It’s Monopoly’s birthday: collect €20,580

Before it was famous: The original version of Monopoly promoted collaboration and equality.

To celebrate its 80th anniversary, the makers are hiding real cash in a number of Monopoly sets. A heart-warming touch. But there’s a darker story behind this notoriously vicious board game.

Exactly 80 years ago, in the doldrums of the Great Depression, an unemployed radiator repairman was searching for a way to take his family’s mind off their financial sorrows. Fuelled by fantasies of extreme wealth, he dreamt up a board game in which players trade fake money for luxury property. And so Monopoly was born.

That, at least, is the story that the brand’s owners, Hasbro, are celebrating this year. And there is much to celebrate. In the eight decades since it was first released, Monopoly has sold 275 million copies in 110 countries and become one of the most successful board games ever made. Now, in France, its makers have decided to celebrate the 80 years by putting real cash among the Monopoly banknotes in 80 of 30,000 stickered boxes.

But the cheery underdog story that makes up Monopoly’s origin myth is not the whole truth. The game’s real history stretches back to 1903, when it was conceived by a socialist and feminist called Lizzie Magie as a demonstration of how a radically egalitarian system might work.

‘The Landlord’s Game’ was identical to Monopoly in many ways. But whereas the modern game invariably ends in one player bankrupting their opponents and owning every property on the board, its predecessor encouraged players to pool their resources and create a system of communal ownership that allowed everybody to flourish.

So the creators of Monopoly took a game with an idealistic, egalitarian message, and turned it into a celebration of the most ruthless and predatory type of commerce — the sort that even Adam Smith, the ‘father of capitalism’, abhorred.

Monopoly is not the only wildly popular game to promote an ideology of aggression and greed. Risk, another titan of tabletop gaming, is subtitled ‘the world conquest game’, while the venerable sport of chess is arguably the most brutal of them all. ‘Chess is war over the board,’ as the great grandmaster Bobby Fischer said, ‘the object is to crush the opponent’s mind.’

Live by the sword, dice by the sword

Perhaps our obsession with acquisitive, ultra-competitive games like Risk and Monopoly is a type of wish fulfilment. We want to believe we are cooperative and peace-loving people, some say, but our true desires are avaricious and cruel. Every one of us secretly wants to dominate their peers and hoard material wealth: we are all monopolists at heart.

Nonsense, respond less cynical gamers: if a game makes us behave like monsters, that is the game’s fault rather than our own. Monopoly only reflects the ills of the world because it is built to mimic our unfair economy. Games can encourage collaboration instead of antagonism — and so could Monopoly, with a mere tweak to the rules.

You Decide

  1. Is competitiveness generally a negative quality?
  2. Can games tell us anything about human nature? If so, what?

Activities

  1. Pick your favourite game (of any kind) and write a brief analysis considering the ideology it represents.
  2. In groups, design a game that encourages players to cooperate rather than compete.

Some People Say...

“I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.”

Bobby Fischer

What do you think?

Q & A

Board games are so last century.
The statistics disagree: board games have actually experienced an enormous revival in recent years, with sales increasing by between 25% and 40% in each of the last ten years. Board games are among the most popular items on Kickstarter, with many receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds. Some suggest that the rise of video games may be partly responsible, by getting people interested in gaming more broadly and creating an appetite for more simple and sociable games.
I’ll stick with my Playstation 4, thanks.
Fair enough. But whatever form the games you’re playing take, it’s interesting to think about what they represent. Does playing first-person shooters reveal a thirst for violence? Do you prefer to play with friends, or alone? And why?

Word Watch

Great Depression
In 1929, confidence in the American banking system suddenly crashed and caused an enormous recession that echoed around the world. Many people lost their fortunes overnight, currencies plummeted in value and unemployment in the USA rocketed to 25%.
Banknotes
The overall value of Monopoly banknotes is €20,580. Only one set will have all the money replaced with euros, but 79 others will contain smaller prizes.
Radically egalitarian
Lizzie Magie believed in the economic doctrines of a radical theorist called Henry George, who thought private property was the fundamental error of Western civilisation.
Adam Smith
The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s masterpiece, is often considered the founding text of economics. He argued that free enterprise would liberate individuals to fulfil their potential and drive prices down — but he despised monopolies as the enemies of competitiveness.
Bobby Fischer
A maverick American chess player who is often considered the greatest of all time. After winning the world title, Fischer developed paranoid fantasies and died as an exile and a recluse.

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