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Monopoly is the sort of board game where greed is good. You win by hoarding money, ruthlessly purchasing property and then building nice little green houses on that property to rent out like Airbnbs, only to transform them into massive red hotels as soon as possible to rent out for even more brightly coloured money.
As a rule, as soon as you can afford it, and even when you have to mortgage everything else of value to do it, you build up. Just like fancy cottage country – more is always better. Anything else just postpones the inevitable – bankruptcy or just scraping by on each turn around the board – anxiety rising as you have to try to get past those expensive hotels and Airbnbs without a visit. Being a landlord pays. Hello Park Place! Risk is rewarded. Property and assets rule. Not so much different than real life.
As a player, you get your Gordon Gekko on – racing around the board as a silver dog, wheelbarrow, thimble or car, just waiting for someone else to land on your property so you can begin dominating the game and them.
I recently played the game with my seven-year-old daughter for the first time. I taught her a thing or two – how jail is not always bad, especially when you can still collect rent from your properties while imprisoned and not incur any costs of your own, and how income tax is a real pain here, too. She impressed me with her gameplay. She deftly traded me for my railroads to complete her set, and I consistently paid her $200 every time I landed on one, which must have been at least once around the board (nice knowing you $200 for passing GO).
But what touched me most was something else that she did. Seeing that she was well-off and winning, she felt bad seeing how little money I had left. So against the rules and the grain of the game, she began to share and help me out. Fifty dollars here … $100 there. Some free rent and as many IOUs as I needed. I stayed alive with her largesse.
In Monopoly, winning means accruing wealth at the expense of others, and most people when they play become even more ruthless as their net worth gets higher. Bankrupting all of your opponents is the goal of the game. After all, the game is named after the economic concept of a monopoly – the domination of a particular market by one entity. Normally, a “rich” player in Monopoly does not share his or her wealth and instead becomes louder and more enamoured with himself/herself and even more aggressive. Taking others’ money first, then their property, then their dignity as the game piece that represents them is removed from the game altogether. Money, like power, tends to corrupt.
But not with her. It made her feel good to help others, but I also think she realized that by winning, others would be knocked out and not playing with her anymore. She wanted to keep everyone in the game to make it last and keep it fun. I must have played this game thousands of times, but never like this. Her empathy and generosity were traits I had never experienced or even given to others in the game. As she grew richer, she became more compassionate, softer and more thoughtful, defying the stereotype.
In other games she’s played, she has learned hard lessons about trust and compassion (she recently lost all of her favourite pets in a “trust trade” online when the other person didn’t complete their side of the trade), but that didn’t lessen her empathy or thoughtful nature. It only seemed to have emboldened her sense of what is right and just, and feels good to her.
When I managed to come back and build-up again, and she landed on one of my sets of hotels, I felt obliged to return the favour and let her stay for free. When you give, you always get it back somehow. In being charitable and empathetic, you are also realizing that it could be you that is in need one day. But she already knew all of that better than I did.
As the gap widened between the haves (her) and have nots (me) in our game, she brought a simple seven-year-old solution to it, immediately and without prompting, she “felt” the gap and addressed it by evening things out. It was instinct. Capitalistic systems and games usually breed inequality, but she showed me that the players can still determine the outcome and change the system. By sharing what she had, she helped bridge the gap that the game’s design can create amongst players.
I think we’ve all felt that feeling of having more than someone else and never really working to do anything about it in a meaningful way. When we are with others who have more or less than us, it creates a wealth and lifestyle gap that feels inescapable. Either you or they are living a “better” life, and it is usually felt most deeply by those with less.
This all made me think of a levelling mechanism (a practice that acts to ensure social equality) that I had read about once in cultural anthropology. In some hunter-gatherer communities, there is a tradition known as “insult the meat.” The idea is that when the hunter returns to his group with the killed animal for the meal, others do not make a big scene about what he’s done, and even make less of it, to make sure that the hunter does not get a big head: “How can you bring us this tiny scrap of meat?”
The fact that the hunter can bring home the meat doesn’t make him any more or less than another person. By placing less value on it the community members elevate the values of working together and kinship. The way my daughter played Monopoly – though she had no awareness of it – reflected this choice. She chose community and the feelings of goodwill, fairness and everyone “having,” over self-importance and domination.
Without happiness and abundance for all, we can’t ever truly be happy ourselves, because we are connected to the broader community.
My seven year old couldn’t be content riding off into the Monopoly sunset with her riches and railroads. I am not a rich man, but if I was, I like to think that I’d play the game just like her.
Adam Rodin lives in Winnipeg.