A Monopoly theme park in this economy? It might be the closest we’ll get to home ownership

I’m nursing a drink at a diner, deep within the bowels of Melbourne Central station, when I realise something isn’t right. I pull a pile of crumpled Monopoly dollars from my pocket and place them on the counter. “Keep the change,” I say.

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I’ve just wrapped up at Monopoly Dreams, a new attraction in Melbourne, Australia that bills itself as a “fully immersive and interactive Monopoly experience”. It’s essentially a theme park backed by big bucks, real and paper: a $20m adaptation of the Hasbro board game that’s sold more than 275m copies. And yet something feels off.

The experience follows a format that started in 2019 at Hong Kong’s very own Mayfair, The Peak, where visitors are first whisked through Mr Monopoly’s mansion. Instead of using his fortune to buy a digital platform to cultivate hate speech, this billionaire has spent his money adorning his home with museum displays of Monopoly sets and paintings of his beloved dog, Scottie.

After touring the mansion, guests are let loose in Monopoly City, its streets filled with carnival games, claw machines and gacha machines. You can try to crack a code to break out of jail, or you can weave your way through a laser maze to Mr Monopoly’s diamond vault. There’s even a 4D cinema that screens a Melbourne-themed Mr Monopoly adventure, with moving seats, gusts of air and the odd water spritz.

But there’s at least some sense of civic responsibility. One game’s aim is repairing busted pipes at the Water Works; another involves fixing the power at the Electric Company by smacking and stamping on buttons. It’s heartening to think that the children helping ailing utilities at Monopoly Dreams today may grow up to help dysfunctional telcos switch their networks back on.

You can even get your foot in the door of Melbourne’s broken property market with a print-out of a personalised title deed, complete with your name and an official-looking stamp, (I’m now the proud owner of Queen Victoria Market). While make-believing as a landlord, I forget we’re in the grips of a rental crisis. At least in Monopoly, cut-throat as it can be, you can’t jack up rents without making actual improvements to the property, like building a house or a hotel. You’d also be laughed out of the game for suggesting negative gearing or capital gains tax discounts approach anything remotely resembling fair play.

Playing games earns you Monopoly money, which at the current going rate, pending further rampant inflation, works out to A$0.10 for one Monopoly dollar. It can be spent at the gift shop, or at the diner – Monopoly cafe – on pun-heavy food and drinks. My limited success lands me a passionfruit mini-cupcake to go with my drink.

It’s only after I pay the bill, though, that I finally figure out what’s really bothering me: Monopoly Dreams is lovely. It lacks the meanness inherent to the board game, where you can only win if everyone else loses. Here, a group of teenagers cheer on a child at a bag toss game. A couple shares a smile as they let an excited kid squeeze past them in the laser maze queue. One of the friendly staff discretely lets someone struggling with a carnival game have a few free extra goes, on Mr Monopoly’s dime.

Related: The secret history of Monopoly: the capitalist board game’s leftwing origins

I’m reminded of the original inventor of what we know as Monopoly: Lizzie Magie, a Georgist feminist who intended the game as an educational tool to warn of the pitfalls of unfettered capitalism. The rules we follow today were just one of two rule sets she came up with for what she called The Landlord’s Game. In the other set, named Prosperity, you win when everyone else wins: when the player with the least amount of money manages to double it.

Even though that part never really caught on, some of its spirit still lingers. In all games, whether it’s a round of Monopoly or crawling on the floor dodging lasers at Monopoly Dreams, the ultimate goal is to have fun, and when someone has fun, everyone has fun – a net gain for the world’s shared Community Chest that is joy.

Then again, this all could just be the espressGO martini talking.