Was Monopoly originally meant to teach people about the evils of capitalism?

March 18, 2011

Dear Cecil:

I heard the original Monopoly game, before Parker Brothers took it over, was designed to teach people how broken capitalism is. Is that true?

Cecil replies:

Yes, it's more or less true, although you have to ask: who needs a game to understand how screwed up capitalism is when all you have to do is read the news? Be that as it may, I convened the Straight Dope staff to play several versions of proto-Monopoly. Their review: nothing like the socialists to make the capitalists look good.

The earliest recognizable version of what we know as Monopoly was patented by Lizzie Magie in 1904. The Landlord’s Game, as she called it, featured a board with the familiar circuit of increasingly pricey neighborhoods interspersed with railroads and utilities. At three of the corners were Go to Jail, Public Park (the ancestral version of Free Parking), and the Jail itself.

The fourth corner, however, wasn’t labeled “Go” but instead bore a drawing of the globe encircled by the lofty words “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” Translation: you got a hundred bucks. Nonetheless you realize: someone here has an agenda.

The story goes that Magie intended her game to be a teaching tool about the injustices of capitalism. She was a fan of the theories of political economist Henry George, who thought landlords were parasites and advocated a "single tax" on them to replace all other taxes.

You’re thinking: what an exciting premise for a board game. Depends on how it’s handled. If the idea was that the players, beaten down by exorbitant rents, were supposed to rise up and feed their evil landlord’s intestines to him with a fork, this might indeed make for a diverting family game night.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the player who accumulated the most money won. How does this teach us about the dark side of capitalism? Search me. All we can suppose is that in 1904 Magie’s political thinking, or anyway her approach to agitprop, wasn’t fully formed. Perhaps she thought referring to money paid for food, shelter, etc, as "indirect taxation" rather than "expenses" would impart profound lessons in economics. If so, ma’am, I have to tell you: this probably went over the average player’s head.

Magie eventually tumbled to the pedagogical shortcomings of her invention. Her 1924 patent for a second version of The Landlord's Game explicitly said one objective was showing "how the single tax would discourage land speculation." The rules now showed more attitude. For example, when throwing the Chance cube, a five meant you’d been “caught robbing a hen-roost — go to jail,” whereas a ten meant you’d been “caught robbing the public — take $200 from the board. The players will now call you Senator.” Ha!

Two new concepts were introduced in the 1924 edition. Idle Land could be bought for $100 and sold for $200, showing the easy money in land speculation. The other novelty was Monopoly, which at this point applied only to railroads: if you owned all of them, you could charge twice as much. Magie thought this would teach the proletariat that monopolies and land speculation were wicked. However, since the goal was still to wind up with the most money, a more obvious lesson might have been: monopolies and land speculation were great.

As the capitalist frenzy of the 20s continued unabated, Magie undoubtedly thought: my plan isn’t working. She gave it one more try. In 1932 she unveiled a combo game called The Landlord’s Game plus Prosperity. Prosperity was played on the same board but with modified rules: taxes, jail, and monopoly pricing were now eliminated; land rent was paid to the public treasury; once enough treasury cash accumulated, private utilities were condemned and placed in public ownership. Most importantly, players could vote to switch from Landlord to Prosperity rules in midgame. Now those chafing under the capitalist yoke (i.e., losing) could wise up, go socialist, and take over.

You can guess how well that worked. In our clinical trials, my assistant Fierra quickly figured out how to game the system and make money off railroad nationalization. Her fellow staffer Una discovered using the railroads to take you to real estate offices and treat them as "free parking" was a safe way to get around the board. Mainly, though, the players were frustrated and bored. After ten minutes, Fierra exclaimed in her charming English accent, "Dear God, this bloody game sucks!"

People evidently felt the same in 1932 — Magie’s latest brainstorm went nowhere. A few years later, in the best capitalist tradition, Charles Darrow ripped off Magie’s ideas, sold Monopoly to Parker Brothers, and became a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Stalins of the earth turned out not to be playing Prosperity, as some naifs thought, but rather Totalitarian World Domination, which endured quite a while. All of which invites the conclusion: next time you’re tempted by some utopian ideology, play the board game first.

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References

Darrow, C.B. "Board Game Apparatus." Patent 2,026,082. 31 December, 1935.

Magie, L.J. "Game board." Patent 748,626. 5 January, 1904.

Orbanes, Philip E. Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game & How it Got that Way Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press, 2006.

Phillips, E.M. "Game board." Patent 1,509,312. 23 September, 1924.

Pilon, Mary. "How a Fight Over a Board Game Monopolized an Economist's Life" Wall Street Journal 20 October, 2009, page A1.  

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