Monopoly and other games that conquered the world
IT IS a fair bet that many readers of this newspaper gained their first understanding of capitalism from playing Monopoly. A number will have also started thinking about the elements of geopolitics over the board of Risk; a murder-mystery game, Clue, teaches deduction; Careers (now renamed the Game of Life), teaches important truths about priorities and rewards. Just how the inventive George Parker and his brothers developed these marvels is the subject of Philip Orbanes's new book.
The chance to pit wits and luck against chance, topology and imagination that is now offered by computer games used to be provided by dice, counters and a well-designed board. Parker products were sold as entertainment, but are educative and unforgettable too. The young player of Monopoly learns about asset values, cash flow and returns on investment. The Risk player must grapple with the fickleness of allies. All the games build a good understanding of probability. When you learn that the chance of shaking a double six is just one in 36, whereas a seven is the single most likely outcome, you are well on the way to making numbers your friend and ally for life.
Perhaps deepest of all are the lessons taught by Careers, in which players decide at the start of the game what combination of money, fame and pure happiness they will seek. Different careers bring different dividends and risks. Business is said to bring much money but little happiness. Politics brings fame, but misery; Hollywood may bring the lot, but is the most risky. Make priorities, stick to them, move quickly. Those are not bad rules for modern life. Although the categories are crude, and the details may seem off-puttingly quaint (boss's wife likes you, get a pay rise), the game teaches something about the utilitarian calculus at an age when philosophy and economics rarely feature on the timetable: different kinds of good fortune are not easily interchangeable. Happiness, when bought with money, often comes at a high price.
Parker Brothers' games also reflect the American world view of the 20th century. Life is a ruthless struggle in which there are many losers, but it takes place within a framework of unbendable and fair-minded rules. And when the game is over, you can just start over again, hoping to do better next time. Young children are often too nice to understand this, and, when playing Monopoly, will tax adults' patience by refusing to bankrupt other players, or by suggesting a cash injection all round from the central bank.
The Parkers' own story began in 1883, as America was just beginning to develop a middle class with time for leisure pursuits. At 16, George Parker invented a game to amuse his brothers on a wet afternoon. Banking, as it was called, unveiled his talent for game design. His brothers urged him to have some copies printed; all but two were sold, at a profit of $100. He set up a company. As it grew, he set his own 12 rules for success in business. They could come straight from a modern business book: know your goal, find winning moves, play by the rules, choose moves with the greatest potential, and so on.
The poverty-struck years of the Great Depression proved just the right time to launch the company's most successful game: one based on making lots of money. Monopoly was not invented by George Parker. When he played a trial version submitted by the inventor, Charles Darrow, he thought it was too complicated, too technical and it took too long to play. A rejection letter that was sent early in 1934 cited “52 fundamental errors”. A few months later, Parker had eaten his words. He bought the game from Darrow, and rewrote the rules in his trademark crystalline English. Within two years 2m sets of Monopoly had been sold. Parker, characteristically, publicly displayed his scornful letter to Darrow as a lesson in humility.
As with many family companies, the early genius eventually evaporated. The company still launched successful games, including Clue (or Cluedo, as it is called in Britain) in 1947, Careers in 1956 and the blockbuster Risk in 1959. But America's post-war boom disguised grave weaknesses in the company's management. This book, written by a company insider and games expert, is a slender, affectionate retrospective look at the firm's glory years, combined with a mournful account of its decline, including some well-aimed digs at those responsible. After a series of undignified and painful reverses, it is now a mere brand belonging to another games giant, Hasbro.
George Parker, always on the lookout for “pep”—his word for the new products with buzz—might be less sentimental. In his day, he ruthlessly ditched under-performing parts of his empire. Were Parker in charge today, his company would probably have moved firmly and successfully into computer games, which would no doubt be accompanied by instruction manuals of exquisite clarity.
The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers, from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit.
By Philip E. Orbanes.
Harvard Business School Press; 272 pages; $29.95