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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

December 5, 2023: Board Game Studying: Monopoly

[On December 1, 1948, a Connecticut inventor named James Brunot copyrighted a new board game called Scrabble. Like many great games Scrabble has endured and grown ever since, so for the 75th anniversary of that pivotal moment I’ll AmericanStudy it and a handful of other board games. I’d love your thoughts on these, others, and board games over for a competitive yet collaborative crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On point, counterpoint, and counter-counterpoint when it comes to a complex game of capitalism.

I think it’s become relatively common knowledge that the board game which evolved into Monopoly was originally invented to be critical of that capitalist concept. But it still bears repeating just how fully and intentionally that was the case: Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie (1866-1948), a radical feminist author and activist who subscribed to Henry George’s progressive and anti-monopolist economic theories, invented The Landlord’s Game in 1904 and began self-publishing copies in 1906 in order to educate the public on the dangers of monopolies. To that point (but perhaps also unintentionally complicating it, as we will see), Magie included two sets of rules with that original version of the game: a monopolist set that rewarded players for bankrupting their opponents; and an anti-monopolist set which rewarded each player when all players did well. I’ll dedicate a post later in the week to collaborative games, but it’s pretty interesting to think that Monopoly had the potential to be part of that genre.

That it did not evolve that way is due largely to a moment and person which together embody the worst kind of the capitalism that Magie and her game critiqued. The Landlord’s Game never achieved huge success but remained in distribution for the rest of Magie’s life, and at a 1932 dinner party in Philadelphia an unemployed man (as with the invention of Scrabble yesterday, this was the Depression era) named Charles Darrow played the game with a few friends. Darrow loved the game, took a written copy of the rules home with him that night, and apparently decided to start distributing it (with some changes to the rules and board, but with the core concepts the same) as his own invention under the name Monopoly. It was from Darrow that Parker Brothers originally bought the rights to the game in 1935, although to their credit when they learned about Magie’s version they also bought the rights to her patent. But while Parker Brothers may have done the right thing, Darrow clearly learned precisely the wrong lesson from The Landlord’s Game, and then some—he didn’t even purchase the property from which he would seek to make his fortune, but simply stole it from its rightful owner. (That’s my interpretation of a somewhat ambiguous situation, at least.)

In any case, after Parker Brothers acquired the game and (with the help of cartoonist F.O. Alexander) significantly developed the board and look, Monopoly took off and became the iconic board game it has remained ever since. One particularly interesting moment in that trajectory, and one that definitely relates to Magie’s original vision, took place in 1973, when San Francisco State University Economics Professor Ralph Anspach (1926-2022) published his own competing game entitled Anti-Monopoly (alternately known as Bust the Trust). Parker Brothers successfully sued for trademark infringement, but Anspach won on appeal, with the court ruling that monopoly was too generic of a concept to be trademarked; Anspach was able to keep producing his game for the rest of his life, even after a new 1984 law generally protected trademarks more rigorously. I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of copyright law, past or present, but I will say that a game called Anti-Monopoly challenging Monopoly’s hold on the market is about as pitch-perfect for the origin story and inventor of this board game as any detail could get.

Next board game tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other games you’d highlight for the weekend post?

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