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.


Unknown said...
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Jono said...

This is what my much older brothers and sister played around the table at the Christmas beach bach holiday shindigs in the mid-80s. We all fondly remember in particular the occasion when my now ex-brother in law, accountant cum share broker cum Master of the Universe lost his shirt, up-ended the board and stormed out in a huff. Good times.
I was always fascinated by the logos, playing pieces and pretend money, seemingly so much more real than monopoly because the names were familiar from the radio or signs in buildings or the newspaper. The back story you provided is fascinating; I will have to ask mum if she still has it in the back of a wardrobe somewhere.
Share trading really was ubiquitous, someone gave me 500 shares of cavalier carpets as a birthday or christmas present before the crash and I remember fondly the couple of $15 dividends that arrives in the mail before it all collapsed.

Tom Brockett said...

Not surprising that the game may not be as popular now since society seems to have accepted the norms of the game as an ongoing reality. Hence, Malcolm Turnbull, the new PM of Australia can announce - without fear of being criticised - that what true Australians stand for is "freedom, individuality and the market". No mention of a society and nothing about responsibility.

Ben Wilson said...

A pleasure, Gio, it was only collecting dust since about 1984, when we last played it. From memory, we only ever played the simpler game because the other version required more than 2 players and it was rare to get that many wanting to play beyond the first time. That and it was all too complicated for children.

The simpler game was, from memory, very poorly balanced. Being bankrupted, from memory, was extremely unlikely. The ability to cause the other players financial harm was simply less than their ability to generate income. So it really just became a race to get the most money, and it was usually pretty evident within about 20 minutes who that would be, by which time every property had been acquired. It could go on for hours after that, without any significant change in the obvious outcome. So my recommendation for anyone thinking of having a go is to use a time limit. Which has the obvious limitation that someone who has got ahead can fart around for ages taking their turn. So it's not really a game for the litigious gamer. For kids, IIRC, it being not so vicious as Monopoly made it slightly more enjoyable - less tears when bankrupted. Somehow coming last wasn't so bad when you had millions of dollars and owned a dozen companies. If you played it out until the treasury was bankrupted, you were both ridiculously rich...

I'm not sure if there's a deep lesson in all of this.

Paul Robertson said...

Interesting. I think we have this game gathering dust somewhere as well. It was never played much. The pictures of the cards bring back memories though.

My children played "Game of Life" with the neighbours kids this weekend past. Listening to them play induced much eye rolling from me and even slight nausea. If you are not familiar with this particular game, it is capitalist propaganda in a similar vein to Monopoly and Polyconomy. You start out with nothing, and the idea as you move around the board is to go to school, get a career, earn the commensurate income, get married, have kids, buy a house, insurance etc etc. You travel around the board in a little car with pink and blue pegs representing your little family. The ultimate object being able to retire comfortably in a mansion by the end.

The only cool thing about this game is the 3D buildings!

stephen said...

"It could go on for hours after that, without any significant change in the obvious outcome."

Teaching the valuable lesson that once firms achieve dominance, they tend to keep it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

In other news, Matthew Hooton thinks the game is basically Bolshevik, which underscores my point very nicely I feel:

Frank said...

I still have my copy of the game. I recall having my geeky friends around to while away the evening playing it...

It reflected the Muldoon era with the ups and downs of inflation

As a little side-note it's fascinating to note the number of companies that no longer exist...