Research Papers

Leisure and Lessons: the Transformation of Board Games into Mass Media

Introduction and Primary Themes

The board games stacked in the corner of one’s family room might at first glance seem unnoteworthy, but deeper investigation reveals that games are meaningful cultural artifacts illuminating the evolving values of the societies in which they are created. From elite origins in antiquity, board games developed over time into mass media uniquely capable of putting players into a first-person perspective, both as consumers of social information and as cultural actors. The attributes of board games as a mode of communication and societal persuasion make possible a more active—and potentially more engaging—relationship with ideas than what many other forms of mass communication allow. These features may be effectively demonstrated by discussion of the origins of board games and the first-person qualities inherent to gameplay, and by examination of how board games transformed into a genre of mass communications during the rapid technological and social changes in America during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a remarkable time when board games began to find their full expression as mass media. 

Origins

Board games have been a favorite pastime of cultures dating back to when game pieces were invented, approximately 5000 years ago. The oldest dice thus far found are a collection of 49 delicately carved stones discovered at the 5000-year-old Başur Höyük burial mound in southeast Turkey. These early Bronze Age stones were painted in green, red, blue, black, and white, and radiocarbon dating traced them back to 3100-2900 BCE. This type of Bronze Age polychromy signifies the owners’ prosperity because such rare and expensive pigments served as markers of affluence. Similarly, carved dice have also been unearthed at ancient archeological sites in Syria and Iraq as isolated, solitary objects that had been previously thought to represent counting stones. The Başur Höyük finding confirmed that these tokens were, instead, game pieces. 

These discoveries trace the concept of board games to an origin in the Fertile Crescent, known to be one of the birthplaces of societies that began to practice and organize around agriculture at large scale. The beginnings of permanent urban settlements, multi-layered social organization, commercial trade, decorative arts, law, science, engineering, and mathematics can all be linked to this region as one of the core propagating global sites of complex social structure. Board games, too, may be counted as another of the foundational contributions to world culture by this “Cradle of Civilization.” 

Archeological findings indicate that board games were played among the upper classes of Mesopotamia. Several beautifully crafted boards were uncovered in 1928 by British archeologist Leonard Wooley in the ancient Sumerian cemetery of Ur. Other archeologists working across the Middle East have found additional versions of this so-called “Royal Game of Ur,” the first known complete board game. Wooley’s discovery, dated c.2600 BCE, revealed wooden boards, each featuring a face of 20 squares richly inlaid with shell, precious lapis lazuli, and red limestone. Five of these squares display flower rosettes and are thought to have been particularly lucky. Other squares show piercing eyes, circled dot patterns, and varied arrays of five dots. The boards resemble a possible precursor to backgammon. These design elements may seem inconsequential, but they demonstrate that the Sumerian elite had sufficient leisure time to play board games, the power and resources to marshal artisans to craft and manufacture games, and the ability to disseminate Sumerian ideas and culture throughout regions where archeological evidence of these games can be found.

When Wooley discovered the game boards in Ur, the mechanics of gameplay remained mysterious. Then, in the early 1980s, British philologist Irving Finkel translated a c.177 BCE Babylonian clay tablet and ascertained that it described the gameplay of the Royal Game of Ur. According to Finkel’s translation, two players used five game pieces, competing to move from one end of the board to another. There is evidence that these games were widely recognized, at least among the ruling and upper classes. A passage from a 7th century BCE cuneiform military dispatch recovered from the remains of the library of King Assurbanipal of Assyria alludes to the Royal Game of Ur with a pun that has no preliminary introduction, suggesting that the metaphor must have been unmistakably recognizable in the way that a chess or checkers metaphor might be today. This dispatch is addressed to the king himself and describes the commander’s confidence in winning an ongoing battle, predicting his impending victory by relating it to a strategy to win this board game: “Your troops, well-being falls to [them]; Let them go out from House 5, House 6, House 7: Alone I will make my exit, and get as far as the…”  The numbered “houses” allude to three of the spaces on the game board.

The structure of play of the Royal Game of Ur models the Mesopotamian focus on siege warfare, as players fought for mastery of a central row of twelve spaces, employing offensive and defensive strategies that either blocked adversaries’ pieces or jumped over them. Linear game piece movement along this central row may reflect a corresponding linear geographic mindset formed by the dependence of these “hydraulic” empires on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the primary resources for commerce, shipping, irrigation, and other essentials of daily life. 

Board games subsequently multiplied during their five millennia of existence into a wide variety of designs. When examining the history of games, the game boards and pieces themselves, and any preserved records of their rules, form the primary sources that offer revealing narratives about the past. These myriad game concepts are all determined by the culture in which they evolved. Nevertheless, even with this variety, as we can see from the Royal Game of Ur, board games from the very beginning could center the player in a role-playing simulation in which cultural information and values could be absorbed and then repeatedly personified by the player in additional episodes of gameplay. Gameplay, in turn, held the potential to influence the beliefs and perspectives of the player, as we can observe in the case of the Assyrian military commander’s dispatch to King Assurbanipal where the commander presented his real-life conflict through the language and viewpoint of the Royal Game of Ur.

The Emergence of Mass Media

Two key dimensions identify the transition of a mode of communication into a mass medium: range and durability. Movable-type printing was the original mass medium. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press in 1440 initiated waves of knowledge and ideas that propagated across Europe. Printed materials could be transported with ease across a wide geographic range, and the capacity of the printing press to duplicate many copies allowed text to become “fixed” for broader dissemination. Movable-type printing is an exemplar of how a new mass communication technology could not only transmit information but also potentially re-shape and re-direct societies. 

Many media fulfill the definition of mass media beyond mass-printed books, including media within the realm of popular culture. Photography, broadcast media, greeting cards, popular music, movies, and even advertising have also evolved into mass media and have joined the marketplace of ideas. Consider the motion-graphic Burma-Shave advertisements that dotted the highways in the early 20th century United States: these billboards were placed sequentially along the road to be read as motorists drove past, reaching millions. 

Similarly, board games also evolved into mass media. Indeed, the expensively decorated Royal Game of Ur game boards and pieces were durable, but they were few and not pervasively distributed. With neither the capacity nor intent to reach large audiences, most board games during much of the five millennia since their appearance were typically played only by elites. This hurdle to widespread access was much like the one that written media encountered before the invention of the movable-type printing press. It was only through the technological innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States that board games became prolifically accessible, transforming into mass media and joining the marketplace of ideas.

The American Industrial Revolution’s Impact on Board Games 

Just as the process of modernization and the invention of the movable-type printing press set the stage for print media to become widely distributed, so, too, did 19th-century American social development and advancing industrial technologies allow board games to become as easily reproducible as printed books. The United States during this period was marked by accelerating population growth that included shifts from rural settings to urban ones, and then from urban to suburban. Immigration contributed to population booms among major cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston. Industrialization allowed the fabrication of products that once took lengthy and laborious effort to be, instead, factory-produced at speeds unimaginable in prior periods. Well before Henry Ford invented the mass assembly line in 1913, several advances in manufacturing saved time and energy, allowing goods to be made at lower costs, greater efficiencies, and rising production volumes. The steam engine, the cotton gin, and the telegraph are prime examples of transformative inventions during this age of machines. 

Innovations in mass production and image printing were the most crucial industrial tools that nascent board game producers during this period would exploit. Increasingly sophisticated papermaking and printing technologies made the publication of intricately composed board games less expensive and newly accessible to the lower and middle classes. The technological innovation of chromolithography allowed colorful and graphically complex game board prints to be more efficiently produced. Chromolithography was invented in 1837 by the French printer Godefroy Engelmann. In this process, separate stones were used for individual colors. A print could be passed through the press sequentially for each color, keeping all layered images aligned. Chromolithography made possible multi-colored printing without the time-consuming painting and tinting by hand that had been previously necessary for multi-color prints. 

In the United States, chromolithography was pioneered and improved in the industrial Northeast. In 1846, a mere nine years after Engelmann’s invention, Richard March Hoe perfected the rotary lithographic press, nicknamed the “Lightning Press” because of its ability to print far more quickly than previously manufactured presses. While searching for a lucrative use for his new chromolithographic press, an entrepreneur named Milton Bradley was inspired to produce and market his new board games beginning in the 1860s. 

As the movable-type printing press did for the written word, the lithographic press and its technological successors such as chromolithography did for the board game. Production became more efficient and lower in cost, and the audience that games could reach expanded dramatically. Lithography helped to catapult board games from an activity of the few into a new role as a mass medium for the many. 

Not only did printing technology put less expensive board games within financial reach of broad swaths of the American population, advancing postal technology, scale, and organization also brought improved accessibility to goods delivered by mail as well as more intentional targeting of rural areas for advertising. Small towns previously beyond the easy reach of national brands were now readily accessible through innovations in the United States postal system. These innovations included bulk mail rates that facilitated catalog delivery, rural free delivery (RFD), and parcel post, which allowed an affordable method of sending larger parcels, including boxed board game sets. Brands such as Sears and Montgomery Ward took full advantage of these mail delivery improvements to create a consumer revolution spearheaded by the rise of mail-order catalogs.  

These new developments were a part of the collective “market revolution” that led to substantial changes in the ways that goods were distributed, as the advent of the concurrent “transportation revolution” allowed products to be shipped all across America at far greater speeds with the growth of the railroad system. These revolutions also led to a spread in consumerism because innovations offered even rural and small town customers access to niche goods and services that might never have been available to them previously. These changes, along with the increased number and pervasiveness of advertisements in print media during this era, appealed to prospering middle and lower classes that had more money to purchase goods designed for entertainment and more leisure time outside of work hours to enjoy pursuits such as board games.

While the industrial changes of the 19th century paved the way for improved efficiency of manufacture and ease of delivery of board games to a population in economic transition, social changes also contributed to the increased accessibility and desirability of board games. Improved living standards, attributable to more advanced housing, electricity, cooking, and sewage technologies, left many free to indulge in new leisure activities. Even the simple advent of cleaner home lighting options allowed families and communities to gather in the evenings where dim and smoky lighting had often discouraged social activities before. These changes coincided with the focus of work moving away from the home, allowing the home to take on a heightened role as the center of leisure pastimes. Average weekly earnings increased during this period, while prices for mass-produced goods decreased. These factors contributed to flourishing consumer interest in items that facilitated entertainment: cards, game tables, and nighttime lighting sales increased, spurred on by the concept that entertainment could be purchased as goods. 

Simultaneously, the common, or public, school system was expanding throughout 19th century America, spurred on by the growth of the economy and the population. One of the goals of such common schooling was the moral education of children: schools were expected to provide a uniform curriculum and infuse their teaching with moral lessons demonstrating the types of expected behaviors. Textbooks of that era taught: “…love of country, love of God, duty to parents, the necessity to develop habits of thrift, honesty and hard work in order to accumulate property, the certainty of progress, and perfection of the United States.” Board games also took on this responsibility of moral education. Therefore, it is unsurprising that leading board game developers of the time, most notably Milton Bradley, assumed roles as educational theorists.

American Puritanism Embodied in Board Games

The inception of America’s history of mass production of board games in the mid 19th century is marked by the publication of The Mansion of Happiness: An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement in 1843 by W. & S. B. Ives of Salem, Massachusetts. Lithography had become a popular medium by this time, and the technology could quickly reproduce multiple single-color impressions of Ives’s board game, which were then tinted in watercolors by hand before being packaged for sale. The game was deeply influenced by the Second Great Awakening, an early 19th century period of Protestant religious revival in the United States, the primary component of which was a shift away from a Calvinist belief in predestination toward the concept that individuals could choose to save their soul from damnation. This ideal, moreover, expressed itself in evangelical Protestant media as attempts to improve the moral values of American society.  

The Second Great Awakening’s religious and didactic infrastructure included print media, revival music, and even board games. The Mansion of Happiness focused on teaching Puritan values and featured a 66-space board around which players would race. Each of the board’s spaces portrayed simple moralistic virtues and vices, with the goal of reaching eternal salvation at the end of the track, manifested as the titular “Mansion of Happiness.” Landing on virtuous spaces such as piety, honesty, temperance, gratitude, humility, or generosity propelled players further along the board. In contrast, vice spaces such as idleness, audacity, immodesty, or cruelty hindered a player’s progression toward their objective. The instructions for playing The Mansion of Happiness include the following verse at the head, highlighting the emphasis on piety: 

At this amusement each will find,

A moral fit t’improve the mind:

It gives to those their proper due

Who various paths of vice pursue

And shows (while vice destruction brings)

That good from every virtue springs

Be virtuous then and forward press, 

To gain the seat of happiness. 

 

The game caught on quickly with an American population who had more leisure time but for whom Christian piety remained an essential value, and The Mansion of Happiness was considered wildly successful after selling 4000 copies in its first ten months. So popular was the game that copies were brought along with settlers as they attempted to trek the Oregon Trail.

Even the gameplay mechanics reflected a Puritanical moral viewpoint. Since dice were associated with Satan, gambling, and moral failure, and therefore were not an appropriate mechanism to move players forward in The Mansion of Happiness, a spinning device called a “teetotum” was developed instead. The pin-and-plate teetotum Ives created for this game was an ivory dowel sharpened to a point and inserted into an octagonal ivory plate. 

Overall, The Mansion of Happiness was a didactic simulation in miniature in which players were exposed not only to the specific beliefs the game was designed to communicate but also served as cultural actors modeling success or failure as functions of how closely each player adhered to the promoted cultural values of the game. These characteristics make The Mansion of Happiness one of the earliest mass-produced examples of “persuasive gaming,” where real and theoretical systems are modeled and players interact with the model, molding beliefs and opinions during gameplay. Ian Bogost of the Georgia Institute of Technology noted: 

…games and simulations are systems of interlocking parts and behaviors. The world is also made of interlocking parts and behaviors. This parallel structure gives games a unique purchase on representing how things work in the world. And because games are representational, they can also depict how things should work—that is, they can make arguments about which worldly behaviors are desirable or undesirable.

 

While The Mansion of Happiness was produced at a new industrial scale, it yet retained a fundamental feature of board games traceable back to the Royal Game of Ur: players could be cultural actors in the first-person in addition to being consumers of social information. This fundamental paradigm would continue to be followed in many subsequent American board games.

Milton Bradley’s Impact on American Board Games: Individualism, Self-Reliance and Upward Mobility

Although the early 19th century brought the innovations and social shifts necessary for the initial rise of the board game industry, it would not be until the latter half of the 1800s that American board games truly began to be produced and marketed at mass scales. This explosion of growth was primarily because of the efforts of one man, Milton Bradley. Bradley was born in 1836, and his early life was full of displacement and migration as his father frequently moved the family from place to place, searching for better economic opportunities. Nineteenth-century America was a time when comparatively widespread upward social mobility became possible. Alexis de Tocqueville described this new social environment:

When social conditions are nearly equal, men are constantly changing their situations in life: there is still a class of menials and a class of masters, but these classes are not always composed of the same individuals, still less of the same families…at any moment, a servant may become a master, and he aspires to rise to that condition. 

 

Bradley assumed his father’s migrant lifestyle, frequently moving in search of opportunity and working furiously to improve his station in life. Bradley explored many different avenues for upward social mobility, one being his acquisition of a chromolithograph press. 

The chromolithograph press offered a technology to mass-produce multi-color written documents, images, or illustrations, or “chromos” as they had popularly become labeled.  Some viewed these crowd-pleasing chromos as a debasement of high art and culture, so much so that the editor of The Nation, E.L. Godkin, decried this widespread dissemination of inexpensive, duplicative imagery as representative of America’s deteriorating moral and social order into a “chromo-civilization.” 

Bradley, however, wanted to obtain a chromolithographic press not as an avenue for artistic expression but for commercial ventures reflecting the times, taking advantage of the growing popularity of the medium. In search of a press, Bradley sought out his friend, George Tapley, a bookbinder in Providence, Rhode Island, and Tapley immediately arranged for one to be shipped to Bradley in Springfield, Massachusetts. Now a chromolithographer, Bradley obtained a precious image on which he hoped to capitalize: a portrait of a smoothly shaven man who would later become the United States President, Abraham Lincoln. Shortly after, however, Lincoln grew a beard before assuming the presidency, rendering Bradley’s inventory of prints worthless. 

Despondent over his business plan’s utter failure, Bradley again contacted his old friend Tapley, who visited and offered to play a board game with the down-on-his-luck Bradley. Playing games with Tapley sparked ideas in Bradley’s mind, prompting him to immediately set to work creating his own board game that same year, which he published using his chromolithographic press in 1860 as The Checkered Game of Life. Despite the earlier success of Ives’ The Mansion of Happiness, games were still often frowned upon since prevailing American beliefs of the day presumed that idle time should not be used for play but instead for “seeking a state of grace.” Bradley thought that by preserving a moral element in his game and tapping into the remnants of the Second Great Awakening, he could sway customers to buy it as an instructional gift for their families. Moreover, while his game was imbued with lessons on morality, Bradley also introduced an innovative new emphasis on judgment and decision-making alongside the element of chance.

Bradley’s innovation was incorporating the developing American ideals of individual sovereignty and self-determination into his game. Many aspects of these ideas can be traced to the influence of Transcendentalism on Bradley. Transcendentalism was a movement born in New England c.1836, and two of its key tenets were the belief in the power of the individual and the value of self-reliance. Both concepts were explored in media of the time, including The Checkered Game of Life. The primary goal of this game was to teach players about various moral shortcomings that they might face in real life and the importance of actively avoiding them. Bradley, however, also adopted many aspects of Transcendental philosophy, advancing these concepts in his works related to the kindergarten movement, childhood education, and play. 

In The Checkered Game of Life, gameplay consisted of a character moving across a board representing life to eventually reach “Happy Old Age” (described on the game board as the ripe old age of 50 years.) The game board presented many obstacles to the players, each representing a moral deficiency potentially encountered in life, and players were challenged to devise strategies to escape or skirt these dangerous traps. Like The Mansion of Happiness, Bradley’s game also rejected dice to determine gameplay since they were still viewed as a sinful instrument of gambling. Instead, Bradley designed his own teetotum for the game, a simple cardboard hexagon with a wooden pin through the center, which could be spun like a top to determine how many spaces a player could advance. 

One striking difference from the mechanics of play of earlier American games, such as The Mansion of Happiness, was Bradley’s introduction of player decision-making into The Checkered Game of Life. Movement across the game board was determined not only by the teetotum’s spin but also by the player’s choice of what direction to take. Although some of the game board’s squares display lithographed hands that point the player in a specific direction, most squares required the player to choose what the player believed to be the most advantageous path. This decision-making feature captured the public’s attention, contributing to the success of the game.  

Although Transcendentalism as a movement was already on the wane by 1860, some of its essential influences on American self-perception persisted, the most important of which were the concepts of individualism and self-reliance mirrored in Bradley’s game. Players not only inhabited a role during the game, they could also observe their opponents’ level of success or failure as those opponents adapted their gameplay through individual choices within Bradley’s simulated version of the normative social constructs and values of the time. Moreover, as game after game was played, this group dynamic constituted an iterative process of absorbing the cultural values promoted by The Checkered Game of Life while concurrently testing outcomes of individual decisions to maneuver through those cultural values.

The game spaces in The Checkered Game of Life also embodied Alexis de Tocqueville’s vision of the American Dream and the quest for upward social mobility that motivated both Milton Bradley and his father. Children were considered central to mobility aspirations in lower- and middle-class family life in the United States since a coveted social goal was to secure improved economic and social standing for future generations. Familial transfer of goods as well as character were deemed essential components of upward mobility, and Bradley’s games modeled these beliefs. 

Ives’ earlier The Mansion of Happiness game board displayed spaces that define a Puritan moral vision of success or failure: “Justice,” “Piety,” “Temperance,” “Passion,” “Immodesty,” “Charity,” “Prudence,” and “Cruelty.” In contrast, Bradley’s The Checkered Game of Life spaces reveal an evolved definition of American success that was rooted not only in moral behavior but also in a conviction that disciplined perseverance and individual ambition could lead to upward mobility: game spaces included “School,” “Influence,” “Fame,” “Honesty,” “Industry,” “College,” “Government Contract.” Informed by his religious upbringing and motivated by the concepts of individual sovereignty and upward social advancement, Bradley created a form of persuasive gaming that immediately fascinated the American public, and The Mansion of Happiness went on to sell 40,000 copies within months. 

Gilded Age Concepts in American Board Games

As the 19th century neared its conclusion, American society became increasingly secularized, individualistic, and materialistic as wealth became the defining characteristic of success for many. Some ideals of Protestant America followed a parallel path. There was a prevailing promotion of the belief that the acquisition of material goods was a sign of God’s blessing, and that being a good Christian and a good capitalist were fundamentally consonant. These developments were among many that ushered in the tumultuous Gilded Age in America, an era characterized by unprecedented economic progress and prosperity marred by corruption, inequality, financial speculation, and economic crises and panics. Naturally, these significant issues were explored by mass media publishers of the time, including board game makers. 

Within democratic societies, power ostensibly lies within the hands of the people. Therefore, mass media are powerful tools that can be wielded to affect public opinion through the marketplace of ideas. With their emergence as mass media in America, board games joined this marketplace of ideas and were put to use as a means of communication and social influence. Instead of adult males serving as the sole audience to be influenced, board games were aimed more generally at all family members. This included not only adult men but also women and children, who together as families spent their expanded leisure time socializing in their increasingly well-lit home parlors. Board games, thus, offered avenues for social and political ideas to be widely and deeply disseminated.

Not all were pleased by the nation’s shift towards rampant capitalism during the Gilded Age, especially given that hard-earned income was also seen as being siphoned away as taxes levied by unaccountable bureaucracies to be put to murky uses. Social theorist Henry George became demoralized by the seeming paradox of extensive poverty in America despite so much wealth. In his 1879 treatise Progress and Poverty, George outlined his theory of land and labor, proposing a single land value tax on privately held lands as a remedy to better balance economic resources between wage earners and landowners: 

Deduction and induction have brought us to the same truth: Unequal ownership of land causes an unequal distribution of wealth. Because unequal ownership of land is inseparable from the recognition of individual property in land, it necessarily follows that there is only one remedy for the unjust distribution of wealth: We must make land common property. 

 

Progress and Poverty was wildly popular and sold over three million copies in the 1890s, more than any other book other than the Bible. Followers of George’s principles came to be known as Georgists, and while they believed individuals should be entitled to profit from their work, they also advocated that profit obtained from a public source, referred to as the “Commons,” should be divided equally among the public through the use of the Single Tax. George’s concepts conflicted with the Gilded Age’s ascendant ideals, and adherents of both viewpoints used mass media to advocate for their positions.

Enter Lizzie Magie, a Georgist and aspiring board game creator. In 1904, while living in Brentwood, Maryland, Magie published The Landlord’s Game, conceived to warn of the ills of unfettered capitalism. The game consisted of players moving around a square board’s edges, buying and selling properties as they advanced on the board. Players started on the square titled “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages,” and progressed around the gameboard, spending money on Absolute Necessity spaces marked “Fuel,” “Shelter,” “Food,” and “Clothing,” while trying to earn honest wages in Natural Opportunity to Labor spaces marked “Farmlands,” “Coal Mines,” “Oil Fields,” and “Timberland,” all the while paying increasing rents to owners of spaces such as “Boomtown,” “Rickety Row,” “Slambang Alley,” and “Grand Boulevard.” The game’s ultimate goal was to send the other players spiraling into bankruptcy, with the winner finishing as the richest and sole remaining player. The ruthless crushing of opponents modeled, through first-hand role-playing, the cruelty of an unrestrained capitalist system.

Magie’s game, however, also included her innovation of a second tier of rules for alternative persuasive gameplay. Instead of giving the land monopolist absolute power, players under this alternative set of rules were provided with funds at the start of the game, with cooperation among players encouraged, and gameplay continued without the landlord acquiring rental income. This “Single Tax” version of the game was devised to persuade players that George’s economic ideas could benefit everybody by equalizing opportunities and raising wages. Magie’s game, thus, differed fundamentally from those like Milton Bradley’s. While The Checkered Game of Life gave each player sole individual power over their own actions, The Landlord’s Game offered players a simulated experience of how uncontrolled competition hindered overall social success, and how maximal benefit could be achieved through cooperation instead. 

If elements of Magie’s game remind one of another, it is no coincidence: The Landlord’s Game eventually evolved through unexpected twists and turns into the popular game of Monopoly. Magie’s game provides an illuminating example of how board games offered publishers the opportunity to disseminate cultural, economic, and political values through the marketplace of ideas. Although a primary purpose of a game is amusement, consumers of games are more than just passive recipients of ideas. Games are the only mass medium that can potentially engage users by putting them in the first person as they make decisions to drive themselves across the game board. Consumers of ideas gleaned from The Landlord’s Game might exclaim, “I landed in the Poor House!” or “I won a monopoly!” Players could learn through gameplay both how prevailing business methods theoretically functioned and how alternative economic structures might operate. Under the Single Tax version of Magie’s game, for example, players could vote to cooperate, socializing their unearned income and achieving egalitarian prosperity for everyone. 

The Landlord’s Game was embraced by the inhabitants of the progressive village of Arden, Delaware, one of several utopian American communities that sprang up built upon George’s Single Tax principle. It was in Arden that Lizzie Magie met resident Upton Sinclair and other progressive luminaries. So powerful were the lessons that could be derived through first-person experience during persuasive gameplay that radical economist Scott Nearing, also a member of the Arden community and one of the most popular professors at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, incorporated The Landlord’s Game into his curriculum. He later wrote that: “the game was used to show the anti-social nature of monopoly.” Liberal economist Rexford G. Tugwell, a member of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” also used the game in his Columbia University economics classroom, and it became a hit among left-wing intellectuals on other college campuses as well. 

It may seem surprising that Magie’s socialist game evolved into Monopoly, a board game that even today serves as a popular symbol of laissez-faire capitalism. The remarkable story of this transformation begins with the acquisition of Magie’s game by the Parker Brothers through a circuitous route.

Parker Brothers, the Great Depression, and the Evolution of Monopoly

George Parker had always been fascinated by games, and as he grew up, his career began to revolve around them. In his early years in Salem, Massachusetts, Parker began creating his own original games. As a 16-year-old in 1883, he modified an older moralistic game by including lettered cards, adding a borrowing rule, and introducing a new objective of becoming the richest player by obtaining loans and winning stock speculations.  This goal resonated deeply with the many Americans of the time who were captivated by the prospects of wealth, and Banking became his community’s new favorite game. 

Part of Parker’s success as a game creator can be attributed to his ability to write clear, understandable game instructions that allowed him to communicate to a mass audience. He was also a natural salesman, and in the weeks before Christmas, 1883, Parker sold all 500 copies of the first production run of his game.  The popularity of Banking can be traced partly to the American public’s growing trust and confidence in the nation’s banking system. Banking propelled Parker into his immensely successful game business and was the foundation for an enterprise that was to produce a variety of cherished board games for subsequent generations of players.

Using his profits from Banking, Parker founded his own company through which he both marketed games of his invention and distributed games from other sources. By 1887, Parker became the sole distributor for W. & S. B. Ives, the first American board game publisher and an industry powerhouse. Parker was soon joined by his brothers to form the Parker Brothers company. Capitalist ideas inspired the competitive nature of many of this era’s board games. The rags-to-riches story was a key motivator of the American lower class, notably popularized by Horatio Alger’s stories focused on youth of humble origins rising to a middle-class lifestyle. Success in this era was measured not only by social and moral standing but increasingly by wealth accumulation. Although Alger’s aspirational novels fortified an egalitarian success parable that was never universally realized, the prevailing opinion of the American public considered this “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” concept as an essential component of the American Dream. 

Seeing the success of these stories, George Parker and his brothers developed a game with a similar rags-to-riches theme to appeal to ambitious rural and urban lower classes, including the waves of poor immigrants arriving on American shores. The Office Boy, introduced by Parker Brothers in 1889, placed the players as the plucky protagonists in their own Horatio Alger story: beginning as a lowly corporate office boy, players moved around the hexagonal board with their primary goal to amass material goods and advance their career through promotions to mail carrier, then shipper, then salesman, then junior partner, and then head of the branch. The goal was to reach the center space, winning by becoming Head of the Firm. Gone were the earlier moral references on the game boards of The Mansion of Happiness and The Checkered Game of Life: in sharp contrast, The Office Boy’s game board related success exclusively to business acumen. Game spaces such as “Promptness: Advance to Carrying Mail,” “Integrity: Advance to Jr. Partner,” “Negligence: Go Back to Stock Boy,” and “Profitable Business: Advance to Wealth” highlight these newly defined American aspirations. 

Stories and games like The Office Boy became so popular partly because of the rise of middle-class wealth and the emergence of vast fortunes in Gilded Age America. Free market capitalism offered the allure of upward social mobility through prosperity and riches, and successful board games of this period connected with the hopes and aspirations of players who used gameplay to learn about and simulate riding this newly apparent pathway to material success and status. 

This pathway existed because of technology and innovation driving immense growth and centralization of American industry in the late 1800s, known as “Big Business.” A parallel economic trend captured the public’s imagination in the late 1800s: the tremendous rise in the volume of agricultural commodities transported from across the Midwest to Chicago for storage and then shipment to the more urbanized East Coast. This was a form of Big Business known as “Big Agriculture,” fueled by an influx of labor and capital from abroad. The first American commodities exchange was established in 1848 to facilitate efficient, standardized methods to exchange products and capital between farmers and merchants. This newly formed Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) later served as the setting for Frank Norris’ immensely popular 1903 novel, The Pit. Centering on an obsessive wheat speculator in the trading pits of the CBOT and the aftermath of his greed, Norris’ novel was meant to protest the dire social consequences of relentless economic change. 

Once again, George Parker demonstrated his aptitude to capitalize swiftly on American’s changing attitudes and fascinations, and he used this popular book as inspiration for the 1904 game of Pit. Parker’s game allowed players to trade commodities such as wheat, barley, oats, and flax, until winning by gaining a “corner” on the market. In that same year, Parker met President Theodore Roosevelt and discovered that Pit was among the favorite games in the White House, prompting Parker’s realization that his games could touch the lives of Americans of every class. The game became the Parker Brothers’ first million-unit seller, and the company became immensely profitable.

The commercial success of Parker Brothers, however, failed to prepare the company for the disastrous plummet in sales at the inception of the Great Depression. Household budgets were decimated, and consumers were not buying games. In 1933, after three successive years of diminished sales numbers, the corporation suffered a $100,000 loss. Turning desperately from one idea to another in search of a new success, Parker settled on a little-known real estate board game that had come to be informally called “the monopoly gameas it was passed around among friends and neighbors. The Landlord’s Game had lost its anti-monopolistic message as game players found Magie’s Georgist vision of economic redistribution less compelling than the versions of gameplay in which players could mercilessly crush each other in a reflection of a profoundly ruthless capitalist society around them. 

This game was sold to Parker Brothers in 1935, not by Lizzie Magie, but by a man named Charles Darrow. By the 1930s, The Landlord’s Game had devolved from a legally patented and manufactured game into numerous informal homemade variations, with people exchanging sets they had created themselves and explaining varied rules casually by word of mouth. Darrow learned of “the monopoly game” and took advantage of its diminished popularity and scattered provenance to sell a hastily submitted patent to Parker Brothers, who renamed it Monopoly. 

Parker Brothers eventually learned of Darrow’s deceit but decided to move past Darrow’s deception when the company realized they could acquire Magie’s legitimate patent to The Landlord’s Game for a paltry sum and no royalties in a one-sided deal that became known as the “billion dollar Monopoly swindle.” In 1935, Monopoly by Parker Brothers took off, selling at the rate of 35,000 games per week as the company put all of its manufacturing resources behind the production of this single game. The return of dice as game pieces, displacing the pious teetotums of the earliest American board games, solidified the complete transition away from the promotion of Puritan values to the new, dominant emphasis on wealth acquisition. Seventeen-year-old Parker Brothers employee, Louis Vanne, recounted: 

Parker Brothers…rewrote the rules so it made them a little, not so complicated. The orders from the stores…they were going crazy…That’s all we did was Monopoly. Didn’t make any other game for two years. Because they couldn’t supply the demand.  

 

Monopoly became the most successful patented board game of all time and carried Parker Brothers through the severe economic challenges of the Great Depression. 

One reason for the explosive popularity of the game during this era was that Monopoly offered players, first-hand, a way to learn the mechanics of capitalism and real estate speculation while also indulging in the escapism of virtual competitive wealth accumulation when such opportunities were then even further beyond the reach of many than before. Philip Orbanes notes:

The game was initially thought to be too complicated for most players because of its reliance on financial calculations. It succeeded, though, because it arrived at a time when most people could only dream of handling large amounts of money, let alone acquiring property. Because it forced players to calculate like landlords, the game offered them much-needed vicarious pleasure.

 

Edward Parker, a grandnephew of George Parker, recalled: “During the Depression, people did not have enough money to go out to the shows … So they stayed home and played Monopoly. It also gave them a feeling of wealth. But what kept it going is the chance for individual gain. It appeals to the competitive nature of people.”   Monopoly, despite the profound challenges represented by the realities of the Great Depression, continued to model the elements of a frayed American Dream, attempting to persuade players that hard work, cunning, economic acumen, and a bit of luck were still all that was needed for anyone to achieve upward mobility.  

Board Games in the Present

Even with the advent of video games, board games today continue to be immensely popular. The industry is growing at an annual rate of 13% despite supply chain disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and a steep decline in the variety of social settings, such as board game cafes, that facilitate community gameplay. Tabletop games continue to evolve in ways that reflect changing social values. Wizards of the Coast, publisher of the popular tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, has begun to reform some inherently bigoted rules from the 50-year-old game. In 2014, the 5th edition of the game was published, removing sexist artwork and the rule mandating that the strength of female characters be less than that of males. In 2020, game publishers announced additional changes in response to ongoing protests against racism and police violence. In Dungeons & Dragons gameplay, one of the first steps to creating a character is choosing the character’s “race,” yet dark-skinned characters had been portrayed as inherently evil. Wizards of the Coast reformed these stereotypes, making orcs and dark elves just as morally and culturally complex as other game characters. The game still requires villains, but as principal rules designer Jeremy Crawford stated: “It’s just they will be villains because they have made villainous choices, not because they were born villainous.” 

Conclusion

Evolving from their early beginnings as elite pastimes in the ancient world, board games today fulfill the definition of mass media because they convey durable messages to a broad audience, transmitting social and cultural concepts in compelling ways to hundreds of thousands of people daily through the marketplace of ideas. American technological and social developments of the 19th and early 20th centuries transformed board games into mass media. Games have served as bellwethers of cultural change in America, from Puritan morality all the way to ideals of self-determination and upward mobility in the 19th century, and from the splendor and tumult of the Gilded Age all the way to the capitalistic boom and bust of the early 20th century. The Mansion of Happiness and The Checkered Game of Life illuminated the moral facets that defined American “success” of their time. The subsequent, more market-oriented games Pit, The Office Boy, and Monopoly characterized success exclusively in terms of wealth acquisition, which even the socialist The Landlord’s Game did by emphasizing economic prosperity, albeit through alternative pathways.

The success and popularity of these games highlight the central societal importance of the ideas they communicated and promoted. Board games are unique among mass media in their ability to convey ideas by putting game-players in the first person. This ability allows players to interact with concepts directly, rather than just through passive assimilation of information, and then test outcomes of decisions made within a game’s cultural construct by engaging in multiple episodes of persuasive gaming. Analyses of board games merit a place within any study of the cultural history of mass media.  

 

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