Illustration by Veronica Chen of the game Monopoly
Game night just got more important. (Illustration by Veronica Chen, Yale University)

Monopoly Is Ruthless — But It Can Also Teach Us About Cooperation

The board game has long been known for its dangerous ability to escalate tensions. But rather than avoiding this, maybe it’s the point.

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Illustration by Veronica Chen of the game Monopoly

The board game has long been known for its dangerous ability to escalate tensions. But rather than avoiding this, maybe it’s the point.

Quarantine has us all dusting off some old pastimes. My family is no exception, and in the quest for something to do, we’ve discovered that our favorite game to play together is Monopoly. This came as a surprise because I was never the game’s biggest fan as a child. All the talk about money and real estate went right over my head and lasted for what felt like an interminably long time.

But playing with my family recently has inspired a new appreciation for the game, so much so that I’ve started to Google “Monopoly” when I get bored. Through one of these searches, I learned that Monopoly didn’t start out as the family fun game I’ve only recently grown to love. It was originally intended to be a creative and interactive way to teach people progressive political values.

Though transformations to the game have subverted its original educational aim, I still feel that I am learning something when I play Monopoly. Ultimately, I believe that the board game’s original education value, while altered, isn’t quite lost.

The History of Monopoly

As possibly the most popular board game in the world, the rules of Monopoly are familiar to most. The objective of Monopoly is to buy properties and bankrupt all the other players on the board. However, this wasn’t always the sole objective of the game.

Though Monopoly in its current form emerged in 1935 and has been attributed to Charles Darrow, it was really created in 1903 by a progressive activist named Elizabeth Magie. In its initial form, the “Landlord’s Game” included two sets of rules: The Monopolist rules, which resemble the current game, and the Prosperity rules.

Under the Prosperity rules, every player would receive money when one player acquired a property, much like a property tax. The game ended when the player who started with the smallest amount of money had doubled their wealth, and in this version, everyone wins the game as a result.

Magie included both sets of rules to create a “practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” This meant showcasing the difference in social outcomes depending on society’s approach to property ownership.

Progressivism and Monopoly

To understand what she means by this, we need to back up for a second and learn about something called the single tax theory, which political economist Henry George outlined in his 1879 book, “Progress and Poverty.” George believed that people should only own what they have created, and that land should belong to everyone.

He thought it was unfair that wealthy landowners profited off property rent, even though most of the land’s value didn’t actually come from the properties. George therefore proposed that the state tax away all economic rent and abolish other taxes. In his mind, the high revenue from this single tax on rent would be invested in the community, so that everyone would prosper and landowners would be incentivized to use the land in a responsible way.

So how does George’s single tax theory relate to Monopoly? Well, as a political progressive of her day, Elizabeth Magie was a staunch Georgist. She designed the “Landlord’s Game” (which would one day become “Monopoly”) to be a practical demonstration of the value of his ideas. A stenographer and typist by day, Magie often taught her political progressive views after work, and wanted to create a board game to do this in a more interactive way.

Her game became extremely popular among left-wing intellectuals and Quaker communities, who adapted some of the rules and included street names on the board. In the early 1930s, Charles Darrow came across one of these adaptations and later sold it to the Parker Brothers. Darrow rebranded it as “Monopoly” and chose to exclusively include the Monopolist set of rules. Both the game and Darrow exploded in popularity, while Magie and her message faded into obscurity.

A Worthless Game?

Without the Prosperity rules, Magie’s educational tool became simply a game. It no longer provided a contrast between two economic systems. Players of the new version are not encouraged to be critical when they play within a set of rules that reinforces, rather than reimagines, the status quo.

Monopoly as it exists today cannot adequately teach people the cooperative values that Magie championed as players delight in bankrupting each other without reflecting on the alternative value of cooperation. It seems as though today’s Monopoly cannot do more than simply distract and entertain. And although these are certainly useful functions, they pale in comparison to what could have been learned from the game.

This is especially disappointing considering that, in using a game as an educational tool, Magie was onto something big. According to a 2013 panel discussion at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, games are uniquely beneficial in supporting learning. Games capitalize on the way human beings learn in a manner that traditional educational methods don’t often do, an insight which Magie leveraged with the Landlord’s Game.

Not So Fast…

Given that Monopoly today likely can’t teach us what Magie originally intended, we may be tempted to feel like we can’t learn anything from it. Especially when we consider how effective games can be at facilitating learning, Monopoly begins to look like nothing but a waste of potential. And yet, I still feel like I’m learning something when I play the game with my family — because even if the game fails to teach progressive politics, it allows me to explore different perspectives.

When I’m losing the game, I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I realize I might have to mortgage all the properties I have just to stay in the game. I feel angry when I see one person amassing a huge amount of wealth at everyone else’s expense. And on the other hand, when I’m winning, I feel indignant at the hostility emanating from the other players; I feel protective of what’s mine.

Monopoly gives us the chance to experience different situations each time we play, allowing us a greater understanding of how the other players might be feeling when they’re in similar positions.

The opportunity to explore more perspectives is a powerful tool for anyone trying to create a more cooperative society. Empathy, or effective perspective taking, is an essential component of any form of cooperation. It allows us to understand and work with people that have different experiences than we do. Understanding how to view the world from different angles, even just within the setting of a game, is an incredibly valuable gift.

Perhaps Monopoly isn’t what Magie originally envisioned — it certainly can’t teach the specific economic lesson she wanted it to. But Magie’s progressive economic views were only a small part of her greater vision of a more cooperative and harmonious society. In allowing us to practice greater empathy, perhaps Monopoly can still make its creator proud.

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