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Monopoly has 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 landowners.
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
But 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 Fenway Park.2 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.
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.
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).
Normally 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
But 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.
Blecher 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.
But 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.