The Landlord’s Game


in Economics, Politics

Lee Jones, author of in vino veritas, recently posted a surprising statement about the origins of the game Monopoly, the best selling commercial board game in the world:

Monopoly was designed in 1903 by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie, who intended the game to highlight the evils of private property. Her version included squares like ‘Lord Bluebood’s Estate’ and ‘Soakum Electric Company’. A 1927 version stated in its rulebook:

“Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money. What accounts for the failure of the rest, and what one factor can be singled out to explain the obviously ill-adjusted distribution of the community’s wealth, which this situation represents? Those who win will answer ‘skill’. Those who lose will answer ‘luck’. But maybe there will be some, and these, while admitting the element of skill and luck, will answer with Scott Nearing [a socialist writer of the time] ‘private property.’ “

Lee takes this as a demonstration of the power of capitalism to co-opt and subvert criticism (reach for your Gramsci everyone). This understanding also makes me think about Rousseau‘s statement that “”The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.”

One of the more obvious products of recent economic development has been a trend towards large increases in the income of the most well-off coupled with fairly modest ones for those of moderate income. This is true both internationally and within countries including Canada, Britain, and the United States. The willingness of people to tolerate that differential – whether justified by merit, libertarianism, or some other doctrine – would seem to hinge upon the same sorts of considerations as those which have transformed the societal understanding of the game of Monopoly.

PS. I wrote previously on executive pay and income inequality.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon February 9, 2007 at 6:24 pm

It seems that most games that people play are seperated from brutality and immorality mostly because they are taken to ‘just be games.’

R.K. February 9, 2007 at 9:04 pm

This match will determine once and for all which nation is the greatest on earth: Mexico or Portugal.

Chris February 13, 2007 at 2:08 pm

A distant memory of Foundations 103 reminds me of a philosopher who made some analogy about justice using sea shells….something about we can all receive equal sea shells but would naturally trade them differently based on how we value things differently, leading to a non-uniform distribution of sea shells (because people are non-uniform), but the name of the philosopher, his text, and all the rest are lost in the ether

Milan February 13, 2007 at 2:14 pm


Perhaps the example was meant to illustrate Pareto Optimality – in which free exchanges eventually lead to the most utility generating distribution possible without coercion, and also without any central coordination.

. December 19, 2017 at 9:31 pm

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by bringing fans together and allowing them to trade wisdom and good ideas, technology has drastically improved the games themselves. One consequence of the board-gaming boom has been to help designers come up with a set of principles and rules-of-thumb that add up, more or less, to a theory of fun. One way to get a sense of it is to look at a well-known game that violates many of this theory’s tenets. Monopoly is, by most calculations, the bestselling board game of all time. Yet it languishes near the bottom of a list of games as reviewed by the users of BoardGameGeek, a popular website. In the eyes of a modern game designer, it does almost everything wrong. (One reason may be that Monopoly is a polemic disguised as a board game, designed to warn of the dangers of untrammelled capitalist power. It was not intended to be a jolly Christmas pastime.)

One of Monopoly’s big mistakes is positive feedback, designer-speak for a mechanism by which a small advantage early on snowballs into a big, insurmountable one later in the game, which makes things boring for the other players. Modern designers tend to prefer negative feedback, in which life gets harder for those doing well. Sometimes that is enforced by explicit penalties. Sometimes it emerges by itself, or through political dealing by other players. Conquering too many planets in a game of Twilight Imperium may make it hard to defend existing territory, for instance, especially if other players decide to gang up on the leader. That helps to keep things interesting for everyone.

Another problem is that Monopoly has a large element of luck (movement is controlled by rolling dice) and limited strategic depth. Some properties simply offer a better return on investment than others: buying them is always a good idea. Better to offer players less obvious, more thought-provoking choices: advantages that come with significant trade-offs, for instance, or whose usefulness varies depending on what is happening in the rest of the game. Hidden information opens up the potential for bluffing and misdirection. In Ticket to Ride, players compete to build railways across Europe. At the beginning, each player is given a set of secret objectives. If her opponents are to thwart them, they must first try to infer these from how she is playing. Introducing elements of politics, diplomacy or trading can give players things to do even when it is not their turn, helping to keep their interest from wandering.

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