Friday, November 5, 2010

May I Monopolize Your Time For A Bit?

So I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, for a while now.

The other day I read the chapter about Appalachian feuds. The Hatfields and McCoys feud may be the most famous, but it turns out that it was hardly unique. In fact, Gladwell comes close to making the case that feuding is a natural way of life for those poor goat herding types who came to this country from poor areas of the UK and ended up in similarly poor areas here. His claim is that when you have little and it tends to roam away from you, you have to aggressively defend every little bit that you have. What's more, you have to project a menacing air and respond to even minor slights lest others detect weakness and take advantage of you. (If the residents of Malibu or the Hamptons engage in feuds, I guess they're of a very different type, maybe involving fake nails at 50 paces, I dunno. Do you?)

Anyway, the core of Gladwell's thesis got me wondering about my own "sore loser" behavior as a young child growing up poor in the inner city with no one I could really trust. I didn't have a single goat to my name, so instead I vigorously defended my "right" to win at games like croquet and Monopoly. Since I seem to have been just about the youngest kid around, this "right" wasn't recognized very often. If it had been, I'm sure I wouldn't have resorted to attempting to defend my sense of self-worth by mistaking my winning opponent's head for a croquet ball and trying to send it into the bushes with a single, well-placed stroke.

Like the ornery Kentuckians described by Gladwell, I eventually found better ways of expressing myself and deriving satisfaction from life even though I still don't have a goat.

Unfortunately, I had to get over my encounter with Monopoly first.

Of all the games ever invented by the mind of the human being, I suspect that Monopoly is the one least likely to instill a sense of self-worth or a love of others in those who play it. The reflective frame of mind that Gladwell put me in recently had me reflecting upon this again for the first time in years. The more I reflected, the more I wondered if Monopoly (or some local variation thereof) might not somehow be behind the endless conflicts of the Balkans and/or the Middle East.

Just think: Monopoly is a game that's full of attractive elements - a pretty board, and colorful money, and cute little tokens and houses. It's all quite irresistible. It sucks you in. And then it proceeds to slowly but steadily grind down and destroy most of the people who play it. It's winner take all as someone does indeed end up with a Monopoly of money and property and fun and self-worth and everyone else ends up with squat, diddly, dada, nothing.

In fact, it's even worse than that - most players actually end up with less than nothing because they've lost several hours of their lives and leave the table with whatever hopes they brought to the table dashed. The best most players can hope for is to be driven into bankruptcy early on, at which point they're free to go off and lick their wounds while the slow grinding down of others proceeds... and proceeds... and proceeds....

The fact that Monopoly basically boils down to luck rather than skill means that you can have all the skill in the world and not be able to bounce back once the dice have decisively turned against you. Knowing the capital of Mongolia, or being able to play a musical instrument, or having a cute smile is of no use at all when you land on Boardwalk and are required to pay a rent you simply can't afford. There is no Plan B - either you're lucky or you're not.

This makes Monopoly at its heart about as sophisticated a game as the tossing of a coin, but losing a coin toss doesn't feel nearly as bad. Why not? Because coins are common and ugly, and the toss is over quickly, and the next toss can be just a few seconds away. We don't generally invest much emotional energy in a coin toss, so it's much easier to ignore or move on to the next one. Monopoly, in contrast, is an extremely pretty coin toss that gives the illusion of being a game of skill, engages far more of our time and energy, and - due to its extraordinary length - doesn't allow for quick or easy rematches. It's a coin toss that seems calculated to bring down the majority of players who participate and keep them there....

By the time I was a teenager, I had more than a rudimentary understanding of these dynamics and sought to fundamentally change them by changing the rules. Players with more money and income, for example, would be required to pay taxes for the good of society (i.e., the other players). Those who couldn't pay their rent would be given help from an understanding tax collector. The aim was to create a sustainable environment in which even the least lucky might survive and enjoy the pleasure of moving a tiny little battleship around and around a board on which a former jail was now a rehabilitation center for the chronically misunderstood and everyone just naturally chipped in whenever a player was unjustly singled out by Chance for sewer repairs.

I have a vague recollection of my peers thinking I was nuts. I'm not sure why, but - adopting Gladwell's approach - I'll now attempt to blame their cultural and environment. You know - a highly competitive capitalistic system in which rugged individualism is constantly praised and all those teams that come in second are simplistically lumped together as Losers. You can sketch in the details.

Having spent the last 10 years on a diary focusing on theism and such, I find it rather more interesting at this point to compare Monopoly with organized religion. There's the same surface prettiness (cathedrals seem at least as attractive to most people as tiny plastic hotels, and little metal dogs are no match for a pope in full regalia); there's the same Good vs. Evil, winner-take-all mentality; there's the strong tendency of those with the power and the money to get more and more of both; and there's the same extreme unwillingness of most people to question the rules, let alone try to rewrite them no matter how bad they may make us feel.

And of course there's the way luck (what comes up on the dice, the religious culture we just happen to have been born into) trumps knowledge and skill. Sure, atheists may have logic and evidence on their side, but just see how far that gets you when your $1500 rent comes due on the Day of Judgement!


Anyway, all I really wanted to say is that I'm glad I wasn't born in Appalachia - but if I had been, I probably would now be engaged in an endless blood feud with Parker Brothers.

Instead, I'm able to sit and watch "Pawn Stars" on Monday nights without having to worry about angry men firing shots through my window.

That may not sound like much to you, but it's more than I ever expected to achieve when I first dropped that head-splitting croquet mallet as a kid and started running like hell.


  1. That's a very Christian way you invented to play Monopoly.
    These days I call Monopoly a "Bored Game" and tell anybody who invites me to play that I am not bored enough to play a "bored game."
    Truth is I am seldom bored unless playing a "bored game."

  2. Love the goat analogy.
    Just ran across this article on FB:
    about the origins of Monopoly.