The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Monopoly

The name of the game is Monopoly.  The object of the game is to win.  You win by having the most net worth at the end of the game or by being the last player left after all other players have gone bankrupt.

Basically, your goal is to collect money and property – as much as possible, by any means available.

Most people are probably familiar with Monopoly, which makes it a good example for a thought experiment.

Imagine that four friends are playing Monopoly and a fifth friend shows up and asks to get into the game even though some number of turns have already passed.  How can this fifth friend be integrated into the game?

One way is to start the person the way everyone else started: at Go, with $1500 and a pair of dice.  The beginning is the logical place to start, after all.  This method presents problems, though.  The four original players have had many turns to increase their wealth and their earning potential.  Many good properties have already been bought.  Monopolies may have already been established.  Depending on how late in the game it is, this fifth player may be at some great disadvantage.  Imagine if 90% of the properties on the board are already owned.  The fifth player has virtually no chance of winning – of surviving on the board – under these circumstances.

Another way is to grant the person some portion of the money/property on the board.  You could total the value of the properties each player owns, average the totals, and then randomly assign the new player  unowned properties until that average is approximated.  You could do the same for money.  However, if there isn’t enough unowned property to do this, you’d have to take property away from some of the players who are already playing.  How can this be done fairly?  Should the property be taken from the winning player(s), or equally from all?

Another way is to simply restart the game.  This isn’t necessarily fair to the players who were doing well – their good luck and good strategy ends up going unrewarded.  However, the player(s) who think(s) he/she/they would have won can at least declare victory in this case.  In my experience, this is the most commonly chosen option for inserting a new player into an existing game, for the simple reason that usually at least half of the players are not winning and usually the choice of methods comes down to a loosely democratic vote:  All of the players who are losing choose to restart.

Aside from the highly practical use that this line of thinking has in actually inserting new players into existing games – a situation I have encountered in life from time to time – we can also consider the larger implications, like when we insert new players into the more realistic economic systems presented by, for instance, the economy.  Imagine, for instance, that half the population of some country was playing some game analogous to Monopoly – attempting to acquire money and property and personal enrichment – for years, or decades, or centuries.  Imagine then that the other half demanded to be inserted into the game.  How would we fairly insert these newcomers?

Obviously this question is not simply theoretical.  Various large population groups have been granted property rights in our history – women, for instance, and African Americans – rights which amount to $1500 and a pewter thimble.  These groups were then allowed to compete freely with the people who already owned almost all of the property, people who were busily going through the Monopoly winning strategies of bankrupting whoever they could and consolidating and developing their assets.

Just letting someone into the game doesn’t establish fairness.  These groups weren’t really given a chance.  Even those who did start off with some property – many former slaves were given land during Reconstruction, and women could always inherit an estate from a husband or father – were still at a disadvantage.  Imagine starting a game of Monopoly with a house on Baltic Avenue when another player has hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place.

In the game of the American economy, women, African Americans, and immigrant groups have had to claw their way up from the bottom with the help of luck, charity, and government aid.  It’s no wonder that the players who are already winning want to deny entry to immigrants, why they fought to keep women from having the right to own property.  It’s no wonder that the players who aren’t doing so well want to restart the game and distribute everything evenly.  But when we assess some data – the wage gap between men and women, for instance – it’s important to keep in mind that some of the players started late.  If women owned half the property and controlled half the wealth in the American economy, would there still be a wage gap?

And before we say that some group has had enough opportunity to improve their lot, let’s ask ourselves how many turns we would need before we caught up in a game of Monopoly if we started fifty turns late.

Again, no solution presents itself.  What is fairness?  How can all players be satisfied with a solution?  Certainly whatever happens, it will require the cooperation of people who don’t currently acknowledge that there is a significant problem with how the game was set up in the first place.

June 4, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Feminism, Game Theory | , , , | 3 Comments