“First you start out with two thousand and a car”


Ah, the three major elements of the human condition: auto ownership, college, and revenge. In addition to providing an occasion for an eleven-year-old child to say, “Pay me!” directly into the camera, this Parker Brothers commercial from the late sixties documents a culture struggling to articulate its new conception of, um, life. I played a lot of Life in the eighties—probably because, as a child, actual life was unavailable to me—and I remember thinking that it was an especially modern development. What other decade would invent a game for kids in which the players arbitrarily lose large sums of money in the stock market? While Candyland whisks you away to a magical land made of sugar and colors, and Chutes & Ladders postulates a physical universe made entirely of slides, the first thing you do in Life is get a job. It’s as if the adults working at Parker Brothers so resented children that they vowed to make them worry about paying bills and providing for other, imaginary children during playtime. And let me tell you, they did a terrific job.

Life reflects a sensibility unique to postwar America. Unlike the Depression-era Monopoly, in which rental properties can be purchased for sixty dollars and available capital inevitably concentrates in the hand of one player,* Life takes place on a board in which everything is already owned by someone else. Paradoxically, there’s plenty of money to go around. Monopoly is a zero-sum game: the money won by one player is taken from someone else. In Life, on the other hand, the money comes from a virtually bottomless—and completely abstract—bank. When the bank runs out of money, you can get Promissory Notes, which are eventually honored when other players lose money to the bank. Still, there is a middleman, and your success feels divorced from the other players’ suffering. You are competing against them, but only in your sense of satisfaction at how well the game is going for you.

The Game of Life has class competition built right in. I remember conducting long arguments with Eric Beckwith about whether it was a good idea to go college or take the workforce route right away. In retrospect, the workforce track was a sure-fire win, but the argument was moot because both of us always went to college. That’s what we were going to do in real life anyway, and the unspoken understanding about The Game of Life was that it probably augured how good you would be at actual living. A child who consistently fails at Stratego learns that he should probably not go into the blindfolded armed forces; a child who spends every afternoon losing at a game called “Life” suffers permanent psychological damage. We played Life in part because it seemed vaguely adult and therefore important, so it offered a glimpse of what might happen to us. Even at that age, Eric and I understood that we would eventually go to college, so we took that route (and, more often than not, became poorly-paid “journalists,”) winning be damned.

It’s interesting to note that the college/workforce decision is pretty much the last choice you make in the game. One wins at Batlleship based on a combination of instincts and solid strategy, but in Life you pick your career path and then spend the rest of the game watching things happen to you. The imprecation issued by the girl in the commercial—”I’ll get revenge!”—is somewhat misleading; she should probably just say, “You’ll get beaten down, too!” The Game of Life teaches children that success and failure are pretty much divorced from individual choices. You win the game by randomly spinning higher numbers on a wheel. Getting married, accumulating children, receiving paychecks—pretty much all of these events are triggered by whose turn it is when a certain number comes up. Life encourages children to see themselves as objects of a blind, inscrutable system. It’s not the cutthroat capitalism of Monopoly and the individualistic real estate industry, but the plodding routine of a postindustrial professional. You’re a doctor. You make money at a higher rate than the other players, so spin this wheel and hope that time goes faster.

Like Candyland and Sorry! (the game of utterly decontextualized outcomes,) The Game of Life is a race. The players are trying to reach the end of a winding trail, but bizarrely, the game doesn’t end when that happens. That’s because the object of the game isn’t to reach the end, but to accumulate enough assets before you get there. Once you reach a certain square, you have to count all your money. If you’re above a certain amount, you go to Millionaire Acres; otherwise, it’s the Poor Farm. In perhaps the grimmest metaphor in the history of children’s toys, Life is an inexorable march to a final reckoning. Even more cruelly, the players who get to Millionaire Acres still take their turns, playing the Stock Market (bad idea, but fun) and receiving retirement income while the other kids struggle for their share of what little money is left. The primary lesson in The Game of Life is that life is arbitrary and, generally speaking, unfair. “I’m at Millionaire Acres—that’s life!” the little blonde kid says blithely to the girl who wound up at the Poor Farm. We hate him almost as much as the little prick in the glasses who went to Harvard. Really, the only likable character in this commercial is the girl with the ponytail, who gets to have twins and revenge.

There’s no divorce, but otherwise The Game of Life is a flawless crystallization of the weird new world into which the Baby Boomers were born. The years following Wolrd War II saw a massive explosion in the availability of homes and consumer goods. It seemed like everybody really did get a car, which they set to work filling with children and driving, constantly, to the square where they worked. Such prosperity came at price. Beginning in the fifties, the proportion of Americans employed in offices and professional environments—as opposed to working as small business owners or craftsmen—increased dramatically. Books like “The Organization Man” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” reflected the nation’s discomfort with jobs that required stability and good social skills far more than they demanded risk-taking and independence. It’s no coincidence that the primary gamepiece in Life is a car, in which blue and pink pegs are secondary riders. There is a sense of interchangeability to both players and outcomes, as the consequences of each event are quantified, again and again, in dollars.

The wheel, the colorful, one-sided money and the way the winners get to sit around and make smart remarks to the losers all contribute to The Game of Life’s most appealing aspect: the sense that it doesn’t really matter. No one is a championship Life player, because skill doesn’t really affect the outcome of the game. Kids know this, and Life is one of the few competitive endeavors characterized, more than anything, by good-natured ribbing. “How’s the Poor Farm?” I would ask Eric Beckwith every time I won the stock market. He never got angry, because he knew that tomorrow afternoon, I would probably be a teacher driving toward bankruptcy in an empty car.** This sense that it’s all a game anyway and no one can really be faulted—for losing or for winning—is perhaps the most modern aspect of Life. It reflects an era in which we know too much about the complexity and cruelty of the system to take individual achievement so seriously. We’re less interested in proving that we can win and more concerned that everybody should be having a good time. It’s an attitude indicative of rising fatalism—the increasingly widespread belief that we are playing a spinner game and not a strategy game. It is this attitude, perhaps more than any other, that is the hallmark of postindustrial America, and it’s completely wrong. Jean-Paul Sartre would never let his limbless pink and blue kids play Life; he’d have them staring glumly at Stratego until they were old enough for chess. The Game of Life purports, in the commercial, to teach you about Life, but no kid ever got smarter by playing it. At best, as they sat resentfully watching their peers spin their way toward Millionaire Acres, they got prepared for what’s to come.

* Of course, this never actually happens. Like Risk, Monopoly is a game that no child can play to completion. You can tell Monopoly is a game from the thirties, because for the last two hours, one player insists that it’s still fun while everyone else tries to quit.

** Yes, I know that is basically what I am now. Fucking wheel.

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  1. Great commentary.

    However, today’s kids don’t sit around playing Life, they play Grand Theft Auto. What will their retro-introspective commentary be 20 years from now?

    Ooops. Gotta go smack that bitch-ass ho…

  2. I agree with Tim. To go one step further: Have you played the CURRENT Game of Life? Its is fucking nuts! You can be a pro athlete and your payday is $80,000 while a teacher makes $10K on a payday. The payday spots are also now class specific, there are more for teachers, but the pro athlete spots still make you much much more than the teachers.

    Also, one sure fire way to win at The Game of Life, if you’re smooth, is to run the bank and rob it blind. Exactly as in real life.

  3. Well, I had a super-long reply that got lost. I’ll try to e-mail you my thoughts.

    I have to say though, both of these posts were fantastic Dan.

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