It’s Saturday night. I should be diving into a couple more hours of work (which I’m glad to have), but I’ve learned to listen to the messages my body sends. It’s time to recuperate, and then dive back in tomorrow. I watch economic news the way some folks watch sports. Saturday night also makes me think of relaxing with friends, but there’s not enough energy for that tonight. And yet, thinking of playing makes me think about games, and a recent conversation inspired me to consider two games: Monopoly and The Farming Game. Most have heard of Monopoly. Fewer have heard of The Farming Game, but it is the Farming Game that I’d rather play on a misty weekend night (unless I could make it to a dance, but I digress.) Those two games reflect two perspectives on money, work, and our economy. If I can’t play them, I might as well think about them, and write about them.
Monopoly is certainly familiar. Buy up real estate. Charge rent. Try to stay out of jail. Work hard at accumulating all the money on the board and bankrupting your opponents. It’s a simple description, yet the game can take hours with great uncertainty in the beginning and a long, dreary end in some cases.
The Farming Game has a similar board, but it is based on seasons instead of streets. There are things to buy and sell, and even rent; but the players work hard at trying to create the best farm while avoiding bankruptcy, natural disasters, and inconvenient tax bills. Along the way, decide what to plant, whether to own livestock, and whether to go into debt. It too, can take hours, but as the game progresses almost all players’ fortunes improve (it is a game, not a simulation).
In Monopoly, the goal is to beat and bankrupt your opponents. In the Farming Game, the goal is to become the first farmer to become solvent and self-sufficient by creating sufficient net worth. Each farmer is in a race, but you can actually cheer on the other players. You can try to undermine them, but that’s usually more trouble than its worth. If I’m going to play a game with friends I’d rather be cheering them than jeering them.
The difference is built in.
Monopoly was designed to demonstrate the negative aspects of concentrating wealth. Players were expected to find losing unpleasant.
The Farming Game was designed a bit differently. It was designed by a rancher, who wanted to demonstrate some of the realities of farming while also making it fun to play.
Evidently, games are serious business; and at least these two were designed primarily for education – and yet, they are games.
It is too simplistic to say that they represent current capitalism versus the sharing economy. Income and wealth inequality is returning to the levels seen just before The Great Depression and the introduction of Monopoly; but the present is an echo of history, not a repeat. Farmers may share, but that is not a feature in The Farming Game; though the game does represent the battle and balance between needing money to make money while avoiding bad luck – something that has become so difficult that the middle class is disappearing and the median wage is falling. To represent the Sharing Economy as a game might be going too far because ideally there’s no great tension between the players and either everyone would win or everyone would lose. In that case, skip the game and just go out there and do some communal activity that would be gratifying.
I worry about the US economy and political situation because they are run more like Monopoly. Whoever grabs the most wins. The most money or the most power is granted the most prestige. The rest of the players get to practice being graceful in defeat. Fortunately, there is a continuum from wealthiest to poorest; but the number of winners is decreasing while the amount they’ve won is increasing – leaving less for the rest. In the Farming Game, wealth creation creates individual wealth creation without detracting from anyone else – until the farms run out of board space. Coming in last could still represent a nice accomplishment.
I rarely have hours to devote to any game (except for the siren call of Civilization III). I can’t keep up with my friends’ binge watching of various series. (But please, no spoilers because I plan to catch up someday.)
The real lives of the monopolists have become extreme to the extent that they can’t comprehend a middle class life. The real lives of farmers and ranchers have split into those who’ve gone corporate and industrial versus those who’ve purposely stayed small and are therefore vulnerable. Neither game truly reflects reality, but both echo it.
I’d be interested in a game that embodies both and maybe adds other options. Players decide whether to compete, collaborate, or continue on their own. What lessons would we learn if a variety of perspectives could play simultaneously?