@YellowHatJSWGC: Moral Hazards: (Re-)Learning the Game of LIFE with (and from) a 7 year old

Okay, nostalgia moment.

I had no idea the Milton Bradley creation my wife and I each enjoyed as a child (me on a farm in upstate New York, she on a coffee plantation in East Java, just to give you a sense of the extent of its world domination) was a 1960 commemorative reissue to celebrate 100 years of this board game that built the company named after its founder.

Nor did I have any idea how different that resurrection edition was from the long defunct 1860 original.

The first was shaped by the moralizing forces of Mr. Bradley’s stark 19th century New England upbringing: you could actually end the game drunk in a gutter, dead by suicide, or being whipped in the stockade, among other Rake’s Progress kind of tragedies. You could also fall victim to fatalistic forms of predestination far beyond your control, such as being assigned to a life of poverty before you were even old enough to go to elementary school (which only one out of three players would be given the opportunity to pursue – forget the college or career choice every player is given today).

However, the tone of the 1960 version familiar to me and my wife was set by Cold War conservatism, capitalism’s appetite for risk, and a tacit endorsement of America’s burgeoning post-war consumer culture: we bought insurance policies, played the stock market, and signed promissory notes – there were far fewer opportunities for absolute failure, just a failing to keep up with the Joneses.

We must not have been very precocious children, because my wife and I don’t remember really understanding what those promissory notes, stock certificates and insurance policies meant, nor the social implications of including them in a game marketed mostly to children still in their single digits. But I did remember oddly warm feelings for sticking the blue and pink pegs into my station wagon game marker, and so when my 7 year old – who LOVES board games – was looking to pick out a new one, we steered him in that direction.

At this point in the story, let me stop suggesting any of my own (adult perspective) social criticism of the game, other than to say that a cursory tour of the Internet left me surprised how little of such criticism there actually was out there for such an obvious target (for any of you familiar with the game, I’m certain you can come up with several of your own; if not, here’s a superficial smidgeon HuffPost rehashed from Funny or Die comedian Nick Packard; for more serious fare, check out the fascinating history of LIFE in this 2007 profile from The New Yorker).

Rather, here are a half dozen observations, questions and concerns my seven year old raised over the course of several evenings playing the early 21st century basic (i.e., no fancy add-ons, movie or TV show tie-ins) version of the game shortly after its purchase (by the way, he DID love it – hence the repeated play – so old MB really picked one for the ages!). I’ll let you decide if we’re warping our child, or if he’s imbuing the game with his own unique – and note, not able to be pigeonholed traditional or non-traditional – view of the world:

  1. Pro-Life? Game one he wanted to have lots of children just because, knowing what it’s like to not have family, he craves the company of those he can now call his own. He even extended that desire to all other players: when I received some “accidental” children by landing on a twins space before coming to the fork in the road where you could actually choose whether or not you wanted to have a family, I then later decided to forego the path that would have almost guaranteed more children.  My son didn’t chastise me so much as just kept asking why; he was at an absolute loss why you wouldn’t want as many children – and those children as many siblings – as possible. However, by game two he was also piling on the babies because at the end of game one he had learned that in the world of Milton Bradley (or Hasbro, who now owns the rights to LIFE), kids count for cash.
  2. Greedy 1-percenter? Game three it seemed like our son was raking in the dough and landing on almost every opportunity to buy a house possible, which he did every time, never selling, each transaction coupled with gleeful cackles and a hand-wringing worthy of Scrooge McDuck. My wife tried to justify his choices. “Well, with all those children, I suppose he’ll need that many houses” (he had three more children than there were spaces in the car, but we had found creative ways to keep them all together as his piece maneuvered the board). “No, mommy, lots of people don’t have houses,” our son answered, extending the game into the real world beyond this one of our imagination. “These are so they have a place to live. I only use this one.” He set one house aside, then motioned to the other properties he had purchased. “Who are these for, anyway?” he asked, as if there were names of homeless we might suggest to him so that he could make his gift real.
  3. Careerist? His mom works for a university, so our son has always chosen both college and – later in the journey – even night school, shelling out the big bucks to make sure he has as many career choices for as far into the game as possible. Just for contrast, my wife or I will often choose to forego college and go straight to work. This hasn’t caused as much consternation as the time I chose not to take on more children, but does usually result in getting a cautionary warning. This from a child who less than 12 months ago could barely be said to be attending school at all, and who had had no idea anything like college or the kind of careers that required it even existed. But despite his play money sacrifices, our son doesn’t just choose the biggest salary at the end of his education, despite understanding the consequences of foregoing that extra twenty or thirty thousand every space marked payday: pilot or rocket scientist are picked over the lawyer every time. No matter how much we try to explain (Daddy has a JD), he just doesn’t get what it is that lawyers do, and what he does get he says doesn’t seem very exciting. Jets and rockets are cool, he answers. Oh, and so is brain surgery.
  4. Marriage equality and gender identity? Game four: “Can I start with a pink peg?” My answer, “Yeah, if you want to.” “But when I get married (LIFE gives you no other choice), would I have to marry a boy?” My answer, “I guess so, I don’t know – what do you think?” “I think I’ll start with a blue peg.”
  5. Traditional faithful, proto-Post Modernist, or new age “None”? Back to game three: “What are the names of all your children?” we asked (He had four pegs posted in their holes behind the two in the front seat – pink lined up with pink, blue with blue – with three more pegs seated illegally outside of any holes.  Offspring numbers five and six occupied the space between – and and were held upright by – its legally seated family members, while child number seven was then driven like a spike on its side between those last two so that it was perched horizontally above the heads of the car’s first six – of nine! – inhabitants). Carefully putting his finger on each peg as he answered so as not to knock any loose, he identified everyone in that chariot he was guiding through LIFE. "The father is Papa Joseph, the mother is Holy Mary, and these are their children: Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, Anakin and Obi Kenobi, Hermione, Harry Potter and Jesus."
  6. A fatherly footnote: My greatest discomfort at LIFE actually came the couple of times one of us lost our (game) job, the sole arena in which Milton Bradley’s stark 19th century New England upbringing seems to unambiguously remain un-open to 21st century re-interpretation. Having just been laid off – my former department significantly smaller, and my particular title at least temporarily eliminated – I squirmed as MB’s ghost seemed to insinuate that the only way one loses their job is laziness (falling asleep at one’s desk) or malfeasance (photocopying a cat). “Why did you lose your job, Daddy?” my son asked, unaware of what had happened in the real world: he was pointing at my card, the hackles of the feline it pictured raised in horror as it tried to escape the ethereal glow of a Xerox. “Why did you do that?” “That’s just a funny picture,” my wife interjected, then continued, “doing something wrong isn’t the only way you can lose your job. Sometimes a company just doesn’t do as well as it expected, and it doesn’t have enough money to keep paying everybody – like when you run out of money in Monopoly.”

Ah, but that’s the Parker Brothers.  According to biographer Philip Orbanes (The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers, from Tiddly Winks to Trivial Pursuit), unlike old MB, that New England family rebelled against their region’s penchant for moralizing.

George Parker believed that games – like LIFE – were simply to be enjoyed.

Fortunately for Hasbro – which now owns Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers alike – I know at least one seven year old who seems to agree with them both.


@YellowHatJSWGC is 1 of 3 streams of tweets and blogs from Good Counsel.  To learn more, follow me on Twitter or visit the "Read Me" page at goodcounsel.squarespace.com