Games People Played

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We can only guess at the reasons for the game’s immense popularity. Perhaps Americans simply grew tired of the Frank Merriwell spirit of good sportsmanship. For in Monopoly it matters not whether you win or lose but how foully you play the game. Bad sportsmanship is at a premium, and the most morally upright member of the community will think nothing of assaying a business ploy so sharp that Jay Gould would have averted his eyes. Comedian Shelley Berman claims, “It’s that … thrill you get when you know you’ve wiped out a friend.”

Psychologists point out that people who may be unsure of their status in real life can receive a direct and immediate reading on their abilities at Monopoly. They can find out right away whether they are winners dr losers. “The skill and luck factors in Monopoly are reassuring to many people,” popular psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers noted. “There is enough skill so if you win you can compliment yourself on being the best player, and enough luck so if you lose you can blame it on the dice. It can be very comforting.” Mr. Darrow, a millionaire from his Monopoly royalties, retired to the life of a gentleman farmer in Buck’s County to engage in his new-found interest of growing orchids, taking time for an occasional round-the-world trip that enabled him to kibbitz on Monopoly played in such distant spots as New Guinea and Sikkim. Anyone asking for tips on how to play his game received the same prudent advice: “Stay out of debt, and buy Boardwalk and Park Place.”

Whatever the appeal, Monopoly appears to know no time or border. At first Parker Brothers assumed it was an escape from the sad days of the Depression. But through boom and bust, inflationary spiral and recession, war and peace, its appeal has remained steadfast. There may now even be a bit of nostalgia involved. Whereas today the free lunch and nickel beer of the thirties are but a vanished memory, you can still buy a choice lot on Atlantic Avenue for the same $260 it would have cost you thirty-six years ago.

The game has been as successful in Europe as it has been here. In France they use a miniature chamber pot for one of the tokens, and in Italy Park Place and Boardwalk are Parco della Vittoria and Viale dei Giardini, but in both countries it is the leading board game. Even in Russia someone somewhere is playing this epitome of rampant capitalism. During the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow six sets were put on display; all six were stolen.

Monopoly players have tended to be in the great American tradition of goldfish swallowers and flagpole sitters. The records set by them today are equally bizarre. The record for the longest game of Monopoly ever played is 820 hours, set in 1971 by twenty players in Danville, California; they started at noon on July 21 and ended at 4 P.M. on August 24. The largest Monopoly game in history took place at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, in April of 1967. Students took over 258,500 square feet of the campus and used the streets and sidewalks as the board. Dice, in the form of huge foam-rubber cubes, were tossed off a three-story fire escape, and messengers equipped with walkie-talkies bicycled among the players to tell them where to move. The record for playing Monopoly underwater was established last year by a group of students from De Anza College in California; they rigged up special diving equipment to a respirator and played for twelve hours. The record for the longest Monopoly game played in a moving elevator belongs to a group of freshmen at Kansas University who, in 1970, played for fifty hours in a dormitory elevator as it traversed a reported 7,212 floors.

The post-World War II period was a boom time for the game business. Spurred by our growing affluence and increased leisure time, producing and selling board games today is clearly a big business. Industry sources expect to sell at least twenty million sets this year. Monopoly remains the best seller. Other successful Parker Brothers offerings, such as the detective favorite Clue, and Careers (which has been keeping up with the times by recently adding an ecology category), sell about one fifth as many sets. Parker’s competition in the game business is made up mostly of old-line firms that have been at it for generations. Milton Bradley, which makes many other educational products, is still one of the most important game publishers. In addition to its long list of topical games, the company still sells Game of Life as merrily as ever. The last of the big three who dominate the industry is Selchow and Righter, which holds the trade name to the ancient game of Parcheesi. It was Selchow and Righter who got the idea of putting together a word game played with little wooden tiles and a complicated scoring system that they called Scrabble. For a few years Scrabble soared, posing the most serious threat so far to Monopoly’s durable supremacy in the field. Parker Brothers, while still a family concern, is now a subsidiary of the giant General Mills Company. Milton Bradley is something of a conglomerate in its own right, having taken a series of smaller companies under its corporate umbrella. Selchow and Righter remains, doggedly, a privately held operation. Game publishers tend to be more than a little tight about giving out specific figures, particularly comparative ones, but as one company executive put it, “Competition remains brisk.”