Monopoly and the nature of society’s rules

So this appeared in my news feed this morning:

It’s Monopoly. And Warhammer. I guess that’s the ultimate convergence of capitalism and fascism really.

Seeing this has gotten me thinking a lot about Monopoly as a game. It’s a fascinating game if you are a bit of a ludologist like me (that’s a person who studies games).

Growing up, every kid I knew, literally everyone, had a copy of Monopoly in their house. It, alongside Cluedo, was the first board game most people bought after graduating from Draughts (Checkers for you Americans). Like most other people, I learned to play it while visiting a friend’s house, and found it really interesting. Eventually my parents acquired a copy from gods know where and my friends and I would play it when they came around. We never read the rules because everyone “already knew how to play it”, so there was no need.

But then one rainy day I was bored so I got the (poorly written) rules out of the box and read through them. Afterwards I was really puzzled. They completely conflicted with everything I knew about the game. Most especially, I’d never, ever heard of the fundamental rule that if someone landed on a property that wasn’t owned, and they decided they didn’t want to buy it, that meant that the property immediately went up for auction to the highest bidder. But there the rule was, in glorious black & white.

So next time we played, and someone landed on a property and said they didn’t want it, I announced “OK, that’s up for auction — I bid £10!”. There was uproar around the table. Everyone told me that I couldn’t do that. I triumphantly pulled out the rules and showed them that this was, indeed, correct.

Imagine my astonishment when they simply refused to believe it. Even though it was written right there. Reasons ranged from “You aren’t reading it right” to “That’s some kind of different game” to “Maybe that’s an old rule” to “I think that’s just an option for advanced players”. None of which made the slightest sense. The session ended in people getting really annoyed with me for “ruining the game”.

Clock hands roll forward and I end up sitting at more games of Monopoly over the next months and years. Every time I play, I bring up the “immediate auction” rule. Every single time, without exception, the reaction is the same as above. Not one person I knew in the entire world had actually read the rules. They all “knew” how to play. And every single time, people got angry when I pointed out that they had been playing it wrong.

The weird thing was that on the (few) times I managed to get people playing with the correct rules, it became obvious (at least to me) that it was a fundamentally better game that way. It went much, much faster and didn’t turn into the horrible tedious slog that it normally did with the “accepted” rules.

Eventually I realised something very profound was going on: people didn’t actually want to know how to play it properly. Because doing it that way would put them outside of their own societal norms. And being part of those societal norms (no matter how stupid they were) was far, far more important than actually doing something the correct way. Even when the correct way was clearly, logically, the better way.

And that’s how I learned about socially constructed acceptable modes of behaviour, and how insidious they are. Because the entire point of any game is to play it according to the rules. Otherwise why bother? Yes, sure some people want to cheat because that makes them feel superior (whereas in reality, cheating implies that you feel that you are unable to win the game by the correct means, so it really means you feel inferior); and some people like myself actually genuinely try to understand and improve game rules (and we become games designers); but generally speaking, a game is defined by its rules. That’s literally the fundamental basis of how games work.

So all this time, these people hadn’t really been playing Monopoly at all. In reality they were playing the game of “let’s fit into society”. And they weren’t interested in making it more correct. Or better. Because that would imply change, and more importantly, it would imply them having to admit they had been getting it wrong all this time. And no-one wanted to be that person.

Except me, apparently.

I learned something deeply profound from Monopoly at that time. And things haven’t changed much. I’m betting that lots of people reading this still play Monopoly, and still don’t know about or don’t use the real rules.

And of course, this is also one long extended meditation on the nature of the games people play within their own societal subculture. I think you can see where I’m going with this, right?

I wish I’d remembered that lesson a lot better in the years that followed. In retrospect, it provides a great deal of clarity on many things that seemed very confusing at the time.

Since the question came up elsewhere, yes it’s true that Monopoly was originally designed as a game to teach children about the evils of capitalism.

It was created by a woman called Lizzie Magie, copied by a man who sold it as his own work, then she was cheated out of her rights by the corporation that bought it. And then the game was co-opted and sold as a lesson to teach children how to be good capitalists.

In the 1940 census, taken eight years before she died, she listed her occupation as a “maker of games.” In the column for her income she wrote, “0.”

So it’s a multi-layered lesson on the evils of capitalism. You couldn’t make it up.

I guess with this 40k version it is going to be lesson on the evils of capitalism and totalitarian religious fascism. I wonder if people will see it that way? :-)

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