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Playing the American dream: race, class, and opportunity in business board games

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This post and others is part of a series on business boardgames. In the spring of 2012, the American Enterprise team partnered with a class at Brown University to study the history of business boardgames. Under the direction of Professor Steven Lubar, Brown students assembled a database of historic games, performed research at Hasbro’s archives, and led bi-weekly meetings with the Smithsonian’s curators. In these guest posts, students from the class discuss both how business boardgames have transformed time, and how board games reflect changing social values and attitudes toward business in the U.S.

In the 1984 pilot episode of The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable lectures his son Theo about his poor grades. Theo blithely tells him that it doesn’t matter, because he’s not going to college. He’s going to “get a job like regular people – work at a gas station, drive a bus, something like that.” Cliff spies a teachable moment in a Monopoly game open on Theo’s desk: taking a handful of paper money from the box, he gives Theo a $1200 monthly salary, and then starts deducting expenses for taxes, rent, clothes, and food, until Theo has nothing left. Theo continues to protest that “maybe I was born to be a regular person and have a regular life,” unlike his doctor-and-lawyer parents. Cliff immediately shuts down this idea as “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” He and Theo eventually hug it out as Theo agrees to try his best.

In games like District Messenger Boy, first published by McLoughlin Bros. in 1886, players raced one another to rise from a lowly messenger boy to become a banker or company president, trying to avoid setback spaces like “laziness” or “embezzlement” and land on “honesty” or “intelligence” instead. Before telephones and computers, messenger boys were the essential communication link between businessmen in the same city. A lucky few found connections and opportunities to move up in the business world, inspiring rags-to-riches stories of self-made success.

It hardly seems coincidental to me that, in the first episode of a ground-breaking show about an affluent, professional African-American family, the father uses a Monopoly game to teach his son about upholding the promise and responsibilities of the opportunities he’s been given in life. In researching the history of American business board games, I’ve been most intrigued by how the visions they portray resonate across the many dimensions of our society. Many of these games are at heart “American Dream” stories, expressing the same values that Cliff Huxtable expects his son to live by. 1886’s District Messenger Boy is about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. The goal of 1955’s Careers is to find work that maximizes your wealth, fame, and happiness; in the Game of Life, released in 1960, you want a good salary so you can retire to Millionaire Acres. Dozens of games, from Grocery Store in the 1880s to Payday in 1970, are about budgeting your funds to buy the trappings of a comfortable life (“Figure $200” for clothes and shoes, Theo tells Cliff, handing him Monopoly bills, “I want to look good”). Even Monopoly follows this script, as players rise from a meager $1500 in starting capital to become the tycoon of a real estate emprire.

Shopping games have long been popular with Americans: they combine lessons about personal budgeting with fantasies of having plenty of money to buy things. As Americans’ consumer habits have changed over time, shopping games have stayed up-to-the-minute. Park and Shop, created by Parker Bros in 1955, involves finding a strategically-located parking spot at a shopping mall, during the era when for the first time most middle-class American families had cars and malls were emerging as a one-stop shopping destination.

The key expectation of the American Dream is that people can advance their fortunes by being hardworking, skillful, and lucky. Board games over the last hundred and fifty years have reinforced this notion so strongly that, as The Cosby Show demonstrates, they have become a shorthand for talking about success. On the flip side, however, these games can also illustrate how people have historically been left out of this “mainstream” vision. The games we studied in this project were, until the late 20th century, marketed almost exclusively to white, middle-class Americans, and the values, social rules, and sense of possibility they share reflect that population. While it’s hard to know exactly who actually played these games at any given period of history, circumstantial clues that suggest to me that business board games, especially in their early boom years between 1880 and 1940, often shut out many non-white and non-middle class people. Most transparently, the illustrations on board games before the 1970s show almost exclusively white people, and when people of color do appear it is as offensive caricatures and even targets of violence. But there were also more implicit systemic barriers: a color-lithographed board game cost more than a generic deck of cards or set of dominoes. Learning to play Monopoly means digesting a long rule booklet, while checkers takes skill and strategy but doesn’t require reading. And at its most basic level, the rules themselves, and their narratives of success achieved through a combination of strategy and luck, could ring hollow for Americans constrained by social prejudice and economic disadvantage.

Careers, like the Game of Life, features a variety of professions from which players can choose, trying to become the most “successful” by the end of the game (in Careers, players define their own success formula as a combination of wealth, fame, and happiness). When it was first published by Parker Bros. in 1955, Careers let players imagine themselves in new and glamorous professions like uranium prospecting, space exploration, and engineering, as well as politics and Hollywood. Later versions were updated with new kinds of jobs (ecology, sports, teaching) that matched changing ideals of a fabulously successful or virtuous career.

 

The injustices that limit people’s access to opportunity and success had by no means evaporated when the Huxtables appeared on American televisions in 1984, and they are certainly still with us today. I hear, in Theo’s comment about “regular people,” a clear critique of a society where black physicians and attorneys were still exceptional rather than “regular”. But what struck me most powerfully about the Monopoly scene was the casual way in which a successful African-American man used the classic board game of American business strategy to make a profound point about how success and opportunity need not, ultimately, be limited by race or class. Theo’s lesson, and ours, is that expanding access to the American Dream is an ongoing project that relies on luck, yes – but also on hard work and the belief that it can be in your grasp.

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    About the Author

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    Emily McCartanEmily is a first-year graduate student in the Master’s in Public Humanities program at Brown University. Although her interests are varied, in the broadest sense, Emily is driven by a desire to get people excited about history, and to simultaneously encourage greater complexity in popular narratives of history and culture. Working on the Business Board Games project for American Enterprise is an exciting opportunity to tackle these issues through a novel lens, by looking critically and creatively at the history and social values represented in the games Americans play.View all posts by Emily McCartan