Monday, September 14, 2015

The game of capitalist propaganda

A board game of the kind wherein players are represented by pieces movable on a board along a track of main stations... Players elect a President who, subject to Congress, determines tax rates and like matters. Players may buy, sell and rent property, effect insurances, attempt take-overs of other’s property, raise loans, buy and sell bonds in simulation of economic competition in a free enterprise society.
Thus the introduction of United States patent 4,522,407, ‘Financial board game’, registered by Bruce Hatherley on June 11, 1985. As it happens, a US version of this game, with a President subject to Congress, was never released, but others had been on sale since 1980 first in Australia, then in New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

In New Zealand, the game was launched in Auckland with the involvement of the NZ Stock Exchange. In Canada, it was sold via a conservative think tank, the Fraser Institute, enabling it to raise over a million dollars for its endowment fund and weather an economic crisis. In Australia, it was adopted as part of a government-funded school programme designed to indoctrinate children into the virtues of free enterprise, and is reported to have sold over 100,000 copies.

The brilliance of Hatherley, however, isn’t to have merely designed a game loved by business types that a lot of people wanted to buy, but to have built into it an extra element of profit: for the Monopoly-like properties on the board were a set of 21 companies who were sold squares for advertising purposes, as did the 27 more brands appearing on cards. Plus the insurer – Commercial Union – if a player chose to take out a business insurance policy.

And that’s just the New Zealand edition. Advertising space was sold to different companies in each of the countries in which the game was released – including, in Canada, by some of the stockbrokers temporarily put out of work by the recession. Sponsors included the New Zealand and Australian stock exchanges, the Fraser Institute in Canada, the Financial Times and Lloyd Banks in the United Kingdom, as well as large multinationals like Dow Chemicals, Ford and IBM.

The gameplay reflects the fervent free-market ethos of the enterprise. In Poleconomy, each player is both a politician and business tycoon and must seek not to drive the other players bankrupt, but rather to manipulate the economy to his or her maximum advantage. In fact, bankrupt players immediately come back into play, their debt with the bank and other players having been written off. The game ends at the end of a time period agreed upon in advance, or when the bank runs out of money (sounds familiar?), at which point the contenders proceed to calculate their accumulated wealth in order to crown the supreme winner.

The game has several levels of difficulty, and in its most basic format includes the ability by players to set the interest rate and either stimulate or depress the economy. At the most advanced level, players form political parties and the ruling coalition assumes control of the Treasury. In this version, the Prime Minister can order so-called ‘special payments’, that is to say
money from the Treasury to any player, or players, including the PM for any purpose specified, for example as a ‘Tax Rebate’ or to ‘Stimulate Investment’.
As well as rewarding friends with public money, the Prime Minister has the power to exempt certain players from payment of tax. Failure to ensure the solvency of the Treasury results in the premature end of the game but, this time, there is no winner and the country is declared bankrupt.

That this game – designed at a time of worldwide economic turmoil – should be so sanguine about the virtues of the free market, is of course not the least bit ironic, seeing as the structural adjustments that go under the name of neoliberalism came to be adopted to a greater or lesser degree by all of the countries where the game was sold. And nowhere more so than in Hatherley’s native New Zealand. Thus the roll of advertisers for the local version of the game, whether or not they have ceased to operate, here more than in other places belong to a different time and a profoundly different place. I offer it here in the spirit of an internet archaeology, and in lieu of a conclusion.

The what now?

Licensed, you say?

With many thanks to Ben who thought I might like this and passed on his copy of the game.