a long, complex, and generally unknown history. Perhaps the most
surprising historical curiosity about this classic game about being a
real estate tycoon is that it was originally created with an entirely
different set of values in mind.
In 1903, thirty years before the initial release of Monopoly as we know it, Elizabeth Magie Phillips designed The Landlord’s Game,
a board game that aimed to teach and promote Georgism, an economic
philosophy that claims land cannot be owned, but belongs to everyone
equally. Henry George, after whom the philosophy is named, was a 19th
century political economist who argued that industrial and real estate
monopolists profit unjustly from both land appreciation and rising
rents. To remedy this problem, he proposed a “single tax” on
The Landlord’s Game
was intended to demonstrate how easy it is for property owners to
inflict financial ruin on tenants. As a learning game and a game with a
message, the title begins to look a lot like a serious game. Even if Monopoly was
created to celebrate rather than lament land monopolies, the game does
demonstrate the landlord’s power, for better or worse.1
FIGURE 1: Original 1903 game board for The Landlord’s Game
Monopoly: Updated for Consumer Culture
recently this famous game has associated itself with another side of
industrial capitalism: advertising. In 2006 Hasbro released a version
of Monopoly called Monopoly Here & Now.
This edition updates a number of things about the classic 1930s version
of the game, including changing the properties to more widely
recognizable ones: Boardwalk becomes Times Square, Park Place becomes
Instead of paying luxury tax, the player shells out for credit card
debt. Cell phone services depose the electric company. Airports replace
railways. And in Here & Now, you collect $2 million for passing Go.
Times have changed.
FIGURE 2: Monopoly Here & Now game board
Renaming properties on a Monopoly
board is certainly nothing new; dozens of official and unofficial
“affinity” editions of the game have been created, one for every city,
town, college, TV show, and pastime imaginable (there’s even a NASCAR Monopoly). But Here & Now also replaces the classic game tokens with new, branded tokens.
No more thimble, no more car to argue over. Now you have a Toyota
Prius, McDonald's French Fries, a New Balance Running Shoe, a Starbucks
Coffee mug, and a Motorla Razr phone. In addition, there's a generic
unbranded laptop, airplane and dog.
FIGURE 3: Monopoly’s new branded game tokens
In his recent book Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game, Philip Orbanesdetails multiple versions of the game’s early retail edition.3
The game’s familiar metal tokens had been modeled after charm
bracelets, but they added to the game’s cost. During the depression
entertainment was a luxury, and Parker Bros. also offered a less fancy
version that left out the tokens to lower the product's cost. Players
provided their own game tokens, often scrounging for objects of the
right size and heft to use on the board. The game pieces we take for
granted thus represent important aspects both of the game's historical
origin (charm bracelets of the 1930s) and of its history (the financial
pressures that motivated the lower-cost edition).
we might dismiss Hasbro's move as deliberately opportunistic and
destructive. After all, Monopoly's branded tokens seem very similar to
static in-game advertising (like the Honda Element that on the
snowboard courses in SSX3). In a New York Times article about
the new edition, the executive director of a consumer nonprofit did
just that, calling the new edition “a giant advertisement” and
criticizing Hasbro for taking “this low road.”4
perhaps the historical relationship between the tokens and the game’s
cultural origins should dampen our reaction to the little metal fries
and hybrid cars. None of the brands solicited the advertising nor paid
a placement fee for it. Instead, Hasbro itself solicited those
particular brands to appear in the game. Hasbro Senior Vice President
Mark Blecher claimed that the branded tokens offer “a representation of
America in the 21st century.” The company, argues Blecher, brings the
“iconography” of commercial products to the game of Monopoly.
is a marketing executive, so we should think twice before understanding
his justifications as wholesome design values. Certainly other
advertising-free design choices would have been possible. The game’s
original tokens were similar in size and shape to bracelet
charms—perhaps a more appropriate contemporary update of small tokens
would have been SD memory cards or Bluetooth earpieces.
Blecher has a point: for better or worse, branded products hold
tremendous cultural currency. They are the trifles, the collectibles
that most of the contemporary populace uses to accessorize their lives.
Here & Now uses branded tokens to define its game world as
that of contemporary corporate culture, in contrast to the developer
baron world of the original game.
1. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman also discuss the differences between the two games in their text on game design, Rules of Play (MIT Press: 2004)
2. The new properties were decided by popular vote of the general
public; according to Hasbro, over 3 million online votes were tallied.
3. Philip Orbanes, Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game and How it Got That Way (New York: Da Capo, 2006).