Historiopoly: Contextualizing Monopoly in U.S. American Culture

Art by Alec Monopoly. See his gallery on the blogroll or on the link at the end of this article.

Art by Alec Monopoly. See his gallery on the blogroll or on the link at the end of this article.

INTRODOPOLY

Do you like Monopoly?  If you’re being honest, and if you’re like most people, your answer is probably, “I’m not sure.”  Monopoly is the best-selling board game of all time, and has been translated into something like 27 languages.  It achieved this noble status even before it became fashionable to print collectable, special edition, “everything-opolies.”  And yet, if you’re like most people, you probably can’t remember too many times that you actually finished a game of Monopoly all the way to its proper end, and it seems like you have more negative associations than positive ones.  In fact, the game seems to have been originally designed with the intention of showing the negative consequences of the late 19th and early 20th century economic models.  So what’s the deal?  Is Monopoly a good game?  Is it actually fun?

This post is filled with philosophies I’ve held for a long time, but the fact that I’ve published them now was inspired by a reading of an article by Jack Dixon, called “In Defense of Monopoly.”  In that piece, Dixon writes in opposition to legions of Monopoly haters and naysayers, who exist within a sort of elitist subculture among hobby gamers.  Clearly he loves the game, and he writes convincingly of its merits.  I don’t disagree with him; Monopoly does have merits, and it can be fun.  As I’ve stated before, it was a seminal part of my development as a strategy gamer.  Nevertheless, Monopoly is plagued by a handful of design problems, which are almost universally recognized.  These include:

  • it’s too long and tedious
  • there’s too much luck
  • the rules are too complicated or too ambiguous
  • the players eventually just get bored or pissed off
  • nobody wants to play again on the same day

I could probably go on, but that’s not the point of this article.  With a few simple house rules (one of Dixon’s cited merits of the game is its malleability to house rules), these problems could be corrected fairly easily, and the game would be shorter and more balanced without losing its essence.  But most casual Monopoly players don’t really make house rules or adjustments—at least not intentionally (money under Free Parking being perhaps the most famous non-rule in existence).  Instead, most casual Monopoly players simply suffer through the game’s imperfections, complaining about them regularly.  And yet, Monopoly is the best-selling board game of all time, and has been translated into something like 27 languages.  Nobody seems to like it.  Everybody seems to be buying it.  How did this happen?

I haven’t done extensive original research on the thesis I am about to propose, and certainly there are more thorough and more intelligent Monopoly historians out there than I, but I do know a couple of things about history, and I do know a couple of things about board games, and I have a theory.

I propose that Monopoly currently thrives off of its own legacy, and that the Monopoly legacy evolved over the last eight decades, not because Monopoly is a particularly great board game, but because it was first an activity, and then a symbol, of everything we have come to recognize as being “American.”  Monopoly is part of our cultural identity.

role-playOPOLY

Monopoly is a game of pretend.  It’s a form of role-play.  In essence, the game is this: “let’s pretend we’re rich fat cat bastards who buy and sell the world.”  Or at least New Jersey.  The principles that Monopoly embodies are acculturated (or indoctrinated) into us from a very young age.  If you don’t believe me, consider my son’s second-grade social studies vocabulary homework, which this week included the term “free enterprise.”  In helping him study, we ended up having a conversation on the basic principles of scarcity and surplus and their impact on prices.  My son is 7 years old.  This is the system by which the “American Experiment” became the “American Empire,” and it is the system in which we want our own children to thrive.  In Monopoly, we pretend that we are, in fact, the Captains of Industry.

Furthermore, the act of “pretend” as a form of play is, by definition, largely unstructured and without a definable “end.”  This is why people are content to play Monopoly simply until they are no longer interested, caring little for whether or not they have achieved the “end” as defined by the rules.  When my dad was a boy, he and his friends would play Monopoly games of infinite length: recording ledgers in pencil on brown paper bags when the cash had long since been depleted; allowing two or three hotels per property instead of just one; literally writing their names on the edges of the board where their tokens stood when it was time to clean up, resuming the same position later.  The length of the game was meaningless.  In Monopoly, the play is the thing.

DUSTBOWLOPOLY

The rich fat-cat scenario was the exact sort of fantasy in which Americans were trying to engage when F.A.O. Schwartz was selling out of copies of the 1934 version.  Suffering from the downturns of the Great Depression, many Americans had a scarcity of money, and a surplus of time.  This naturally led to an increased demand for an escapist fantasy of being a rich fat-cat bastard who bought and sold the world.  Or at least New Jersey.  And being that it was an escapist activity, players would have had little desire for the game to actually “end.”  This, in fact, is quite possibly how house rules like “Free Parking” began; players often invent house rules to extend the length of a game and to perpetually give “last place” a chance to catch up again.  It was in this climate that the Parker Brothers snatched up the design and fed it into their meat-processing-factory of a toy/game company.

british monopolyNAZIOPOLY

The early to mid 1940s saw Americans intensely focused—and galvanized as a collective identity—against the Axis Powers.  The economy was up and running much better than in the 1930s, but nearly all of that was pumped into the war effort.  Average Americans had to continue living within or below their means, which meant very little “going out on the town.”  The mothers and children left behind by their servicemen must have spent many nights at home, listening to FDR‘s “fireside chats” on the radio, entertaining themselves with inexpensive family game nights.  Typical fodder for an evening of play: cribbage, Scrabble, and Monopoly: a game whose celebration of free enterprise and individual choice (not to mention Grade-A American stubbornness) was basically a giant middle finger to the socialist, fascist states around the world.  Also worth noting is that British printings of Monopoly were shipped to Allied P.O.W.s—partly to occupy their time, but also to smuggle in prison break paraphernalia.

COMMIEOPOLY
Famously present during the blockade of Cuba.

Famously present during the blockade of Cuba.

Monopoly’s ideological significance only inflated into the 1950s, when the national-socialists gave way to the socialist/communists as the enemy du jour.  Soviet leadership not only recognized the symbolic and motivational import of the game, but they went as far as to make it illegal in their country, lest their unhappy and unfed masses be inspired to design their own wargame in response.  Far from being a trivial concern over a silly board game, the Soviets were right to be nervous.  The Americans had multiple copies of Monopoly on display at the National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959.  Risking punishment by death, Russian thieves had stolen every copy by the end of the exhibition.  Tell me that doesn’t just scream: “I want free enterprise, even if it’s just pretend…”

REAGANOPOLY

By the 1980s, Reagan was king, and neoconservative politics were the prevailing attitudes in America.   Businesses with fewer regulations dominated the market, and “collectibles” as a product line unto themselves were coming into fashion like never before: baseball cards, Star Wars action figures, and of course, board games: now with electronic versions of all your old favorites!  The Soviet Union was in its death throes, and by 1990, millions of people across 15 newly independent states would no longer have to beg, borrow, steal, or risk their very lives for a bootleg copy of Monopoly; they just had to ask for a translation.  Meanwhile, they set about rebuilding their own countries along those same core principles.  It isn’t uncommon for Americans today to view this period as the nation’s “victory” in the Cold War—the empirical “proof” that free enterprise is not only “better,” but more importantly: “right.”

USA-OPOLY

Which brings us, more or less, to now.  The last 20 years have seen continual progress along this same trajectory, with Monopoly skins ad infinitum now being the leading product of its licensee, USAopoly.  As board games are measured, especially against current trends, Monopoly is mediocre, suffering from a number of flaws—and Hasbro knows this.  This is why we continue to see new and different variants of the game—not just the 10,000 collectible skins on the same old rules, but actual rule variants, including one that utilizes a “credit card” system of payment, and another that comes with a “speed die” to accelerate the game.  These are Hasbro’s attempts to respond to new generations of tabletop gamers, and to address the design flaws of a particular product.  While I appreciate that their design team still goes back to the playtesting table once in awhile, the fact of the matter is, from a pure sales standpoint, they don’t need to.  People don’t buy Monopoly anymore because it’s a game.  People buy Monopoly because it’s American to buy Monopoly.  We’re not sure we actually like the game, or even if we rightly know how to play, but our home would feel weird without it, just as it would without the china we don’t use, the baseballs we don’t throw, and the Bibles we don’t read.  (Know what the all-time best-selling, most translated book is?)  Ours is a culture built upon the belief in our natural right to own property, and to own it simply because we want it.  Whether or not, or how, we use, trade, or sell our property is entirely up to us.  That’s America.  That’s the game, and we don’t want it to “end.”  That’s exactly what Monopoly is about.

The front piece used in this article was done by Alec Monopoly.
Check out his work at alecmonopoly.com.

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What’s your relationship with Monopoly?  Has it been “fun for the whole family”?  “Ending friendships since 19XX”?  Or simply “complicated”?  What house rules do you use in your Monopoly sessions to keep the game fair and to remedy its inherent imbalances?

9 thoughts on “Historiopoly: Contextualizing Monopoly in U.S. American Culture

  1. Glad to see that my post spurred on such a great article! It’s definitely true, as far as gameplay goes there are flaws in Monopoly which can be fixed with a few simple adjustments. I think my next post is going to be about some suggestions of house rules to improve the game and make it faster paced and more enjoyable. And I agree with you that a lot of the popularity from the game comes from the name and the history, I just hope that people also find the benefits of the game too!

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  2. Thanks for commenting, Jack. Glad you enjoyed the article and didn’t feel like I was arguing with or criticizing you. Monopoly isn’t the greatest game ever, but certainly it doesn’t deserve the vitriol it gets from so many people. Monopoly was really a standard in our family and provided many hours of fun and spawned many stories. Certainly it’s better than a number of games that are on the market now that are getting all sorts of “press for less.”

    I’ve got family in Virgina–maybe one of these days you and I will sit at opposite ends of the Monopoly board. Dibs on the battleship.

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  3. That is a reasonably theory! I have known more than one non-gamer family that owned Monopoly but had in fact never played it. I’ve only played it a handful of times as an adult but played it a decent amount as a kid. Best ‘house rule’ of monopoly I’ve ever played with is playing with two different Monopoly boards with the go on each board over lapping. A player can choose which board to go onto when they pass Go. However, the cards are on each board are for the opposite board so you’re forced onto the board that you don’t want to be on. That was a very interesting game!

    Great read, love the board game history!

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