How Monopoly Shaped the Worldview of Billions

Tell Me What You Play, I’ll Tell You Who You Are

A Little History

My family owned a 1961 Parker Bros Monopoly that was passed on to us by my grandmother. It was our favourite game to play on Sunday evenings, sitting on the floor and sipping hot chocolate. The game was like a little pandoras box. I remember one time when my brother lost the game after having mortgaged several of his properties. He got so mad he stood up and flipped the board over. We watched as pink, green and orange bills flew up into the air and then softly scattered onto the living room carpet. He refused to have dinner with the rest of us for the next two days.

If your family is anything like mine — middle class anywhere in the world — chances are you had a Monopoly at home. Since 1935, the game has sold over 300 million sets worldwide. It has been passed on from one generation to the next making its way to us Millennials along with grandma’s ring and other family relics. Anyone who has ever played the game knows the basics. It’s relatively simple, to win you have to build up a real estate empire and bankrupt the rest of the players. But what most of us don’t know is that it didn’t start out this way at all. Before the patent was bought by The Parker Bros in 1930, Monopoly was originally called ‘The Landlord’s Game’. The game’s inventor, Elizabeth Magie explained it in the following way:

The purpose of the game is to give players a practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing and make them understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes.(Raworth, p127).

The first version of Monopoly ever designed was meant to expose monopolies, and free market capitalism, not encourage them. Let that sink in.


An Image Is Worth A Thousand Words…Seriously.

Child’s play is mostly visual and there’s a very good reason for that. The human brain is wired for visual learning. In the opening line of his 1972 classic “Ways of Seeing”, media theorist John Berger wrote the following:

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before he speaks”.

Words can only tell old stories — based on a language already saturated with old concepts and ideas. Pictures can shape new ways of seeing and being in the world.

“What we visualize determines what we can and cannot see, what we notice and what we ignore.” (Kate Raworth)

Monopoly may come across as innocent but it has shaped the worldview and values of billions. It tells a story that we’ve gotten really good at internalizing, it basically rings in the back of our heads like a deaf-tone. It follows us every time our alarm goes off at 7 am, tails us through our morning commute and taunts us as we’re tap-tap-tapping at our office desk.

Our first duty is to recognize that our values and world-views are built up from images that we see as children. Our second is to recognize that it is within our power to challenge them.

Without further ado, here’s a brief expo on how Monopoly brainwashed me (and you too most likely).


1. Our Main Character: Homo Economicus

Monopoly’s tokens are all based on the picture of the rational economic man, first painted for us by John Stewart Mills in the 19th century. Homo Economicus is constantly looking for ways to maximize his utility ( earn more and work less). He is also a rational decision-maker (only prices determine his preferences) and is always self-interested (cares about how much he earns, not how little you do).

The problem with starting off a game with a character like this is that life imitates art.

If you create the image of how a modern man should think, behave and make decisions, then you create an entire population that mimics this cartoon. Sooner or later, we expect others to behave in the same way. Similar to how speculation works in the stock market, if enough people believe that humans are calculating and greedy, they will be. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Old assumption — Man is individualistic, rational and self-interested

Reframe — Man is social, speculative, and collaborative. He cares about the wellbeing of people around him, most of the time he lacks the information to make rational decision (and has a heart in his chest, not a calculator) and is highly cooperative within his community.


2. Setting The Stage: The Economy

Monopoly’s grid is like a children’s version of Paul Samuelson’s Circular Flow Diagram. The diagram first intended to model market dynamics in a way that a beginner would understand. In short, it explains the relationship between individuals (consumption) and businesses (production) that creates income’s circular flow.

According to this simplified model, all economic activity occurs within an economy. In the same way, Monopoly’s grid symbolizes an economy — where you can buy property and build up a real estate empire.

Models are useful as long as we understand that they’re meant to explain one part of a system, not the system itself.

In both images, it seems as though market dynamics depend solely on the existence of a dollar economy. And so, we’ve produced a society that behaves as if money was printed out of thin air, and private property was magically churned out of central banks. We completely ignore the fact that our economy is deeply embedded in two things:

1. A society — which raises the workers that produce your goods

2. An environment — that supplies the raw materials to create that good.

Old assumption — The economy exists in a vacuum. We can produce as much as we want, consume as much as we want and there will still be more because the environment is a bottomless pit and ‘there is no such thing as society’ as Margaret Thatcher famously declared in the eighties.

Reframe— The economy depends on social structures to sustain workers and businesses, and it needs a healthy environment to produce goods.


3. The Goal: Accumulate Wealth

Monopoly is a winner-takes-all kind of game. In order to win you have to accumulate as much as you can at the expense of everyone else. Monopoly’s notion of personal success is based on a very western depiction of progress “forward and up”.

It all started when the US congress commissioned economist Simon Kuznets to devise a way to measure America’s national welfare after World War I. He came up with GDP (gross domestic product) as a way to trace the recovery of American welfare by measuring output growth.

He did add a cautionary note though, saying that on the long run “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

But it was too late. “Forward and up” was already deeply engrained in our psyches.

We arrived to the conclusion that, since “forward and up” is good, then the more you acquire the happier you must be. That’s why you always hear phrases like “things are looking up” or “my life is moving forward again” to signal personal achievement.

This easily snowballs into an entire economy that puts unlimited economic growth at the centre of its policy agenda because obviously bigger is better.

Old assumption — More is better. Personal success is a real estate empire, a Maserati and an Afghan hound. Welfare is measured in dollars and output.

Reframe — Personal success is how much you put in, not how much you take out of society. Wellbeing isn’t measured in dollars, it’s measured through how much social and environmental value you create.


Final Thoughts

Just to recap, Monopoly paints a picture where rational self-interested man sets out to get as rich as he possibly can within an independent economy that doesn’t rely on society or the environment to create output.

What if we were to create a new picture though? Let’s say it looks a little like this. A social and cooperative human (him, her and everything in between) sets out to create as much social and environmental value in an economy as they can. This economy is embedded within a community which in turn depends on a thriving environment to survive.

How do you play that game? Go.

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