MONOPOLY IS US!
By: James Poniewozik
TIME Magazine 9-25-2006
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I F YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND THE AMERICAN ATTITUDE
TOWARD CAPITALISM, LOOK INSIDE YOUR HALL CLOSET. THERE’S PROBABLY A MONOPOLY GAME IN THERE SOME-WHERE. MONOPOLY IS THE MOST POPULAR BOARD GAME IN HISTORY, WITH MORE THAN 250 MILLION COPIES SOLD.
You may never have taken a real estate seminar or cracked an economics textbook. But if you grew up in an American home, and at some point it rained, you played Monopoly.
Smarter writers than I have tried to figure out why Americans resist the regulation of business and markets, often when we would personally stand to benefit from that regulation. But you could do worse than to start with the fact that for more than 70 years, we have played a game whose object is to corner a market and beggar our neighbors. Every year pundits decry video games like Bully or Grand Theft Auto, yet our first introduction to one of business’s most predatory, illegal practices is through a widely loved game with adorable doggy and thimble pieces. It’s as if someone had invented a children’s board game called Racketeering or Usury.
Last week, however, Monopoly changed its face.
At least the doggy-and-thimble part. In Hasbro’s Monopoly: Here and Now edition, the game has been made over and up-scaled, fo r the 21s t century. The properties, named by designer Charles Darrow for locales in Atlantic City, now include real estate from around the country, selected by online vote. The railroads have become airports . Weimar-style hyperinflation has set in—for passing Go, you collect $2 million—but Times Square is a bargain at $4 mu, and while it’s a refreshing admission that, yes, you can buy the White House, it cost the present occupant far more than $3.2 million.
Most controversial are the tokens, which have gone corporate.
You can now travel the board as a Motorola cell phone, a bag of McDonald’s fries, a cup of Starbucks coffee, a Toyota Prius or a New Balance sneaker. The new companies did not pay a placement fee, but the consumer group Commercial Alert decried the change as a sign of the ubiquitous branding of American life. Which it is, and which is why the change is overdue. It’s all a part of Monopoly’s cultural role: to let people playact contemporary business, pretty or not.
Monopoly was introduced in 1935 —the midst of the Great Depression. Marketing a game about building business empires to a country whose economy has collapsed sounds like some kind of dark conceptual satire, and fittingly, the game has a conflicted attitude toward wealth . On the one hand, it portrays business as Darwinian, random and vaguely criminal. (You do occasional, unexplained stints in jail and can get out by paying somebody off.) On the other hand, it makes real estate moguldom seem homey and attainable.
Maybe it’s not surprising the game became a huge hit.
It suggested— 1930s-populist style—that the fat cats hid great crimes behind their great fortunes. (It was based on The Landlord’s Game, a didactic board game patented in 1904 by a reformer advocating landlord taxes to counter the exploitation of tenants.) Yet it promised that you too could get rich, by saving your salary, seizing lucky opportunities and winning the occasional second prize in a beauty contest. Fast-forward to 2006, and what are the obsessions of American culture? For starters, getting rich off property—after years of skyrocketing home prices and flattening salaries— which makes the real estate game more relevant than ever. (HGTV has practically become a financial channel, with shows like Designed to Sell, Buy Me and My House Is Worth What?) We’ve moved from a manufacturing to a service economy, and the white-collar icons—bye, wheelbarrow, hello, laptop—seem aimed at the buyer willing to shell out $29.99 ($10 or so more than the old edition).
Combine all that with consumers creating the illusion of status with luxe accessories—the camera phone, the iPod, the $4 late—and the gentrification of Monopoly makes perfect sense. Is it so ridiculous to let a Toyota Prius define your identity on a game board? That’s what Toyota Prius drivers do on the street.
If you hate the new Monopoly, take heart. The old version is still for sale, and I suspect there will be a new new Monopoly before long. After all, that 2006 hybrid car and phone will look pretty dated in a couple of years and, as with your personal electronics, you’ll want an upgrade. Just another reason to keep passing Go and collecting your $2 million.
TIME Magazine. (pg. 81)
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