The original Game of Life was about reaching happy old age, not “Millionaire Acres.” And Monopoly was invented by an anti-capitalist who wanted to make a point about landowning and economic inequality. How did these games become the versions we play today? This is the story of how two iconic board games, designed to shape American culture, were instead warped by it.
Produced by Sarah Wyman, with Julia Press and Charlie Herman.
- Tristan Donovan, It’s All a Game
- Mary Pilon, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game
NOTE: This transcript may contain errors.
CH: Hello, Sarah.
SW: Hey, Charlie.
CH: So our listeners know, you and I are video chatting — I’m in New York, you’re in California —
SW: Right, and I have summoned you here to show you this.
CH: Yeah, it looks like you are holding up a checkerboard or something with red and yellow squares. What is it?
SW: This is the first version of The Game of Life!
CH: Really? Because it doesn’t look the way that I remember it.
SW: So there have been many iterations of the Game of Life over the years, but this is where it all started back in 1860. And to get a sense of just how different this version is from what we play today, I hopped on a livestream with a couple of my friends, and we gave it a try.
SW: I found these old buttons and one thimble that we could use as playing pieces, do you guys want to pick…
HANNAH: We’re really playing like it’s 1835 or whatever…
SW: So I made this board Charlie, by printing out all the squares from the original 1860 game, blowing them up, and then glue-sticking them to a piece of cardboard.
CH: (laughs) Of course you did.
HANNAH: Do I see some pink spots where perhaps the ink kind of… didn’t fully…
SW: I did have to replace the ink cartridge halfway through… (laughs)
SW: And since using dice was frowned upon back then, I also made some teetotums. Which are… basically dice, but the numbers are written on the sides of a spinner instead of a cube.
[teetotum spinning sound]
SW: And I got a four…
CH: So it gives you a number without actually having to roll the dice, per se.
SW: A classic workaround.
Sarah: So… I can move one or two squares…
SW: And, in playing this game, one thing became really obvious. The stops you make in the old Game of Life …
SW: I’m gonna not go to crime, and instead choose honesty…
SW: … are pretty different from “payday” and “buy a house” in the version we know:
SW: Which leads me conveniently to happiness, ah! What a pleasant road I’m walking…
CH: Yeah, so I see there’s squares for like honor 5, happiness, 5… there’s also one for Cupid!
SW: Intemperance is a favorite of mine, also… disgrace! Fat office?
CH: Fat office!
HANNAH: I don’t know what that means
TIM: I would assume like public office…
SW: We still don’t know. (laughs)
CH: We still don’t know!
SW: To win this Game of Life, you have to collect 100 points, and the best way to do that is to make your way to the right hand corner of the board and land on the square “Happy Old Age”
JACKIE: Okay, I’m going to go to old age and collect 50 points.
SW: And once they accumulate 100 points, they win the game.
SW: Wow!! It finally happened!
CH: How on earth did this turn into the Game of Life we play today?
SW: Well, it took 100 years, the birth of American capitalism and… believe it or not, the game Monopoly.
CH: From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.
The Game of Life started out as a wholesome lesson in morality. Kids and adults moved around a board, dodging vices and collecting points for Honor, Success, and reaching Happy Old Age.
Nearly fifty years later, the game that would become Monopoly was invented by an anti-capitalist.
But today, the goal of both games — and their message — is simple: whoever makes the most money … wins.
While we were playing banker and counting up our bills, real money changed hands in the board game industry. And it warped the idealism of the inventors behind two of the most important games in American history.
Stay with us.
SW: Okay, so when was the last time you played the Game of Life? Like, was this a game you played growing up?
CH: Yeah, no I totally did. I remember you have the little car… there were like these little green mountains that you sort of like would go up and down, and…
SW: You get to spin the fun spinny thing… that makes the noise!
CH: Spinny noise
SW: And then you sort of work your way from college all the way to retirement. You live out the rest of your days at either Countryside acres—that’s for the poor people—or Millionaire Estates.
TIM: All I remember is that there was a college track and a career track and I was never sure which one I should take.
SW: That is my friend Tim. He and his sister Jackie:
JACKIE: Uh, my experience is in the Spongebob Game of Life…
SW: And my friend Hannah:
HANNAH: I remember cheating at it like I cheated with Candyland where I would stack the deck so I could get the house that I wanted.
SW: A few weeks ago, all three of them played both versions of the game of life with me—the original and the new one. And the game of life was not as much fun as I remembered it being.
CH: (laughs) I feel like that’s a metaphor for something bigger.
SW: Charlie, It took hours. (laughs) And the whole thing really starts when you enter the workforce. You pick a job, a salary, you have kids…
SW: You adopted twins!
JACKIE: Welcome to parenthood! I’m an aunt.
SW: And then you buy a house, and decide whether or not to spend money on stuff like car insurance….
SW: Car rolls away, pay $15,000 if not insured.
HANNAH: It’s not insured, but also I passed a payday, right?
SW: Along the way, you pick up “life tiles” for random experiences. Maybe you go to the Grand Canyon… fun! You might even get a visit from your in-laws, or you might spend all of your money on a really expensive painting for reasons that are unclear!
SW: Tim, you went to an art auction and decided to pay $20,000 for a painting.
JACKIE: Tim, you spent two thirds of your salary on one painting.
CH: And then in the end, you add up how much money did you collect…
SW: 1.1… 1.2…. 1.3….
CH: and then you declare a winner based on the amount of money you made, which is kind of weird.
TIM: So Jackie won, handily.
SW: Yay! Jackie wins.
SW: It is kind of weird. But here’s the thing. I never actually thought that was that weird when I was a kid.
CH: Oh no, not at all.
SW: But then after I found out that the goal of the Game of Life used to be to reach happy old age, not to get rich… now knowing that fact, I find it really strange. Like, somehow, this game went from being about holding yourself to an incredibly high moral standard and literally striving for happiness to being all about money.
I wanted to know how that happened, and very quickly I discovered that the evolution of board games is an entire field of study.
NICOLAS RICKETTS: And it’s kind of a deep well that you can fall into (laughs) but it’s a good one!
SW: Nicholas Ricketts is a curator at the National Museum of Play at the Strong in Rochester, New York. And part of his job involves collecting old artifacts—games and their early ancestors—and arranging them kind of like a paleontologist would… so that all these little fossils of culture add up to the grand evolution of society. Ricketts and the Strong Museum have collected more than 15,000 table games.
NR: Sometimes games come with a little family history of who played it and who won, written like on the inside of the box cover. It’s often kids and they’ll use funny terms like ‘Joe killed Sam on November 13, 1963…’ something like that.
SW: Ricketts pointed out to me that since we can’t recover every game that’s ever been played in the history of all time, it’s hard to make broad generalizations about society at large based on the records we do have. And that’s where knowing more about game creators can be really useful. Because, since nearly the beginning of time, the people coming up with games have had an agenda: they’re trying to teach you something. This goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, where games have been uncovered in tombs. In Rome, archaeologists have found versions of tic tac toe carved out on old ruins.
CH: Those O’s must have been hard to do on rock. Maybe they just did Vs, Vs and Xs.
SW: The idea was, by playing games, players could learn everything from how to count, how to play well with others, to…
NR: How to behave when you lose, or when you win. Things like that. All of these are things… important things to learn as a child because, you know, you’re gonna need them throughout your life.
SW: But as time went on, game inventors started using boards and playing pieces to teach some more sophisticated lessons. Like, take “The Game of Pope or Pagan,” also called “The Siege of the Stronghold of Satan.”
CH: Wow. That sounds like an intense game.
SW: It was published by the Christian Army in 1844, and the goal was basically to help teach good, God-loving puritans to be very wary of Catholics.
NR: I know there’s one little figure that’s the Pope, there’s one figure that are all the missionaries, and then another group of figures that are the natives. The thing is, to get all the natives into the missionary square without them being caught by the Pope.
CH: Everything about that game sounds so wrong….
SW: In a really grim way, it’s actually a fantastic snapshot of what that time in America was like. Because, and this is the thing about board games—it doesn’t just show us what society was like, it shows us what the game’s creators wanted society to be like. And that’s how you have to look at the Game of Life. It was the brainchild of a real idealist. A guy named Milton Bradley, who you might have heard of.
CH: The Milton Bradley? Yeah!
SW: Well, before he built a gigantic board game company, he was just a hardworking printer from Massachusetts. And originally, he had no interest in making board games. He was very religious, and he thought games were a little dicey, morally speaking.
TRISTAN DONOVAN: People should be going to church or doing some hard work and like chopping down spruce forests or whatever people did in New England at that time…
SW: Tristan Donovan has written a book called It’s All a Game, which tells the origin stories of lots of different games, including the Game of Life. And he says around 1860, Milton Bradley’s printing business was failing. He was feeling very stressed out about money—he even postponed his own wedding, because he didn’t want to force his wife-to-be into a life of poverty.
TD: He basically sunk into a depression, and his friends were sort of desperately trying to think of ways to cheer him up. And one friend came round with one of the earliest board games in America, which was called the Mansion of Happiness. It was all very Salem witch trials of board gaming.
SW: The Mansion of Happiness was all about teaching players how to be good, moralistic puritans. And, true to form, it was pretty harsh. In the game, if you broke the sabbath, you got sent to the whipping post. And while that’s not my idea of a good time, Milton Bradley was very into this game.
TD: But what he thought it lacked was any agency. You know, you would spin the dial to find out how far you’re going to move, andyou’ll have no choice over whether you were a sinner or a saint, it’s just where the sort of equivalent of the dice took you. So he thought he’d make a different kind of game that would sort of teach similar moral lessons, but you would choose where you’d go on the board.
CH: So in the Checkered Game of Life, you’re moving around the board, getting points but you can get that through different ways. It’s not about accumulating money, it’s accumulating moral experiences?
SW: Yeah, when we played…
TIM: Why does it keep sending me to ambition? No I’m goin’ to truth. I’m going to head up to truth.
SW: I started to think of them as brownie points.
TIM: I’m going to truth. I’m going to head up to truth.
SW: Where if you’re making good choices, if you’re living up to what Milton Bradley considers to be a good life, then you’re collecting on that.
TIM: My life plan really just looks like boy scout motto, honestly.
CH: And you have the ability to make some choices, since it’s an actual checkerboard, you can move around…
SW: That is one space left or right.
SW: You choose your own destiny.
HANNAH: Exactly! I knew this was coming!
TIM: Jackie’s in poverty!
SW: And there might be some commentary buried in there, too. So, for example, “congress” is worth 5 points, but it is dangerously close to “crime,” which would send you straight to “prison.” Make of that what you will, Charlie…
CH: [laughs] It’s very dangerous… you go to congress, you might slip into crime…
TD: Certainly some of the positioning was deliberate. So one of the things sort of quite close to where you start is the poverty square. And he wrote in the rules that it’s there because he didn’t believe that poverty should hold you back in life from achieving anything.
SW: I’m gonna reality check Milton Bradley here for a second just to say that this is obviously not how life actually works. But in a way, that’s sort of the point. This game was not a reflection of American society. It was a reflection of Milton Bradley and his ideals. And when you read the rules for the Checkered Game of Life, you can tell he was really sincere. He believed you could come back from anything—poverty, disgrace, you name it—if you picked yourself up by your bootstraps and kept your sights on success.
And that idea must have resonated with a lot of other people too, because In its first year, the game sold 40,000 copies. And that might not sound like a lot, but you have to remember, at the time, board games were still finding their footing as a mass-produced item. And Milton Bradley was basically brand new to this!
TD: So after doing the Checkered Game of Life, he went all out into making games and toys and educational equipment full-time, so…
SW: And lots of other people had the same idea. The Checkered Game of Life’s success marked the beginning of a multibillion dollar industry.
Soon that industry and Milton Bradley’s company would learn an important lesson. For most people, pretending you are rich is more fun than pretending you are good.
CH: And that is after the break.
CH: We’re back. So, Sarah, somehow Milton Bradley’s Checkered Game of Life, which was all about living well, turned into a game where the goal is to make money. I mean, what happened ? how did it become the Game of Life?
SW: So the Checkered Game of Life fell out of fashion a couple decades after it was made for reasons that, looking at the board, I should think are obvious. (laughs)
CH: No one wants to be in Sunday school every day.
SW: Exactly. “Disgrace” and “fat office” did not age well. And so by the time Milton Bradley died in 1911, the board game industry had changed completely. Games like “The Game of Pope or Pagan” and the Checkered Game of Life were not as popular as they used to be. And that’s because there were more players in the industry, and the games they were making were… more fun.
MARY PILON: Milton Bradley’s game of life was pretty gruesome.
SW: Mary Pilon is the author of a book called The Monopolists, which is the most comprehensive history of the game of Monopoly that I’ve been able to dig up.
CH: Mono-? Wait, what does Monopoly have to do with the Game of Life?
SW: Just like the Checkered Game of Life, Monopoly started out as a moral manifesto. It was a window into the mind of its creator, who wanted to teach players about… economics! And philosophy! And fairness!
The story of how it ended up as the Monopoly we play today—a mega-hit, arguably the still biggest name-brand in board games today—is also the story of how we ended up with the modern Game of Life. And an industry that makes games with players’ interests in mind.
Monopoly, or at least the version we play today, was published by a company called Parker Brothers in 1935. Mary Pilon told me about George Parker, who had started the company in the 1880s.
MP: By the time George Parker comes around, and as the game industry evolves, into the 20th century, you get a little loosening up on the kind of darkness and the instructions that kids were getting. So yes, I do credit George Parker with kind of lightening the mood around the game industry. [laughter]
SW: The names of early Parker Brothers games are like postcards from the early 1900s: “Crossing the Ocean,” “Game of War,” and “the Railroad Game.” In real life, the transcontinental railroad was taking Americans across the country, and adventurers were going on actual round the world expeditions. Thomas Edison had invented the lightbulb, so after people came home from work, they could play games after dark if they wanted to, on Monday and Tuesday and not just Sunday anymore! But when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, board games were not a top priority for families who were struggling to put food on the table. Mary Pilon says, at this point Parker Brothers was on the verge of going out of business. And, this is where Monopoly comes in.
MP: So the story about Monopoly’s history that was repeated in board game boxes and tucked away for decades was that a man named Charles Darrow invented the game, he was an unemployed man in Pennsylvania, he goes down to his basement and he creates this game with a nod to Atlantic City to remind his family of better times, and you know he’s down on his luck and he tries to sell it and people tell him no, he can’t, he can’t, and then finally, you know Parker Brothers reluctantly takes it on and it goes on to become this massive best seller.
SW: A real rags to riches classic American story! (laughs)
MP: Absolutely, absolutely. The problem is it’s not true. (laughs)
SW: The real inventor of Monopoly was named Lizzie Magie. She was a feminist, a writer, a rule-breaker. And she wanted to create a game that would tech Americans an important moral lesson. About the dangers of capitalism!
CH: The exact opposite of what I think Monopoly is about.
SW: The exact opposite. (laughs)
Lizzie Magie was born in 1866, and as far as I can tell, she was an absolute force of nature from day one. She grew up in and around newsrooms—her dad was a journalist who had traveled around with Abraham Lincoln. He later ran for office himself on—fun fact—an anti-monopoly ticket. And by the time she was a young adult, Lizzie had found her own way with words. She published essays. One of my favorites is titled: “A Graphic Description of hell by One Who Is Actually in It.”
CH: Not one to mince words!
SW: It’s all about how much it sucked to be a woman with ambition and an education in the early 1900s. And I can imagine how frustrating that must have been for Lizzie, because she was sort of a genius. By age 26, she’d locked down a patent for an invention that helped feed paper through a typewriter. And she was super involved politically too. She was a vocal single-taxer— the secretary, actually, of the Women’s single tax club of Washington!
CH: What is a single-taxer?
SW: They were followers of an economist named Henry George, who believed that land owning was contributing to the massive inequality between the rich and poor in America. And Lizzie Magie knew that sounded sort of abstract. She wanted to make the whole economic philosophy much easier for Americans to understand.
MP: So Lizzie Magie wants to create this game, she calls it “The Landlord’s Game,” which is very on point with the language at the time to show people how this works. And her original game has two rule sets, a monopolist rule set, which is the one we play today, where we clobber each other, and an anti-monopolist rule set that’s about breaking these things apart.
SW: In the anti-monopolist rule set, when one player made money, everyone else got rewarded too. In the monopolist rule set, well… you’ve played Monopoly, haven’t you Charlie?
CH: Oh yeah, I had two brothers, we were very competitive, they were older than me, they usually beat me at every game. [laughter] By the end you’re just like ‘ugggh someone buy the entire board and put me out of my misery.’
SW: I’ve had some similar experiences. But, since neither of us has ever finished a game of monopoly, a refresher on the rules: You all start with some money. You roll dice and move around a board, landing on properties and chance spaces. And the object of the game is to buy up property spaces so that the other players must pay you when they land on those spots. The game only ends when one player has ALL the property on the board, and everyone else is bankrupt. So it’s a zero sum game. Only one person can win and everyone else has to lose.
Lizzie wrote that if kids played her game, they would get how unfair our current system is, and when they grew up, they would fix it.
CH: And yet today, the version of the game we play, I mean, I didn’t even know that there was this anti-monopolist version, I just know the monopolist version. What happened to the game where we all win?
SW: The Landlord’s Game, and Lizzie Magie, were totally erased from history. In fact, Charles Darrow and Parker Brothers’ version of events did such a good job of re-writing Monopoly’s story that we don’t even know how successful Lizzie’s version of the game was when she first published it. But what we do know is it did take off as a folk game. Up and down the East coast, people were making their own copies on oilcloths at home and then teaching their friends how to play. The Landlord’s Game made it to a utopian community called Arden that was actually based on Henry George’s single tax principle, and it also made it to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
MP: People were playing the game, and as the game was traveling as a folk game, people were making it their own. They would localize the board, so if you were playing it in Arden, Delaware, you would put Arden, Delaware properties on it. If you’re playing in Philadelphia…
SW: As the Landlord’s Game spread, the anti-monopolist version at some point just stopped being played. The game got more and more distant from Lizzie. And that’s actually really frustrating, because Lizzie at this point had not given up on it herselve While it was spreading on its own, she actually secured two patents for it! Ata time when less than one percent of patents in the U.S. went to women. And she was also pitching the game to big manufacturers, like she sent it to Parker Brothers. They told her they didn’t want it.
CH: So if she had a patent, how did that guy Charles Darrow and Parker Brothers end up getting credit for the game?
SW: Well, I’ll tell you what did not happen. (laughs) Charles Darrow didn’t emerge from his basement with an, inspired idea for a brand new board game with a catchy name. No, in 1932, he went to a friend’s house. And just like the people in Arden and at Wharton had done before him—he played a version of Lizzie’s Landlord’s game. The one he played was already set in Atlantic City, and it was called Monopoly.
Darrow asked his friend to make him a copy of the rules. And then, he turned around and submitted those rules, and a game board, to Parker Brothers.
CH: That’s like, that’s such a blatant ripoff!
SW: It’s so frustrating, even all of these years later, to think about how—and he took credit for it completely, Charlie! Like, there was no acknowledgement that this game had fully already existed before he submitted it.
CH: Ooh. Lizzie must have been mad.
SW: It’s shady behavior alright.
But credit where credit is due, Darrow did make some improvements to the game. So like he got his friend to paint black railroad silhouettes on the board. A red car on free parking, the pointing hand on “go to jail.” All of the iconography we associate with the game today was born with Darrow’s version.
But for him to say he came up with the game himself—which he continued to do for the rest of his life whenever he was asked about it—I mean, that was just categorically false.
CH: Did anyone else know that?
SW: I mean, Parker Brothers knew! Because remember, Lizzie had pitched her version of the game to them and they’d said ‘no thanks. We don’t want it.’ And at first, that little detail did not seem like a big threat to Parker Brothers. But they had no idea how successful Monopoly was about to become.
Monopoly is, far and away, the best-selling branded board game of all time. By 1936, one year after it was released, Parker Brothers had already sold 1.8 million copies. There was so much demand that their factories were struggling to keep up with production. The game basically single-handedly saved the company from going under during the Great Depression.
CH: Isn’t that kind of strange? That in the aftermath of the great depression, the most popular game on the market was about how to get rich quick and screw people over?
SW: People say that to Mary Pilon all the time.
MP: Well that’s really counterintuitive, why would anyone want a real estate trading game when everybody’s poor? and that’s exactly why. Because in real life, the vast majority of us aren’t going to be landlords. You know, we’re not going to be able to just move properties around like that.
SW: When we play Monopoly, Charlie, the reason it’s fun—unless we’re being totally clobbered by our older siblings (laughs)—is because it’s play-acting. I’m not a cigar-smoking, pocket watch-wearing, real estate mogul in real life, but for like six hours on a Saturday, I can take you for everything you’re worth!!
And so that discovery, the wild success of Monopoly, really changed how the board game industry worked. It changed from just reflecting the values of board game creators to mimicking what players wanted.
CH: And what they wanted, was money. That’s after the break.
CH: We’re back.
So, in 1935, Parker Brothers released Charles Darrow’s version of Monopoly…
SW: And it was a huge success. Millions of copies sold.
TD: I don’t think there had been a board game that big at the time it launched.
SW: This, again, is Tristan Donovan. He wrote a book about board games and the Game of Life.
TD: I mean it, it was kind of the first big hit game, and I think that probably changed the whole board game industry, with everyone kind of going ‘well, Monopoly is really popular, we should think about Monopoly when we’re kind of doing things.’ So…
SW: Parker Brothers started really aggressively fending off copycats with legal challenges. In fact, they sort of locked down a Monopoly on the name Monopoly—you can read more about that in Mary Pilon’s book, The Monopolists.
But beyond the blatant ripoffs, Donovan says other companies—like Milton Bradley, for example—were trying to figure out how they could make their own games like Monopoly.
TD: So Milton Bradley didn’t want to look too much like Monopoly, but they wanted something that tapped into that as well.
SW: In 1959, the company was one year out from its 100th anniversary. And to celebrate, the executives at Milton Bradley wanted to launch a new board game. They hired a hotshot game designer, fresh off creating the hula hoop—
SW: True story! And sent him down to their archives for inspiration.
TD: So he goes in, it’s this sort of dusty room with plenty of kind of detritus from 100 years of game-making and so on, and he’s kind of sifting through that, and in there, covered in dust, he finds a box for the checkered game of life, the original kind of Milton Bradley game. And he looks at that and goes ‘heh, I’ve got an idea there.’
SW: The Checkered Game of Life, again, had been out of production for decades. Milton Bradley’s original life lessons needed updating. So, the game designer got to work.
TD: And obviously the first thing he changes is the goal. It’s no longer about living a happy life, it’s about being rich! (laughs)
GAME OF LIFE AD: I made $50,000 in the stock market today.
TD: And so it basically becomes this game about who can make the most money. You go around the board, you get married,
GAME OF LIFE AD: I had twins!
TD: you get some shares, you buy a house, and hopefully end up in the millionaire’s mansion.
GAME OF LIFE AD: I went to the poor farm.
I’m on millionaire acres!
SW: And so he gets rid of spaces like intemperance and disgrace.
CH: Fat office.
SW: And fat office! And he replaces them with things that are much more relevant to the 1960s.
TD: So one of the squares they had in the 1960 version was you could find a uranium mine, and that would be brilliant! You’d get a load of money. Because at the time, the U.S. government was encouraging people to go out in the deserts of New Mexico and Utah and find uranium.
CH: I totally remember that one! It made no sense at all. Like why do I get $600 for opening a uranium mine?
SW: I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you it worked. Tristan Donovan says the game of life was a “runaway success” almost immediately when it was released in 1960.
GAME OF LIFE AD: So play the Game of Life! That’s life!
SW: But by the 1980s, Milton Bradley—the company—was starting to worry the game was maybe a little too money centric. So, they beta tested a version without money. Where players would just collect life tiles over the course of the game, and whoever accumulated the most life experiences would win.
TD: People hated it. People were like… ‘we don’t want this. This is really boring. We want the money back!’ So they ended up doing a compromise where they put in life cards, which would kind of do things like: ‘you saved the whales!’ which would translate to 100 grand or something like that. So they tried to bridge it, but they couldn’t really get away from the fact that people enjoyed making the money.
CH: Which is interesting, because it says if there isn’t money involved, why am I doing this?
SW: Life without money, it turns out, is really complicated.
SW: It’s a very existential question! Like how do you declare a winner in the game of life? (laughs) It’s hard to measure that qualitatively.
TD: Yeah! I suppose it’s a way of looking at life, maybe there is no meaning and we just go round and round, but it kind of feels a bit too deep for what’s supposed to be an entertaining plaything.
SW: Milton Bradley spent the rest of his life building his company and making games. He went on to become a vocal member of the kindergarten movement, which was all about educating children and giving them the tools they needed to be successful from a young age.
Lizzie Magie, the creator of Monopoly, did not get that chance.
When Parker Brothers decided to release Darrow’s version of the game in 1935, George Parker —the founder of the company—came out of retirement to personally make the trip down to Washington, D.C. to make sure she and her patents wouldn’t be a problem. He promised his company would publish the Landlord’s game, along with two more of Lizzie’s games and offered her $500. If she said yes, Parker Brothers would own her patent for the Landlord’s Game.
MP: And at first she’s really elated, she thinks it’s so great, like ‘finally my single tax theory game is going to be published by one of the biggest board game companies in the world! This is so fantastic…’ and then they promise to market these other games, but there’s no indication that that ever happened. That these other two games were ever published or that she was ever credited really for Landlord’s Game.
SW: A few days after she signed the contract, Lizzie sent George this lovely letter, with the headline: “Farewell to my beloved brain-child. ” She wrote it as if she’s talking to the Landlord’s Game. She says: “Remember, the world expects much from you.” and, in a postscript: “This may amuse you, Mr. Parker, but it is something I keenly feel.”
CH: So how did she respond when she saw what the game actually looked like?
SW: Yeah, so then Monopoly came out and was the giant success that it was, and she was like woah, woah, woah this is not what I agreed to!
CH: Yeah, I’m sure.
SW: You know, Parker Brothers, they did publish The Landlord’s Game, like they promised to do, but that was a flop, and this game that was succeeding, Monopoly, was a bastardization of this idea that was so precious to her. And she was not quiet about that. I mean, she gave an interview to the Washington Post in 1936 where she basically tried to reclaim her story.
MP: And there’s this incredible photo of her that’s her hoisting up her board games, and this interview where she says, she says ‘This Horatio Alger story is not true, like I’m the Horatio Alger! I invented this game! And here’s why I invented it!’ and that was completely lost. And I think that’s a really important artifact, because it showed that she wasn’t being passive about this, that she was very aware that this game was spreading, and very upset with how it had been spreading. And was really trying to assert herself.
SW: In 1940, Lizzie Magie responded to the U.S. census. She listed her occupation as board game inventor, and her income as $0.
CH: So sad. And she created this game that’s sort of known around the world.
SW: Yeah. But it was a zero sum game, right? Charles Darrow walked away with everything.
MP: I think there’s a huge irony to the story of Monopoly itself. It’s about capitalism! It’s about greed, it’s about the legal system, it’s about gender, it’s about, you know, how history is written, I mean it just goes on and on and on.
CH: One of the things that stands out to me in both of these games is the idea that money and success go hand in hand. That feels very American to me about that. The idea that making a lot of money equals success or that “success” in life means wealth.
SW: Yeah, and that’s not a new idea. It’s the attitude Milton and Lizzie were actively trying to correct from day one. And maybe that’s the reason their versions of the game of life and Monopoly weren’t the ones that actually won out. Maybe the reason we’re not still playing their moral manifestos is because we’re all a product of the idea that having money is actually pretty important. Like, personally, playing the game of life and monopoly the way Milton and Lizzie intended me to feels kind of pointless. Because I was raised to measure my own life—like my own success and failures—in terms of stuff like going to college, and choosing a career, buying a house, insurance, unnecessary artwork…
CH: Owning a uranium mine!
SW: My life is measured with money. Even in the Game of Life, at the end, all the experiences on the life tiles—like, you know, the grand canyon and visiting your in-laws… all of those convert into cold hard cash. Because that’s just the easiest way to measure who wins.
And the benefits of living your life any other way—without money as the central metric—are, to be fair, really hard to write on a game board. You know, it’s hard to tally up feelings. The way you feel when you’re self-assured and happy. And to try and rank that against other abstract things like your friend’s confidence and their fulfilled family life, it doesn’t tally up super neatly.
CH: And that may not be as much fun to play.
SW: I’ve tried it, and it’s not.
TIM: Good game, everybody.
JACKIE: Thanks Milton, this was for you.
SW: So we could keep playing, or we could move on to the other Game of Life.
HANNAH: Weeeee can move on to the other game…
TIM: Yeah, as much as I love this game…
This episode was produced by Sarah Wyman, with Julia Press and me, Charlie Herman.
What about you, listeners? What are your favorite board games or the ones that when your parents pulled them out you ran screaming into the other room because you didn’t want to play? Let us know: post a comment in our Facebook page or on twitter or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Claire Banderas and Hannah Wall, Jackie Wetzel, and Tim Wetzel for the many hours they spent playing the games of life. Hate to tell you, but the game continues…
Thanks also to Ralph Anspach. We didn’t cover this in the episode, but it’s thanks to his lawsuit against Parker Brothers and his tireless research that we know so much about Lizzie Magie and the early history of Monopoly. You can read more about that in Mary Pilon’s book, The Monopolists.
Our editor is Micaela Blei, and Bill Moss is our sound designer. Music is from Audio Network. John DeLore and Casey Holford composed our theme. Dan Bobkoff is the podfather. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
Brought to you by… is a production of Insider Audio.