As a child I never questioned the presence of the setback brought on by this message when playing Parker Brothers
's famous board game Monopoly
. What was Charles Brace Darrow
thinking when he stuck it in his game of finance
s back in 1931 (during the Great Depression*
, when a stint in jail meant at least a roof over your head and three squares)?
I mean, its effects on game mechanics are straightforward enough (relocation of game piece, cannot move, turn ends, must roll doubles or (failing three attempts at doubles) pay a fine of $50 to resume normal gameplay) but doesn't it seem a bit odd to anyone that a children's game about land development should involve incarceration at all? Looking back with the critical perspective I just can't seem to turn off, I wonder and worry about what part of the business of collecting rent involves felonies and misdemeanors. Is this in fact not a game of landlords but slumlords? IS IT NO COINCIDENCE that we never see the families illegally "evict"ed (with hired thugs) from the Houses when we bulldoze them to put up the Hotels they can no longer afford to stay in?**
On the level of the player, no crimes are being committed. One goes to Jail when a certain card is drawn from the Community Chest, upon landing on a board space, or on the occasion of rolling doubles three times in a row -- in short, three circumstances over which the player has no control! Does this reflect an antiauthoritarian notion that the criminal justice system lashes out randomly and unpredictably against innocents (cynically, only until the proper palms are greased), or instead the structuralist perspective that criminals are made, not born - unwittingly and unwillingly shaped by external forces leading them to inescapable ends regardless of their own actions? For surely there is nothing that the player sent to Jail has done that the other, free, players have not.
(I try to rationalise things by hypothesizing that maybe the IRS caught up with the jailed player for, like the ultimate defeat of Al Capone, failing to declare their income and pay income tax, but the facts of the game are that (unlike real life) no one pays the taxes unless they have the misfortune to land on the fated spots on the board, and that paying fairly is no assurance against imprisonment.)
This line of inquiry of course raises other ethical questions: Why do we only repair buildings when we are ordered to by the Chance cards rather than when repairs are necessary? Maybe you can't tell from your Park Place penthouse, but it's a pretty shitty November down on Baltic Avenue with no heat. I certainly don't want to end up with a landlord who was a successful Monopoly player as a child, but market forces dictate to me that sooner or later the most successful (read most cutthroat) landlord will have bought the properties of everyone else and can jack the prices as he sees fit. Monopoly really is the only game in town, and you can like it or leave. For that matter - where do the people go when their houses are razed? Off to other, outlying or suburban gameboards in areas with social and health problems keeping property values deflated and undesirable - perhaps boards marred with microwave transmission towers, red light districts, 16-lane highways and industrial byproducts in the air and water. The whole family will love playing Love Canal - the boardgame! See how long you and your close ones can survive before respiratory problems and undiagnosable illness caused by exposure to lethal chemical sludge kill them all off!
Really, though - this line of reasoning only leads one to venture further afield in search of less ethically-compromising games to instil virtues into our kids. The Game of Life? Reinforces gender stereotypes, what with the pink and blue game pieces - and what's with riding through life in a car? Howabout a bicycle? Snakes and Ladders? Victorian*** moral programming device! Next! Chess? Actually, I don't have much of a problem with an antimonarchist game where the goal is regicide - but in battles between competing monarchies, the peasants of both sides tend to end up losing (their rights and lives) regardless of which "colour" triumphs. A better board layout might be a single white king, perhaps flanked by a white bishop, opposed against a field otherwise filled with black pawns. The whites only continue to win because as their first, pre-emptive move, they have fooled the pawns into believing they are playing some other game, an elegant act of social control through deception. (The pawns are probably busy playing Monopoly, dreaming of becoming as rich as a King rather than working towards living in a society that needs none.)
Next up in a series: Free Parking is only free if your real estate has no value. (Okay, maybe not.)
* He modelled the board after Atlantic City, NJ - his family's favorite vacation spot, back when they could afford to go there.
** I'm thinking that Gentrification might be a better name - as if Monopoly wasn't a dirty word already... don't we have antitrust laws in place to discourage such ends as are the GOAL here?
*** To be fair, it originates in the Islamic world some centuries earlier, employed for similar purposes.