As Part of Peabody Essex Museum’s PlayTime Initiative, Writer Naomi Russo Looks at Monopoly as an Ideological Tool

Is it possible for the world’s playful introduction to capitalism to transmit a new set of values?

“Propagandopoly” originally appeared in “Works That Work, No 9” (courtesy Thomas Forsyth, LandlordsGame.info)

Monopoly is a game in which anyone from a child to a grandma can become a ruthless property mogul. Sold in over 114 countries, the game was first commercially marketed as a success story of the American dream — a game invented, its packaging claimed, by an unemployed man for whom it made millions during the Great Depression. As a potent worldwide symbol for capitalism it has become so well recognized that during the Occupy London protest in 2011, an oversized Monopoly board sat outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, featuring a destitute Rich Uncle Pennybags and attributed by many to famous street artist Banksy. The message to everyone was clear.

The young woman who originally invented the game, however, had far different ideals. Elizabeth Magie was inspired by her passion for the anti-monopolist economic theories of politician Henry George, and her desire to teach them to others in a simple, compelling way led her to develop The Landlord’s Game. In the words of her 1903 patent application, the game was designed “not only to afford amusement to the players, but to illustrate to them how under the present or prevailing system of land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprises.”

Naomi Russo’s essay continues on playtime.pem.org; learn how Communist countries were quick to ban the game, Chance cards were written to chastise bad behavior, and how social psychologists believe Monopoly can reveal underlying moral codes and ethics while also transmitting new values.

On playtime.pem.org the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) explores “how is play changing our lives?” with leading writers, thinkers, game designers, poets, artists— and you. Discover new writing on games and society, hear artists talk about what play means to them and see our curators in action as we prepare to open, PlayTime, the first major thematic exhibition to explore the role of play in contemporary art and culture.

PlayTime opens at the Peabody Essex Museum (161 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts) on February 10, 2018.