Minggu, 08 Februari 2009

Tenancy Culture Studies: Monopoly

The subject of today’s lesson, being the second in the Brown Couch’s Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies series, is the world’s most popular board game: Monopoly.


The object of Monopoly is simple: buy properties, especially in neighbouring groups over which one can achieve a monopoly, and develop them with houses and hotels. Draw your salary, avoid tax, stay out of jail, and extract rent from your fellow players until they are bankrupt.

This jolly recreation has been the first introduction to property relations for millions of impressionable young minds. In the 64 years since Monopoly was first produced, over 250 million sets have been sold worldwide and, according to the game’s current owner, Hasbro, more than 480 million persons have played at being landlords of the game’s famous colour-coded properties. Lately Hasbro has been churning out various 'special editions' of the game, including Star Wars and (for goodness sakes) Pokemon editions, and the 'Here and Now: World Edition 2008', featuring inflated property values and currency denominations and Sydney as one of the red properties. (The present study will refer to the London properties most familiar to Australian players.)

The story of the game itself is significant, in a two-fold way, for the student of tenancy culture. The official story of Monopoly begins with its invention by Charles B Darrow, an unemployed heater salesman from Pennsylvania, who was struggling to get by in the Great Depression. In 1934, Darrow first tried to get the games manufacturers, Milton Bradley and Parker Bros, interested in his invention, but was rebuffed, with Parker Bros detecting 52 design flaws in the game. Undaunted, Darrow himself made copies of the game for sale in Philadelphia department stores. Sales were good, Parker Bros became interested again and, in 1935, the company bought Darrow’s patent: a classic little-guy-makes-good story, befitting capitalism’s favourite game.

(Mr Monopoly, aka Rich Uncle Pennybags)

Monopoly actually has another history, with a different significance, starting 30 years earlier. In 1904, Elizabeth Magie patented her invention, ‘The Landlord’s Game’, which was designed to educate its players in the economic theories of Henry George.

('The Landlord's Game', from Magie's patent.)

The game was produced commercially and in various homemade versions by Georgists, students, Quakers and other reformers. It was from this folk-tradition of Monopoly-style games that Darrow took his own ‘invention.’ Parker Bros bought Magie’s patent when it bought Darrow’s, and over the years has used its intellectual property to suppress variations on the game that have from time to time emerged.

What about the playing of the game? From a technical point of view, it must be said, Monopoly is a poor game. Despite what its enthusiasts say, there is little skill or strategy involved. In the early rounds of the game, the most important factor is good luck with the dice; and the later rounds are largely determined by the earlier rounds. The basic strategy is: if a property is available for sale, buy it – which more a rule of thumb than a strategy. True, some properties present a slight advantage over others, because of they are landed upon more often: the orange properties (Bow, Marlborough and Vine Streets) are more or less average dice throws from Jail; similarly, the light-blue properties (The Angel Islington, and Euston and Pentonville Roads) are roughly average throws from 'Go'; and Pall Mall, Trafalgar Square and Mayfair are the destinations of ‘Chance’ cards. (Conversely, the green set of properties (Regent, Oxford and Bonds Streets) and Park Lane are the least likely to be landed upon.) But really the greatest advantage is in rolling the dice well.

Despite these deficiencies, Monopoly does very successfully induce a strong emotional experience. This is especially for players on the losing end of the scramble for property: for them, the experience of the game becomes one of desperately hoping to scrape through a round of play without incurring a demand for rent and getting through to pay-day again. One’s time frames shrink, from long-term dreams of property-empire-building to just getting back to ‘Go’, and shrink again to just the next dice throw. After a point, Jail starts to look good – after all, it’s rent-free.

In every family there is one person who claims to be an expert player. Monopoly’s technical deficiencies put the lie to their claims that they enjoy it as an exercise of skill; instead they delight in the execution of Monopoly’s emotional experience. This person is not an expert, but rather a pervert.