Board games have been teaching us how to shop for more than a century
Though it came out only a decade later, The Game of Playing Department Store (created by McLoughlin Bros., Inc.) heralded a vastly different style of shopping, one that was taking hold in American cities. Instead of a simple general store, players were transported to a vast downtown department store modeled after one of the many "palaces of consumption" that were built in urban centers across the country in the late 1800s. While the overall goal of the game stayed the same (spend money wisely in order to collect more goods than your opponents), players now had a cornucopia of luxury products to choose from, all neatly divided into different departments like "drygoods" and "hosiery." Fresh seafood, ready-to-wear clothes, and toys (including board games!) were just a few of the items that players could choose between as they wandered through the imaginary store.
Park and Shop, created in the early 1950s, shows how dramatically Americans' shopping habits could change in 50 years. Instead of walking through a busy department store or vying for goods at a general store, the game asked players to climb into their cars and race around town, driving from store to store in order to complete their shopping list before their opponents. Players were rewarded for securing the best parking spots and reducing the number of "steps" it took their pedestrian tokens to walk to each retailer. Americans from an earlier era would have been confused by some of the hazards Park and Shop players had to avoid during their shopping trips: fender benders, empty gas tanks, and impromptu bowling matches could easily cost a player his or her turn.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given that the game was released during a recession, Bargain Hunter made leveraging debt and comparison shopping essential strategies for winning. The prices for various products fluctuated wildly throughout the game, and players could take advantage of sudden sales by paying for their purchases with a credit card. (Players could borrow up to $1,000 before the game decided that they were in "Financial Disaster" and forced them to stop shopping.) Other credit card-based board games from the period, such as Ungame's 1980 title Credit Ability, marketed themselves as educational tools for teachers. On the back of the game box, a special note addressed to teachers promised that Credit Ability would teach their students "valuable consumer skills" as they learned "some of the hazards as well as the delights of buying with credit cards."
For more than a century, shopping has proven to be an enduring source of inspiration for board games, and while these toys are easy to overlook, they have shaped how generations of Americans understand consumption: what they should buy, how they should buy it, and what meanings they should attach to the experience of shopping. As more and more people choose to do their shopping online and new forms of currency replace the cash and credit systems we've grown familiar with, it will be fascinating to see what game makers think of next.
Jordan Grant is a New Media assistant working with the American Enterprise exhibition.