Intergroup Monopoly: A Lesson on the Enduring Effects of Inequality

Richard Harvey (Saint Louis University)


Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.


To: (1) illustrate the structural dynamics and consequences of intergroup inequalities, (2) teach students about the interdependencies between income and housing, and (3) help students appreciate the need for interventions that actively address the enduring effects of prior group-based disadvantages


Intergroup Monopoly is an action teaching game that modifies the classic Monopoly board game to explore the dynamics of group-based inequality. In Intergroup Monopoly, players begin with unequal amounts of money and are given individualized rules that reflect differing degrees of privilege or disadvantage. For example, a privileged player might receive $350 rather than the standard $200 for passing Go, whereas a disadvantaged player might be permitted to move only half the amount rolled on each turn. During this initial phase of the game, disadvantaged players quite often fall into substantial debt. In a second phase, "equal opportunity" is implemented and all players are permitted to play by normal Monopoly rules. What the players typically discover, however, is that even under conditions of equality, formerly disadvantaged players continue to decline and struggle with debt. This discovery leads to a classroom discussion about how to effectively address the enduring effects of prior group-based disadvantages.


The most popular commercial board game in the world, Monopoly, has been played by more than one billion people, yet its early history is not widely known. Monopoly was originally based on "The Landlord's Game," a board game created more than a century ago by a Quaker political activist, Elizabeth Magie, who hoped that it would teach how monopolies unfairly concentrate wealth. In Magie's (1902) words, the game was:

"a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences... It might well have been called the 'Game of Life,' as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world... [Let young people] see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied."

Although the Landlord's Game was played on some college campuses in the 1920s, its teaching potential was never fully realized, and despite Magie's claim and the best of intentions, her game left out key elements of "success and failure in the real world." Perhaps most obviously, the Landlord's Game and its descendant, Monopoly, both ignore the presence of past or present discrimination. Instead, all players begin these games with an equal amount of money and are treated identically by banks, businesses, and courts of law — an artificial level of equality quite different from the experience of many women and minority members.

To overcome this limitation, I developed Intergroup Monopoly — an action teaching game that modifies Monopoly to illustrate the systematic and structural nature of group-based inequalities. By playing Intergroup Monopoly, students come to see how the long-term effects of overt discrimination are not easily overcome by equal opportunity alone.
Intergroup Monopoly can be played by groups competing against each other (with individual group members taking turns playing on behalf of their group), or by individual students who differ in status and play against each other. Regardless, a hallmark of the game is that players begin with differing degrees of wealth and face differing levels of adversity when the game is played.

I have used the game for six years in a 30-student course I teach entitled The Psychology of Oppression. In the first half of the course, I discuss three interdependent institutions of upward mobility: income, housing, and education. Then, once this background context has been covered, I introduce the game as a tool for understanding interdependencies between the first two of these institutions. Most often, I divide the class into six teams made up of four or five students playing against each other as individuals.

Students playing Intergroup Monopoly

Students playing Intergroup Monopoly

Playing the Game

All that's needed to play Intergroup Monopoly are a standard Monopoly game and a set of rule sheets for the players (see below for the rules I use). Intergroup Monopoly is played in much the same way as classic Monopoly, with two exceptions: (1) the rules differ from player to player, and (2) there are two phases of play rather than one.

Phase 1: Open Discrimination

In the first phase, students are randomly assigned to one of five positions (the Banker and Players 1 through 4). The Banker is essentially an observer, and Player 1 plays according to normal Monopoly rules. Players 2 and 3 are overtly disadvantaged, and Player 4 is privileged relative to other players. For instance, Player 4 receives $350 for passing Go (well above the standard $200) and is permitted to buy houses and hotels two for one. Player 2 has rules such as "You can only move half the amount you roll" and "You can only buy property priced less than $150." Likewise, Player 3 has rules such as "You will go directly to jail for rolling a number higher than 7" (the main difference between the Players 2 and 3 is that Player 3 spends most of the time in jail).

In order to make the game move quickly, players begin with some property already distributed. Ideally, students spend 15-20 minutes in the first stage of play, but this period can be modified to fit different class lengths. During this phase, Players 2 and 3 typically lose money rapidly and often become demoralized. If players lose all their money and property, the game does not end; instead, they go into debt, and the Banker records their level of debt.

Phase 2: Equal Opportunity

In the second phase, which lasts 5-10 minutes longer than the first phase, I tell the class that all forms of unequal treatment have now been ended. At this point, all class members play by normal Monopoly rules. The title Equal Opportunity is somewhat ironic, however, because players quickly discover that their opportunities are far from equal. Even with the additional time spent under conditions of equality, formerly disadvantaged players continue to decline and struggle with debt.


In a postgame debriefing, I typically open by asking students in each of the player positions to express what their experience felt like. I then ask students to identify the effects of inequality, and to consider various links among the institutions of upward mobility discussed earlier: income/wealth, housing, and education (even though education level is not explicitly part of the game, I ask students to speculate on its connection).

Finally, I ask students to estimate how long the game would need to be played in the second phase to compensate for the unequal outcomes that accrued during the first phase. Student estimates usually run anywhere from several more hours to weeks to never. These estimates lead to a discussion about the debate over affirmative action and the need for interventions that actively address the effects of prior group-based disadvantages.

Tips on Implementation

If students are expected to supply their own game board, pieces, and play money, I recommend dividing the class into groups at least one week in advance so that students have time to locate a copy of the game. When the game is used in other venues (e.g., workshops on inequality), it works best to provide participants with all necessary materials.

It's important to allow enough time for the initial set-up. Typically, I ask each team to choose someone to come to class early to set up the game. I generally appoint this person to serve as a "Banker" who facilitates the play and keeps track of any debts. Other students are randomly assigned to their positions. If I use the game in a workshop, I generally enlist the aid of graduate students to set up the game and serve as facilitators.

Because the second phase of the game is played using normal Monopoly rules, it's helpful to have a set of the rules available. The game boards themselves typically include the rules, and Monopoly game rules can also be downloaded from many places on the Internet.

In all the years I have used this exercise with undergraduates, graduate students, and workshop participants, I have yet to witness any serious emotional outbursts or interpersonal conflicts. There are typically moans of frustration, but nearly all of it is light-hearted. When using the game with students, I wait until they're acquainted and comfortable with each other. If workshop facilitators intend to use the game with people who do not know each other, one suggestion would be to employ an ice-breaker activity before participants play the game.


I have collected data over several semesters examining the effectiveness of the game as a teaching tool. On a scale of 1 ("not at all") to 10 ("a great deal"), students consistently report that playing the game helped them to better understand the nature of oppression (M = 8.1, SD = 2.1, N = 95) and the interdependencies between income and housing (M = 9.3, SD = 1.1, N = 95).

In addition, I've collected qualitative data to assess student reflections on the game. Here are a few illustrative responses:

  • "To catch up with the other members of the group, the game would have to continue for several more hours. Even after playing for several more hours, it is still possible that I may never recover to be on the same level as others. I found for the first time in my life how frustrating it could be to be oppressed, and this was only a board game."
  • "I think the lesson here is that attempting to level the playing field will not even the score. The past continues to affect our present day activities, and there are certain people who are still winning even though the rules are 'fair.'"

A common theme in student comments is that it takes more than simply making the rules fair to eradicate the enduring effects of inequality. Students also frequently conclude that social injustice need not necessarily be blamed on a "who" as much as a "what." Thus, Intergroup Monopoly achieves the twin objectives of action teaching by helping students (a) understand the interdependencies inherent in systems of inequality, and (b) make informed decisions about how to effectively remedy injustice. In short, students become better educated citizens by becoming more aware of institutional barriers to equality.

Additional Reading and Web Sites


History of the Board Game Monopoly

History Detectives, Season 2, Episode 2: "Early Monopoly" (2004)

LTVFan's Blog: Monopoly and the Landlord's Game

Magie, L. (1902, Autumn). The Landlord's Game. Single Tax Review, p. 56.

Print Your Own Monopoly Money