The Anthropocene Reviewed

Monopoly and Academic Decathlon

Episode Summary

John Green reviews the board game Monopoly and a high-school nerdfest called the Academic Decathlon.

Episode Notes

John Green reviews the board game Monopoly and a high-school nerdfest called the Academic Decathlon.

Episode Transcription

Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today, I’ll be reviewing the board game Monopoly and a high-school nerdfest called the Academic Decathlon. 

By the way, if I sound a little different today, it’s because I am recording at home. And indeed, doing everything at home.

Okay, let’s begin with Monopoly, a board game wherein the goal is to bankrupt your fellow opponents, leaving you with all of their money and property. As you move around a square board, you land on various properties--in the original game, they’re from a fictionalized version of Atlantic City, New Jersey, but that changes depending on region and edition. For instance, in the Pokemon version of the game, properties include Tangela and Raichu. Anyway, if you land on a property, you can purchase it, and then if you establish a monopoly, you can build houses and hotels on your properties. And then when other players land on places you own, they have to pay you rent.

There are many problems with Monopoly, but maybe the reason the game has persisted for so long--it has been one of the world’s bestselling board games for over 80 years--is that its problems are our problems. Like life, Monopoly unfolds very slowly at first, and then distressingly fast at the end. Like life, people find meaning in its outcomes even though the game is rigged toward the rich, and insofar as it isn’t rigged, it’s random. And like life, your friends get mad if you bankrupt them, and then no matter how rich you are, there’s an ever-expanding void inside of you that money can never fill, but gripped by the madness of unregulated capitalism, you nonetheless believe that if you just get a couple more hotels or take from your friends their few remaining dollars, you will at last feel complete. 

The worst thing about Monopoly is its convoluted, self-contradictory analysis of capitalism. Like, the game is essentially about how acquiring land is literally a roll of the dice, and how the exploitation of monopolies enriches the few and impoverishes the many. And yet, the point of the game is to get as rich as you can. I mean, Monopoly’s cartoon spokesperson is literally named Rich Uncle Pennybags. 

Monopoly’s mealymouthed take on economic inequality is also like life, of course, at least life in Monopoly’s home nation of the United States, where many of us think of billionaires the way I thought of the popular kids in middle school: I despised them, but I also desperately wanted to be them. And I think Monopoly’s thematic inconsistency might be a product of the game’s complicated origin story, which, in the end, may say more about capitalism than the game itself does.

Here’s the creation myth as it gets told by Monopoly’s current owner, the toy company Hasbro: In 1929, in the wake of the great stock market crash, 40-year-old Charles Darrow lost his job in Philadelphia and was forced to scratch together a living as a door-to-door salesman. But then in 1933, he invented the board game Monopoly, eventually patenting the game and licensing it to the company Parker Brothers. And Darrow became the first board game millionaire, a proper rags-to-riches story of an American inventor succeeding via the sweat of his Randian brow. 

It’s a great story, so great that many copies of Monopoly have been printed with Darrow’s biography alongside the rules. Today, there’s even a plaque in Atlantic City celebrating Charles Darrow. There’s just one problem with the story, which is that Charles Darrow did not invent Monopoly.

Almost thirty years earlier, a woman named Lizzie Magie created a board game called The Landlord's Game. As detailed in Mary Pilon’s wonderful book The Monopolists, Elizabeth Magie was a writer and actor who supported her artistic pursuits with a career as a stenographer and typist, work that she hated--she once wrote, “Typewriting is hell.” In her lifetime, Magie was best known for a newspaper ad in which she advertised herself as being for sale to the highest bidder. She described herself as “not beautiful, but very attractive,” and a woman of “strong bohemian characteristics.” The ad, which made national news, was meant to call attention to the discrimination against women in every aspect of American life, which often forced them out of the workforce and into subservient roles in marriages. She told a reporter, “We are not machines. Girls have minds, desires, hopes, and ambitions.”

Magie also felt that no feminist movement could succeed without larger changes in the economic system. “In a short time,” she said, “men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller have more maybe than they know what to do with.” To help show this to the world, in 1906 Magie created The Landlord’s Game, which attempted to show how rent systems enriched landlords while impoverishing tenants, leading to capital over time concentrating in fewer and fewer hands. Magie was a follower of Henry George, an economist who believed, as Antonia Noori Farzan put it in the Washington Post, “that railroads, telegraphs, and utilities should be publicly owned, rather than controlled by monopolies, and that land should be considered common property.” And Magie really believed that her game could help change the world, by letting children “see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system.”

The Landlord's Game is not the same game as Monopoly, but similarities are striking: Like Monopoly, it has a square board with properties. Like Monopoly if you made a bad roll you could go to jail. As college students learned the game and played handmade versions of it, they expanded and changed rules to make it even more similar to the game we know today. An Indianapolis version, called The Fascinating Game of Finance, was released in 1932, and it was in Indianapolis that a woman named Ruth Hoskins learned the game and then, when she moved to Atlantic City, adapted it to her new hometown. Hoskins taught the game to many people, including a couple who moved to Philadelphia, where they taught the game to a guy named Charles Todd, who in turn taught it to Charles Darrow, who then asked for a copy of the rules. Darrow altered some of the design, patented the game, and then became a millionaire.

Here’s how much Charles Darrow did not invent Monopoly: Marven Gardens--that’s M-A-R-V-E-N, is a neighborhood in Atlantic City. In Charles Todd’s version of the game, he misspelled Marven, M-A-R-V-I-N. That misspelling is repeated in Darrow’s version of the game, because Charles Darrow didn’t invent Monopoly.

And so the story we hear of an individual man rightly rewarded for his genius, turns out to be a far more complicated story of a woman who created a game that thousands of collaborators then improved by playing it. A story of capitalism working turns out to be a story of capitalism failing. I mean, the game that became so popular was really created by a community, and the free market failed to reward that community, instead wrongly assigning most of the value to one contributor who, truthfully, added very little to the game. Monopoly is a game about how power and resources get unjustly distributed until one individual ends up with everything, and only in that sense is it Charles Darrow’s game.

Over a hundred years after Magie first debuted The Landlord’s Game, Hasbro continues to credit Charles Darrow as the sole inventor of Monopoly, and will say of Magie only, “There have been a number of popular property trading games throughout history. Elizabeth Magie--a writer, inventor, and feminist--was one of the pioneers of land-grabbing games.” In short, Hasbro is still terrified of acknowledging that the land they grabbed might not have been theirs for the taking in the first place. I give Monopoly two stars. 

After the break, we’ll turn our attention to the greatest triumph of my life. But first . . .


Welcome back to the show. My best friend in high school, Todd, was also my roommate--I went to a boarding school in Alabama--and I remember once he told me that late at night, when he was trying to go to bed, I turned into a stream-of-consciousness novel. 

I’d tell him everything--my every interaction with my math class crush, including selected quotations from the notes we wrote each other; the reasons it just literally wasn’t possible for me to turn in the paper I had due for history; the weird ache I always felt on the outside of my left knee; how nervous I’d been smoking a cigarette behind the gym because someone got caught there last week; and on and on and on until finally he would say, “Seriously, Green. I love you but I have to sleep.” We were not afraid to say I love you to each other. 

Here’s my favorite story about Todd. In those days, they only offered the SAT every other month in Alabama, so we had to drive to Georgia to take it. We stayed up way too late at a Motel 6 watching movies on HBO the night before, and I was absolutely exhausted the day of the test. After struggling to concentrate for four endless hours, the test was over, and I met back up with Todd. And the first thing he said to me was, “What’s ostentatious mean?” And I told him it meant, like, showy or over the top. And he nodded subtly to himself and then after a second said, “Cool. I got them all then.” And he had. Perfect score on the SAT.

It was Todd who had the idea for me to join the Academic Decathlon team, although at first blush I was a poor candidate. I never excelled academically, and I took some pride in “not fulfilling my potential,” in part because I was terrified that if I tried my hardest, the world would discover that I didn’t actually have that much potential. But amid my poor grades, Todd sensed an opportunity.

Academic Decathlon, sometimes known as AcaDec, features ten disciplines. There are currently seven “objective” events featuring multiple choice tests: Art history, economics, language and literature, math, music, science, and social science. And then there are three subjective events graded by judges--essay, an in-person interview, and the performance of a speech you’ve written. 

Every school’s AcaDec team has nine players: You get three A-students, with grade point averages above 3.75; three B-students, with grade point averages above 3; and three C-students whose GPAs are 2.99 or below. For all you non-Americans out there, that means three of each school’s players get excellent marks, three get good ones, and three of the players have to be… fairly bad at school. And I, as it happened, was terrible at school. Todd believed that with his patient instruction and my awful grades, he could mold me into an Academic Decathlon superstar.

And so beginning in our junior year, we studied together. We read an entire economics textbook, and whenever I found part of it inscrutable, Todd would frame the topic for me in ways that were comprehensible. Learning about marginal utility, he explained it to me in terms of Zima.

I suppose it is now necessary to inform the listeners of this podcast that when I was in high school, I was a huge fan of Zima, an alcoholic beverage that tasted vaguely citrusy and was kind of a two-star predecessor to today’s hard seltzer. I’m a little embarrassed to tell you how bad my grades were in high school; I am deeply, profoundly ashamed to acknowledge how much 16-year-old me loved a Zima.

So Todd told me, look, you drink one Zima and you feel good. You drink two, and you feel better, but maybe the benefit is smaller than the benefit between zero and one. The additional usefulness of each added Zima gets lower and lower until eventually the curve actually inverts around five Zimas and you throw up. That’s marginal utility. So we learned about economics, but we also learned about art history, and chemistry, and much else. Through studying for Academic Decathlon, I learned about everything from the Indus Valley Civilization to mitosis. And thanks to Todd, I became a very capable Academic Decathlete.

Look, I don’t want to brag, but at the Alabama State Academic Decathlon of 1994, I was the Michael Phelps of C-Students. I won seven medals--four of them gold--out of a possible ten events. I won a bronze medal in math, even though that year I received a D in pre-calc. Just to be clear, none of my scores would’ve gotten me into the top 10 of A or B students, but I wasn’t competing against them. And for the first time in my academic life, I felt like I wasn’t an idiot.

I won gold medals in topics I thought I sucked at--like literature and history--and also one in speech, which was especially surprising because I’d always been a poor public speaker. I hated my voice, the way it betrayed my omnidirectional anxiety, and I’d always done terribly in debate 

We won the state competition, which meant we’d qualified for nationals, to be held that year in a hotel ballroom in scenic Newark, New Jersey.

Academic Decathlon really did changed my life--my growing academic confidence combined with improved study skills learned from Todd meant that my grades started to improve, so much that I was briefly at risk of losing my coveted C-student status, until I realized I could just tank physics and keep my GPA below 3. 

That April, the nine of us and our coaches flew up to Newark. We made friends with other nerds from around the country, including a C-student from the Midwest whose name was I think Caroline. She had a good fake ID and managed to smuggle a 12-pack of Zimas to us. 

Todd was one of the leading A-students at nationals, and our little team from Alabama ended up finishing sixth in the country, but I only won a couple of medals. One was in speech. My speech was about rivers and I don’t remember much about it, but I think I talked about meanders--the serpentine bends in a river’s course. I was obsessed with meanders. And I’ve loved rivers ever since I can remember. I spent one summer on a raft with my dad on the Noatak River in Alaska, and another paddling the French Broad River in Tennessee. I’m sure my speech was cringey, and I’m glad I don’t have a copy of it so that I can remember it more fondly than it deserves to be remembered. The only thing I remember in it was something I stole from Todd. We were sitting on the banks of a creek and he told me that what he liked about rivers was that they kept going. They meander this way and that, but they keep going. 

I’m writing this now on the west bank of the White River here in Indianapolis, because these days I can only feel normal these days when I am outside. I brought a lawn chair out to the river, and my laptop’s battery has plenty of power, and before me, the White River is a muddy, flooded cacophony. In a dry summer, I can walk across this stretch of river without ever getting my shorts wet, but now it’s 20 feet deep and churning. Every minute or two, an uprooted tree comes barreling down the river. From here, the White River will flow into the Wabash River, and then into the Ohio, and then into the great Mississippi River, and then into the Gulf of Mexico. And even after that it will keep going, of course--freezing and melting and evaporating and raining and flowing and being neither created nor destroyed.

Looking out at this river reminds me of standing at the edge of that creek with Todd, and how his love helped me carry through those years, and how in some ways it is still carrying me. I wonder if you have people in your life like that, people whose love still keeps you going even though they are distant now because of time and geography and everything else that comes between us. 

I came down to the river this afternoon because all day long, my brain has refused to allow me to finish a thought, constantly interrupting with worries. Even my worries get interrupted--by new worries, or by facets of old worries I had not adequately considered. My thoughts can’t get downstream. Everything’s dammed up with dread. My worries are a river overflowing its banks, too numerous to list, too terrifying to name. 

And they are real. That’s the scariest part about them. Usually, I can reassure myself about my worries, but not so much these days, because they’re real. 

But this is also real: After the competition in Newark was over, somehow we ended up with our Zimas on the roof of that hotel, Todd and me and a couple of our teammates. It was late at night and New York City glowed pink in the distance. We were the sixth best Academic Decathlon team in the nation, and we were getting just the right amount of utility out of our Zima, and we loved each other. Rivers keep going, and we keep going, and there is no way back to the roof of that hotel. But the memory still holds me together. I give Academic Decathlon four and a half stars.

Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Jenny Lawton. Joe Plourde is our technical director and Hannis Brown makes the music. Thanks also to Hayden, Isaac, and Liz, who wrote to suggest I review Monopoly, and to Jonathan, who suggested I review Academic Decathlon. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, please email us at anthropocene reviewed at gmail dot com. Thanks again for being here with us.