February 22, 2008
Board Game Franchises Come to Film

Seems that board games based on media properties have been more prevalent than media properties based on board games. After all, it's easy to create a fairly low-maintenance ancillary product by replacing the names of various streets with venues associated with The Simpsons or Star Wars. It's a bit more challenging to turn the very brief narratives of most board games into film.

Now, news has come from Hasbro that a major deal has been signed to do just that, however, and many of the world's favorite board games are set to come to life through a partnership with Universal Pictures.

I'll admit that one of my favorite films of all-time is Clue, the 1985 murder mystery comedy with a political flare starring some of the best film comedians of the era, from the incomparable Tim Curry to the sorely missed Madeline Kahn. I don't see how a new version of Clue could top that piece, but it is perhaps a blueprint of how a film could be derived from a board game while taking on a creative direction all its own.

According to the article by Claude Brodesser-Akner in Advertising Age earlier this week, the deal will see the first of these board game-based films launched in 2010 or 2011, with the studio releasing at least one new film a year after that, with a total guarantee of four films.

Meanwhile, the article also notes that a TV game show version of Trivial Persuit will be launching through Lionsgate. The show, which will launch in syndication in "nearly 90% of the nation's TV markets."

What's caused this renewed interest in launching more dynamic texts around board games? What will the movie version of Monopoly look like? While Clue, with its characters and plot-driven game play, seems the most obvious to be able to adapt into film, some of these other games seem low on narrative and high on interactive game play, so it will be intriguing to see how the screenwriters attempt to retain the interest that people have in the game without that level of gameplay-style interactivity, while also trying to create a plot around the bare skeleton of a story that many of these games provide.

As with Clue, one would suspect that these films will include myriad imbedded references to elements of game play, but is the nostalgia really tied to the property or the playing experience? I just don't know that I would be that excited to watch a film version of even my favorite board games, unless it was a particularly well-done or intriguing property of its own.

To bring this around to my opening, my main question is this: is the board game-to-film proposition a weaker or stronger tie than creating a board game FROM a film or media franchise? In the latter case, it seems that the franchise owners are counting on a particularly intense engagement with a multimedia property driving people to buy a collectible based on a favorite pop culture icon. In the latter, the proposition is a bit murkier. What is the draw of a board game franchise? It is still a pop culture icon, perhaps, but the main difference to me is that these games are used as excuses for social interaction, as particular constructs to bring together family and friends for recreation. Certainly, some games are preferred over others, and some games make for more compelling interaction. But I still feel it's primarily what the game enables, rather than the game itself, that draws the most significant passion.

Of course, video game properties bring up the same questions. For all the people out there who have spent a good portion of their lives rocking to Guitar Hero, would they be interested in watching a feature film based on the game?

These are questions I'd really like to direct to our colleagues over at The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, especially director Philip Tan, since he is currently teaching a course on games and the nature of play here in the Program in Comparative Media Studies.

Any thoughts? Send them my way at samford@mit.edu.