It is estimated that over 275 million copies of the board game Monopoly have been sold, making it the best selling board game of all time. Approximately one billion people have said to have played the game at one point in their lives.
I’m guessing that only a small fraction know that this game, a tribute to capitalism, was originally envisioned as a game to promote communal values and fairness.
The history and mystery of the game’s origins are laid out in this fascinating documentary film from PBS, Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History. The original version of the game was called, The Landlord’s Game and invented by Lizzie Magie. When players bought properties the money went into a communal account that was intended to build schools and advance other public goods. It was a statement against “land grabbing” and an unfair system that enriched landlords while impoverishing tenants.
Even though she had a patent, others including Charles Darrow, adapted the game. Darrow eventually sold the game to Parker Brothers, going on to make millions for himself. Parker Brothers later discovered that Darrow didn’t hold the original patent and bought out Magie for a paltry sum and empty promises to release and promote her original version of the game.
Monopoly joins a long list of cultural artifacts whose original design was to promote an idea of success that was cooperative and communal but has been co-opted to promote individualism. Among them include Horatio Alger’s “Rags to Riches” stories, Little House on the Prairie, Emerson’s Self-Reliance, the Rocky movies and even the Bible and the Declaration of Independence just to name a few. On the last point did you know that the words, Declaration of Independence aren’t even in that document?
I’m not sure if our tendency to see the individual instead of the communal is yet another example of fundamental attribution error at play subconsciously or as in the case of Monopoly it is a deliberate attempt to subvert. Either way, imagine a world where rather than teaching a billion children to play a “winner take all ”game, they instead felt the joy of seeing how their choices could benefit others. Or were able to see what really drove Rocky’s success, beyond his hard work and training. Or as adults we focused on the four hundred plus instances where the Bible asks us to help the poor and others less fortunate rather than using “the good book” as a means to cast other as evil.
The games we play and the stories we tell are foundational in establishing our understanding of how the world works and what makes for a good life. It is incumbent upon us to not only choose them wisely and see them clearly but also know the story of how they came to be.