When my kids were young, they loved to play Monopoly. Whenever they’d visit their grandparents, the 1950s version of the board game came out of the closet. They’d be entertained for hours (much to my pleasure).
My mom and dad loved to play the game and my kids learned some good lessons about how to win and lose. As for teaching them about money, the economy, and the marketplace, it gave them all the wrong ideas. I will concede that Monopoly can teach kids some of the mechanics of money like how to count or how property is treated as an asset. But as an economic idea, it’s time is long gone.
What’s the big idea or economic model behind Monopoly? It’s a game from the Great Depression era; a time of few winners and lots of losers. It’s what economists call a “zero-sum” game where the only way to be wealthy is to take money from others. Monopoly is a game of exchange, of transactions. In order for me to win, you have to lose.
Economic reality is rarely a zero-sum game. A global economy where goods and services are exchanged, by necessity, must benefit the parties involved. So what’s the big idea today that our kids need to understand? Interdependence—we are reliant on each other and we need to behave in ways that allow us to compete and cooperate at the same time. Interdependence and its dichotomy of compete-cooperate demands a skill set far different from what the game of Monopoly teaches.
It pains me to say this, but the games that best reflect our economic reality today are ... reality TV shows and virtual online role playing games (MMORPGs). Both genres require people to behave cooperatively to compete and win. To win, you have to build relationships to influence and persuade (not force) others to cooperate with you. This is a theme in Project Runway (my favorite reality show), as well as in virtual worlds like War Craft and Second Life (learned this from my kids). Online gamers who reach leader status in virtual worlds actually include their virtual leadership roles in their real-world resumes because of the value it carries in the tech world!
Let’s look at an example close to home. Families operate under this compete-cooperate tension all the time. A classic example is college. The limited resources within the family (money and savings), the number of children who want to go to college, the options available within your state, all determine how much competition there will be within the family. Childcare, career choices, vacation decisions—families deal with this compete-cooperate tension continuously. (How well we handle the tension is another blog article or two.)
What I tell my kids ...
You are growing up at a time when our economic rules are changing fast. What looks smart today may just be a fad and look really stupid later. Get a basic understanding of economics. Pay attention to news about financial and economic conditions on a regular basis.
Gunning only for yourself won’t maximize returns. The U.S. track team at the Beijing Olympics is a good example. Individually, several are superstars. When asked to work as a team, both the men’s and women’s 100-meter relay teams dropped the baton and were eliminated. It took a defeat for them to wake up, cooperate, and focus on the team goal. Learning from the loss, both teams won gold in the 400-meter relay.
Think of yourself and others when making decisions. How can your goals be synchronized with others so you both win? This applies at home, at work, and in relationships.