Monopoly’s “House Rules” and What America Thinks of Capitalism

4 minute read

You may have heard the news that Hasbro is planning to change Monopoly. It’s not. The game maker is polling fans on Facebook about a list of widely used unofficial “house rules,” some of which will be included as options in a new edition of the game. They’re already options, of course; if you play Monopoly, you probably use some of them. You didn’t need Hasbro’s permission, and you still don’t. (Confession: until today I did not realize that having to go around the board before buying properties was not an actual rule to begin with.)

As a marketing gimmick, this is old news for Hasbro, which is trying to again to sell new copies of a game that is already in closets from coast to coast. (Remember last year, when the company killed the poor iron.) But the house rules under consideration, as listed by Hasbro, are pretty interesting for what they tell us: People don’t like Monopoly very much.

OK, that’s not entirely true. In sheer terms of longevity, sales, and cultural reach, Monopoly is one of the most popular board games of all time. But there’s clearly a love-hate thing going on here. Yes, it’s about family, friends, and fun. It’s also about endless, exhausting game sessions, bad feelings, and watching yourself slowly be utterly destroyed by losing everything you have.

So people have modified the game–and they’ve done so mostly in ways that are directly at odds with the game’s principles and what the game says about the market. Old-school Monopoly is a fight to gain dominance in an economy of tightly limited resources. No one helps you out; no one ever gets a raise.

But most of the “house rules” are about adding windfalls, softening blows, and providing chances for losers to turn things around. Running out of funds? Maybe you’ll land on the Free Parking jackpot or roll snake eyes! Income not keeping up with rising housing costs? Let’s double the salary for passing Go! Can’t afford a property? Make a deal with another player and own the property collectively! (In one deliciously anarchic rule, “Break the Bank”–a new one on me–players seize half the bank’s assets at the start of the game and grab at it in an Occupy Monopoly free-for-all.)

In other words, the ways players have customized the game over the decades suggests that people aren’t totally comfortable with harsh, sink-or-swim capitalism, even in the form of a game with play money that has no real-life consequences. (Especially, maybe, when the person you are sending to the poorhouse is your mom or your nine-year-old son.)

I’ll grant you I’m reading a lot into a board game here. But Monopoly is a game that practically begs to be read into. It’s a game popularized during a depression and named after a predatory business practice; it encourages Darwinian competition but also makes it sound vaguely shady. (Why do players spend that much time in jail, anyway?) And it was believed to be inspired by The Landlord’s Game, a didactic turn-of-the-century game designed to protest the exploitation of tenants. It’s not only moralistic games like Chutes and Ladders that have messages built into their play; hell, we have a game called Life that literally says that the object of living is to end your days with the most money.

There is something for economic liberals in the way people have modified Monopoly: left to their own devices, average Americans will inject massive amounts of fiscal stimulus into the economy and create a pool of tax-and-fee revenue for redistribution. And I suppose there’s something for conservatives here as well: all these feel-good palliative measures, money for nothing, and attempts to cushion the blow for losers in the end only prolong the suffering and the inevitable outcome, which is that one person must win and the others must be bankrupted.

If you don’t like that, you’ve got to play a different game.

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