The Culture Complex: Monopoly Is Us

The board game retools for the Age of Starbucks

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If you want to understand the American attitude toward capitalism, look inside your hall closet. There's probably a Monopoly game in there somewhere. Monopoly is the most popular board game in history, with more than 250 million copies sold. You may never have taken a real estate seminar or cracked an economics textbook. But if you grew up in an American home, and at some point it rained, you played Monopoly.

Smarter writers than I have tried to figure out why Americans resist the regulation of business and markets, often even when we would personally stand to benefit from that regulation. But you could do worse than to start with the fact that for more than 70 years, we have played a game whose object is to corner a market and beggar our neighbors. Every year pundits decry video games like Bully or Grand Theft Auto, yet our first introduction to one of business's most predatory, illegal practices is through a widely loved game with adorable doggy and thimble pieces. It's as if someone had invented a children's board game called Racketeering or Usury.

Last week, however, Monopoly changed its face. At least the doggy-and-thimble part. In Hasbro's Monopoly: Here and Now edition, the game has been made over, and upscaled, for the 21st century. The properties, named by designer Charles Darrow for locales in Atlantic City, now include real estate from around the country, selected by online vote. The railroads have become airports. Weimar-style hyperinflation has set in--for passing Go, you collect $2 million--but Times Square is a bargain at $4 mil, and while it's a refreshing admission that, yes, you can buy the White House, it cost the present occupant far more than $3.2 million.

Most controversial are the tokens, which have gone corporate. You can now travel the board as a Motorola cell phone, a bag of McDonald's fries, a cup of Starbucks coffee, a Toyota Prius or a New Balance sneaker. The companies did not pay a placement fee, but the consumer group Commercial Alert decried the change as a sign of the ubiquitous branding of American life. Which it is, and which is why the change is overdue. It's part of Monopoly's cultural role: to let people playact contemporary business, pretty or not.

Monopoly was introduced in 1935--the midst of the Great Depression. Marketing a game about building business empires to a country whose economy has collapsed sounds like some kind of dark conceptual satire, and fittingly, the game has a conflicted attitude toward wealth. On the one hand, it portrays business as Darwinian, random and vaguely criminal. (You do occasional, unexplained stints in jail and can get out by paying somebody off.) On the other hand, it makes real estate moguldom seem homey and attainable. Maybe it's not surprising the game became a hit. It suggested--1930s-populist style--that the fat cats hid great crimes behind their great fortunes. (It was based on The Landlord's Game, a didactic board game patented in 1904 by a reformer advocating landlord taxes to counter the exploitation of tenants.) Yet it promised that you too could get rich, by saving your salary, seizing lucky opportunities and winning the occasional second prize in a beauty contest.

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