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Monopoly and the Great Recession
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Tess Vigeland: Sure Thanksgiving weekend is good for shopping. You know what else it’s good for? Doing absolutely nothing. Hanging around the house. Watching football. How about playing a board game or two? It’s been 75 years since Parker Brothers introduced the American public to Monopoly.
Village Voice writer Steven Thrasher takes a look at how the game of real estate wheeling and dealing has fared since the recession started.
Steven Thrasher: When I was a kid in the eighties, my parents put a game in front of me called Anti-Monopoly. The goal was to convince the world’s super powers to give up their nuclear weapons. It wasn’t much fun, but neither was the Cold War.
Anyway, when the economy tanked in 2008 and the belief that banks-shouldn’t-be-too big to fail dominated the national zeitgeist, I got to wondering — is Monopoly as a concept something parents still want to teach their kids? Did Monopoly remain a popular game during the Great Recession?
Philip Orbanes: Monopoly sales have increased steadily and rather strongly in these last two years.
That’s Philip Orbanes, former Parker Brothers executive, and author of three books on Monopoly.
Orbanes: Monopoly is one of the very best sellers during recessionary times. It’s a nice tonic for uncertainty. It provides people with an opportunity to pretend that they’re rich even if real life is not treating them so well.
Consider, Orbanes says, that Monopoly sold almost two million games when it debuted in the 1930s.
Orbanes: And that’s at a time when there was 20 percent unemployment.
Orbanes says Monopoly is often kids’ first introduction to the concept of mortgages, and to saving money for financial emergencies. I tried playing the game with some kids at the Lower East Side Girls club, to see what they learned from it.
Girl 1: Eight, nine…
Girl 2: Oooh! You¹re going to jail!
Girl 1: See if I go to jail, do I pass “Go” and $200?
Kids, together: No!
Girl 1: That’s messed up.
These girls seemed determined not to mess up like grown-ups had with excessive borrowing.
Girl 1: One, two, three, four… I was thinking of buying something, but no. I’ll wait until I become rich!
Girl 1 laughs
All this saving made the game drag on, forcing their counselor to step in.
Counselor: Y’all have to start buying stuff if y’all ever want this game to end!
Girl: Here, I bought it! I bought it! I bought it! It’s mine! It’s mine! It’s mine!
And then, things got competitive.
Girl 1: Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me — my rent? Unless you want to end up poor, where’s my rent?
If a bunch of teens could fall for Monopoly¹s charms, I wondered if I could find any adults who would question it. I went all around New York City, but couldn¹t find even one person who criticized the game. I even went to the most lefty, crunchy-granola place I could think of - the Park Slope Food Co-Op. Surely, one of those fair-trade coffee drinking, organic cotton-wearing shoppers would have something bad to say about Monopoly?
Woman 1: I don’t really think of it as a real estate monopoly, money sort of game? I think of it as a time to spend with a group of people. It’s more about having fun.
So clearly my parents were in the minority questioning what Monopoly teaches. But Anti-Monopoly was not the first subversive answer to the game.
Philip Orbanes talked about the Soviet version, “Savopoly,” which taught players to, well, save.
Orbanes: And unfortunately, it might be a noble ambition and something we should all do, but in game form it was terribly boring.
In the U.S., there’s the Marxist-Monopoly mash-up “Class Struggle,” where the goal is to win the revolution — and there are various versions of “Recessionopoly” online. But none are commercially available.
Now with Star Wars and even the Beatles lending their names to versions of Monopoly, maybe it’s obvious that the last thing any board game player wants to do is to take things too seriously.
On Park Place in New York, about to pass “Go” and collect $200, I’m Steven Thrasher for Marketplace.
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