Friday, March 20, 2015

Monopoly. The Game.

Yesterday was the eightieth anniversary of the game called Monopoly.  There's an interesting subtext to the history of the game.  Or a sub-game, if you wish:

Legend has it that Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman, invented the game in his kitchen in 1930. But the roots of Monopoly actually date back a few more decades, to a game called the Landlord's Game created by Elizabeth Magie in 1903.
The Landlord's Game was meant to be educational, illustrating economist Henry George's belief -- inspired by the Gilded Age -- that property ownership by individuals is inherently unfair. Magie's game was an underground success, leading to a number of offshoots, including the one that Darrow tweaked. Parker Brothers bought her patent for $500 in 1935, closing the loop.

The New York Times recently published an article about Elizabeth Magie and her Landlord's Game as the possible basic source for Monopoly.  I recommend reading the whole piece, because it's a fairly representative case study of the "disappearing women"  phenomenon:

Magie’s game featured a path that allowed players to circle the board, in contrast to the linear-path design used by many games at the time. In one corner were the Poor House and the Public Park, and across the board was the Jail. Another corner contained an image of the globe and a homage to Henry George: “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” Also included on the board were three words that have endured for more than a century after Lizzie scrawled them there: “Go to Jail.”
It was a version of this game that Charles Darrow was taught by a friend, played and eventually sold to Parker Brothers. The version of that game had the core of Magie’s game, but also modifications added by the Quakers to make the game easier to play. In addition to properties named after Atlantic City streets, fixed prices were added to the board. In its efforts to seize total control of Monopoly and other related games, the company struck a deal with Magie to purchase her Landlord’s Game patent and two more of her game ideas not long after it made its deal with Darrow.
Magie never really benefited financially from her game, whereas Darrow became very rich indeed.  The reasons why history ended up that way can be many, but Magie's gender certainly would not have helped. 

There's something about the way we (as humans) write history which downplays or erases the contributions of individuals which don't fit the subconscious patterns we have in our minds,* and women working in science or literature have frequently found their work  ignored or reinterpreted for that reason.  Sometimes the erasure is conscious, but often it is not. 

What fascinates me is that often the unconscious or conscious rewriting seems to take place a short time after** the events, not immediately, as if it's the slightly more distant observers who have erased, say, any women from stories of inventions or scientific discoveries or assigned them to the more "natural" helper roles.   That could be because the effect of the unconscious patterns becomes more powerful when the actual individuals are no longer known.

*The case of Rosalind Franklin is a well-known example of this.

For an example outside gender, consider the case of Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as an example.  The early recognition went mostly to Hillary, perhaps because Norgay was seen as someone just doing his job whereas Hillary was the white adventurer.

**Time is a relative concept here, and I refer to such things as the evaluation of literary merit of various writers a generation after their work, rather than hundred years later.