What’s in a game? If the game is Monopoly, which turns 80 years old this week, that’s a loaded question.
Long before the game was a Hasbro-owned juggernaut, it was an economic concept developed by political economist Henry George, a Progressive-era reformer with a bone to pick about economic inequality. In his best-selling Progress and Poverty, George looked at how advances in technology and society drive up the price of land, creating wealth for landowners (and putting societies at risk when speculators increase land values without an according increase in social wealth).
George advocated for a single tax reflecting only a land’s economic and natural resources value. But as George’s opinions fell out of favor in the early twentieth century, notes Harry Brod in “Past Perfect: Democracy vs. Plutocracy,” “a supporter invented a board game to teach how unchecked land ownership created extremes of either vast wealth or poverty.”
Lizzie Magie wasn’t just a George supporter—she believed in his single-tax theory so strongly that she moved to a Delaware commune called Arden to put it in action. While living in Arden, she came up with “The Landlord’s Game,” a board game she hoped would demonstrate George’s theories to a wider audience.
Magie tried to use the game to point out the evils of monopolies and the social stratification they created. But her plan backfired—badly. Though it demonstrated George’s theories perfectly, it also embodied what David Wallace Adams and Victor Edmonds call a “secularized idea of success:
The chief end of [“The Landlord’s Game”] was to get rich. The means did not matter—monopolizing, using social circles, bankrupting your peers. Success could be determined by counting up the dollars at the end.
“The Landlord’s Game” eventually became “Monopoly,” and the game took a page from its own playbook, becoming one of the most popular in history. Hasbro notes that over 275 million games have been sold worldwide and estimate that more than a billion people have played the game to date. It’s been used to communicate with American prisoners of war and was banned by Communist countries as “the pure embodiment of capitalist accumulation.”
But just because “Monopoly” is one of the most influential games of all time doesn’t mean it isn’t susceptible to a bit of influence of its own. In 1998, Steven R. Guberman, Irene J. Rahm, and Debra W. Menk, educational researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, set out to discover how children use “Monopoly” to transform their own culture.
When they compared the ways in which different groups of children played the game, they learned that kids interacted with “Monopoly” on a variety of levels. The researchers found that kids brought their own conventions of game play—variations on the game they thought were part of the rule set—to the game with them, but also made up their own group conventions as they went along. And even when playing a simplified version of the game designed for younger children, kids further transformed the game to suit their mathematical skills and group dynamics.
“Importantly, we found that children in all of the games that we observed almost never erred in their problem-solving,” noted Guberman, Rahm, and Menk, who suggest that the results of their study might point to the importance of game play as an important factor in math education. Because they allow for people of multiple skill levels to problem-solve together, the team argues, games like “Monopoly” could offer new opportunities to a diverse set of learners. Is that what Magie had in mind when she invented “The Landlord’s Game”? Probably not…but perhaps passing Go and collecting $200 can accomplish more than initially meets the eye.