Authors: Jill Lepore
This, then, was the genius of Milton Bradley’s invention: he took a game imported from
India and made it into the story of America. He turned a game of knowledge into the path to prosperity. He wrote a set of rules and lithographed a board. After he had manufactured enough boxes to make a sales trip, he took a train to New York, walked into a stationery store, and said to the manager, “How do you do, sir. I am Milton Bradley of the Milton Bradley Company of Springfield. I have come to New York with some samples of a new and most amazing game, sir. A highly moral game, may I say, that encourages children to lead exemplary lives and entertains both old and young with the spirit of friendly competition. May I demonstrate how it is played?” He sold out his stock, went back to Springfield, and, with a pocketful of cash, got engaged. He was married later that year. He was twenty-four.
The Checkered Game of Life is deceptively simple. Twirl the teetotum, a numbered, six-sided top, and move your wooden man around the board, collecting points by landing on any of the eight point-value squares. Whoever earns 100 points first wins. Some squares help you along, little lithographed hands pointing the way, as when Perseverance leads you to Success, worth 5 points. (Very Franklinian, that.) Spinning a 2 from the red square between Ruin and Fat Office forces you to land on Suicide, where, ignominiously, you die, but almost any spin from nearly every other square involves a decision, a choice among as many as eight possible moves. Unlike The New Game of Human Life or the Mansion of Happiness, the Checkered Game of Life requires you to make decisions, lots of them. Nothing is in God’s hands. It’s best to have a plan.
Most players, I find, try to go to School, and then to College (worth 5 points), heading slowly toward the top of the board and Happy Old Age,
worth a whopping 50 points. But your chances of going to School are not good: from your starting position, at Infancy, you have to spin either a 3 or a 6. You’re quite likely to end up at Poverty instead. Despair not. “It will be seen that poverty lies near the cradle,” Bradley wrote in the rules of the game, explaining why he had placed Poverty just two squares from Infancy. But because “in starting life, it is not necessarily a fact that poverty will be a disadvantage, so in the game it causes the player no loss.” Even if you skip School altogether, you may be rewarded by landing on Honesty, and sent from there directly to Happiness.
It’s possible to win the Checkered Game of Life without ever reaching Happy Old Age—after all, people do die young—but it’s not easy. And, as Bradley warned, “Happy Old Age is surrounded by many difficulties”: land on Idleness, and you’ll be sent to Disgrace, at the very bottom of the board, which means that you have to climb back up all over again. Ignore Bradley’s warning at your peril. Here’s another word of advice: don’t enter Politics, if you can possibly avoid it. You’ll go to Congress and earn 5 points, but you’ll be carried away from Happy Old Age and you’ll woefully increase your chances of landing on Crime and ending up in Prison, where you lose a turn, “for any person who is sent to prison is interrupted in his pursuit of happiness.”
When Bradley brought out his Checkered Game of Life, in 1860, parents, apparently, greeted it as merely “a new form of the game dear to children as The Mansion of Happiness.”
In his patent application, Bradley himself insisted that his game was “intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice.”
But the Checkered Game of Life is vastly darker and more ruthless than its predecessors. In the Mansion of Happiness, landing on Truth—which you can’t avoid, if a spin of the teetotum sends you there—advances you six squares; in the Checkered Game of Life, Truth exists, and you can choose to seek it out, but it has no value whatsoever. (Thoreau would not have approved: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”)
Bradley’s game rewards only those virtues that lead to Wealth and Success, like Industry and Perseverance. It has no use for Patience or Charity, which aren’t even on the board. By 1866, the game even promoted betting on the stock market, on a square called Speculation.
In sixty-four squares, Bradley’s game both celebrated and made possible his own rags-to-riches rise. The Checkered Game of Life isn’t a race to heaven; it’s a series of calculations about the best route to collect the most points, fastest. Accumulate or fail.
Bradley accumulated. He sold forty thousand copies of his game in its first year, and made his fortune when he decided to sell Games for Soldiers, a portable box of games (the Checkered Game of Life, backgammon, checkers, and
chess), just as the Civil War broke out. The Checkered Game of Life found a place in the knapsack of nearly every Union soldier. Poverty … Industry … Perseverance … Success.
Not long afterward,
Mark Twain wrote a piece for the
New York Tribune
called “The Revised Catechism”:
What is the chief end of man?
A. To get rich.
In what way?
A. Dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must.
God, the only one and True?
A. Money is God.…
A. You bet your life.
And that, in nineteenth-century America, was how you played the checkered game.
“You could never in a million years sell it today,”
Mel Taft told me. Taft used to be vice president of research and development at the Milton Bradley Company. In 1959, when Taft and his colleagues were preparing for the company’s centennial, they—wisely—never considered reviving Bradley’s original game. It was quaint; it was old-fashioned; good grief, it even had a square for Intemperance. They decided, instead, to hire a California company that had started the hula hoop craze to develop a new game of life. When Taft first saw what they’d come up with, he knew it was a doozy: “It looked like a million bucks.”
What it doesn’t look like is the Checkered Game of Life, but, curiously, it does rather resemble the Mansion of Happiness, just with lots of pieces of plastic attached to it.
The 1960 Game of Life is a
spiral race, its serpentine path representing the voyage of life, from high school graduation to retirement. (In Life, you never die; you just quit working.) Some squares offer rewards: “Contest Winner! Collect $5,000.” Others mete out penalties:
“Buy Furniture. Pay $2,000.” But neither is morally freighted; instead of a battle between virtue and vice, it’s an accounting of income and expenses. The game’s most important squares are those that announce, in red letters, “Pay Day!” What you earn depends on a choice you make on your very first move: Will you go to college or take a job? The Checkered Game brought together choice and chance, but Life has only one real fork in the road: work or study. If you start work, you can collect paychecks right away; if you go to college, you have to take out loans and pay them back, but you earn more when you eventually do start getting paychecks. After that there are occasional financial decisions to be made—do you want to buy life insurance? would you like to invest in the stock market?—but these, and the piles of paper and the cars full of babies, serve mainly as a distraction from the play’s passivity. Like the Mansion of Happiness, Life is a journey along a fixed path, where only one thing matters. At Life’s “Day of Reckoning,” you count your cash, not your good deeds. Like all earlier spiral race games of life, Life is about fate—not whether you’re fated to become an Immortal Man, but whether you’re fated to retire to Millionaire Acres. By 1960, the mansion of happiness was a five-thousand-square-foot house in a swank retirement community.
The 1960 Game of Life was a smash. Children liked it because it’s like playing dress-up; you get to pretend to be a grown-up. One speaks, of course, only for oneself, but this game is just for kids—unless you’re eight, it’s a drag. And, as the years passed, it drew criticism: it is, after all, relentlessly amoral and shamelessly cash-conscious. In the Wall Street 1990s, a team of designers charged with updating it gave up; whenever they tried to make the game less about having the most money, it made no sense. All they could come up with was to add “life tiles,” which allowed players to do good deeds. But the only way to be rewarded for your virtue was in the game’s sole currency: cash. Save an endangered species: collect $200,000. Solution to pollution: $250,000.
In 2007, just before a global financial meltdown involving securities fraud, subprime mortgages, and bad debt,
Hasbro introduced a wholly reimagined game: the Game of Life: Twists and Turns. In this version, life is … aimless. There’s a place to begin, but it’s called Start, not Infancy or High School Graduation. There’s no place on the board called Happy Old Age and no Millionaire Acres, either. Plainly, the Gate to Heaven is out of the question. The game board is divided into four squares—Learn It, Live It,
Love It, and Earn It—through each of which a colored path snakes its way. (The game is a mishmash of a square board and a spiral one.) You decide how you want to spend your time: go to school, have kids, hang out, travel the world. Whatever. You begin using a tiny plastic skateboard as a game piece; if you want, you can convert it to a car. You can buy a house, from “Modest,” for $200,000, to “Mansion,” for $1,000,000. You pay 10 percent a year on your mortgage. The rules advise: “Because houses increase in value by 6% a year, higher-priced homes earn more over time than lower-priced homes. Just be sure to offset these earnings by any debt you carry.” How players (ages nine and up) would do that is unclear. This game is paperless. Instead of cash, each player gets a Visa-brand credit card—made out in Milton Bradley’s name—to swipe in the game’s electronic Life Pod. Only the computer—a battery-powered mechanical deity—knows how much money you have.
Accused of wantonly advertising credit cards to kids through the Hasbro-Visa deal, a Visa spokesman insisted, “We are not marketing to kids. We are helping to educate kids. It’s never too early.”
Suffice it to say, Twists and Turns has a remarkably forgiving attitude toward the highly leveraged player. “If you’re in debt in
George Burtch, vice president of Hasbro’s games division, told me, “you’re watching. But in this game, you can be hugely in debt but you’re still playing, and no one knows it!”
In the Mansion of Happiness, there’s a square for that kind of thing. It’s called the Road to Folly.
What is the meaning of life? In Twists and Turns, whoever ends up with the most “Life Points” wins, although, technically, the object of the game is to “experience all that LIFE has to offer!” With Milton Bradley’s Visa card in hand, you can do whatever the hell you want. “A THOUSAND WAYS TO LIVE YOUR LIFE!” the game box screams. “YOU CHOOSE!” No one dies; no one grows old; no one even grows up. You can play for five minutes or five hours. Or you can just quit, which, all things considered, I recommend.
“Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere,” Thoreau wrote.
But where? Twists and Turns failed, not because it was aimless, but because it wasn’t aimless enough. By the time it came out, kids were busy leading virtual lives online, some of them in a place called
, a simulated world where you could live your life all over again, or instead, forever.
If the history of games of life tells a story, it’s a story about a voyage
to nowhere. God, machines, markets, science: each new faith, even faith in uncertainty, is its own creed. Each has its philosophers, each its hucksters, and between them lies a history of beliefs about the beginning, meaning, and end of life. Twists and Turns is the aimless, endless game of secular, liberal modernity. How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when you’re dead? Who knows. YOU CHOOSE!
History can’t answer existential questions about life and death; it can only investigate and use evidence to tell stories that make arguments about the relationship between the living and the dead, like the story of Milton Bradley. After the Checkered Game of Life, Bradley lost interest in games.
In an age when success made the man—when to fail was to
a failure—he spurned his own achievement.
He reached Fat Office, and then he walked out. Beginning in the 1870s, he devoted his energies not to board games but to the nascent
kindergarten movement, a plan to offer free education to four-, five-, and six-year-olds, and especially to the children of the poor.
Increased wealth brought increased want, as
Henry George pointed out in
Progress and Poverty
, in 1879: “Discovery upon discovery, and invention after invention, have neither lessened the toil of those who most need respite, nor brought plenty to the poor.” What could be done? The restless, nervous, steam-powered nineteenth century had this how-the-other-half-lives underside: social welfare efforts aimed to rescue the people who were being ridden over by the engine of progress. Enthralled by the idea that very young children could learn through art, a kind of learning that would set them up not only for future academic success but for happiness, too, Bradley started manufacturing crayons, colored paper, color wheels, flash cards, and watercolors, for classrooms. He invented the one-armed paper cutter. He set up a printing shop in Springfield in order to publish, in 1887,
The Paradise of Childhood
, a lavishly illustrated manual for kindergarten teachers, adapted from the writing of the movement’s German founder,
Friedrich Froebel. Soon he was printing a monthly journal, the
Then he entered his decrepitude and, next, his dotage. He began falling asleep at his desk. He started taking naps in his office; he ordered the presses in his factory stopped for half an hour after lunch every day, so as not to disturb his rest. He retired in 1907; he was seventy-one. In 1910, his
colleagues toasted him and gave him the gift of a book of tribute essays titled
Milton Bradley: A Successful Man.
But, writing in the
, Bradley reflected that, of all he had done, he was most proud of his educational inventions, which had earned him barely any money at all. “In using the word success, I do not wish to confine its meaning to that cheap interpretation which sees only the glitter of gold or the glamour of elusive fame. In my case, I cannot overestimate the feeling of satisfaction which has been with me all these years at the thought that I have done something, if only something prosaic in character, to place the kindergarten on its present solid foundation.”
It was a lesson any clever child might have drawn from playing the Checkered Game of Life: Beware of Ambition. It sounds good, but if you land there, you are promptly sent to Fame, a square that not only has no value, in itself, but also puts you perilously close to Jail, Prison, and Suicide. Success isn’t everything.