Monopoly and What it Can Teach Us

Relationships fall apart for many reasons. Perhaps your friend moves to another city, or maybe your boyfriend isn’t acting like he values your time. Certainly, relationships are one of the most difficult (yet potentially rewarding) parts of the human experience. What seems to be a running joke which transcends space and time is the devastation to relationships caused by the board game Monopoly.

I know many people who avoid this game entirely for that very reason. Others simply do not enjoy the game due to its frustrating nature. Despite its haters, Monopoly has certainly stood the test of time for good reason. It is without a doubt “board game success”. Having recently had played Monopoly several times over the most recent Christmas holiday, I started thinking on why this game appeals to so many and also why it is almost inevitably frustrating. What can we learn from Monopoly?

The Nature of Monopoly

Follow the Rules!

Games, in general, are a very interesting concept. One or several people will gather, agree on rather arbitrary rules, and then play the game while following these rules. We call it “play”, though there is the enforced understanding that the rules must be followed; it’s not like you can do whatever you want. Let’s say, for example, that Johnny rolls an eight on the die in Monopoly but then decides that he will move seven instead because it allows him to buy the property he wants. Such an action would be met with fierce opposition by the other players.

In Monopoly, everyone starts with equal money. In other words, everyone comes into the game with an equal amount of opportunity. The players then roll the die and must do what the die says, and deal with the associated consequences. Some of the more detailed rules may be considered odd — if you roll double three times in a row, for example, you go to prison — yet the players willingly obey them all.

Hence, rules are important. They must be followed, and if they are not, the other players will enforce the rules. If the “cheating” player continues to refuse to follow the rules, the other players will kick him out of the game. Games are simply no fun if the players don’t follow the rules.

I mentioned that the rules themselves are arbitrary, and this is certainly true. That is, it doesn’t really matter what the rules are given that the players are abiding by them. There’s an old saying that goes “every man needs a code”, and it is the same with games. Every game needs a set of rules, the details of which are irrelevant. What matters is that some code exists and the players are voluntarily abiding by them.

The Element of Chance

Many games have an element of chance and Monopoly is no exception. Every turn you roll a set of dice which can work out one in 36 ways. If you land on “Community Chest” or “Take A Chance”, you have to… take a chance. The implication of placing the element of chance in a game is that you can do everything right and still lose. You can be the most strategic and smart player and still lose. This reflects life itself where there is always a little piece of something that is up the sheer luck. We can’t control it, and that is why it is extremely frustrating in both board games and life.

What Constitutes Cheating?

I stressed above the importance of rules in a game. How, then, does cheating fit into the picture? Cheating is met with opposition, of course, but what if a form of “cheating” is allowed in the game? In some ways, it isn’t really cheating if it is allowed in the game but that doesn’t necessarily make it right or consequence-free.

For instance, if you land on another person’s property in Monopoly and the owner does not notice you do not have to pay rent. This makes the “nice people” out there a little nervous, and some may actually feel bad, but if you get caught, you need only say “hey, I’m just playing by the rules!”

Still, such an act of mischief is not necessarily good and can create friction within the game (and outside the game). It may, in fact, be in your best interests in the long term to pay up, for you never know how this act of nobility may pay off in the future. Personally, I like to use it as a lesson. I will not pay rent if you don’t notice, but I’ll also often inform the other player after they roll. Doing such is a way of saying “here’s a warning; you better pay attention.”

Success is Exponential

A phenomenon that eventually happens in Monopoly is that a player gets a few lucky breaks and then before anyone knows it, the game is over. This is another frustrating element of Monopoly that reflects reality. However, as opposed to looking at this pessimistically, I’m inclined to consider the optimistic perspective.

Exponentials can absolutely destroy your life, but they can also make it extraordinary. Let’s say, for example, that you become 1% worse every day. In one year you will be:

(0.99)³⁶⁵ = 0.0255 = 2.55%

Getting 1% worse every day for a year means that you would be 2.55% of what you were one year ago. But let’s look at getting 1% better every day:

(1.01)³⁶⁵ = 37.78 = 3,778%

Getting 1% better every day for a year means that you would be 3,778% of what you were one year ago. Clearly, you want exponentials to work for you as opposed to against you. When you are winning in Monopoly, they are working for you. When you are losing, they are working against you.

Why Does Monopoly Break Up Relationships?

Monopoly wrecks havoc on relationships and families because there are elements of reality built into the game. There’s an element of chance, meaning no matter how well you play you may still lose. There’s also allowance for mischief; you are not required to be honest with paying your rent. It allows to sometimes malicious nature of humanity to rear its ugly head in the quest for success. Finally, hope vanishes exponentially as the winning player gets a few lucky breaks and before you know it the game is over.

It’s easy to say “it’s just a game” when the final pieces are put away, but that often isn’t what happens. Tensions are often high for days following the game. Why? Because it’s not just a game. It’s a game built on elements of reality, and reality is frustrating. Hence, it truly is a great opportunity to practice virtue — amor fati and all. After all, if one cannot accept the outcome of a board game, how could one possibly accept their unlucky fate?

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.



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