Monopoly's Open-Source Heritage

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Damon Darlin, the New York Times, recalls undergraduate experiments with the rules of Monopoly in the 1970s, inspired by the ideas of  the participants' mentor, the economist Milton Friedman:

We decided that Monopoly was hostile to a free market because it restricted the number of houses or hotels one could buy. We voted that a player could buy as many hotels as a property could physically bear and rents would be raised proportionally.

But the bank soon began to run out of money. So we did what any government would do. We began printing more of it, by scribbling $500 on scraps of paper. We printed a lot of money.

Prices shot up, which we all knew, even in that inebriated state, was the consequence of expanding the money supply. (After all, the great economist told us, "Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.")

The inflation became so extreme that we eventually voted to alter the rules again: we'd cut the money supply. Any money we printed that came back to the bank would be taken out of circulation.

A severe depression kicked in, of course. Prices plummeted and it was a race to liquidate assets. One by one the players quickly went bankrupt, and sometime around 4 that morning the game was over.

Go Maroons! But the game's history has an even more remarkable academic past. It started with a different anti-monopoly movement, the Single Tax program of the economist Henry George, as interpreted by his disciple Elizabeth Magie in The Landlord's Game, patented in 1904. It was supposed to teach the evils of unearned real estate wealth, not how to accumulate it. Magie, a classic hopeful inventor, later sold her rights to Parker Brothers in the 1930s for only $500 plus a marketing deal for other games, and even in the radical Depression, a revised edition of the original product could not compete against Charles Darrow's Monopoly.

Mr. Darlin would enjoy knowing that a generation of earlier economics students had helped improve the game in the 1920s, according to the NPR site:

[I]t found enthusiasts in economics departments of colleges such as Princeton and Haverford. Here, the the Landlord's Game not only had players who could easily understand the ins and outs of property taxes, mortgages, and interest, it also began its evolution toward Monopoly.

As [NPR reporter Juan] Williams reports, the students who played the game made some significant adjustments. They gathered adjacent properties into groups, and created the opportunity to build on properties and charge higher rents when one player owned all the spaces in a particular group, giving birth to the key concept in today's game: the monopoly.

So while patented, the Landlord's Game turned into one of the earliest open source projects, and we should be grateful that -- whether or not out of socialist conviction -- Ms. Magie did not take strong early legal action, though her heirs no doubt wish she had settled with Parker on a royalty rather than a multi-game deal -- quite a practical economic lesson in its own right.

Back to those rule-changing students. The early 2010s are not so different from the late 1970s, as Darlin puts it, in that post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan era [when] all assumptions were questioned." Many of today's students are adept at modifying factory programming of electronic devices they have bought, and the new Monopoly Tower is a perfect target. According to one estimate, one in every ten iPhones has been owner-modified -- "jailbroken." (Skirmishes between Apple and jailbreakers continue.)  Most news stories and opinion pieces about the Tower have seen it as a controlling presence, but I'm sure some buyers will have their own ideas. For the technology, law, and policy of user modification, my colleagues and friend's at Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy have a terrific site on Freedom to Tinker.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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