Monday, October 24, 2011

Monopoly: Analogy for Capitalism

Monopoly is one of the greatest board games of all time. I originally hated it due to how long it typically took to finish a game. In college, I reversed my stance and became very interested in the strategy underlying Monopoly. What are the best moves to take in order to put yourself in the best position to win? I was pursuing a philosophy degree at that time and was very intrigued by game theory. I played countless games against robotic opponents in Monopoly video games. I developed tactics for winning based on a thorough understanding of its principles. I was all ready to play with friends. When I played against friends, rather than robotic opponents, the games tended to unfold much differently. I will explain how I see the stages of a Monopoly game unfold as the board state changes. I believe this is a very telling metaphor for our current situation.

Board state 0: The Initial Issuance of Wealth and the Dream of Winning

Before the game starts, you decide on how many players there will be. Each player is issued an initial wealth of $1500. No property is initially owned. No property space costs the player to occupy. Each property space is available for purchase to the player who lands there, or goes to auction if the player would rather not purchase it.

Notes about Board state 0:
  • The initial issuance of $1500, unlike in our current economic model, does not get paid back to the bank. Citizens are not issued wealth by any bank without having to pay it back. I believe the $1500 initial issuance must then represent inheritance. Inheritance enough to invest in multiple expenditures (property spaces) without prior work or bank loans.
  • Board state 0 is fun for players because they dream of winning but don't face the reality of what 'winning' does for other players. Jumping ahead, for any Monopoly enthusiasts, it basically sucks if you can't even play anymore because someone else is winning. The more they win, the less fun everyone else is having.

Board state 1: Regulated Capitalism

Players have begun rolling the die and making property purchases. Board state 1 is defined as the time between the first die roll and the first monopoly assembled. A monopoly is defined as a collection of all like-color spaces of any 1 color. Thus begins housing development.

Notes about Board state 1:
  • Players worry about which player will be the first to assemble a monopoly and may trade properties in order to prevent this occurrence. Tension between players builds during this stage and temporary alliances form.
  • Housing development in Monopoly is another interesting analogy. In Monopoly, a player can purchase houses once they control a set of like colored spaces. If a player lands on a space with a house on it, they owe a lot of money. Houses should instead be named factories. A capitalist invests the money needed to build a factory. The factory sells products and the capitalist profits.
  • Players realize intuitively that other players are allowed to generate a lot of profit through monopolization of an industry. If monopolization occurs in any industry , then any time you must interact with that industry a lot of your money will become their profits.

Board state 2: Deregulated Free-Market Capitalism

The first player assembles a Monopoly. This initiates the housing development stage of the game. Board state 2 is defined as the time between the first monopoly assembled and the last available property purchased.

Notes about Board state 2:
  • The first player to assemble a monopoly has significant advantage over the other players. They have enabled an option of further developing their space in order to dramatically increase profits. Other players race to also have monopolies. The only way to compete is to adopt their strategy.
  • Before the first monopoly, prices were low. After the first monopoly, capitalists control industries and it becomes expensive for other players. Each player views other industries as their opportunity to compete for profits.
  • Some games end in this Board state. Monopolization funnels wealth into individual hands at an accelerated rate. Some players never assemble a monopoly before going bankrupt to previously established monopolies. It is not necessary to have the entire landscape owned to bankrupt every other player, but that conclusion becomes inevitable once all property has been purchased.

Board state 3: Private Ownership of all Industry

All property is purchased. Board state 3 is defined as the time between the last available property purchased and the bankruptcy of the final opponent. Once Board state 3 begins, the entire landscape shifts capital from one player's hand into another until all wealth is concentrated in one place.

Notes about Board state 3:
  • The landscape becomes one of full ownership. Every move a player makes is dangerous. Players can only occupy their purchased property safely. Complete isolation from other players becomes the dream, as your only strategy it to bankrupt them before they bankrupt you. 
  • Inevitably, all players minus the two final opponents have gone bankrupt. The remaining players must finish their game before they can rejoin the other players outside of the game. When you play with friends, as soon as the first player goes bankrupt you realize that it isn't fun to kick your friends out of the game. It becomes very lame and 'winning' becomes exceedingly isolating as everyone else leaves the table.
  • There is a lingering, tragic feeling as the game ends. "When were we having fun? Did it really matter who won? Is the winner a jerk inside the game, or outside the game, or both? How did those jerks just go on with a game that kicked us all out? And how did they listen to us complaining that we should all move on and just continue playing?"

Monopoly overview: Everyone Goes Bankrupt

As with any game, there is a specific strategy that helps a player win the game. The strategy of Monopoly, or capitalism, is to view other players as a threat to your wealth and a threat that must be bankrupted at any cost in order to protect your individual wealth. This is manifest in the military belief in 'protecting your borders through pre-emptive strike'. If the game you're playing treats others as only threats, then perhaps the game should be changed. In Board state 0, there is no ownership and endless possibilities are present. By the end of Board state 3, every space is owned and there is only 1 inevitable conclusion- bankruptcy of all players except one 'winner'.

Isolation increases as wealth becomes more concentrated. The players 'winning' want to continue the playing the game to its conclusion, whereas the players 'losing' want to leave the table and do something else. A natural rift occurs where the 'winners' say, "why didn't you losers play the game better?". This pervasive attitude is what the world faces now. Those with concentrated wealth believe the others without are not playing the game well and it is their own fault. They never address the fact that the corporate game of endless profit-seeking results in others losing everything: the longer you play, the more people go without. 

There is a window of time in every game of Monopoly when things could go on unchanged for a long period of time and players could go round and round the board without consequence. Before the first monopoly, players have equalized opportunity (initial issuance of $1500 and equal income of $200 for passing Go). I view this phase as regulated capitalism. Players can make purchases, trade property, & move around the landscape relatively inexpensively.

Board state 2 represents deregulation into "free market" capitalism. Here monopolization results in one player controlling costs for other players who are are unable to free themselves from this monopoly. Once one industry is deregulated, other industries will strive for deregulation to stay competitive. This is the race to the bottom that initiates the final Board state and the eventual end of the game. Once deregulation occurs, i.e. monopolies form, the danger level of the game dramatically increases and the fun level decreases for more and more players as the game progresses.

If we allow corporations to be solely profit-seeking entities, they will treat our planet like the landscape of a Monopoly board. All spaces will be purchased. All players occupying a space will owe someone money. All industries will constantly seek profit. Players will never be able to buy their way out of another's monopoly. Monopolies will concentrate wealth by extracting it from every other player. Corporate entities will become increasingly fearful and isolated. They will continue playing their game at the expense of a great many other players going broke. The one's 'winning' will never stop unless they are bankrupted themselves. The proper corporate strategy views opponents as threats. How can citizens compete with corporations implementing this strategy? It's like allowing sharks in a public swimming pool.

Think about these lessons. Raise questions about what changes we COULD make in order for the game to be more fun for more players. Feel free to post comments about possible rules changes that would make Monopoly a fair game.


  1. Hey, I just used the Monopoly game analogy explaining ows to people last week! I said that this is like the last 30 min of the game, where you know you've lost, but then you see your opponent steal money from the bank and hide properties up their sleeve and you realize they've been cheating all along. You can either put your head down and be depressed about how unfair monopoly is or you can flip the board and demand a new, fairer game. Ows is flipping the board. Also, the babysitter (some authority figure) is sitting there the whole time helping the opponent cheat.

  2. Thank you! I've heard a lot of people talk about Monopoly lately and had to write this. Nobody likes getting kicked out of the game!