A couple of weeks ago, my eight-year-old son looked through our extensive game collection and asked me to play Monopoly with him. I hesitated, thinking he might be too young to grasp the subtleties of such a complicated game, but I told him we’d give it a try.
Inwardly, I giggled with glee at the suggestion. You see, in my family, learning to play the game of Monopoly is a rite of passage. I should be clear that it is my family of origin of which I speak here, as my husband has refused to play the game with me since we played once while we were dating and I crushed him. And gloated.
Please don’t think me unsportsmanlike. I am, in general, in favor of fair play and gracious competition. But the game of Monopoly is the one exception I make. It brings out my mean streak. Hours upon hours of my childhood were spent first watching my older siblings slowly grind one another into the abyss of total financial ruin on an otherwise lovely Saturday afternoon, and later, participating myself in the epic battle for economic dominance. I have seen my brothers fling the game board in frustration, scattering plastic houses, shiny tokens and funny money across the room. I have watched as my sister seethes with silent rage when her natural luck runs out and the game shifts in favor of another player. But still, we always came back for more.
Why did we love it? Interestingly, none of the four of us, though each successfully transitioned into productive adulthood, is particularly involved in the business world. We don’t own large tracts of property filled with houses and hotels for which we ruthlessly charge our tenants exorbitant rents. We aren’t railroad tycoons nor are any of us owner/operators of utility companies. And I think I speak for all of us when I say, we’ve never really wanted to be. So why does this silly game speak to us (and to hundreds of millions of people who have played it since it was first introduced)?
Well, it turns out the answer to that may be found in the history of the popular game. The game of Monopoly, as sold all over the world by Parker Brothers, was designed by Charles Darrow in the early 1930’s. I say “designed” rather than “invented” because at the time Darrow started producing his game, there had been several similar games floating around already for quite a few years.
Most historians seem to think the earliest of these other games was something called The Landlord’s Game patented by Elizabeth Magie in 1904. Magie’s game, like Monopoly, contains spaces that represent properties which may be purchased and improved and that generate rent for the owner. The object of the game is also more or less the same, to build up as much money as possible.
The Landlord’s Game does contain a few differences, though. The most notable are the inclusion of spaces for Frontier Land, to which any player may retreat at any time during the game. These spaces remain rent and tax free for every player until a specified number of improvements have been made to other properties on the board, at which point players must begin to pay rent on the Frontier spaces as well, though, as the rules are careful to point out, wages never ever rise.
Another striking difference between Magie’s game and Monopoly is the inclusion of “Lord Blueblood,” an imaginary character who owns a great deal of the properties, collecting taxes and rent from all players and is not nearly as adorable as the top-hat wearing, much loved Mr. Moneybags. If a player is unfortunate enough to find himself trespassing on Lord Blueblood’s private estate, he goes directly to jail and must pay a hefty bail so that he may continue his next turn from the “So What” space next to the jail.
The Landord’s Game, as you may have guessed, had a (barely) hidden agenda. Elizabeth Magie subscribed to the economic theory of Henry George who attributed poverty to the concept of land ownership. Magie designed her game, then, to teach children that the concept of economic competition and land ownership in fact crippled an economy, eventually making most players poor.
For some reason, kids (and their parents) liked Monopoly better. Even (and maybe especially) in the midst of the Great Depression from which Darrow’s game emerged, the largely impoverished population in the US still dreamed of the opportunity for an individual to work hard, make smart business decisions, generate a little luck along the way, and achieve overwhelming financial success.
The game still ends with all but one victor in total financial ruin. But few refuse to play again after a crushing loss. It seems that most of us still like to take our chances with the promise of potential success. I think I might even be able to convince my husband to play again someday. Of course, now E will be playing, too, and I have to say, the kid is a natural. In our first game, he ruthlessly destroyed me, his own mother. And I was proud of him. Maybe he’ll grow up to be a railroad tycoon.