favourite piece out of the box and placed it at the centre of a little shrine in their home, surrounded by scented candles and the remains of sacrificed animals? Changing a Monopoly piece is like changing one of the characters in the Bible, or changing one of the particles in the standard model of quantum physics. If they went public with their findings and the whole plan, there would be social disorder, economic collapse, political upheaval, riots, hailstorms, possibly even a Twitter argument between two footballers – all on a terrifying global scale.
Over the next two weeks, a secret cabal of Hasbro executives (all of whom have since died in mysterious circumstances) hatched a plan to release the new Monopoly piece on an unsuspecting public. They would dress the whole thing up as just a big PR stunt. They knew the world’s media would lap it up, and there would be plenty of helpfully cynical voices muttering loudly about how this was all really about declining sales of board games among the digital generation. The PR people, who would be allowed to think the whole thing was their idea all along, would celebrate their tremendous success. The whole world would be sent into a frenzy of discussion about the relative merits of the dog versus the boat, all carefully watched by ‘Earthturn’, the biggest and most powerful of Hasbro’s supercomputers (acquired in the 1984 takeover of Milton Brothers, where it was previously responsible for the astonishing narrative realism you’ll have noticed in The Game of Life). And it would work – people would buy the game with the new token, and they would play it and the world would start to be a brighter place again.
But no one had reckoned on the amazing powers of perception, investigation and dogged intuition of the journalistic profession. Somehow, they knew there was more to this than the cynical, transparent publicity-seeking that everyone else seemed to think was going on. They could see that there was something real here, they just couldn’t pin down what it was. To show that they knew something was happening – that there was a real news story here, hidden beneath the dung-heap of shallow corporate opportunism – the world’s journalists treated Hasbro’s announcement as news, rather than PR. It was a shot across Hasbro’s bows, and it’s got them scared. In the Monopoly development lab, paradigm engineers now work, cut off from their families, under the close supervision of armed guards from Hasbro’s Imperial Militia. Hasbro and the world’s journalists are embarked on a deadly game of brinkmanship in which the future of humanity is at stake. We must not let on that we suspect anything. Play your Monopoly games as if nothing unusual was happening. But stock up on canned goods and bottled water, just in case.
News planner for journalists
To aid global media networks in their efforts to unravel the hidden Hasbro conspiracy that secretly dominates the world, here is a preview of the news stories, cunningly dressed up as PR stunts, that you can expect later in the year.
February – Hasbro to announce a change to the murder weapons depicted in the game Cluedo and that, to show its support for tighter US gun control measures, ‘the revolver’ would be replaced by ‘the shark’. The ensuing outrage would be used as cover to sneak in the actual change planned for the game which is to manufacture the Colonel Mustard pieces with wholegrain mustard instead of French, as a cost-saving measure.
April – Hasbro to announce a public vote to choose a seventh Trivial Pursuit category. Options to include home improvement, colours, food & drink and macroeconomics. The actual aim is to have us drawing seven-segmented circles, stimulating receptors in the brain that encourage obedience and docility.
June – Hasbro, makers and rights holders of the popular board game ‘Chess’ to announce that it will start making gay and/or female bishops. Nigel Farage will denounce this as political correctness, triggering what will be known as The UKIP Chess Riots of 2013. All those taking part in the riots will have their water supply very slightly poisoned while they’re out of the house.
September – Lord Leveson is called into service to conduct a two-year inquiry into the decision by Hasbro to allow contractions, abbreviations and acronyms in Scrabble – a move reckoned to have increased the world average blood pressure by about ten per cent. Hasbro denounces this move as an act of aggression, declares itself an independent theocracy, claims its seat on the UN Security Council and places its fleet of nuclear submarines on high alert. A piece in the BBC News online Magazine is headlined: “Game changers: Are Hasbro’s announcements just PR stunts? You decide.”
December – Hasbro announces that, in the game Mouse Trap, all depictions of cheese will be replaced by peanut butter, because it’s more effective at catching mice. The US and UK governments respond with declarations of all-out war against Hasbro, and begin conscription and mobilisation of troops. The Daily Telegraph publishes a special supplement on ’20 Ways to Enjoy Mouse Trap if Your Child has a Peanut Allergy’ – number one is “wash each mouse in warm soapy water before and after each game.”
So, you see, it turns out I was wrong. This stuff is news after all.