Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


monopolycards2

The Meaning of Monopoly

• February 07, 2013 • 11:15 AM

From American socialism to German hyperinflation to worldwide vulture capitalism, the strange and shifting lessons of a favorite board game.

Monopoly has been much in the news lately—not because the Obama Administration has suddenly assumed the guise of a vigorous anti-trust cop (fat chance!), but because the toy company Hasbro is making a conspicuous change to its flagship board game. In a contest held on Facebook over the past month, Hasbro invited the public to decide the fate of one of Monopoly’s classic tokens—the little metal figurines that represent each player on the game board. After more than 10 million votes poured in from fans in 120 countries around the world, the firm announced yesterday that, by will of the people, the old flat iron would be replaced with a new token in the form of a cat.

The new token chosen by Facebook voters

The new token chosen by Facebook voters

But what does Monopoly actually mean to all those millions of voters, aside from being a perennial diversion for families forced to endure rainy summer days indoors? Last fall an article in Harper’s magazine by Christopher Ketcham examined the peculiar history of Monopoly, a game that has, over the past 110 years, been periodically repurposed to teach a number of often conflicting lessons about economics.

As Ketcham explains, the earliest version of Monopoly was designed in 1903 by a Maryland actress named Lizzie Magie as a vehicle for popularizing the ideas of Henry George, a now largely forgotten 19th century political economist whose thoughts on remedying inequality in an industrial society were embraced by such contemporaries as Mark Twain, John Dewey, and Leo Tolstoy. In the game’s original version, players could choose to behave like monopolists and drive their adversaries to financial ruin—an outcome whose perniciousness Magie took to be self-evident—or they could agree to cooperate with each other, pay rent into a common pool, and achieve an arguably happier shared prosperity. Monopoly was deeply anti-monopolist.

As the game evolved, though, subsequent iterations cast aside the communitarian cooperative option. This was certainly the case with the version patented by Charles Darrow, “an unemployed steam-radiator repairman and part-time dog walker from Philadelphia” who sold the game to Parker Brothers in the mid-1930s. From that point on, the game came to teach a rather different economic lesson. What had started out as a cautionary tale against the evils of unbridled capitalism became a diversion from the trauma of the Great Depression, and then a parlor game where clever children could end up owning their parents. What’s more, as the game made its way around the world, its message varied.

When I was a college student in Vienna in the late 1960s, my friends and I played a German edition of Monopoly that was of post-World War II vintage. In lieu of Park Place and Boardwalk, the game featured properties ranging from the proletarian Badstrasse to the plutocratic Schlossallee. From time to time, you’d be unlucky enough to draw a card bearing the stern order: Gehen Sie in das Gefängnis (Go to Jail).

What was especially intriguing about this version of the game was a twist in the rules that made it singularly conducive to rampant inflation. By collecting rents and other cash awards (such as for merely passing “Los”), some players inevitably amassed huge fortunes, enough to dry up all the available Deutschmarks.

To continue playing, it became necessary to convert smaller bills into much larger units of currency in order to maintain liquidity. One-mark notes would be re-denominated into scrip as large as 100,000 marks. In effect, the bank lost control of the money supply. It was Weimar all over again.

I’ve since wondered if we had simply misinterpreted the rules or whether this version of the game had instead been deliberately rigged by postwar German authorities to instill in young players the virtues of conservative economic and fiscal policies. Perhaps this helps explain the exaggerated sense of alarm with which contemporary Germans react at the meagerest hint of inflation.

So what economic lesson does today’s edition of Monopoly impart? For his Harper’s article, Ketcham had a conversation with Richard Marinaccio, the 2009 U.S. national Monopoly champion, who explained the game this way:

“Monopoly players around the kitchen table”—which is to say, most people—“think the game is all about accumulation,” he said. “You know, making a lot of money. But the real object is to bankrupt your opponents as quickly as possible. To have just enough so that everybody else has nothing.” In his 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. Instead, it’s about shutting down the marketplace… The initial phase of competition in Monopoly, the free-trade phase that happens to be the most exciting part of the game to watch, is really all about obliterating free trade and annihilating competition in order to replace it with monopolistic rent-seeking.

Ah, so that’s why it’s so much fun to play on a snowy afternoon.

Jock O'Connell
Jock O'Connell is an international trade economist who lives in Sacramento.

More From Jock O'Connell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.