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The True Roots of ‘Monopoly’

Aug 10, 2017 CWN

A Game Invented To Demonstrate The Benefits Of A Shared Economy

By Kate Raworth

    “Buy land—they aren’t making it any more,” quipped Mark Twain. It’s a maxim that would certainly serve you well in a game of Monopoly, the best-selling board game that has taught generations of children to buy up property, stack it with hotels, and charge fellow players sky-high rents for the privilege of accidentally landing there.

    The game’s little-known inventor, Elizabeth Magie, would no doubt have made herself go directly to jail if she’d lived to know just how influential today’s twisted version of her game has turned out to be. Why? Because it encourages its players to celebrate exactly the opposite values to those she intended to champion.

    Born in 1866, Magie was an outspoken rebel against the norms and politics of her times. She took out a newspaper advertisement offering herself as a “young woman American slave” for sale to the highest bidder as a means of highlighting the subordinate position of women in society. She also decided to take on the capitalist system of property ownership in the form of a board game inspired by a book that her father, the anti-monopolist politician James Magie, gave her—Henry George’s classic, Progress and Poverty.

    Traveling around America in the 1870s, George witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and believed it was the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces—poverty and progress. He called on the state to tax property, stating that most of land’s value came not from what is built on it, but from the natural resources that underlie it, as well as the communally-created value of its surroundings, from roads and schools to communities and localized economies. He argued that such tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.

    Determined to prove the merit of George’s proposal, Magie invented and in 1904 patented what she called the Landlord’s Game. Laid out on the board as a circuit (a novelty at the time), it was populated with streets and landmarks for sale. The key innovation of her game, however, lay in the two sets of rules that she wrote for playing it.

    Under the “Prosperity” set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property, and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the “Monopolist” set of rules, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those unfortunate enough to land there; whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

   The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a “practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences” and learn how different approaches to property ownership can lead to different social outcomes. “It might well have been called The Game of Life,” remarked Magie, “as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world.”

    The game became a hit on college campuses and among Quaker communities who modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold a version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

    Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought out Magie’s patent and re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, with just one set of rules. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, with a story that he dreamed it all up during the Depression and become a millionaire from his sale—a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified the game’s changed values.

    So next time someone invites you to play Monopoly, here’s a thought: As you set out piles for Chance and Community Chest cards, establish a third pile for Land-Value Tax, to which every property owner must contribute each time they charge rent to a fellow player. How high should that tax be? And how should the resulting tax receipts be distributed? Such questions will no doubt lead to fiery debate—but then that is exactly what Magie had always hoped for.

Kate Raworth is a senior visiting research associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. This essay was originally published on the New Zealand website, Aeon.co.