Sometimes, a book or movie tells a story to make a larger point. In the case of a new PBS documentary about the popular board game Monopoly, the movie made a point entirely opposite to its intended argument.
By recounting the strange-yet-true history of the classic game, the film clued viewers into the largely unknown story behind a staple of American pop culture. But in trying to use the documentary to form a broader critique of capitalism, “Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History” only drew attention to the vast differences between an economic system and a toy store mainstay for nearly a century.
Many Americans might not believe it, but Monopoly had its roots in a decidedly anti-capitalist political movement. At the turn of the 20th century, inventor Elizabeth Magie tried to drum up support for the simple tax, an idea propounded by economist Henry George as a way to make property communal.
Magie invented The Landlord’s Game, which, on its face, looks eerily similar to Monopoly. Magie’s original 1904 patent for the game included not just a series of rental properties arrayed around a square game board, but features like railroads, a light and water franchise, a public park, and a “jail” and “go to jail” spaces on the corners of the board — all features of the later game.
But Magie created two sets of rules for her game: A “monopolist” version, in which people competed to acquire the most property, and an “anti-monopolist” version that intends to reward everyone for creating wealth. Guess which version of the rules kept people interested in playing the game.
Game Spreads — and Gets Stolen
Over the following three decades, the game spread through universities and other social clubs. As it did, groups changed or added details such as names for the rental properties (which had no names in the 1904 Magie version), and modified the rules, much as some families do to Monopoly today. These modified versions eventually evolved into games with names like “Inflation” and “Finance.”
In time, a version of the game circulating in Atlantic City made its way to Charles Darrow in Philadelphia. He did one very good thing and one very bad thing with it. On the plus side, when the major toy companies rejected it, Darrow staked what little money he had on scaling up production and distributing the game himself. The game sold so well in stores around Philadelphia during Christmas 1934 that Parker Brothers gave it a second look, decided to buy it, and promoted it until it became a global phenomenon. In that sense, Darrow brought a hitherto obscure game to the world and made Monopoly what it is today.
On the other hand, Darrow also blatantly stole Monopoly from Magie and from the other individuals who contributed to its evolution. He fabricated a story for Parker Brothers about how he alone invented the game in his spare time and never spoke again to the neighbors who had first introduced him to the game he would attempt to pass off as his own.
In time, Parker Brothers learned of Darrow’s theft and dishonesty and, fearing patent lawsuits that could jeopardize its proverbial golden egg, tried to acquire all of Monopoly’s predecessors. (In other words, Parker Brothers tried to regain a monopoly on Monopoly.) Magie sold away her patent rights for $500, thinking Parker Brothers would promote her rightful status as a board game inventor, but the company soon discarded her version of the game and her contributions to Monopoly’s creation.
The documentary frames this history in the context of a 1970s lawsuit about the game Anti-Monopoly. That game, invented by a San Francisco professor, led to its own patent lawsuit when Parker Brothers demanded the professor cease production. Rather than give up on his own game, he litigated the legitimacy of Monopoly as a unique creation and, in so doing, drew attention to the game’s long-forgotten and somewhat sordid history.
The film uses that sordid history in an attempt to attack capitalism as a whole, integrating attacks on class and race into the story of a board game. It even goes so far as to provide social commentary about people who “have a different gender expression.” (Seriously.)
But while Monopoly has a lot to do with competition, it actually has very little to do with capitalism. When one commentator alleges in the film that “Monopoly claims that there is a sort of right way to win that means some other people are going to have to lose,” she demonstrates a lack of knowledge of how capitalism itself works.
Capitalism rests on the proposition that individuals will want to engage in transactions that benefit both parties. Monopoly does nothing of the sort — it requires one person to pay money to someone else because, well, them’s-the-rules.
But in real life, people pay money to buy goods because they value the goods more than the money they have, just as the merchant values the money more than the goods. For instance, I could bake my own bread if I wanted to, but I would much rather pay the $5 to buy a loaf than go through that trouble.
Capitalism provides a means whereby I, along with most Americans, do not have to build my own house, chop my own wood for heat and warmth, grow my own grain, or bake my own bread. Allowing me to buy goods and services from people more proficient in those tasks than I am allows me to play games like Monopoly or watch documentaries criticizing games like Monopoly.
Therein lies the unspoken irony of the “Ruthless” documentary. Even as it purports to expose the seedier side of capitalism through the game Monopoly, it ignores entirely one critical detail: The fact that people had more free time beginning in the early 20th century to play games — whether The Landlord’s Game, Monopoly, or any similar game — shows the success of the capitalist system in expanding Americans’ leisure time.
Notwithstanding the unscrupulous way in which Charles Darrow ripped off the idea for a board game from Elizabeth Magie and others, that’s the true lesson of Monopoly — and something all Americans should celebrate.
“Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History” is available online or via the PBS app. Check your local listings for additional airings.