Lessons from Monopoly

By Sean Carroll | August 4, 2006 10:05 am

Sometimes the technological marvels that are the most useful are those you didn’t even know you needed. Here is a perfect example: from iFone, a version of Monopoly for your cell phone. That’s right, Parker Brothers’ classic board game, downloadable for a few bucks, so that you can match your wits against one or more computer players whenever you like. (One jarring feature of the iFone version: it’s a British company, so all the properties are named after places in London, rather than Atlantic City. Mayfair instead of Boardwalk, Trafalgar Square instead of Indiana Avenue, etc. Disconcerting.)

Monopoly guy Monopoly, of course, is famous for being that game you used to play as a kid that never quite finished, since it took forever for someone to win. The cell-phone version is no different, but it’s trivial to stop and start again much later, and the patience of the little phone CPU brain is enormously better than that of your brothers and sisters. In fact the computer players are pretty good — they are capable of making trades and all that, and they’re smart enough to value a property very differently depending on whether it will complete a full set of one color or not. But there are a few things the computer doesn’t quite understand; for example, completing a monopoly is much more valuable for a player that has enough extra cash to start building properties than for one who is completely cash-poor. And building houses is the key to actually winning the game; the computer is also reluctant to mortgage a few properties in order to build on some other ones, a classic mistake.

So overall my cell phone provides a challenging opponent, but one I can usually beat. It does my sense of self-worth good to know that I am so much smarter than a piece of high-tech equipment. And the story of my stirring come-from-behind victory while waiting in the customs queue at Heathrow will be celebrated by epic poets for generations to come (or would be had there been better documentation of the event).

But the interesting things, not having played Monopoly for years, are the moral and political implications that follow from the game. We think of Monopoly as the quintessential embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism: a competition within the unfettered free market, starting from a level playing field and allowing nature to take its course. Which is all true. But what the game really illustrates are the shortcomings of capitalism, as effectively as one could imagine; if I didn’t know better, I would think that Karl Marx himself had designed the game. Consider:

  • The game perfectly demonstrates the instability of the free market (which it should, if someone is going to “win”). That is, the rich get richer, as they can leverage their wealth to increase their earnings. Makes for a better board game than a society.
  • Talent does not win in the end. Sure, there is some judgment involved in when to make certain trades with other players, but the biggest single factor in winning or losing is a literal roll of the dice! How bleakly fatalistic can you get?
  • The playing field is initially level, but only in a completely artificial way. It’s perfectly clear that, if the game worked like the real world in which some people were born into wealth and others were not, the aforementioned benefits of being rich would absolutely dominate. Not much room for social mobility. A devastatingly effective argument for preserving the estate tax!
  • Most telling of all: your income does not come from working, it comes from collecting rents. Later in the game, when a few players have started to build houses, you quickly discover that you lose money during your own moves, and only make money during the other players’ moves.
  • It follows that, later in the game, the best square to land on is Go To Jail! From the comfort of Jail, you don’t have to worry about paying rents to anyone else, but you are free to accumulate wealth from your own properties. It’s really just a vacation resort for white-collar criminals.
  • The only mildly redistributive action that occurs in the game is the rare-but-devastating “building repairs” card that comes up occasionally in Chance and Community Chest, and which does impact the rich disproportionately. But, significantly, the money doesn’t go to other players, but to the Bank (which is the real source of evil in the whole game).
  • On the other hand, the game does make you hate the Income Tax. So there’s some mixed messages there.

So I’m thinking that there is quite a subtle subversive message in the dynamics of Monopoly, now being spread to a new generation through their handheld gadgets. Of course, one must already be of a suspcious cast of mind to read the above features as cautionary tales; if cutthroat competition is more your style, you might just think they are cool.

Nevertheless, as we have been known to fearlessly suggest improvements in the world’s classic games, I have a couple of ways to make Monopoly even better — more equitable without having the income distribution settle into some happy socialist equilibrium where incentives are balanced against economic guarantees. (Where would be the fun in that?)

  • To increase the role of skill in the game, change the dice-rolling procedure. Instead of simply rolling two dice and dealing with the consequences, players should be able to pick the number on one die, and then roll the other to calculate the number of spaces they are to move. Chance is obviously still involved, but a bit of calculation would be introduced, in weighing the relative merits of avoiding that property vs. being able to reach this other one. I certainly hope that the real world works like this at least a little bit.
  • To prevent criminals from benefiting from their crimes, allow other players to spring for the $50 fine (or 50 quid, in the British version) needed for someone to leave jail — and allow them to do so whenever its their turn, regardless of the criminal’s actual wishes. Again, a bit of skill is introduced, as the other players will have to judge whether it’s worth their money to spring someone from the pen, or whether they should hope that someone else will do so.

Sadly, I can’t implement these genius suggestions on my cell phone. And nobody actually wants to play the game in person any more. Still, it’s important to fight for a just and equitable society, even in rather imaginary contexts.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany
  • KenL

    Brilliant.

  • squawky

    Interesting! Although I would argue the playing field isn’t really that level at the beginning — the player who rolls the dice first has an advantage over the others, the second player has a slight advantage over the rest, etc….simply because their chances of landing on an unowned property (and having the opportunity to purchase it) are just that tiny bit higher.

    This should all even out in the end, as the dice rolls allow later starting players to move ahead of the earlier ones — I haven’t been able to think of some way to try and even this out…maybe the dice rolling rule you suggested would help, since the later players would have more control over where they landed.

  • http://www.dartmouth.edu/~jthorarinson/ JoelThor

    Great post Sean.

    I find it incredible that the lessons necessary to construct a just society are imbedded in so many aspects of our childhood and yet the majority still chooses to play a game that the minority can only win.

    The only reason the majority has to justify there playing is the ignorant belief that they too can be Bill (either Clinton or Gates).

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    squawky : You roll dice to decide who goes first. So it is level.

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  • Patrick M. Dennis

    Oh good! Let’s play the “Rationalized Economy” version of Monopoly. I get to be Central Planner!!

  • cynic

    Oh dear.

  • Jim E-H

    Well, the game was designed during the Depression by a guy who couldn’t afford to take his family on vacation to the real Atlantic City, so perhaps the result isn’t so suprising.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/principles/ Chad Orzel

    We played once using a set that had a lot of miscellaneous extra pieces in it, and after one player was eliminated, he took a giant red Parcheesi piece out of the box, and declared himself to be the Red Revolution– players who were about to be eliminated due to inability to pay rent would cede their property to the Revolution. (Which, weirdly, would pay rents when it landed on the properties owned by other players, and ended up losing as a result…)

    I lobbied unsuccessfuly for having the Revolution move around the board like a normal piece, only when it landed on the same square as another player, that person’s property would be nationalized, and distributed equally among the other players. I still think that would be an amusing addition to the game.

  • Jack

    I’ve just invented a board game called “Academic Life”. In order to win, you have to be as politically correct as possible. But I couldn’t resist putting in a special penalty for players who make smug remarks about the capitalistic system on which they are parasitic.

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  • http://vulpes82.blogspot.com Frank

    Damn pinko commies!

  • Thomas Palm

    Sean misses the real lesson from the game Monopoly. The original version was created by a Quaker, Lizzie Magie, just in order to teach the unfairness of the capitalistic system. To prove the point, some years later the design was stolen, patented and became the game we now know as monopoly. ( Alonger and slightly more fair description can be found at Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly_%28game%29)

  • Say Lee

    If the aim is to make the game more “equitable”, why don’t we start with the name itself?

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Counterpoint:

    What’s Wrong with Monopoly (the game)?
    http://www.mises.org/story/1451

    The problem is that the game seriously misrepresents how an actual market economy operates.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Similar to Arun’s counterpoint, here is another, but lighter discussion of the Monopoly Game from a father’s observations while playing with his daughter. And a more theoretical discussion using Game Theory / Nash Equilibrium (youtube).

  • Pete

    We used to play the variant of monopoly where all fines go to the poorest player instead of the Bank – the effect being that players get to stay in for longer (the usual reason a four-person monopoly game ends is boredom on the part of the losers) – and this variant also results in frequent wealth reversals if you get the building repairs card at the right time. This also shows that the Bank is always coming out in good shape – just like the house at a casino. I don’t recall any of those games ever being won by anyone. (As far as the real world comparison, I could use my $200 for passing GO – does that represent wages?)

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    There was a game called “Careers” that I enjoyed far more than Monopoly, and that actually taught you something about planning a career path. Monopoly only taught me that I didn’t want to end up as a renter. ;^)

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    That’s a fun post! However, I think that the rule of choosing a number for one of the dice and rolling the other will have two unwanted effects: (1) It will shorten the time all the (good) properties get sold because you can aim with your number of choice, and (2) it will lengthen the time for the inevitable to happen: the player with the best property wins. We should try and find a rule that achieves the opposite.

  • http://sourav.net/ Sourav

    What Arun said.

    If anything, the fact that it takes forever to win at Monopoly illustrates that even zero-sum economies with perfectly inelastic demand take forever to equilibrate — self-interest is powerful.

  • http://zhasper.com Zhasper

    Check out the game Anti-Monopoly – http://www.antimonopoly.com/

    It’s recognisably similar to Monopoly, but with two groups of players who have different rules applied to them…

  • http://theojf.blogspot.com/ Theo

    See, I always play, and have understood the rules as requiring, that folks sitting in jail are unable to collect rent.

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  • Bob

    Actually, we used to rev the game up years ago this way:

    Use two sets of monopoly and double the money volume. Everyone starts in the first board and all the money of the second board is put at “Free Parking” of the second board…That is the lotto. If you hit “Free Parking” in the first board you get to enter the second board. For those who are propertyless, it is a good place to hide. But if you land in jail you go back to the first board at “Free Parking” and must remain in that board for at least another trip around.

    You only go to jail if a picked up card from “opportunity knocks” sends you there or if you get CAUGHT cheating. If you are not caught cheating, you are still free. Bribing is allowed as long as no one gets caught.

    Jailed? You get to use the four extra pieces from the other set as “fall guys” to send one to the slammer in your place and the other 3 to do your dirty work in the second board. While they are in there your piece is removed from the board, leaving you untouchable until you roll doubles. Like a drug dealer, you get to keep collecting rent money that partially goes to your 3 other “fall guys”, moving through the second board. When they land with another piece in the second board they mug that piece.

    Also, the rolls of dice are more chaotic. You do not wait for someone to move their piece just after they have rolled. You grab and throw and move and grab the deed without asking. Deeds are spread out around the board.

  • Urijah

    Well, perhaps by the end of the game the other aspiring monopolists have gone bust, but the end result is that society has become vastly richer! Little pieces of paper have been transformed into houses and hotels. Before, people were sleeping on the cold, hard, streets of Atlantic City–now they have warm and cozy beds to sleep in! Sounds like a good deal to me.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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