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Gaming the System: A More Realistic Version of Monopoly

(image via cattipper.com)
The new Monopoly cat on London’s Millenium Bridge (image via cattipper.com)

OAKLAND, Calif. — Earlier this year, there was a kerfluffle on the internet when users voted to oust the iron token in Monopoly in favor of a cat. It was a significant change to the aesthetics of the game — the iron had been around since the 1930s — but not a significant change to its gameplay. But that too received a direct challenge with rumors that the game would be getting rid of jail, but those claims were quickly dispelled. These days, the rules are more or less the same as they have always been: pick a character, roll the dice, buy up properties, pass Go, collect cash, and try not to go to jail while you’re at it.

A number of articles have sprung up discussing the game’s origins, which were decidedly anti-capitalist. Salon noted some of the original rules, pointed out that in the original incarnation, players could choose to pool their money together and find “an arguably happier shared prosperity” instead of the more ruthless, take-no-prisoners model promoted by the game today. Bloomberg also pointed to its roots in a game meant to warn against land ownership and the unfair advantages conferred to those with rights to property over those who don’t have that same level of access. An ancestor called “The Landlord’s Game” was developed by Elizabeth Magie, who “was a follower of the economist Henry George, who vehemently opposed land ownership and believed capitalism created an unfair advantage for landowners.”

As the game as evolved over the years, it’s clearly become more capitalist, and I’m struck by something written by Christopher Ketcham in Harper’s after he spoke with a Monopoly national champion:

In this view, Monopoly is not about unleashing creativity and innovation among many competing parties, nor is it about opening markets and expanding trade or creating wealth through hard work and enlightened self-interest, the virtues Adam Smith thought of as the invisible hands that would produce a dynamic and prosperous society. It’s about shutting down the marketplace. All the players have to do is sit on their land and wait for the suckers to roll the dice.

Monopoly starts with a basic and wholly incorrect assumption: the game is the same for everyone at the beginning. It’s not like we are all born with no land and come to acquire it over time; some of us are born with land, acres and acres of land, built into our inheritance, and, on the other extreme, some of us are born without any legal right to land, banking systems and other mechanisms for financial stability.

Imagine a game, for instance, that gives one fortunate player a hotel and houses on Boardwalk and Park Place and a slew of houses on each of the major quadrants of the game. Another player might get all the railroads, and one might get a house or two on a single property. A couple unlucky ones would start not with $200 in the bank but $10 or $25, or they might even be saddled with debt from the beginning. Passing Go means $200 in the bank of some players, and $500 for others.

Now let’s add in other structures of inequality. Imagine if the character you picked determine how you interact with the game. Choose the top hat, for instance, and you’re automatically granted a half dozen Get Out of Jail Free cards. Pick the dog, and you’re twice as likely to go to jail, and it’s a lot harder to get out once you’re there. For the thimble, you’ll never have a shot at getting elected chairman thanks to a mysterious glass ceiling. On the other hand, the car piece means you can avoid paying the majority of your taxes.

It doesn’t take a lot to re-imagine the game as a story of the fundamental differences each of us is born into. Though the system and rules might seem equal, the way we interact with those structures determines whether we can retire comfortably in Park Place or if we toil forever in the endless loop, racking up debts we can never hope to repay.

Back in July, I threw out a sketch of this idea on Twitter and received a wide variety of responses. William Powhida pointed to Anti-Monopoly, which he noted seems “sadly libertarian”, Sarah Brin said that it “kinda exists” in the form of StarPower. Nigel Ball declared that “no-one would play” because it’s so fundamentally unfair, to which I would now respond that you’d be required to play. You’d actually have no choice. Here are some others of note:

As many pointed out, this game just wouldn’t be very much fun. It’s hard to disagree. For the vast majority of players, it would be disheartening and disempowering, an exercise in futility. It would be stacked too much against them to enjoy it. Others would be given just enough to believe that they could be successful. The most determined and Machiavellian amongst them would give it their best shot for a few rounds — some will get just enough to own a property here and there, and we can hold them up as beacons of success and possibility. Many will probably just give up. But for the lucky few, the ones with the right alignment of property and privilege, it would be a fantastic game, wouldn’t it?

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