Lizzie Magie invented the game Monopoly to raise awareness of the dangers of monopolies. Game companies didn’t want to buy her game, claiming that it was “too political”- until Charles Darrow came along during the Great Depression. He took out a patent on her game and became a millionaire.
Magie was born in Illinois in 1866. From a young age, she refused to give in to social expectations. She was a social activist, a suffragist, and a reporter. She married at the age of 44 for the first time (in 1910) and chose not to have children.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States underwent accelerated industrialization, and a series of monopolies took over the American economy. Many of them are still known today: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Stanford, and more. They became known as the “Robbing Barons” amongst the American public.
Maggie was a social activist who was troubled by the enormous impact these monopolies had on the American economy and sought a way to raise public awareness of the dangers inherent in them. She was mainly troubled by the issues that monopolies could cause for lands.
So she developed a board game that she called The Landlord’s Game. The game’s main idea was that the more land a player collects in a particular area, the quicker he gains more wealth at the other players’ expense.
Magie’s friends loved the game, so she tried to sell it to the Parker Brothers, the biggest game manufacturers at the time. She approached the Parker Brothers twice, once in 1910 and once in 1924. She was turned down both times, with the reason being that the game was “too political.”
She set up her own game manufacturing company, The Economic Game Co, and started to independently distribute her game. She sold a version of the game to a Scottish manufacturing company in 1912, and they spread it there.
The game gained certain popularity despite its lack of commercial distribution. Game nights were common in the ’20s and ’30s, particularly among American leftists.
And then the Great Depression came along. Overnight, millions of Americans became unemployed (according to estimates, the only time the unemployment rate grew faster was during COVID-19). Charles Darrow was one such newly unemployed person. Before the Great Depression, he had been a door-to-door salesman.
One night during the Great Depression, Darrow’s friend invited him to a game night. They played The Landlord’s Game, and he fell in love. Darrow quickly realized the tremendous economic potential of the game. He made some minor edits to the game, changed the name to Monopoly, and took out a patent.
Darrow’s plagiarism was so blatant that even a spelling error that she made in one of the streets in Atlantic City (a city she had never visited) remained intact in his version.
Armed with a patent and a stolen game, Darrow met with the Parker Brother and offered them his “new” game. This time, the Parker Brothers didn’t think the game was too political, and they decided to purchase it. The Parker Brothers didn’t just pay Darrow for the game; they agreed to pay him royalties for every game that would be sold.
And the rest is history, allegedly. Monopoly came out in 1935 and became an instant success. It was so successful that Darrow quickly became the first person to become a millionaire due to developing a game.
The story offered to the American public – an unemployed salesman invented a game and became a millionaire – was the embodiment of the American dream.
Only the story wasn’t true.
The furious Magie managed to create some public criticism. In 1936, she could cause enough outcry to publish a story in the Washington Post on the true origins of Monopoly.
Due to the criticism they faced, the Parker Brothers decided to pay Magie a one-time fee of $500, not even close to what Darrow was offered.
The incident was forgotten until the ’70s when an Australian social activist decided to raise awareness of monopolies’ dangers by developing a game called Anti-Monopol.
The Parker Brothers decided to go to battle and sue him for patent infringement.
His main defense was that Darrow’s patent was never legal because Maggie owned the original. Hasbro (the company that bought The Parker Brothers) was forced to admit that Darrow did indeed steal the game from Magie. Their confession caused a public outcry in the ’70s. Eventually, the case was settled out of court.
The confession didn’t help Magie. She passed away in 1948, when the biggest invention of her life, which could have made her a millionaire, was attributed to someone else, and the American public ignored the message she tried to convey in her game.
For further reading, try Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented or Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game — And How It Got That Way. Just feel like playing? Classic Monopoly.