Half a century later, `Monopoly' game still monopolizes US

`` `DO Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200.' It's become part of our language,'' says Mary Frances Burleson, an enthusiast for the game. You know which game she means: Monopoly, which is celebrating its 50th birthday.

While Trivial Pursuit may be all the rage today, and electronic games may still be blipping and zapping their way around computer screens, Monopoly continues to draw strong sales and fervent devotees. Its manufacturer, Parker Brothers, of Beverly, Mass., bills it as ``the king of board games.''

``It's fun, it's an opportunity to make money,'' says Ms. Burleson. ``There's nothing more fun than housing and apartments.'' She knows whereof she speaks: She's executive vice-president and general manager of Ebby Halliday Realtors, a residential and commercial brokerage with 24 offices in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Of course, you don't have to be in the real estate business to enjoy Monopoly. ``I don't know anybody who hasn't played it,'' says Jeremy Siegel, associate professor of finance at the Wharton School in Philadelphia.

Parker Brothers, now part of the General Mills Toy Group (which includes Kenner and Fun Dimensions -- all of which the parent company has just announced is up for sale) claims 250 million Monopoly players over the years, in 19 languages. Some 90 million sets have been sold in the past 50 years. A British edition of the game was used to smuggle coded messages to prisoners of war during World War II. The company has even produced two specially engineered Monopoly sets for NASA for recreation on board future spaceflights.

The game is rooted in the depression years, when the roaring '20s were just a memory. Street names derive from originals in Atlantic City, a resort which, like the little properties in Monopoly, has seen its real estate prices slide up and down over the years.

For kids sprawled on their stomachs on carpeted floors, eagerly amassing little red hotels and even littler green houses, Monopoly is often the first introduction to concepts such as ``rent,'' ``mortgage,'' ``title deed,'' and, perhaps most critically, ``bankruptcy.''

The dizzying speed at which Monopoly rents rise with improvements, even in fairly modest parts of town, is a lesson that has no doubt been liberally applied by these kids, grown older, during the ``redevelopment'' and ``gentrification'' movements of the past decade. Another useful lesson, especially for dwellers in metropolises such as New York City, is that lowly Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues are just around the corner from tony Boardwalk and Park Place.

``Monopoly symbolizes the American dream of rags to riches,'' company president Richard Stearns said at the birthday celebrations. ``With a little hard work, a little skill, and a lucky roll of the dice, you can prosper.''

Since the game was first introduced, ``demand has never diminished,'' the company says. At its beginning, though, things didn't look so bright. The disdain with which the company's executives first greeted the game developed by Charles Darrow, of Germantown, Pa., is by now the stuff of which press releases are made. Monopoly was too long and too complicated, and it lacked a clear-cut finish. After Parker Brothers turned him down flat, Darrow struck a deal with Wanamaker's of Philadelphia for a few thousand sets he had produced on his own.

Then Parker Brothers reconsidered, and the 50th anniversary just observed by the company is that of the first production of the game by Parker Brothers.

``The basic game of financial wheeling and dealing has a great appeal to American culture,'' says Professor Siegel. He sees an ``increased interest in business, a positive interest in markets, in entrepreneurship.'' He adds, ``There is a worldwide trend toward free markets and capitalism, and away from communism and socialism -- although we don't know when the pendulum will swing back the other way.''

Monopoly's lesson, he says, is that ``the best strategy is to buy everything. The winners are the ones who have bought everything and are mortgaged up to the hilt.''

What about the fact that Monopoly is specifically a real estate game, rather than a game turning on some other, more currently fashionable form of entrepreneurship?

Professor Siegel brushes off any implication that real estate development is just a matter of speculation, saying, ``A real estate entrepreneur like Donald Trump, for example, has to take risks and can contribute as much to society as an entrepreneur in electronics.'' On the other hand, ``Real estate does have its slightly sleazy side.''

Speculation is less of a factor on the real estate scene now than it has been a few years ago. Indeed, as Professor Siegel notes, ``The real estate market has been one of the worst performers in the last couple of years.''

Martin K. Starr, professor of operations management at the Columbia Business School, has used Monopoly, along with other puzzles and games, ``to stress the complexity of the business system.''

He calls it a ``good game'' and identifies a number of its ``pros'': ``You learn how to handle a lot of money,'' not just a regular paycheck. ``If you can learn to do wheeling and dealing in the game. Presumably you could carry it over into the real world. . . . And the game introduces a random factor, the roll of the dice. And there are those boxes,'' he adds, referring to the ``Chance'' and ``Community Chest'' cards.

``But there's a problem,'' he adds. ``There's no way to create wealth. It's a zero-sum game.'' That is, anyone who wins does so at the expense of other players.

Of course, it is the nature -- and attraction -- of games and contests to have clear-cut winners and losers. ``It's like a footrace -- everybody can't win,'' observes Ms. Burleson. This principle carries over into real life only in the instances of war and elections, and not always too clearly even then.

But in the world of economics, there are plenty of opportunities for a win-win situation: Factories crank out goods that benefit consumers; companies pay their laborers wages with which they can satisfy their needs, in turn supporting butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers and other tradespeople -- who then have money to buy the goods produced at the factories.

``With Monopoly,'' Professor Starr notes, ``there's no innovation, no provision for the invention of new things.'' There are two basic ways of making money, he says. ``There's owning things that will increase in value, and there's going out and making something to sell to someone. We're at a time in our lives when it's no longer easy to make money by holding onto assets.''

This is not to say it hasn't been easy in the past, or that it might not become easy again in the future. The late 1970s were certainly a good time to make money in real estate. And not too long ago, corporations were hard pressed to justify expanding plant capacity instead of just socking extra cash into money-market funds.

But now, with relatively low inflation, flat commodity prices, somewhat relaxed interest rates, and restrained levels of appreciation in real estate, ``the multiplicative leverage is in producing,'' Starr says, and not in real estate acquisition and corporate conglomeration. ``That concept of buying a railroad instead of going out and doing things is very limited.''

He suggests that the game could go electronic, with microchip technology making it possible for market values to fluctuate, for example. Ms. Burleson suggests, ``It would be fun to have some syndications, or some limited partnerships. That would make it pretty sophisticated.''

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