By Christine Riggle
For those who remember anything they learned of economics in high school -- kudos. As for the rest of us who would have much rather spent frivolously what little money we had instead of learning how to make it grow, perhaps the method used to teach us about money was uninspired or even, as Sir Norman Angell would suggest, outmoded.
Angell, a British economist, Nobel laureate and prolific writer, was also the designer of something called "The Money Game" -- a visual method of teaching schoolchildren the fundamentals of finance and banking. First published in 1928 by J. M. Dent & Sons, "The Money Game, How to Play It: A New Instrument of Economic Education" was both a book and a game. Although the bulk of the book is an essay on money and a discussion of economic theory, players can easily skip to a summary of the game's story and an explanation of the rules.
The game is based on the premise that a sailor has been shipwrecked on a remote island populated by natives unfamiliar with the concept of money. With gold bricks that he uses as capital to back the notes he prints, and scraps from which he builds machinery to start a variety of industries, the sailor has developed a local economy before he knows it.
The game is best played with at least six players, one of whom acts as the sailor-banker. The banker's goal is to create monopolies to add to the bank's assets without any one player accumulating more notes than the bank can back. The goal of the players is to either break the bank or to be the player with the largest return on their notes at the end of the game. The game includes a pack of cards representing 10 industries, such as coal mines, flour mills and iron foundries, along with notes in four denominations and cards for scoring.
Opinions on the educational value of the game varied greatly. “That the game is educative seems to me certain," the syndicated columnist and philosopher Walter Lippmann declared. "It clarifies better than I have ever seen it done the fundamental principles of money and credit. I have no doubt that anyone who has played this game a few times would read a text-book on banking with a totally fresh understanding.”
On the other hand, a critic for Time magazine noted:
"A smart Stock Exchange operator might be a tremendous success at the game, which resolves itself largely into clever trading. On the other hand, the better the game becomes as a game, the less effective it becomes as a course in finance. It does illustrate, in an elementary manner, the fact that a bank can issue more notes than it has gold to support and also the fact that coal and iron and manufactured products are just as truly wealth as is gold. But it would be a queer idea of business which would involve the House of Morgan trading Standard Brands for the House of Mellon's Aluminum Co., both in the hope of breaking the Federal Reserve system."
(Christine Riggle is the special collections librarian for printed material at the Baker Library at Harvard Business School. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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