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The Game of Monopoly and Its Anti-Capitalist Origins

Today’s news is filled with the world’s battle of socialism versus capitalism. While reading one article this week, I stumbled across a little known fact that the creator of the game Monopoly had originally intended the game to be a teaching tool about the injustices of capitalism. How bizarre!

The earliest recognizable version of what we know as Monopoly was patented by Lizzie Magie in 1903. “The Landlord’s Game”, as she called it, featured a board with the familiar route of progressively pricey neighborhoods interspersed with railroads and utilities. At three of the corners were Go to Jail, Public Park (the early version of Free Parking), and the Jail itself.

The fourth corner, however, wasn’t labeled “Go” but instead bore a drawing of the globe encircled by the lofty words “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” Translation: you got a hundred bucks. Nonetheless, you realize that someone here has an agenda.

The story goes that Magie intended her game to be a teaching tool about the injustices of capitalism. She was a fan of the theories of political economist Henry George, who thought landlords were parasites and advocated a “single tax” on them to replace all other taxes.

I’m sure she had this all planned out in her head that a simple game would encourage the general public to see it her way, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the player who accumulated the most money won. How does this teach us about the dark side of capitalism? Search me. I have to say this subject matter probably went over the average player’s head.

Magie eventually realized the shortcomings of her invention. Her 1924 patent for a second version of The Landlord’s Game explicitly said one objective was showing “how the single tax would discourage land speculation.” The rules now showed more attitude. For example, when throwing the Chance Cube, a five meant you’d been “caught robbing a hen-roost—go to jail,” whereas a 10 meant you’d been “caught robbing the public—take $200 from the board. The players will now call you Senator.” Ha!

Two new concepts were introduced in the 1924 edition. Idle Land could be bought for $100 and sold for $200, showing the easy money in land speculation. The other novelty was actually building a Monopoly, which at this point applied only to railroads: If you owned all of them, you could charge twice as much. Magie thought this would teach the lower class commoners that monopolies and land speculation were wicked. However, since the goal was still to wind up with the most money, a more obvious lesson might have been that monopolies and land speculation were great.

As the capitalist frenzy of the 1920’s continued, Magie undoubtedly thought her plan wasn’t working, and gave it one more try. She unveiled a combo game in 1932 called The Landlord’s Game plus Prosperity. Prosperity was played on the same board but with modified rules. Taxes, jail, and monopoly pricing were now eliminated; land rent was paid to the public treasury; once enough treasury cash accumulated, private utilities were condemned and placed in public ownership. Most importantly, players could vote to switch from Landlord to Prosperity rules mid-game. Now those chafing under the capitalist yoke (i.e., losing) could wise up, go socialist, and take over.

You can guess how well that went. Magie’s latest brainstorm went nowhere. A few years later, in the most ironic capitalist tradition, Charles Darrow ripped off Magie’s ideas, sold Monopoly to Parker Brothers, and became a millionaire.

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