I’ve spent many a happy afternoon, eyebrows furrowed and clutching a wad of fake notes, in heated games of Monopoly. I’ll admit, I rarely win. I don’t think I have the killer instinct the financial game requires, in which capitalists and shrewd investors tend to fare best.
According to Hasbro, the manufacturers of Monopoly, this might be because I'm a woman, living in a world where we are victims to the gender pay gap. To right this wrong, Hasbro has just launched Ms Monopoly, an edition with its own female mascot that aims to rectify gender inequality by paying women more than men. Female players get $240 on passing go but men only collect $200 and instead of buying property, players invest in inventions by women. Hasbro says this is a "fun new take" on the game to highlight the disadvantages women face.
I wish they had just left the original game alone. This reinvention highlights the reality that toys aren’t just toys. They are highly political. They express how we see the world, our place in it and the role we think we should be playing.
For example, The Game of Life, a board game invented in the 1860s, articulates the American dream, with players progressing through college, marriage, parenthood and retirement. Its latest incarnation is called Quarter Life Crisis with the tagline: "Now with crippling debt!". Players start out with debt worth $500,000, with the winner the first to pay it off after encountering hurdles such as getting a botched tattoo, a divorce or calling in sick to binge-watch television.
Some toys are undisguisedly political. American toy company Keep and Bear released a Build the Wall kit, complete with a "Make America Great Again" branded hat.
Others are even part of the propaganda machine. In Nazi-era Germany, the Third Reich released board games that reinforced antisemitic views and encouraged players to invade nearby countries.
Nor can we escape the fact that games are often the training ground for military strategy and war. Chess has long been a metaphor for warfare and is even used in military training. Recreational wargaming today is as sophisticated as the real thing.
In a market worth an estimated $90 billion per year, today's customers are seeking toys and games that reflect the modern world. Mattel has launched new lines of Barbies in response to parental demands for dolls that break the traditional mould of the thin, blonde, blue-eyed female, whose aspirations are to look pretty and bag their very own Ken. However, while the new Barbies have different ethnicities, they all still seem to fall into a narrow range of body types.
The issues that we see embodied in our toys are just our own problems in miniature form. Instead of resolving issues, they only seem to entrench them.
Take the creators of Ms Monopoly: they have misunderstood the fundamental causes of inequality. In another recently released edition called Monopoly Socialism: Winning is for Capitalists, the game has blatantly misinterpreted the concept of socialism, instead suggesting all taxes end up in a private bank rather than invested in the community while caricaturing all socialists as vegans and losers.
In the 19th and 20th century, the golliwog doll was widely sold in England. They were designed to resemble minstrels, with exaggerated features now deemed racist. They fell out of favour in the early 2000s, yet – despite their controversial appearance – there have been heated arguments in favour of reviving them. The toy store Hamleys and a gift shop on the Queen’s Sandringham estate only took them off the shelves in 2009, after complaints. Perhaps that is reflective of the challenges we are still facing today when it comes to racism and a world in which those in power think it is perfectly acceptable to “blackface”.
This isn’t just about toy manufacturers getting it wrong. Our own choices are political too. In recent years, the subliminal gender codes of toys have been challenged, with parents spurning pink and blue options, or opting to buy toys seen as traditionally male, such as scientific and engineering kits, for their daughters instead.
Yet while traditional boys’ toys are becoming accessible to girls, the reverse does not seem to be happening. Dolls are rarely gifted to boys and they risk being mocked if they play with them. Doctor’s kits tend to be the norm for boys, not nurses’ outfits. And a play kitchen or miniature vacuum cleaner is less likely to be given to a boy than a tool kit. We should instead be encouraging boys to acquire important life skills like cooking and learning to be more empathetic.
The toys we choose reflect the reality of our society and say much about how we perceive the world. It might not seem serious but the messages we convey through the toys we buy are weighty ones, to be subconsciously absorbed by little ones. That's far too big a risk to leave to chance.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World