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Monopoly and Game Theory/Categorization

Posted in Game Analysis, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on September 27, 2008

Joseph Huizinga states that the first main characteristic of play is “that it is free, is in fact freedom” (Huizinga 103). This means that one can easily separate the playing of a game from the necessities of day-to-day life; one cannot be compelled to play a game, because necessity goes completely against the essence of play. Play is something that one can do or not do depending on whether one has free time. A board game such as Monopoly certainly fits this first requirement. One plays Monopoly with others because of a spontaneous desire, and never a compelling need, to do so. Huizing describes the second characteristic of play as a stepping out of real life into a sacred space where the rules of society and life need not apply (105). We call this space the “magic circle,” and for Huizinga the word “magic” factors in more because he seems to equate play with ritual and primitive religious expression. While Monopoly hardly counts as a religious experience, we can note that the playing of the game on a specific board and in a traditional location (for each family this differs: on the kitchen table, on the floor in the den, etc.) certainly establishes this demarcated space. And the rules by which we play Monopoly definitely differ from how one lives ordinary life – imagine making your way to school pr work on a predetermined path by dictate of a dice roll (though the drudgery of driving routes and traffic lights do echo the stop-start motion of progress around a game board). One way in which Huizinga’s analysis seems to differ from the actual play of Monopoly is in his description of play-communities (107). Very little secretiveness and isolation factor into the playing of most popular board games. We attach no social stigma to friendly household play among friends and family. The game also requires no special outfit or initiation, though players do roleplay as bankers and real-estate moguls when they play. We will explore the competitive nature and the intricacies of rule-based play that Huizinga mentions as driving characteristics of games in the below readings of Caillois and Suits.
Monopoly shows how hard it is to classify complex, modern board games under the dichotomy that Roger Caillois lays out in his “Classification of Games.” First we can rule out two major categories in his classification: ilinx and paidia. Monopoly does not require that its players disrupt their physical equilibrium as in games such as swinging or whirling, so ilinx certainly seems a poor description of its play experience. The only way this quality might work its way into the game is through the mental disruption one can cause in other players by purposefully teaming up against them, outbidding them on a property they might want, etc. This would certainly satisfy the desire for “destruction” that Caillois refers to in his explanation of ilinx. As for paidia, it seems that any game which is strictly defined by a complex set of rules and played competitively against others cannot hope to fall under this category. So we can start by saying that Monopoly is a ludic, agonic game with a bit of alea and mimicry mixed in.
Monopoly qualifies as ludic because of its intense ruleset that, while flexible based on whether one wants to play with the auction house or property trading (we mentioned in class that almost every family plays this game with slightly variant “house rules”), largely restricts and defines how the game must be played. It takes part in agon because players compete against each other for absolute victory and monetary/intellectual dominance, and also because everyone starts out on a roughly equal footing (there seems to be no need in Monopoly to handicap players if they are actual real-estate moguls or bankers). Alea enters into the equation when we note that, despite ones skill at playing Monopoly and the knowledge of good buying/trading decisions that make a truly good player, every move along the board relies on the roll of the dice. It’s entirely possible for an experienced player to lose Monopoly against children or careless gamers, if it so happens that the former rolls poorly while the latter have an exceptional stroke of luck. This seems to be an essential quality of board games designed to be played by families at home: the fact that there is an off-chance that the children can beat their parents (my father was particularly brutal when it came to Risk and Monopoly) based on chance and the relative ease of learning the specific ruleset of each game. Finally, we see that Monopoly has a subtle level of mimicry by grace of the fact that players are roleplaying as bankers and real-estate investors. Also, one can see that the magic circle created by this game acts as a microcosm for the actual economy of wealth and property ownership in real life – it was in fact based on an earlier game that attempted to act as substantive and brutal social commentary.
Bernard Suits, in his “Construction of a Definition,” ultimately arrives at the summation that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 190). The prelusory goal in Monopoly is, as the game’s name suggests, to create a state of monopoly within the game’s economy where one owns a majority of the property and has driven other players into bankruptcy; however, one can only use lusory means to achieve this goal – these are the means allowed by the rules. Monopoly’s rules dictate that one can only move in one direction around the board, that one must roll the dice in order to move, that one begins with a set amount of money and no property, that one must pay the landowner of a space when one lands on it, that one must follow the dictates of chance cards and other unpredictable forces, etc. These are the constitutive rules that prevent a player from using the most efficient means to achieve a state of monopoly that one can imagine occurring in the real world: theft of property, physical intimidation, venture capital, and otherwise bending or breaking rules to gain money and influence. The lusory attitude dictates that the game be played by these rules, because there would be no point in playing this game and following these rules unless one specifically wanted to have fun playing Monopoly with ones’ friends or family.

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