Monopoly: The House Always Wins

June 20, 2014 at 6:53 pm Leave a comment

I recently had the opportunity to sit down to a game of Monopoly with a few friends. Perhaps you haven’t played Monopoly in a while. Let me assure you, not much has changed.

Monopoly was not my favorite game growing up. I lacked the attention span of a junior industrialist. I was easily frustrated by trades that I deemed unfair, paranoid of conniving bankers, and, I’ll admit it, a sore loser. More often than not, I quit before the game was over. It’s amazing how quickly these playground antics return to a group of “adults” around a childhood game.

Not finishing the game seems to be fairly common with Monopoly. In fact, my roommate, returning home late at night expecting everyone to be asleep, found four of us sitting cross-legged on the floor around the board. He walked over, looked at the board and said to the person who was winning (who wasn’t me), “Man, you own pretty much the whole thing, don’t you.”

Tired and cranky, I said, “Yeah. That’s what happens at the end of Monopoly.”

To which my roommate responded, “Right, I just don’t think I’ve actually ever seen the end of a game of Monopoly.”

The phenomena of house rules (an element of the game that is added by particular families or friend groups in addition to the actual rulebook) is what many people find most frustrating about Monopoly and other classic board games. This kind of insider chicanery often results in a final-hour rage, with uninformed players screaming things like, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN THAT’S A RULE?! IT’S NOT IN THE RULEBOOK!” The most common house rule in Monopoly is the “Free Payout Variation” (yes, it has an official name), in which any money collected in taxes or fees is placed in the middle of the board and collected by whichever player lands on FREE PARKING. This addition is not only unendingly frustrating to those who don’t subscribe to it, but it has the potential to exponentially increase the length of a game.

This is by no means a condemnation of house rules. They are an element of gaming that I find particularly interesting and unique; it’s the ultimate manifestation of the kind of egalitarian, open-source spirit that’s central to the idea of playing games. But house rules are best employed in the right circumstances. As with any dictatorship, the freedom to adapt the rules of a game is easily manipulated by a smooth talker. Enter The Banker, an individual who decides who gets money and, by virtue of their implied authority (see the Stanford Prison Experiment), is often the consultant on the house rules. The person who volunteers for this role is usually responsible for everyone playing Monopoly in the first place. There are many types of bankers, ranging from the morally scrupulous arbiter of justice to the openly despotic seven-year-old embezzler. Since this was my apartment’s first foray into Monopoly as a group, our banker determined our house rules. They were the rules he’d played with as a child.

And herein lies the danger in establishing house rules. As one quickly discovers, there is a certain authority commanded by rules handed down by some absent, yet omnipresent authority, as represented in the rulebook that is rendered void when the players make the rules. When playing games, an individual’s true egoism shines through and any perceived unfairness is disturbing on an animalistic level. When the person making the new rule is present in the room, it does not matter how logical an improvement it may be on the existing rule set, it will be immediately questioned by the individual in society whom it does not serve. This is a lesson Moses luckily avoided when he hiked back down Mt. Sinai, because his ten commandments were given to him by God, an authority who (like the Hasbro Brain Trust) can hardly be questioned. It’s not surprising that Monopoly, a blatant celebration of free-market Capitalism and the accrual of wealth, runs into problems once its inherent authority is questioned. The banker may think they are the Supreme Being, but if they step on too many toes, there will be swift mutiny—or flipping of the game board.

Toward the end of our game, my roommate and I were the only two players left standing. I rolled the dice and landed on Boardwalk—the same Boardwalk that was controlled by my roommate and had a shiny, red hotel on it. I forked over the $2000 and lost all hope of winning.

It was late, and I had an early shift at Eureka the next day. I turned to her, resigned, and muttered, “I hate to be a bummer, but I concede. You’ve already won.”

“That’s fine,” she said, a smirk fully planted on her face. We packed the game away so I could get to bed.

When we take the metaphor of Monopoly to its logical conclusion, there is something unnerving about the perpetual, unfinished game. I am reminded of the wise words of T.S. Elliot.

This is the way Monopoly ends

This is the way Monopoly ends

This is the way Monopoly ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Yet, we keep coming back. And that’s because as frustrating as Monopoly may be, it appeals to our spirit as Americans. The Fourth of July is coming up, and I like to think that while other elements of modern American culture would disturb our founding fathers, Monopoly is a pastime they would find particularly gratifying (I think Ben Franklin in particular would get really into it). It’s the frustration and turns of luck that make Monopoly an effective teaching tool. One should never give up when all seems lost, in the hope that the next turn might yield enough capital to unmortgage properties. After all, there’s always the chance you’ll land on FREE PARKING.

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