My efforts to wean my family off the earn-and-spend treadmill hit an ideological snag a few weeks ago when my seven-year-old son became obsessed with Monopoly. We were in the bookstore with a Christmas gift card to spend when the game was spotted. He’d never played it, never even seen it, but the attraction was instant and he begged me to buy it. I rationalized that it would help him improve his math skills, and I figured he would tire of it quickly and we could put it in the closet with the rest of the board games, so I wasn’t prepared for what happened. He won the first game and his inner tycoon, last seen in August when he obsessed over how to drive more business to his lemonade stand, completely took over. On the weekends, if he couldn’t talk us into playing with him, he played by himself for hours, memorizing rent amounts, building custom hotels out of legos, and learning multiplication so that he could calculate fees for utilities.
Over the last month, I’ve spent many evenings and weekends in marathon Monopoly games and it’s given me some food for thought. The game lays bare the mechanisms (and the huge downside) of capitalism itself. You win by bankrupting your fellow players. It starts with a land grab, and ends with strategic investments designed to drive your competitors out of business. You have to be ruthless to win. No feeling sorry for the player who is glumly selling his house, mortgaging his property, and handing over his very last dollar. The winner is the one who literally takes all.
Interestingly, the earliest ancestor of Monopoly was a game called “The Landlord’s Game” designed by Elizabeth J. Phillips, a Quaker woman who wanted to illustrate how unfair economic conditions made a few people rich at the expense of everyone else. Elizabeth’s game was revised and self-published by Charles Darrow, who later sold it to Parker Brothers. Ironically, Lizzie Phillips’ game-style critique of the property tax system evolved into a celebration of capitalism that is so brazen it is still banned in North Korea and Cuba.
So what am I going to do about my kid’s Monopoly fixation? For now, I’m going to let it play out. There have been improvements in his math skills, and the game is establishing a good baseline to help him understand the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and other Great Recession issues that he wouldn’t have been able to approach without the hands-on experience Monopoly is giving him. I’m trying to sneak in lessons on how runaway greed destroys people, but to really internalize this, he might need an anti-monopoly game that shows him a different way to win. Hmmm, I have some ideas about that. Maybe I’ll get out the magic markers and design a new version of the game, reinventing Monopoly for the anti-consumer. Stay tuned.