The Monopoly Game: An Example of Group Genius

1906 Lizzie Magie production copy
Lizzie Magie’s 1906 Landlord’s Game

Today’s New York Times has an article by Mary Pilon, excerpted from her new book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. It’s a great story:

Parker Brothers lied when they claimed that Charles Darrow invented the game Monopoly in 1934. In fact, Darrow stole the game from a group of Quakers who played their hand-made game in Atlantic City. Similar versions of the game had been played, up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest, since 1904, when a Virginia Quaker named Lizzie Magie was awarded a patent for a precursor game she created to teach the virtues of an economic philosophy known as the “single tax system.” She called it The Landlord’s Game. (She self-published the version at left in 1906 after Parker Brothers passed on it.)

This story isn’t so new anymore; it’s been told in many books and articles. I told this story in my 2007 book Group Genius, because it’s a great example of how wrong our “solo inventor” stories are, and how invention really emerges from collaboration and social networks. When I was writing my book in 2006, it was easy to find the real story. It first came to light in the 1970s, when Parker Brothers sued Ralph Anspach to force him to stop selling his game Anti-Monopoly. Parker Brothers picked the wrong fight: Anspach fought back, and won his lawsuit by having some very old Quakers testify that they’d been playing the game long before 1934.

Charles Todd's handmade game, stolen by Charles Darrow
Todd’s 1933 Handmade Game, Stolen by Charles Darrow

One of them, Charles Todd, stated under oath in 1976 that he personally made a copy for Darrow–and, at his request, wrote down the rules (they’d only been transmitted orally prior to Darrow’s request). After stealing it and patenting it, Darrow hid from Todd whenever they crossed paths; when you read Todd’s 1976 court testimony, you can still tell he’s angry over 40 years later.

I learned the story in 2006 from several sources:

(If you really want to go deep, the best source for historical details is this web site: http://landlordsgame.info/)

Pilon’s book covers familiar ground, but it’s a fascinating story that bears retelling. I’ve told this story in keynote talks around the U.S., and audiences are always surprised, so I agree the true story isn’t well known. Pilon’s been working on the book for a long time; she wrote a similar article in 2009 for the Wall Street Journal. She’s uncovered a lot of fascinating historical detail, and has a lot of biographical info about Lizzie Magie that I didn’t know; turns out, she was extremely unconventional for her time (it goes way beyond advocating the single tax).

Pilon ends her New York Times article by asking a question that I answer in Group Genius:

Who should get credit for an invention and how? The Monopoly game raises that question in a particularly compelling way.

The answer is, the collaborative web should get the credit:

The game of Monopoly that we know and love today was created over many decades–with contributions from Quakers, fraternity boys, economics professors, and one radiator repairman. It unfolded in cities from Indianapolis to Philadelphia. Monopoly emerged from a collaborative web, a diffuse and informal network of people dedicated to the game. Each group of players modified the rules as they saw fit, but no one ever owned anything. The ideas spread around freely, and the ideas that worked best survived. Parker Brothers contributed by spotting the potential, and by packaging and marketing it to success. And even after Parker Brothers printed the official rules, players continued to make up their own rules, a tradition that continues today. (Group Genius)

If that sounds like an open source community, you’re right; read my book to learn the key features of collaborative networks, from 1904 to today.

The Monopoly story is endlessly fascinating. In fact, Parker Brothers initially rejected Darrow’s game, and he eventually convinced them to change their minds: you’ll have to read my book to learn how he did it! (Hint: entrepreneurship…)

2 thoughts on “The Monopoly Game: An Example of Group Genius

  1. As I expected, the Wall Street Journal has also reviewed Pilon’s book. (I expected it because she has been a writer for them, and it seems to be de rigeur that WSJ writers are certain to get their books reviewed in its pages.) The reviewer gets a few things about the Monopoly story wrong; I have to assume they came from Pilon’s book (although I haven’t gotten a copy yet to read it myself). Both the NYTimes review and the WSJ review suggest that Pilon over-emphasizes the role of Atlantic City; there were Quakers in lots of cities playing versions of Monopoly. Roger Lowenstein’s seems underwhelmed by the book: “Ms Pilon is out of her depth on various historical points….Yet…for a first effort [book], it passes Go.”

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