Board Games of History, (Part Three of Three)

This is the third installment of this post. For the first installment of Board Games of history, find it here. For the second installment, find it here.


The most famous of all board games started out in 1883, when Parker Brothers introduced “Banking.” See if you can recognize it. Players tried to secure ownership of the most property and drive the other players into bankruptcy.

If you guessed that the game “Banking” is called “Monopoly” today then you probably have spent long rainy days in your youth playing the game that never seems to end.

Monopoly is a game unlike all others. It is not unusual in that it is a game with only one winner. It is unusual because winner is determined only when everyone else is foerced to loses.

There can be only one winner in Monopoly. Any compassion for others only extends the game ad infinitum.

Monopoly is really a very fast game, if you play it without any generosity or sympathy for the other people around the table. It is infamous for taking forever to play.

The good news is most people have compassion for their friends and family. The bad news is Monopoly is designed to teach children these traits of human kindness are antithetical to success in a capitalist society.

After the Civil War, the United States was starting upon the era of railroad expansion and industrialization giving rise to the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons.

John D. Rockefeller

In fact many people would recognize the top hatted, tuxedo wearing gent who symbolizes the game of Monopoly as the legendary John D. Rockefeller, who was infamous for his heartless business practices and ruthless entrepreneurship.

The game of Monopoly reveals to us how the morality of the American culture had embraced a focus on speculating one’s way to wealth.

The effects of Monopoly on players has been studies by researchers at UC Berkeley. In an article in New York magazine they described the experiment and how is reveals the effects of economic advantage on otherwise normal people.

“One of the players, a brown-haired guy in a striped T-shirt, has been made “rich.” He got $2,000 from the Monopoly bank at the start of the game and receives $200 each time he passes Go. The second player, a chubby young man in glasses, is comparatively impoverished. He was given $1,000 at the start and collects $100 for passing Go.”

The unfair advantage given to one player and not the other is kept secret to both. The effects of this unfair advantage are revealing for what they do to otherwise normal and ethical people.

“It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people. It can make them more likely…to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children.” [emphasis added]

The game of Monopoly can help us to understand how Americans reacted to the capitalist drive of the late nineteenth century. While not an empirical study, the lesson derived from this games playing ethos can guide our understanding of how the economy grew and why groups like the Farmer Alliance, the International Workers of the World and the Populists ultimately came about.

“While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything…the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, a$$hole$.” [original edited]

Taken as a whole the change over time can be seen from the 1840s through the 1880s reveals the country moved away from a focus on Christian charity. The social focus placed less importance on moral righteousness.

The United States changed to see any moral sympathy as the path to disaster. The nation had become one where capitalism had superseded Christianity as the cultural ethos.

Today we can pause and think about the games that people play and what they tell us about our own society.

It may help us to understand why football players are taking a knee during the national anthem.

It may help us to understand the popularity of online video games where hundreds of thousands of people meet up to quest in World of Warcraft, or why some choose to shoot terrorists in solo play in Call of Duty.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Whatever the insight, games are fun and reflective.

History is in the games we play, because the games we play are games that are about us.

It is as the Roman senator Cicero described it, “Historia est Magistra Vitae.

History is the teacher of life.




The Games We Played: A Playful Expression of Board Games.

Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. William Morrow and Company, 1994.

Lisa Miller Published Jul 1, 2012. “The Money-Empathy Gap.”

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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