Monopoly: a brief history and what it tells us about being human

 

The Monopoly board game, which was created in 1935, is currently produced in 47 languages and sold in 114 countries. There is a world championship, which is held every four five years. The winningest countries are the United States and Italy with two wins apiece, although the former have not won since 1974. The winner takes home $20,580 – the total amount of play money that comes in each version of the game. I am not sure if this is an apocryphal story, but according to the Chicago Tribune, Fidel Castro was not a fan and banned the game, decreeing that every set be destroyed.

The traditional story behind the creation of the Monopoly was a feelgood one. Its inventor Charles Darrow had been unemployed during the Great Depression. The year was 1933. Desperate to support his family, the unemployed salesman went down his dark, damp basement, where he would toil away until he came up with the game. He developed the game using materials from his own home. The cards were handwritten and the board was covered with a piece of oilcloth.

It is a beautiful story. However, this story is leaving an important part out. It is the role of one woman. The woman in question was Lizzie Magie, a Washington resident, who in 1903 invented the Landlord’s Game. It was ironically intended to be a teaching tool that argued against the concentration of wealth and the injustices of capitalism. It was a “practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” She was backing the theories of Henry George. This 19th century political economist and journalist saw landlords as parasites and proposed a “single tax” on them to replace all other taxes. The game was not, however, a great success. I guess this is the genius of capitalism. It took Magie’s anti-capitalist idea and turned it into billions of dollars of revenue.

There are numerous versions of monopoly. There have been more than 300 licensed versions of the Monopoly game developed themed with topics such as sports teams, pop groups and movies. There is now a fast version, wcich can be played in an hour, as opposed to the three or fours it usually takes.

The comedian Steven Wright once quipped that he thought that it was wrong that only one company made the game Monopoly. And Parker Brothers in the past, and Hasbro now have indeed aggressively defended its patents. Nevertheless, it has inspired alternative versions. One of my favourites is from Ralph Anspach a professor at San Francisco State University, who was living in Berkeley. His two young boys were playing Monopoly and Anspach didn’t like what he saw. He decided to create his own version – Anti-Monopoly. This led to a long-running legal battle with the official version. More radical was Bertell Ollman, who taught dialectical methodology and socialist theory at New York University. His game was called Class Struggle.

One of the most interesting things I learned while researching this post is a famous social science experiment carried out by social psychologist Paul Piff. He wanted to investigate how wealth changed people’s empathy towards different social classes. As part of his research, Piff ran a study using a rigged Monopoly game involving 100 pairs of strangers. The pairs played games in which the academics randomly picked one player who they would favour. The chosen player started out with more money, threw two dice instead of one, and was given twice as much cash on passing Go. Given all this help, they were bound to win. But what was interesting was how the winners reacted. They ate more of the pretzels that were on the table, became more aggressive and would openly mock their opponents. The put down their winning to their own play and the strategies they had employed. I don’t know how much these experiments shows. It does ring true, though. It speaks to our immense capacity for self-justification.

I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of Monopoly. I can’t remember the last time I played. Nevertheless, I do find the history fascinating.

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