Board games, intuitive monopolists, and pedagogical Georgists

I grew up in socialist Romania and I have played Monopoly since I was 10 with a game brought from West Germany by family friends. I loved the game and the fact that my social value among playmates increased because all of them wanted to play. Though we knew little about markets, banks, finance, or rents, we learned the rules very fast and were hooked. Real capitalism bloomed around us while we played with hotels, railroads and utilities, made fortunes or ended up bankrupt.

For those who don’t know the game, players start with an initial money endowment and take turns to roll the dice and move their token on a circular board. The aim is to acquire ownership over streets, railroad stations and utilities, consolidate them into trusts and invest money into improvements so that other players will pay higher rents whenever their token lands on one’s property. There are chance elements which increase or decrease a player’s position, and players can trade properties. The game is won when all players but one are bankrupt.

I was thus amazed to read what Kate Raworth wrote for Aeon about the unexpected origins of one of the most popular board games. Here is a long excerpt (under Creative Commons): 

In addition to confronting gender politics, [Elizabeth] Magie decided to take on the capitalist system of property ownership – this time not through a publicity stunt but in the form of a board game. The inspiration began with a book that her father, the anti-monopolist politician James Magie, had handed to her. In the pages of Henry George’s classic, Progress and Poverty (1879), she encountered his conviction that ‘the equal right of all men to use the land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air – it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence’.

Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces – poverty and progress – together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land’s value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature’s gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighbourhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.

Determined to prove the merit of George’s proposal, Magie invented and in 1904 patented what she called the Landlord’s Game. Laid out on the board as a circuit (which was a novelty at the time), it was populated with streets and landmarks for sale. The key innovation of her game, however, lay in the two sets of rules that she wrote for playing it.

Under the ‘Prosperity’ set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George’s policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the ‘Monopolist’ set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’ and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes. ‘It might well have been called “The Game of Life”,’ remarked Magie, ‘as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seems to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.’

The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly’s implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.

Source: Aeon

While the story helps redress the historical injustice done to Elizabeth Magie, the ending obliquely suggests that the proliferation of the monopolistic version of the game was somehow decided by Parker Brothers. Another explanation, however, may be that the different features of the game were more important for its development and success.

Source: The Guardian

The history of the Monopoly game is a textbook example of cultural attraction (Sperber 1996). An inventor created a game (perhaps inspired by a game played by Kiowa Indians). It actually consisted of two games using the same setting with different rules. The purpose was pedagogical. Magie wanted to contrast the experience of cut-throat monopolistic capitalism with Georgism (arguably the latter being preferred by players). Initially, the game was successful among people concerned with social reform and economic equity especially on the background of The Gilded Age of tycoons and proposals of antitrust legislation.

However, the game did not attract much attention among the general public. The original Landlord’s Game was rejected by Parker Brothers because its rules were too complicated. A history book claims that  “Lizzie’s game was mind-boggling for its day. Children (and likely most adults) could not be expected to grasp the play of the Landlord’s Game because most had no knowledge of the intricacies of real estate, taxes, and finance” “In Parker’s mind, the Landlord’s Game was not only complex, but patently instructional” Thus, the game was kept alive by politically-minded intellectuals who played and instructed other over two decades in small groups, finding new adepts among peers and students. When Magie tried again to sell the game in 1923, Parker Brothers showed even less interest since antitrust discussions petered out, making the ideological overtones of the game even less attractive.

But then something happened. An unemployed repairman changed the game by eliminating the instructional aspect of contrasting sets of rules. Georgism was out, pure Monopoly was born. He also created cards, money, and house icons and also changed parts of the graphic design. Charles Darrow sold many copies on his own before being selling the patent to Parker Brothers who were in desperate need of a winner in a very competitive market of board games. Why was this version successful?

Source: The Guardian

As mentioned before, I have first-hand experience of the game’s attraction and I saw how most of my friends were immediately enthusiastic. One of the best players was an older boy who barely managed to pass each class but took to Monopoly like a fish. We were excited by the turns of chance, negotiations, investments, or fascinating inter-player trades. Some tried to cheat, many (myself included) hid their stash of money to keep competitors in the dark about financial positions, and we keenly monitored each other’s performances. We cursed, cajoled, envied and advised each other (sometimes sincerely, sometimes not). When a player became too strong, we sometimes made pacts to borrow money from one another or to reciprocally-suspend payments of rent. We cooperated to avoid the leader to swallow the properties of weaker players and become invincible, but we also betrayed sometimes to go head-to-head with the main competitor. I kept playing Monopoly across the years and I will always remember winning against an acquaintance who claimed to have won second place in a national tournament. Alas, my political ideology and profession have not turned me into a tycoon (yet).

In a nutshell, Darrow’s version of Monopoly was more attractive than Landlord’s Game because it evoked social interactions based on competition (and to some extent coalition). The game is fair since no-one starts with any advantage except the roll of the dice. It uses an intuitive and simple zero-sum game to divide game resources as private ownership. The land deeds are transparently acquired by “being first” discovery/access and everyone respects the other’s ownership.  Apart from luck, personal skills of persuasion, social monitoring, and strategic thinking made the difference between winners and losers. It looks a lot like life even in postsocialist settings.

While we experienced surprise, fear, joy, excitement, pride, anger, or sadness, we definitely did not experience instruction, pedagogy, or political lecturing. We were not made to feel bad about winning nor think about unfairness when losing. For some of us, the game offered better chances at social esteem than the hierarchy of bullying created in other social interactions on the playground. I bet that a Georgism-teaching game would have flopped among Romanian boys in the early 1990s, to use Olivier Morin’s bon mot for motivational factors for cultural transmission. In fact, it was not catchy among the broader US population until its rules aimed at political introspection disappeared. Neither Charles Darrow nor George Parker wanted to impose the ideas of competitive, monopolistic capitalism. They only wanted to make money by selling a game attractive to as many people as possible.

Magie’s original game imposed counterintuitive and non-existent rules such as awarding others benefits when someone acquires a piece of land – not quite how things stand in the world of scarce resources. However, the irony is that socialists and reformists kept the features of the game alive within a small number of people until they were received and modified by an individual less interested in ideology and more in making a buck. Features of the game survived in a small community until transmitted to an outsider motivated by the number of (paying) players and not by political pedagogy. The educational purposes of the original game were thus only successful within a minority of people, but the intuitive half was more culturally attractive in terms of the general population. Anti-monopolistic versions of the game still exist, perpetuated for the same pedagogical and ideological reasons that Elizabeth Magie had in mind when she designed the game.

An explanation based on intuitive psychological attraction can be a better alternative to other theories. In case of the Landlord’s Game and other pedagogical forms of the game, the cultural reproduction may have relied upon the effects of social conformity or coalitional display of ideological commitments. But for the wider masses, the prestige or number of scholars playing that version mattered little. The Monopoly variant became widespread due to its contents, not due to who was playing it. Its promotion by a major company certainly helped its popularity, but it was already successful when “capitalists” at Parker Brothers took over and finally had a winner in the boardgame market after several flops.

Some people have good reasons to spend their time learning and teaching others about how it feels to live in a better or worse economy or society than the surrounding one. Many social and economic improvements came by reflection or experiments on counter-intuitive mechanisms in politics or economics, and a game is quite an imaginative way of toying with such ideas. But most boys just like to have (intuitive) fun.

Source: Twitter


  • comment-avatar
    Victoria Fomina 21 May 2020 (04:04)

    What about ideology?
    Thank you, Radu, for this very interesting insight into the development of Monopoly! Your account appears to identify the competitive dimension (and the fun associated with it) as the major advantage of the monopolistic version of the game over its “patently instructional” original. Yet, I wonder if ideology has also played a role in determining Monopoly’s attractiveness? In addition to offering the players an opportunity to compete, this version of the game gave the public a chance to try oneself in the role of an entrepreneur – a highly celebrated figure in American society. With that came a promise of self-development and learning the tricks of investment by playing. If the game’s anti-monopolistic version was modified to incorporate a competitive principle (e.g. the players would complete for making the greatest contribution to the public good), very likely it still would not have become popular with the US public. And not just due to the counterintuitive and non-existent rules – after all, the world where “no one starts with any advantage except for the roll of the dice” does not exists either. The concept and rules of Monopoly were simply more appealing in the context of capitalist culture. Much like Magie’s game, the monopolistic version had its own political and pedagogical aspects: for example, habituating one to not feel bad about winning or problematize the unfairness of losing. Unlike the Landlord’s game, however, Monopoly was not perceived as instructional because it promoted values that were part of mainstream culture. As for the game’s success in Romania – perhaps it tells us more about the Eastern European fascination with Western capitalism, rather than the universal intuitiveness of Monopoly’s rules?

  • comment-avatar
    Radu Umbres 21 May 2020 (18:00)

    Ideology helps but cannot explain the worldwide success
    Thank you Victoria for your insightful comments. Indeed, the game is appealing because one can become a heroic entrepreneur starting with equal chances and ending up a tycoon. In life, starting chances are seldom equal, but we seem to enjoy games which eliminate as many unfair advantages as possible, probably because they appeal to our intuitive fairness. However, a game where people compete for the greatest contribution to the common good is hardly intuitive as you well put it since it does not resemble real-life situations (unless there are side benefits for being a better contributor). And yes, Monopoly can teach players many lessons, but it is neither explicit nor necessary – even if you feel that you lost due to bad luck, you cannot accuse anyone and be taken seriously. Finally, I am skeptical that the game’s success was due to cultural representations of capitalism. Since writing this, I found out about a Socialist version of Monopoly which was also competitive but meant to instill values of “good householder”-ship – but I think its appeal came from the winner-takes-all dimension not the “Good Socialist Householder” aspect. We Romanian kids in late 80s early 90s had only a vague image of capitalism or entrepreneurs, but we “got” the game instantly. But this suggests a nice way of testing such hypothesis: what if we take the Landlord’s Game and Monopoly to a non-capitalist, traditional society (say Yanomamo or Hadza) and see which version becomes popular? My money is on the latter 🙂