- man astride a rearing horse
- money bag
- old shoe
- top hat
Every symbol has a message.
Alan Axelrod explores the underlying meaning of each token in his text Everything I Know About Business I Learned from Monopoly. Picking the racecar indicates a gusty risk taker; selecting the old shoe indicates a laid-back observer. On the other hand, giving off such an impression may serve as a decoy, a means of establishing false pretenses.
Many hardly consider the message they are sending when they select their token, or that they are sending a message at all. Darrow's original handmade sets did not even include tokens. Instead, players used odd trinkets lying around the house, such as a button or a pebble, to represent them on the board. It wasn't until Parker Brothers published the game that tokens were included.
Though the tokens may not serve as identity markers of the individual player, they do serve as identity markers of a particular culture. The top hat and Scottie were distinct cultural markers of the privileged class in the 1930s, just as the thimble and the old shoe were of the working class. Likewise, the battleship was a nod to World War I, just as the man astride a rearing horse was a reminder of the untamed West. Each token calls forth the overarching culture of capitalist consumption.
The tokens are not the only cultural signifiers in the game. Every symbol has a message. Consider the cultural scenes portrayed on the Chance and Community Chest cards. From hospital bills to school taxes, from beauty contests to opening nights at the opera house, manifestations of a capitalist economy are embedded into every aspect of the game. The culture is all consuming. Conscious of it or not, the player is enveloped into the culture of the game with every decision and move they make.
Identity is thus a strong force at play in this game. Consider these
words from Ian Angus' Primal Scenes of Communication:
Culture is based on the communication of experiences within a group, such that the experiences of others clarify and shape those of individuals. Thus, the medium, or manner, of communication that prevails in a specific context influences the opinions and beliefs which solidify cultural identities, and, especially important, constitutes the mode of attachment to such beliefs. Such modes of attachment compose the affective bond which characterizes a given culture. (78)
It takes at least two to gather around a Monopoly board and begin a game. Together individual players learn collectively the nuances and tricks of Monopoly. Game play is a collective endeavor. Monopoly, the medium of communication, prevailing in this specific context of game play influences the opinions and beliefs which solidify cultural identities, and, especially important, constitutes the mode of attachment to such beliefs. Games induces culture.
Those cultural identities, make no mistake, are not that of an old
shoe or a battleship. Rather those cultural identities are that of a
consumer. Consumption, after all, is what the group experiences as they
circle the board. Thus, playing Monopoly induces the culture
of consumption. Again, to reference Angus:
In the twentieth century the stage of mass culture began. Mass culture replaced "two worlds" of class culture with a single self-enclosed world of industrially produced cultural goods. Cultural uniformity was established against the older forms of regional, ethnic, and linguistic differences through the mechanical reproduction of cultural goods. Cultural uniqueness, such as it was, was expressed as a sum of consumer choices, from a homogenous set of goods available, in principle, to all. (89-90)
Cultural uniqueness. Perhaps that is the significance of the tokens, being able to distinguish oneself from the mass. Yet, this self-expression is defined by "choosing from a homogenous set of goods," suggesting that what one has is in effect who they are. As these choices are limited, identity is predefined.
Here again is a difference between play and games. "Playing house" varies in every instance. There may be a mother, father, and children one time and a grandmother, a dragon, and a doctor another time. No matter how many times Monopoly is played, there will always be a winner and a loser. Reflecting a culture, play mirrors various types of lifestyles and values of a particular people group. Inducing a culture, games evoke a particular lifestyle and value set across all people groups.
As aforementioned, the success of Darrow's Monopoly could be
attributed to the standardization of his board. Even during a period
of widespread poverty, Monopoly flew off the shelves of stores
across the country. Monopoly was then and is now an icon of mass
culture, because it reinforced the culture of consumption and actualized
an idealized capitalist system, detailed further in "Capitalist
Ventures." For now, ruminate on these words from Marshall McLuhan:
Games are dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions.(Understanding Media 237)
Whether Monopoly is played in a group of two in a family room
parlor or in a group of five hundred in a tournament arena, the identity
one brings to the table is not important. Rather, it is the identity
everyone walks away with that matters.