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

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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