How "Monopoly" took a monopoly on Lizzie Magie's Landlord Game

The story of Monopoly—that it was developed during the Great Depression by Charles Darrow, an unemployed man who later sold the idea to Parker Brothers and became a millionaire—is a myth that misrepresents historical events. The real story is one of theft, greed, and opportunism, art imitating life. The story began in 1903 when Elizabeth Magie "filed a legal claim for her Landlord's game…more than three decades before Parker Brothers began manufacturing Monopoly. She designed the game to protest against the big monopolists of her time — people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller." Lizzie Magie, a former actress, a Quaker, a writer, and a progressive feminist, had been relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Mary Pilon wrote in the New York Times in 2015, "The seeds of the Monopoly game were planted when James Magie shared with his daughter a copy of Henry George's best-selling book, 'Progress and Poverty,' written in 1879." The Landlord Game was a teaching game to highlight the money-grubbing landlord. In 1906, Magie self-published her game.

Magie created two sets of rules to propose questions about the immorality of monopolies and how community could be built through solidarity. The first rules were "an anti-monopolist set in which all were rewarded when wealth was created, and [the second] a monopolist set in which the goal was to create monopolies and crush opponents. Her dualistic approach was a teaching tool meant to demonstrate that the first set of rules was morally superior."

Magie challenged Darrow publicly, demanding credit for her creation and bringing along her game board for photographers to demonstrate that she was the idea's originator.

"It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences," Magie said of her game in a 1902 issue of The Single Tax Review. "It might well have been called the 'Game of Life,' as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race, in general, seem to have, i.e., the accumulation of wealth." Hasbro would later produce a board game called "The Game of Life" in 1960.

The Landlord Game went viral, "becoming a folk favorite among left-wing intellectuals, particularly in the Northeast. It was played at several college campuses, including what was then called the Wharton School of Finance and Economy, Harvard University, and Columbia University. Quakers who had established a community in Atlantic City embraced the game and added their neighborhood properties to the board." Bootlegged, handmade versions sprung up across the northeast, each using localized street names, depending on the version. As the game circulated, it was altered. Greed replaced the idea of economic justice.

The version altered by the Quakers is how Darrow learned of the game. Once "Monopoly" was mass-produced, Magie's claims were harder to prove and easier to ignore. Why would Parker Brothers consider any other position than their (intellectual) property rights, non-ironically, with a game so titled and intended to reinforce the holy sanctity and social power of owning and selling property? A monopoly on "Monopoly" seems apt for toy companies and capitalism. The story of Magie's creation, Darrow's alterations, and the transformation from an anti-capitalist game to a pro-greed game is a giant metaphor for how capitalism is about theft, enclosing the property, resources, and livelihood of the earth, under the guise of progress, development, and opportunity.

Check out this Smithsonian video on the topic. Check out the full story in Pilon's book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game.