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A Game of Morals: The Anti-“Monopoly”

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between gaming (video and otherwise) and the literary.

Situated on the upper-most point of the state of Delaware, in between Sherwood Forest and Marsh Road, is a quaint artists’ village made up of Tudor revival homes with barn style garages. This “garden-city utopia” is now over a hundred years old. It was named for the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s immortal comedy As You Like It, and features the Olde English motto, “Ye are Welcome Hither,” a clever reversal play on the words over the entrance to Hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” What might be most interesting about this bohemian paradise is that it was here, in one of only two towns in the United States run under the no land ownership, Single-Tax economic philosophy of Henry George, where the most capitalist game in the world was invented: Monopoly.

In our previous post we discussed how videogames constitute a semiotic environment, that is, a system of texts and iconography that form a particular literacy within a certain domain. What Monopoly demonstrates is how that experiential universe can work as an example of moral literature. In 1904, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie, created a board game designed to teach children the differences between the evils of land ownership and the virtues of Georgist Single-Tax philosophy. It was called The Landlord’s Game, and involved the same distinctive Monopoly board layout that we are familiar with today, with variants on the place names and currency.

The game initially involved two sets of rules. The first involved players engaging competitively, buying and trading for land and then gouging their opponents, leaving one player with all the money and the rest destitute. Once played several times, players could then opt for The Arden Rules Set, which involved no land ownership at all. Instead, players would pay rent into the Public Treasury (now ‘Community Chest’) and then opt to improve lots with houses. Players could collect rent on homes, but not on the land itself. Earlier versions of the game involved much harsher slights on capitalism, with the Tax squares we know today being named Hogg’s Game Preserves and Lord Blueblood’s Estate. Under the Arden Rules there was no land tax and free schools paid for by the Public Treasury would replace the tax spaces. Eventually, the players would create a kind of economic equality, thus learning the benefits of a communally owned land system.

The Landlord’s Game was not the first attempt to instill children with a sense of morality through the device of gameplay, but it was revolutionary in that it created game mechanics inextricable from its moral situation. It also initiated players into modes of identity so that players were forced to create an alternate version of themselves that would not exist outside of the game narrative. This is a quality that would later be carried over into interactive videogames. Games created for the purpose of proselytizing prior to The Landlord’s Game contained only basic ludic sub-structures such as roll-and-move or trivia questions designed to teach children content rather than experience.

The example of Monopoly is particularly relevant today in light of America’s current economic situation wherein 99% of the wealth is held by only 1% of the population, a situation prophesized in every game of Monopoly played to completion. Might America boast such economic inequality had Parker Brothers kept the original Arden Rules Set once they acquired the rights to The Landlord’s Game in 1934? Most likely. Not because Monopoly teaches us that land ownership is a good thing, but because most people don’t listen to what games have to teach us. This begs the question: Can games be moral literature? We’ll argue how they can and how they can’t in future blog posts, but here’s a challenge for you: the next time you break open a box of Monopoly, try applying the Arden Rules Set. See how many players feel cheated out of their fortunes or dealt a terrible economic hand by the end of the game. You might also check out website for Arden, Delaware and Fairhope, Alabama to see how the other half lives.

A special thank you to the University of Wyoming", who put us up for two nights in Laramie, WY to present our paper, “The Bullseye of Morality: How Narrative Structures Shape the Ethics of Video Gameplay” at their first Playology: Videogames as Text, Text as Play conference. We bought a special pair of cowboy boots for the trip and were not disappointed.