In Praise of Monopoly

I fantasized as a young country boy that I’d grow up to be Atticus Finch; only in my childhood dreams I cared more about myself than other people. Which, come to think of it, means I would have made a pretty good lawyer. I was constantly writing legal contracts that I made my little brother sign. Most of them stipulated that he had to forfeit specific Kellogg’s 3-D baseball cards if at any time he stopped playing in the middle of a game of Monopoly.

I resorted to these draconian legal measures because (a) it’s really boring living in the country, and (b) he’d developed a disturbing history of flipping over the board just as I was about to add another hotel to Park Place, robbing me of the satisfaction of crushing his little-brother hopes and dreams. The only problem was, I ended up playing the game alone, which quickly led to the discovery that it’s really not that fun to crush your own hopes and dreams.

I was reminded of these touching childhood memories when I saw recently that my favorite living movie director, Ridley Scott—who made the futuristic fantasy film Blade Runner and the action-packed bloodbath Gladiator—was interviewed about his upcoming film online. No, not Robin Hood. That other one—the one about Monopoly. Yes, that Monopoly: the game where you go directly to jail and you do not collect $200. The project has been around for a few years, and if Scott’s quotes to are any indication, he clearly gets what I understood as a megalomaniac older sibling: “The game can turn your sweetest, dearest aunt into a demon—a nightmare of greed. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Not since Clue have I been so giddy about an upcoming board-game movie. The interview spawned Hollywood blogger speculation about how Scott would translate the game to the big screen when it comes out in a year or two, but all I could wonder was whether Russell Crowe could play a convincing thimble.

The movies aren’t the only place Monopoly has made its mark lately. It’s a top-selling iPhone app, though some iTunes commenters have accused the game of cheating: “[It] rolled doubles FOURTEEN times in a row…managed to bypass every property I had houses/hotels on while I landed three times on his hotels. Then, I was angry.” I didn’t write that, but I like his passion. If a Monopoly iPhone app cheated on me, you can damn well bet I wouldn’t take that sitting down. The iPad version has received good reviews, too, partly because the screen is big enough to “mimic the real thing beautifully.” If these technological advances continue, soon we’ll have a version of Monopoly that goes even beyond mimicking “the real thing” and is played on an actual cardboard surface. Now that would be incredible! I hope I live to see that day.

And then there’s that annual tie-in with McDonald’s. I always get fired up when that promotion starts, but after a couple of weeks I’m weighed down by McGriddles and Quarter Pounders and I can’t remember where I put the little paper game slips. I always find them months later in a jeans pocket or between the seats of my car, and I stare off into space and think, “I wonder if that’s the one that would have won me the million dollars if I knew where the rest of them were?” Then I search around through the car for more slips, until I get tired from all that Filet-o-Fish grease pumping through my body and I have to take a nap in the McDonald’s parking lot.

All these examples serve to illustrate how Monopoly has not only reinvented itself over and over again, but also managed to keep its center—the game itself—mostly intact. Unlike other brands buffeted by new technology and changing fashion—like, say, some magazines that shall remain nameless—and despite the fact that real people barely seem to interact with other real people these days, Monopoly has thrived. Maybe the game survives because its fictional main character, Rich Uncle Pennybags, still bears a striking resemblance to the folks collecting absurd bonuses on the real-life equivalent of Park Place, and we all worry we’re one foreclosure away from landing—splat!—on our own version of Baltic Avenue. And if we can’t be Mr. Pennybags in real life, at least we can live the dream for a couple of hours.

And the good news is we can still do that with real live friends, those “people” things I mentioned above. That’s because the old paper boards haven’t gone away. So far, 275 million of the games have been sold since it was invented during the Depression, 75 years ago, by Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pa. Since then, more than 1 billion players have crushed the hopes and dreams of a friend or family member. Today there are countless “themed” versions, like the ones you see down South featuring colleges you’ve never heard of, or that cool Simpsons edition. But a purist like me would never play one of those sad clones.

Speaking of me, I found one of the old brother-against-brother legal contracts not too long ago in a trunk at my parents’ house. What I realized as I read the mildewed piece of paper was that I, even as a kid, was kind of a jerk. But the good news is I still have that mint-condition Kellogg’s Johnny Bench 3-D baseball card I got when I enforced one of my ironclad contracts, and I’m not giving it back. Unless my brother wants to sign these legal papers I just drew up and play me for it, winner take all.

The contract also stipulates that I will be the race car.

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