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, 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.