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In Search of Critical Games

This is the first chapter of Bertell Ollman’s new book, Class Struggle Is the Name of the Game: True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman (New York: William Morrow, 1983), reprinted here by permission. The author is professor of politics at New York University.

In 2013 the piece was reprinted as part of Ballbuster?: True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman (New York: Soft Skull, 2002)

Sol Yurick writes radical novels, good ones, and loves to speculate on how culture gets inside people’s bones. In the early 1970s, Sol and I spend a lot of time musing over Monopoly, a game many leftists love to hate, others hate to love, and practically everybody plays. According to Shelly Berman, the comedian, “Monopoly evokes a unique emotion, the surge of thrill you get when you know you’ve wiped out a friend.” But what else is going on as we accumulate property and scheme how to beggar our neighbors? Are we simply expressing some atavistic urge for power, or tuning in, consciously or unconsciously, to the attitudes that are most highly prized in our business-oriented society?

As in most games, people play Monopoly as individuals and take individual credit or blame for the result. Where skill counts, it is personal decisions that determine who wins. Where chance dominates, you win if you are lucky. Skill and luck are each considered personal qualities. In neither case can anyone else be blamed if you lose.

After playing a few games, one is ready to go into the marketplace and make a million. Except for a few minor difficulties: no one hands you $500 at the start, or rewards you for passing “Go.” Properties are far more expensive than even Boardwalk, and everywhere you go you must pay. Surprise! All the properties have been given out before you arrived. There is a real monopoly game going on, but you haven’t been invited to play. More than likely, you could not afford the stakes.

With over 80 million game sold since 1935, Monopoly was always cast as the leading villain in our cultural discussions, but Sol and I soon discovered that the scene contained much worse. At least Monopoly never openly extolled the negative human qualities that it fostered. On the contrary, part of its success lies in the aura of objectivity that surrounds it: “Just the facts, folks…this is how it is…no tears, but not hallelujahs either.”

Several more recent board games, on the other hand, positively exalt all that is vile. Their credos are clearly revealed in their names: Easy Money; Ratrace; Lie, Cheat, and Steal. Counterstrike, another of this genre, boasts on its cover that it “brings out the worst instincts in you, from avarice through downright treachery.” What does it mean when Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf no long has to hide his fangs behind Grandma’s shawl? Is it the board game, selling at a rate of over a billion dollars’ worth per year, that has come of age, or capitalism?

Appalled by our findings, Sol and I began to seek out the opposition. Where were the critical, and especially the socialist, games? There just had to be games that use the inequalities of our society to criticize greed rather than to exacerbate it. We knew that capitalist culture would not take kindly to such games, but if they existed, we should be able to find them. I visited department stores, perused books and journals, put ads in game magazines, and queried friends from around the world.

Only half-realizing it, I had entered into a fairyland where fun is king and everybody his subject, I soon discovered that there is nothing new about the “message” board game, but that the pro-business propaganda which had seemed co-determinate with the board-game form is of relatively recent origin. Games of one kind or another have been around as long as people have. Some scholars have even defined humans as the game-playing animals. Long before our species left the caves, we entered into contests that had agreed-upon rules and goals, lasted for a limited period, and produced pleasure rather than material goods. These contests were always accompanied by a conception of who one is, who one’s opponents are, and what is important that diverged drastically from the conception of reality that ordered people’s daily lives.

Only half-realizing it, I had entered into a fairyland where fun is king and everybody his subject, I soon discovered that there is nothing new about the “message” board game, but that the pro-business propaganda which had seemed co-determinate with the board-game form is of relatively recent origin. Games of one kind or another have been around as long as people have. Some scholars have even defined man as the game-playing animal. Long before our species left the caves, we entered into contests that had agreed-upon rules and goals, lasted for a limited period, and produced pleasure rather than material goods. These contests were always accompanied by a conception—of who one is, who one’s opponents are, and what is important—that diverged drastically from the conception of reality that ordered people’s daily lives.

The board game, where markers take the place of people and a decorated board serves as the field of play, first made its appearance in ancient Sumer over four thousand years ago. Excavations among the tombs of ancient Egypt and Palestine show that they, too, had board games. Dice, which were first used in magical ceremonies, became a staple of board games by Greek and Roman times. While facilitating gaming, the early association of dice with gambling led more virtuous members of the community to reject all pastimes in which dice were used. Once the Christian Era had begun, the story of Roman soldiers throwing dice to dispose of Jesus’ newly crucified garments added the spice of sacrilege to their already unsavory reputation. The connection of gaming with gambling, magic, and un-Christian dissatisfaction with God’s plan for mankind led to several attempts by both Church and State to ban games. To no avail. With a lot of time on their hands, the aristocracy in particular enjoyed playing games, the most popular of which were early versions of chess and checkers.

Starting in the sixteenth century with the Games of Goose (an Italian reworking of an ancient Greek idea) and picking up steam by the late eighteenth century, a host of new board games became available. In keeping with the pedagogical concerns of the period, many were unabashedly didactic. The Fortification Game (1712) expounded Vauban’s then-revolutionary ideas on fortifying a city. A Journey Through Europe, or the Play of Geography (1759) speaks for itself. Other games taught history, math, and quite soon—though not immediately—moral behavior. Such was the New Game of Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished (1818), marking the return of the old order after the decades of disruption caused by the French Revolution.

America’s entry into the board-game derby came toward the middle of the nineteenth century with Mansions of Happiness. In this game, one tries to land on squares called “Justice and Piety,” and to avoid others called “Cruelty,” “Immodesty,” and “Ingratitude.” No doubt sticking to a subject that we Americans knew best, other similar games followed: the Checkered Game of Life and the Game of Christian Endeavor, where players get rewarded for such niceties as “Taking flowers to the sick” and “Stopping man from beating horse.”

It wasn’t until the Great Depression of the 1930s, and particularly with the appearance of Monopoly, that business values began to replace Christian virtues as the core message of the industry. At the moment, there are 15 to 20 successful business-oriented games on toy shelves throughout the country, and not a single well-known game extolling Christian virtues. The current craze in the industry is for fantasy (Dungeons and Dragons) and war games (Stalingrad, Battle of the Bulge, Waterloo). Though Monopoly-style games continue to sell, more and more games are aimed at redirecting people’s frustrated power drives onto other, more imaginative, and less restrictive spaces.

Like other elements of culture, games are shaped by the same dominant values that they in turn help shape, and as such reflect what a society is and wants from its people, what it would have them believe and learn, and what it would help them to forget. Insofar as they teach anything, raise socially useful expectations, substitute a make-believe equality for real inequality, allow people to let off steam and to dream while keeping them amused and occupied, games—overall—serve the social order. Marx once referred to religion as the opium of the people, but this applies equally well today to games—as, indeed, to TV, mass spectator sports, pornography, and pot. American has blessed it citizens with many opiums.

Yet this is not the whole story, for games can also serve a critical purpose, introducing uncomfortable facts, unmasking social foibles, encouraging oppositions, and even presenting alternative futures. This, too, emerges from their history. Games, like science fiction, often provide the cover for fundamental criticism and even revolt. Is it only a coincidence that in chess, the medieval game par excellence, a knight or a bishop can corner a king? Card games originating in the same period made the jack, again representing a knight, the highest trump card. Among the early board games, the Games of Good Children (eighteen-century France) offers a mocking view of marriage and the family—marrying the first woman you meet leads to getting cuckolded—and Roarem Castle (nineteenth-century England) satirizes the lives of the still-powerful aristocracy.

In America today, I found but one game mildly critical of the status quo, but I did find that one. This was Anti-Monopoly (1973). In this game, true to the world in which we live, monopolies exist at the start—and less true or possible, I’m afraid—players representing antitrust attorneys move around the board and break them up. It is a liberal game, focusing on the size of power concentrations rather than on the question of who holds powers, and argues for the breakup of these concentrations rather than for a transfer of power from the few owners of property to the large majority who are now without.

Though I uncovered a few critical games, and some critical angles in traditional games, my search for a socialist game had proven futile. One respondent to an ad I placed in a game magazine said that he had invented a socialist game, its name: Police State. Its purpose was to show…well, need I say? I originally expected to find socialist games in the “socialist” countries, but I discovered that board games are not very popular there. The few board games in the Soviet Union deal with sports or getting to the moon before the Americans. In Hungary there is a game in which players circle the board picking up furniture for their summer dachas. And Poland has a game called Director, in which players compete to make their factories rich. If there are socialist board games in these counties, I have still to hear from them.

Though there were no socialist games, I discovered quite late in my research one board game that came very close to what I was looking for. It was from Ralph Anspach, the inventor of Anti-Monopoly, that I learned that Monopoly itself had begun as a critique of the very system it has done so much to promote. The official history of Monopoly, recorded in endless Reader’s Digest-like articles, holds that Charles Darrow, an unemployed Philadelphia worker, invented the game in 1933, and sold it to Parker Brothers, who in turn have sold Darrow’s pro-business inspiration to the world. Anspach’s research shows that the real inventor of Monopoly was Elizabeth Magie, a Quaker follower of the Single Tax economist Henry George. She invented the game in 1903 and called it the Landlord Game; Its squares carried such inspired names as “Lord Blueblood’s Estate” and “The Soakum Lighting Co.”

A 1925 version of her game, by now called Monopoly, which was made by Louis Thun, states in its Introduction, “Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money. What accounts for the failure of the rest, and what one factor can be singled out to explain the obviously ill-adjusted distribution of the community’s wealth, which this situation represents? Those who win will answer ‘skill.’ Those who lose will answer ‘luck.’ But maybe there will be some, and these, while admitting the element of skill and luck, will answer with Scott Nearing [a socialist writer of the time] ‘private property.'”

Compare this with the Introduction to the rules in Monopoly sets that are now being sold. “The idea of the games to buy and rent or sell property so profitably that one becomes the wealthiest player and eventually monopolist.” Obviously, something has gone amiss. The lopsided accumulation of wealth, which Magie had denounced, has become the goal of the whole exercise. David has come out of the locker room looking like Goliath. What had begun as the only serious attempt to question the foundation of our social system has ended up as its most effective defender. Why?

Not long after I began my investigation into games, I developed the nagging doubt that maybe I really didn’t know what I was looking for. What were socialist games, anyway? The frightening story of the metamorphosis of the Landlord’s Game into Monopoly gave new urgency to this question. I had been content to think of socialist games as simply the opposite of Monopoly and other business-oriented games. They would not promote greed or present American society as a battleground where everyone had the same chance to win, what kind of game could that be? I began to suspect that maybe there were no socialist games because there could be none. For a game to play well, all the players must begin with the same advantages and disadvantages. They must have an equal chance of winning. No one would want to play a game where the other fellow starts with all the chips and you start broke, where his connections (Daddy) and special knowledge of the rules (schooling) permit him to advance to the choice squares, where he has a half-dozen throws of the dice to your one, and where if he wins often enough, he gets to play with his own dice. Not much of a game, but it happens to be life in our society. To make a game of life did not seem to hold many possibilities for gaming.

On the other hand, to make a fair game, to give each player the same chance of winning, meant the distortion of real life. The defection of Monopoly to the camp of the enemy was only partly the result of changing the labels and introductions. More fundamentally, it came from making everyone an equal participant from the start in the struggle to amass property. Whatever her game’s progressive trimmings and her own intentions, Elizabeth Magie had invented a capitalist game, and it was only a matter of time and a little business razzle-dazzle (which in America always comes in time) before its internal dynamic asserted itself.

My conclusion left me with a head-splitting dilemma: for a game to meet the elementary requirements of gaming, it could not be socialist. If it were socialist, focusing on the inequalities in our society and showing what could be done about them, it could not be a game. Unless…and it is with this “unless” that I struggled for a long time. I hated to accept such a bleak conclusion. A socialist game, I was convinced, could break through mountains, establish beachheads on the furthest shore. It could sing to people in a voice they would understand. And yet, if such a game didn’t already exist, it must mean…no, too negative. I would try. The discussions with Sol and others went on…as if…if only. And then, a huge breakthrough.

What if the players are not individuals, but classes? What if they represent classes? In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, my favorite socialist novel, Robert Tressell has his working-class hero adopt such a ploy in a charade he plays with his fellow workers in order to explain the labor theory of value. I had restaged this scene many times in my NYU classes. Would it work here, in the game? One could make capitalists and workers roughly equal in power, though of course the sources of their power are very different. The game could even explore these different sources of power, and, when and how they are used. The game could deal with the class struggle. The game would be Class Struggle. The main piece fell quickly into place. Until one morning I tumbled out of bed to be greeted by the world’s first Marxist board game. Class Struggle, anyone?

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