Propagandopoly: Monopoly as an Ideological Tool

Known around the world as a symbol of both the fun and folly of capitalism, Monopoly has often been viewed as a vehicle for political indoctrination.

| Fall 2017

Monopoly is a game in which anyone from a child to a grandma can become a ruthless property mogul. Sold in over 114 countries, the game was first commercially marketed as a success story of the American dream, a game invented, its packaging claimed, by an unemployed man for whom it made millions during the Great Depression. As a potent worldwide symbol for capitalism it has become so well recognised that during the Occupy London protest in 2011, an oversized Monopoly board sat outside St Paul’s Cathedral, featuring a destitute Rich Uncle Pennybags and attributed by many to famous street artist Banksy. The message to everyone was clear.

The young woman who originally invented the game, however, had far different ideals. Elizabeth Magie was inspired by her passion for the anti-monopolist economic theories of politician Henry George, and her desire to teach them to others in a simple, compelling way led her to develop The Landlord’s Game. In the words of her 1903 patent application, the game was designed “not only to afford amusement to the players, but to illustrate to them how under the present or prevailing system of land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprises.”

The game had two sets of rules. One was similar to today’s Monopoly, while the other rewarded everyone and avoided monopolies. The game was featured in The Review in 1902, where Magie was quoted as saying, “There are those who argue that it may be a dangerous thing to teach children how they may thus get the advantage of their fellows, but let me tell you there are no fairer-minded beings in the world than our own little American children. Watch them in their play and see how quick they are […] to cry, ‘No fair!’”

Nonetheless, Magie struggled to generate commercial interest in her game. Parker Brothers told her it was “too political,” most likely because of its length, complexity, and anti-capitalist message. The game was fairly didactic, and its values were at odds with the American economic system, not to mention with Parker Brothers, a company that stood to benefit from the very practices that the game sought to censure.

Still, the game had popular appeal and quickly evolved beyond Magie’s control. Some changes were slight, such as adaptations of the street names to the players’ neighbourhoods, but others were radical. Perhaps the biggest change was the exact reversal of Magie’s original intent: as players created their own boards and rules, they focused on the elements that were the most exciting for them, and for non-Georgists, those were accumulating capital, building a real-estate empire, and dominating the market. This shift was so marked that the game came to be known colloquially as ‘Monopoly’.

‘Monopoly’ was also the name used by Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman, when he took the game to Parker Brothers, pretending it was his original invention. His version, stripped of Georgist ideals, was already selling well, so Parker Brothers decided to take a chance on it, and Monopoly’s popularity spread quickly across American and European nations.

11/24/2017 1:12:19 PM

I have successfully taught an 8 year old math and strategy with Monopoly. I would prefer a fun game that also taught ethics. Can you recommend one?

11/24/2017 1:12:17 PM

I have successfully used Monopoly to teach an 8 year old math and strategy. I would prefer a fun game that also taught ethics. Can you recommend one?

11/24/2017 7:29:27 AM

"In other words, how people play isn’t necessarily how they act in the real world, but it is affected by the type of player the game sets them up to become." Brilliant insight. Thank you for plainly stating what is so apparently clear to everyone who doesn't own boardwalk. This piece as a whole is finely designed within the art of writing. It is my belief that writing only qualifies as art if it provokes the reader to new levels of thought and highlights the truth of what's hiding in plain sight. Here Russo does both. Well played. -Erica Svendsen