Monopoly Presents the Problem. Co-opoly Offers the Solution.
| Brian Van Slyke |
In the classic game Risk, your goal is to dominate your rival players by killing them off and conquering their territories until your Empire stretches across the globe. In Monopoly, the “world’s favorite family game brand” (according to publisher Parker Brothers), your goal is to dominate your rival players through economic obliteration until they are penniless while you literally own everything. In a way, the combination of Risk and Monopoly perfectly mirror two of the most destructive pillars of our society: runaway capitalism and unflinching imperialism. Their popularity and integration into our society portrays how the glory of destructive capitalism and brutal imperialism have become normalized, so much so that we can enjoy and celebrate embodying these ideals from childhood on.
What’s so wrong with this? These are just games after all. In fact, I grew up playing these – alongside others such as Sorry!, Life, Clue, and more. Yet, these are games that essentially allow us, starting at a very young age, to live out the fantasies that make up our supposed “societal superiority”: military and economic domination. Of course, by no means do I claim that these games are a part of an orchestrated system of indoctrination. On the contrary, Risk and Monopoly, and games similar to them, are projections. They provide us with the ability to feel like we are a part of the values that allow those people who are in power to remain quite comfortably in power.
Monopoly is an especially interesting case for this “Age of Austerity,” in which the public coffers are ransacked in order to prop up and solidify the wealth of an elite few. At the start of each game, players begin on an equal footing and then scramble to snatch up all the wealth. Eventually someone comes to dominate the board, and the remainder of the period is a slow or quick decline for the other players as they hop around the properties, hoping for something to pay off and turn the tide in their favor. What Monopoly projects is one of the great lies of our economic system: meritocracy. We all start on an equal footing, and if you work hard enough, you’ll come out on top. If you don’t work hard enough, you’ll end up on the bottom and ruined. Essentially, it is a theory of “Economic Darwinism.” (Which in reality is quite funny, as Monopoly is more or less a game of luck with almost no skill, besides haggling for good trades and knowing when to invest and when to save). This is the argument that I have read from a number of people who defend the “message” of the game: that it actually tells a good story, and informs players that if they work hard they will succeed in life. Of course, this theory glosses over the fact that in order for you to succeed, everyone else must fail. After all, in order for someone to win, it has to be at the expense of others. We can’t have winners without having losers, right? Where would the fun be without that? This is the case for both Monopoly as well as the actual monopoly of power that an elite few hold. Now imagine a version of Monopoly where the player with the most money and properties could control which properties the other players had access to, while also being able to lower the amount of money other players collect when passing Go. Perhaps the player in the lead would even have the right to send other players to jail, and hold them there for as many turns as desired. Or maybe the other players would have to bail out the player with the most money if they landed on a bad space, and in order to do so, the “losing” players also had to give up their own properties. These changes might more accurately reflect the economy of our newly imposed Age of Austerity.
Of course, the reality of our system is also distinctly different from Monopoly’s supposed “positive message” of “meritocracy” in another way: in the real world, there are only a few players who start out with all the wealth and who are, as we speak, scrambling across the board to snatch up more. We are the spectators in their personal game of Monopoly, but we feel the actual pain of losing – whether it’s through the destruction of existing meager social safety nets or the busting of unions to squeeze out ever greater profits.
Finally, one last element that is especially revealing about the “positive message” of Monopoly is that in its origins, the game was actually supposed to leave players with exactly the opposite message. A woman named Lizzie J. Magie created the original version of Monopoly during the Great Depression. At first named The Landlord’s Game, Magie sought to warn people against the dangers of economic inequality. Her intention was that, at the end of every game, the players who had come out victorious to feel ashamed of their ruthless actions. The game was an organizing tool for tenants to teach each other about how the upper class and the landlords ripped them off while consolidating their wealth in a way that would never allow regular people a chance. During the Depression, the game became a huge underground hit, reproduced by individuals for use in their homes and with their friends. Eventually, a man named Charles Darrow took the game idea, spun it so that it was pro-Monopoly, and sold the game to Parker Brothers. And so, the most popular game in the world, whose “positive message” is to financially destroy your opponents through economic warfare, was originally invented to warn of the dangers of such actions. This is surely a comic tragedy. (To this day, Parker Brothers still credits Darrow with the invention of Monopoly.) In this way, Monopoly‘s origins seems to be an inoculation against the claim that it has a positive message of meritocracy and working hard to “come out on top.” (You can read a more in-depth account of the shady history of Monopoly here.)
Of course, not all games are hyper-projections of our society’s destructive elements. Games such as Scrabble, Qwirkle, and Cranium, just to name a few, produce winners and losers without reflecting runaway capitalism, warfare, and so forth. In addition, there are semi-established games that are cooperative, where the group works together for their mutual survival. One of the most well known of these games is Pandemic. Very few of these games, however, successfully promote alternative methods on how to shape the world in contrast to the likes of Monopoly and Risk.
That’s why last December, the worker-owned cooperative of which I am a member, The Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), published Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives. In a way, our intention was to build on Magie’s message of the dangers of economic inequality. To us, Monopoly offers the problem of economic inequality, just as Magie intended. Yet, our game, Co-opoly seeks to offer the solution to this problem.
In Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives, players have to collaborate to start up and run a democratic business. In order to survive as individuals and to strive for the success of their co-op, players have to wrestle with tough choices regarding big and small challenges while at the same time putting their teamwork abilities to the test. Co-opoly is an exciting game of skill and solidarity, where everyone wins – or everybody loses. If one person goes bankrupt, everyone loses. If the whole co-op goes bankrupt, everyone loses. In this way, Co-opoly forces players to balance individual and collective interests in order to persevere. (This, in fact, is a fairly unique aspect to its cooperative game-play. Many games in which players work towards a collective goal allow certain players to take over. Co-opoly overcomes this by making players deal with their own as well as the group’s needs.) The game challenges players to break free from the dominance of the Point Bank and take control over their own lives by jump-starting the movement for a truly democratic and cooperative economy in their community. When playing Co-opoly, players discover the unique benefits and challenges of the co-op world – as well as the skills needed to succeed as a co-op. Co-opoly has been extremely well received by people who have played it as well as professional reviewers. We’ve already sold over half the units from our first pressing, and we’ve shipped the game all over the world – from Argentina to the United States, the UK, Spain, India, Peru, Norway, and many more locations. Despite the initial speculation that a game where everyone wins or loses can’t be fun or tough, people have found that the game is indeed challenging while keeping them on the edge of their seats and staying true to life. (In addition, Co-opoly is made entirely in the U.S., primarily by worker cooperatives, and on sustainable resources. As far as we know, it is the only mass produced board game to be ethically manufactured in this way.)
I should make clear that by no means am I arguing that no one should play games in which one person comes out on top – I enjoy these games as well as ones where players must work together for every one’s mutual survival. However, games such as Monopoly and Risk do have a destructive impact. They allow us to embody, practice, and imagine participating in runaway capitalism and imperialism. Players get a rush from destroying their opponents through forced economic ruin or by taking over their territories. However, these games aren’t going away anytime soon, and, in fact, they shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with presenting the problem, as both Monopoly and Risk do so successfully. What we need to do is to begin offering the solutions through more games. Just like we won’t be replacing the economic system of runaway capitalism overnight, we won’t bring Monopoly down as the most popular game in the world in the near future. However, in both cases, innovative game-makers, organizers, educators, and more can build alternatives that demonstrate to people that they can succeed (and have fun) with mutual aid and solidarity – and that there are feasible ways they can take steps to building a better world.
To us, that’s what’s so exciting about cooperatives – both in game form and in real life. From India to the United States, the UK, Spain, Argentina, and more – cooperatives are transforming lives, communities, and systems. In short, cooperatives are democratic businesses and organizations, equally owned and controlled by a group of people in order to meet their mutual social, economic, and cultural needs and aspirations. In a co-op, no matter how much you have, one member has one vote. There are many types of co-ops, ranging from worker cooperatives to consumer cooperatives, cooperatives that are banks (CreditUnions), housing cooperatives, agriculture co-ops, housing co-ops,hybrid (or “multi-stakeholder“) cooperatives, health-care cooperatives, artist cooperatives, and many more! Cooperatives exist in every industry as well as every geographic area, including rural and urban alike.
Co-ops are fundamentally changing communities and lives around the world. What makes them so important is that they aren’t a distant theory; co-ops offer practical solutions that can be implemented right now to address many of our social, economic, and environmental problems. What’s more, co-ops are not another form of charity or philanthropy. Rather, they are means for mutual aid, self-help, and solidarity between members of co-ops and their community. In fact, one of the distinguishing factors of a co-op is that the members equally share the burden in times that are tough while also sharing the benefits in the times that are good. For example, where a mainstream business would lay off workers, co-op members work together to determine solutions. Maybe the solution is to come up with a new product that will boost sales, or maybe if it’s a worker-owned co-op, the workers will vote to take a temporary pay cut so that no one worker has to lose their job. What’s more is that because co-ops are democratically owned by community members (as opposed to absentee owners or stockholders), they keep money as well as jobs in their communities. In these ways, co-ops are much more resilient in economic downturns as well as in impoverished communities. This makes them a stronger means for long lasting community economic development.
Because co-ops bring more democracy, equality, and justice to people’s lives, communities, and economies, they are an international movement. There are thousands and thousands of co-ops around the world and they are cultivating major changes both globally as well as locally. As a result of their global diversity, there is not a single way that a co-op forms or operates. Due to their democratic and community foundations, co-ops are malleable and can easily fit the different needs of various communities and individuals. They come in all shapes and sizes – from thousands of members to only a few. What this means is that cooperatives offer practical and sustainable alternatives for addressing our social and economic needs, as opposed to corporations that exploit both the planet and the people simply for ever expanding profit.
That’s the experience you get from playing Co-opoly. Playing Monopoly, on the other hand? You get to experience the “exploitation of people and the planet for ever expanding profit” part. In fact, we’ve heard numerous stories of people that have employed Co-opoly while attempting to improve their own lives or strengthen their communities. One group utilized Co-opoly to educate community members about how they can build a more sustainable economy in their region, which was hit by natural disasters and closed down many businesses. Other examples of people employing Co-opoly include long established businesses considering converting to the co-op model, parents that want their children to get along better, friends who want to explore the idea of starting a co-op, co-op education programs, and so much more. I wonder if we could find anyone who would argue that they’ve used Monopoly in its current form to build stronger communities? It seems unlikely, considering that the lessons of selfishness and cut-throat competition don’t translate well to democracy, equality, and working together to create solutions for common needs and problems.
Games are wonderful things. They give us good times (and sometimes unpleasant feelings); they allow us to build relationships, to practice subjects and prepare for issues important to us. They can be used in education, workplaces, communities, organizing spaces, and much more. Games can be employed to address a wide variety of issues, from economics to social change, science, individual empowerment, overcoming trauma, fostering friendships, history, community organizing, and on and on and on. In many ways, the games we play consciously and subconsciously prepare us to participate in the word and interact with other people. After all, human beings learn best by doing. To TESA, that was one reason it was so important for us to create Co-opoly – we wanted people to be able to discover, explore, practice, and enjoy the art of cooperation and the idea of utilizing cooperatives to cultivate long-lasting change.
Now, we’re left with the problem of endless warfare promoted by Risk. TESA is building a game to take that on as well.
(written with contributions from Andrew Stachiw)
Brian Van Slyke’s adventures in the popular education and cooperative economics movements began in 2005 when he founded a record label that soon became a worker collective. In 2007, he facilitated a participatory class at a community-learning center for teens in Massachusetts about starting cooperatively-run record labels. That experience cemented his dedication to democratizing education for democratizing our workplaces, economy, and society. Since then, Brian has designed workshops, curricula, board games, and other educational resources on topics ranging from people’s history to co-ops and social change movements. Brian is a member of the worker-ownedcooperative The Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), which designs participatory educational resources for social and economic change. He can be reach at: brian AT toolboxfored DOT org
To celebrate the UN’s Year of Cooperatives and the launch of the new boardgame Co-opoly, STIR is collaborating with the founders of Toolbox for Social Action and Education for a chance to win a boardgame (first place), and a Ten Reasons Why Co-ops Rock poster (second place).
Taking its inspiration from the slogan for the UN’s Year of the Cooperative – ‘Co-ops build a better world’ – we are asking you to write of your experiences of how co-ops have made your world better. Send us your inspiring stories, in up to 500 words, and we will publish them on STIR and the creators of Co-opoly will evaluate which story wins the boardgame and poster.
Deadline: 20th March. (Send your email with ‘Co-opoly Prize’ in the title)
The Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA) is a worker-owned, next-generation publisher of participatory resources for social and economic change (including Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives). TESA also provides services to support individuals and organizations developing and implementing their own educational materials, programs, and digital resources.