NEW YORK — The board game Monopoly will soon lose a classic token and gain a new one, by way of a public vote on Facebook. It may sound like harmless fun, but is in fact a travesty, though not for the sake of nostalgia or preservational instinct. Notice the four tokens currently winning the vote, and thus most likely to stay "safe" from elimination. They are, as of this writing, the Scottie dog, the race car, the battleship and the top hat. What do they have in common? Accoutrements of the 1 percent. A Scottish terrier champion-line puppy may cost $1,500. A roadster, $50,000. A battleship, $100 million in mid-century dollars. The top hat is as much a sign of the filthy rich as the monocle.
And here are the four losers: the humble thimble, the laceless workboot, the iron (no electric model, this one you had to heat in a stovepipe oven) and the current bottom-feeder, the wheelbarrow. What do they have in common? Labor. Penury. Born, most of them, with the first 1935 edition, when the Great Depression was not an instructive economic case study, but outside your window. The full weight of society was in motion to fix it, and its legacy was a healthy wariness of a super-rich class run amok. When the Scottie and wheelbarrow, the latecomers, were introduced in 1952 — balanced, notice, between one rich token and one poor! — the top marginal income tax rate was 92 percent.
The proposed replacement tokens? An anthropomorphic robot, a diamond ring, a guitar, a cat with sizeable bling on its collar and a bleeping helicopter. Not a one of them symbolic of the laboring class.
Monopoly is a ruthless teacher. To win, you must not merely accumulate wealth; you must bankrupt your opponent, watch as he or she, friend or family member, makes a steady march toward dissolution. Only a roll of the dice determines whether you pass Go or end up in jail, or whether it will be you bankrupted tomorrow. Its zero-sum lesson is, strangely enough, a fair one, in that it is equally unfair. But now that balance is soon to be disrupted in one important way, and yet another bulwark against the dominating perception that the rich life is the only admirable one will be dismantled. I feel sorry for us all. What child now would ever want to set foot on Park Place in hobo footwear? What child would be expected to, as a reminder that society is built on the low ground as much as the high?
As a boy I favored the car. I made zoom-zoom noises and took the turns hard, with a controlled fishtailing of the back wheels. I had not yet seen the actual Atlantic City, N.J., and experienced the cognitive dissonance of strolling past the street names that matched the hotly desired properties of my favorite board game, only to walk farther away from Boardwalk and glimpse the city's widespread poverty.
I usually played against my father, who used the iron, the token I now favor for its simple form and function. "What do I need a race car for?" my father said. And he proceeded to trounce me.