Let me tell you 3 stories that intersect. No. Actually 4 stories, bridging 111 years and all connected by one word: MONOPOLY.
It began for me in 1960/61. The family acquired a monopoly set. By today’s standards it was very dreary: a black box of the classic size containing dozens of little houses and hotel made of wood*, a bizarre collection of playing pieces, and a lot of paper and cardboard. ( * If you put them in your mouth and sucked on them, all the colour came off.) It opened a world of play for me and my big brother. Hell: something had to! Life was tough back in the Old Days. – We had to travel places in automobiles; either cars or buses. And for long distances: trains. Sometimes we walked. Just – walked. Yes, I know! Communication occurred via electronic devices, and we cooked with electricity! People worked at jobs and earned money which we used to buy stuff, from shops! Outside it snowed for 51 weeks per year, and the sun seldom got over the surrounding hills. This was in Dunedin, New Zealand, which is a suburb of Antarctica.
So to while away those dreary months, we played The Great Dreary Game. The great thing about Monopoly is that a single game could take up to six weeks to complete. I invested several thousand hours of my life in playing Monopoly, an investment that has certainly paid off in lots of ways. Actually, it hasn’t. I just made that bit up. It was time utterly wasted.
I could probably still tell you the names of all the sets. We had the London Board, of course, being effectively British citizens (but labelled ‘New Zealanders’) who lived the the Far-flung Colonies and imported our entire culture from Britain, just as we exported our entire output of lamb, butter, and butter boxes to Britain. (The boxes were made of a beautiful honey-coloured timber called Kaihikatea from the lowland forests of the South Island – only a hundred or so miles closer to Antarctica from my place. These butter-boxes were also received with gratitude. They were hoarded, then chopped up and used to light Britain’s coal fires for seventy years straight. I kid you not.)
Back to monopoly, and here is a very curious thing: my Big Brother Gordon, two years my senior and Boss of Everything, micro-managed the game and how it was played. Discontent with the complex rules, he simplified. Auctions – gone! Calculating ten percent on mortgage repayments – gone. Halving the price of house if you had to sell back – gone! £10 to get out of jail (which was spelt ‘gaol’), and so on. He massaged things continuously – so that he could always win!
You were expecting that, weren’t you? Monopoly – the savage game of Capitalism, Win-at-all-costs, Give-no-quarter, Winner-takes-all! Well I tricked you. Gordon, in fact, did the very opposite. For all of his macho, working-class, ciggie-smoking bad-boy ways he was a Socialist. Every tinker and tweak was to subvert Monopoly’s core message. He ensured balance and an equitable distribution of wealth. Plenty for everyone! Games could run for entire weekends, until the bank was empty and we all had fists of pretend money. We all won. And that was how I thought Monopoly was played. It was a Socialist teaching tool.
Now here’s a thing: Originally, it was: The True Origins of ‘Monopoly’
“For decades the tale has been repeated: that an unemployed man named Charles Darrow dreamed up Monopoly in the 1930s. He sold it and became a millionaire, his inventiveness saving him (and Parker Brothers) from the brink of destruction. The trouble is, that isn’t exactly true. It turns out that Monopoly’s origins began not with Darrow 80 years ago, but decades before with a bold, progressive woman named Elizabeth Magie, who until recently has largely been lost to history, and in some cases deliberately written out of it.” [slightly edited. G.]
Elizabeth Magie created ‘The Landlord’s Game’ so that it could be played two ways: capitalist-style or socialist-style. My brother, but instinct, opted for a socialistic interpretation. I never read the ‘real’ rules of Monopoly until about a decade ago, and it slowly dawned on me: What a savage, nasty, almost violent game it is! Wipe out your enemies before they get you!
And how did I end up re-engaging with this vicious piece of right-wing propaganda? I became a father to two boys, who have both been through Monopoly Obsession Phase. Now here’s the curious thing: Elder Son was entirely dissatisfied with the game and its rules. Before we’d finished a single game the modding began. We rewrote all the Change and Community Chest cards. We re-allocated values and powers. We introduced new options. You could upgrade Electric Company, 3 steps to a nuclear power station. ditto Water Works to a hydro-station. Railway to monorails. Hotels to resorts. We added a road down the centre, allowed subway journeys (for a price) and so on. I wish I’d kept a record of it all. It was extraordinary.
My other boy – no way! He plays it strict! No tinkering! And we play it on the computer or Wii, so not so much wriggle room. But here’s the thing: I can still be the socialist. I can let him win an auction for a few dollars and get the sets he NEEDS to get every game (so autistic!). and I can hold off buying houses, letting him get some traction, then edge back in with a bit more rent-power of my own. Games can last months. We amass millions. But finally luck with favour one of us or the other.
“Next time, Dad, a revenge match!”
Sorry, Marx, but you lose again.