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The New ‘Monopoly’ Rules for an Unfair World

The despotic king of board games is based on the idea that we all start at the same point. Not so much.

flickr / Jim Forest

Monopoly, the despotic king of board games, is remembered less than fondly by the millions who watched their siblings accrue wealth and wield it with terrifying tyranny. Because the game, which debuted in the early 20th century, is responsible for so many bad memories, there has long been a cottage industry around making it slightly less confrontative. The question that the people leading this charge never thought to ask? What if you could make Monopoly worse?

You can and, in fact, many sociologists would argue that you should.

For decades, sociologist have been using Monopoly as a tool for teaching students and subjects about inequality. Change the rules a bit and the game models different types of privilege. But this exercise in intentional, evidence-driven frustration has historically been reserved to classrooms. There’s a reason for that: ”I want to play a board game at a marked disadvantaged!” exclaimed no child ever. But playing versions of the game designed to illustrate the effects of gender prejudice, racism, and social stratification can do a lot to help kids understand the world in which they operate. For starters, it helps them understand that there is no such thing as a pure meritocracy. That might sound like a lesson young children can wait a few years to learn, but psychological studies show that children who grow up believing they’re playing on an even playing field mature into less happy adults. If Monopoly in its most basic form is a lie (it’s not, it’s a game, but hang in there), modified versions represent truth-telling. And kids dig that.

Here are three versions of Monopoly that can help children understand their world and prepare them to think strategically while standing on a slope.

Gender-Stratified Monopoly 

This version of the game operates on a gender binary and essentially assumes that all of the marriages are monogamous and heterosexual. Before you begin, give each participant an unmarked envelope.

That envelope will be stuffed with:

  • Your gender (male or female)
  • Your number of children (0, 1, 2, 7)
  • Your marital status (Married, Unmarried

The rules that correspond with those statuses are as such:

  • If you are a female, you collect 20% less than your male counterpart when passing “GO!” or earning any income (so a male would collect 200, a female would collect 180)
  • If you are a female, you pay 10% more for each purchase
  • If you have any children, you pay 10$ per round per child of the game at the bank.
  • If you are married, you become a “dual income household.” That means you collect an extra $100 dollars when you pass GO.

This is to show both the wage gap but also how much more money women have to spend on products like feminine hygiene products, etc. Spending more on services also represents the larger chunk of money that purchases take out of a woman’s paycheck over a man’s. The money taken from parents illustrates that children are a financial drain (maybe consider cushioning that blow with younger players).

The extra $100 dollars on passing GO illustrates to your child that married people generally make more money, whether or not the household has two income-earners. As is often the case, if one marital partner stays home, they are instead on top of all of the unpaid-labor of keeping a home together, which helps families save money, and time.

While playing the game, unveil announcements and a Divorce card at different times. Stacy L. Smith, the professor who created the game, suggests these examples, although you can do something a little less gruesome if you’re afraid of upsetting your kid. That being said, you’re playing Monopoly. They are going to be upset no matter what happens.

About 20 minutes into the game, announce Announcement 1:

  • “For players with children: one of your children climbed a tree and fell out, breaking an arm and resulting in an emergency room visit. Pay $200 dollars to the community chest.”

This shows that not only do accidents happen but that they harm people with less money more than those with more money. A more affluent player in the game will be able to recover easily from this accident. For others, it will be an extreme financial drain.

About 10 minutes after that, play announcement 2.

  • “All players: last night, you went out to a party and had a great time.
    Unfortunately, you were tipsy when you left the party and you totaled your car. You owe $100 to the bank for a new car. If you have more than two children, you must buy a bigger, more expensive car: you owe $150 to the bank.”

While you will probably change Announcement 2 to something a little more kid-friendly — maybe a car accident with no alcohol involved, or your fridge breaking and needing repairs or replacement — this reasons behind the Announcement appear to be pretty self-explanatory. They resemble the hard knocks of life — and how they occasionally knock some harder than others.

The Divorce card should be played about 10 minutes before you end the game. This one is particularly brutal and may make your kid hate you forever. Depending on how many players you have, you want to distribute this card to at least one, but not all, of the married players of the game. If given a divorce card, a player must:

  • Divide all of assets and debt (money, property, houses) in half and return half to the bank. Sell property or cards as needed to accomplish this task.
  • No longer collect $100 when you pass “GO!”
  • If “Male” with children, pay $10 per child per round to the “Female” player to your right.
  • If “Female” with children, your per child tax increases by $5 per round

Divorce is rough on everyone, and marriage is a financial benefit as well as an emotional one. For some, losing two-income-household status will hit them hard.

At the end of the game, talk to your kid about their experiences. What did they notice when playing the game? Did they think any of it was unfair? Do they ever want to play Monopoly again, but hopefully not?

Race-Stratified Monopoly 

Much like the gender-stratified monopoly, this version also provides unmarked envelopes based on a person’s identity, specifically race. This game, created by Maria Paino, Matthew May, Lori A. Burrington, and Jacob H. Becker, does not just deal with race, but also gender, but you can simplify the game if you wish (and also if you have fewer players).

At the beginning of the game, pass out unmarked envelopes stuffed with the following:

  • White man – 1500 dollars, 200 when passing go
  • White woman – 1200 dollars, 160 when passing go
  • Black man – 1050 dollars, 140 when passing go
  • Black woman – 950 Dollars, 125 when passing go
  • Latino Man – 900 Dollars, 120 passing go
  • Latina Woman – 800 dollars  110 passing go

You can deal as many envelopes as there are players.

The money that each player has in their bank is a reflection of their gender identity and race. The amount of money they get when they pass go is a reflection of what their paycheck would be, based on their identity and race in the real world. Pass the envelopes out at random.

Community Chest and Chance Cards

For the purposes of this game, a good way to highlight structural inequality in race and gender is by subverting the Community Chest and Chance Cards. Instead of the normal cards, throw in a few that are decidedly real world. For the Community Chest and the Chance Cards chest respectively, create a “Disadvantage” Pile and an “Advantage” Pile. The disadvantaged pile is for anyone who is not a white man or white woman.

For Community chest cards, in the advantage piles, you get to have insurance maturation, a 100 dollar inheritance, a stock sale, etc. For disadvantages, you could have jail time, hospital fees, income tax refund, or a beauty pageant win.

For Chance Cards, the advantage pile gets great things like Advance to Go, the bank paying you dividends, getting out of jail free, etc. Disadvantage cards are stuff like advancing to the nearest bill, going to jail, moving back 3 spaces, etc.

Although each pile doesn’t represent negative or positive — there are positive and negative experiences in all of the piles — the type of negatives and positives are what is important here. This is to show that even the negative pulls from the advantage pile will have less of an effect or are less severe than the corresponding pile for the disadvantaged players. When a disadvantaged person falls, they fall down hard. When they rise, they do so only barely.

At the end of the game, talk to your kid about how it felt to play someone else — or even themselves. It could provide a thoughtful discussion about the challenges they will likely face in the world as they grow older, and teach them empathy towards others who may not look like them.

Class-Stratification Monopoly

The great American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethos is frequently taught in schools. However true it may or may not be, Class-Stratification Monopoly is designed to show people just how hard it is to survive — and thrive — in each wealth quintile. Since the total amount of cash each player gets in regular Monopoly is 1500 per person, and this game requires five players, the cash allotment to each player will reflect their percentage of ownership of wealth in the real world. 

For the record, here is how wealth shakes out in the United States today:

  • Fifth (Highest) Quintile: 51.1 percent
  • Fourth Quintile: 23.2 percent
  • Third Quintile: 14.3 percent
  • Second Quintile: 8.2 percent of wealth
  • First (Lowest) Quintile: 3.1 percent of wealth,

Each player gets an unmarked and stuffed envelope with tokens, cash, and property ownership based on their quintile of wealth distribution.  An optional way to do it is to assign certain tokens to certain wealth quintiles to demonstrate what we associate with wealth.

The envelopes are as follows:

  • Fifth Quintile – Horse token, 3,832 dollars, all Railroad Properties, all Boardwalk properties, and Park Place. When pass GO, 500 dollars.
  • Fourth Quintile – Hat token, 1,740 dollars, Pennsylvania Avenue and Oriental properties.When pass GO, 230 dollars.
  • Third Quintile – Car, 1,072 dollars, no properties. When pass GO, 150 dollars.
  • Second Quintile – Dog, 615 dollars, no properties. When pass GO, 89 dollars.
  • First Quintile – Iron, 232 dollars, no properties. When pass GO, 36 dollars.

These stratifications are to show both the wealth distribution — math based on real numbers — but also the real wealth of property ownership. Those who have the most money are more likely to be property owners, while those who have the least are more likely to rent, and therefore be unable to accrue the wealth that comes with home ownership. As we saw in the earlier versions of the game, passing GO is also a reflection of how much each person’s income is.

The professors who made the game, Catherine L. Coghlan and Denise W. Huggins, chose not to tell their students what their identity was before the game, rather allowing them to figure it out as they counted their money. The professor also elected to not explain the rules of the game to her students, rather allowing them to figure it out as they went along, as a way to mimic the real experience of those who are forced to “learn the rules” of the game of life when it comes to moving up the economic ladder.

At the end of the game, make sure you have your little ones count out how much money they have compared to their friends. It’s way more likely that those who started the game rich stayed rich and those who started poor stayed poor.

It also may be likely that your kid will not want to talk to you for a few hours, because Monopoly is forever known as the worst game of all time. That being said, the versions of these games are great teaching tools. Just make sure you use them wisely.