I played lots of board games as a kid, as did most of my contemporaries. These days, it seems that video games are more popular. And while one might decry all the high-speed, violent action, I’m not so sure the games of my childhood had more social redeeming value.
Think about it. What is the first game most toddlers play? Candyland. What does that promote? A fixation on sweets. Like these little sugar-fiends need any more enticement?
What favorite who-dunnit is in most everybody’s toy closet? Clue. Let’s prompt kids to visualize whether Miss Scarlet was murdered by Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with a lead pipe, candlestick, knife, rope, revolver or wrench. How sweet.
Or maybe we can sanitize mass murder with a game like Risk where cute, colorful army blocks can invade places like Irkutsk or Kamchatka. It’s not like real people live in places like that, and who cares if the goal is world domination? Might we be grooming little imperialistic Attilas or Napoleons? At least it’s a very effective way to desensitize our populace into not crying bloody murder when we invade the next Axis of Evil.
What is the most quintessentially American game? Monopoly of course. What does that instill? The desire to amass so much valuable property that you have to pay me big time if you land on my turf. Of course you’ll land in jail at some point on your quest to become the next Donald Trump, but that’s just part of the game, when the object is to force everyone else into bankruptcy. I played it once with my kids, and sure enough, I got seduced into wanting to send them to the poor house. To me, this is capitalism at its worst, but there it is in our closet.
One board game I loved as a kid, and still do, is Mouse Trap. Not only does that Rube Goldberg contraption illustrate simple physics and the importance of fine-tuned precision, but the object is to catch the mouse, alive! It’s like a wicked fun Have-a-Heart trap. Speaking of rodents…
My 10 year-old daughter had modest wishes for holiday presents. If all she got was a hamster she’d be very happy. But she also made mention of the game of Life which she had played at a friend’s. I remember enjoying that game as a kid and I figured that’ll be a game I can play in good conscience with my kids.
So, on New Years Day, after not having played it in about 4 decades, I eagerly join the family in the innocent game of Life. The game board has been updated with a Jetsons look and I don’t remember the spinner resembling the Wheel of Fortune. Otherwise it’s all nostalgically familiar, particularly the six-holed game cars. I opt for the mini yellow minivan, and plug in my mini blue peg self. Now I can’t wait to see what Life has in store…
Right off, I have to pick a card for my career. And what do I get? (drum roll please…) Entertainer! No job security or benefits there, but I’m familiar with this job and I love it. By now I clearly see that they’ve also updated this edition for inflation. Before the recession that is. My starting salary as an entertainer? I must’ve skipped the open mics at the seedy bar phase and landed plum venues from the get-go to begin at 50 grand! It took me decades in the business to come close to that!
I hit a STOP and get married! Yay! Gee, it sure took a lot less time in game Life then in real life, but I’ve got my little pink peg plugged in next to me and we’re off on the road of life together. Soon I hit a STOP and have to choose a “Starter Home.” No question; I want the log cabin which most resembles my funky little starter home in Maine.
It isn’t long before my back seat fills up with guess what – a boy and a girl! Golly, this game is starting to feel like déjà vu all over again.
What do I land on next? Learn sign language. Is Life imitating life or what? The sequence might be a little off, but this is uncanny. And now I’m starting to think about the think tank that designed these squares. Someone at Milton Bradley obviously had a thing for sign language to include that quirk.
For the most part, however, it dawns on me that this game really reflects and promotes mainstream American values. All the players get married; it’s not a choice. BUT, ah ha -- it doesn’t say what color peg you have to choose! You better be happy with who you get hitched to though because there’s no getting divorced in this version of Life. We want this to be a happy game, right?
But wait, I’ve lost my job! That sure was abrupt. Was I that bad of an entertainer, or was it something I said? It is true that the economy has forced several of my colleagues to pursue other fields. I even started falling back during lean times on an earlier vocation as an arborist, and am pruning trees on the side when the gigs are sparse. Well, I have to choose a new career and there aren’t many choices left. No way I want to be a Salesperson. I hate trying to sell things and I’m not good at it. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I lost my entertainer job. I didn’t have an agent. What else is left? Hair Stylist. I’ll take it. It’s closest thing to pruning trees, which I love doing. How come I couldn’t choose to be an organic farmer? Probably because everyone in this game needs to have a livable wage. But at least I’d eat well.
Spin again and… Run for Congress? There’s no way this radical lefty socialist pacifist eco-freak hair dresser is going to win election in Milton Bradley’s world. On the road again…
A $10,000 pay raise! Hot damn! I must have found clients like John Edwards during my run for Congress. Or I simply have a flair for hair styling: just call me Jackson Scissorhands or Mr. Magic.
Buy a new home? Aw, but I like my log cabin. Okay what are my choices? I have no interest in the Mansion, Penthouse Suite, Executive Cape, or Modern Victorian. The luxury mountain retreat is appealing, though it would be a long commute to my salon in my original aging yellow car. I doubt enough customers would shlep up to my mountain retreat for their hair appointment. Unless I just happened to score an elite clientele of well-heeled women for whom price would be no matter to drive up in their Lexus SUVS for a makeover with Mr. Magic. Yeah, in my dreams.
What choice does that leave me? The only remaining abode I can actually afford: a Double Wide! Oh wait, it comes with an RV, too! Cool. And here’s a brilliant idea. Paint “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” on the side of the RV and be a mobile salon! And if I should lose my magic scissorhands touch and totally botch someone’s “do,” they can’t find me to sue me because -- I’m on the road again…
"Life” sure was imitating life with my career as an entertainer, starting off in a cabin, getting married, having two kids and learning sign language until… I had to take a new job as a hair stylist, and opted for a Double Wide and RV!
$80,000 to redecorate? My Double Wide isn’t worth it. I’m gonna put that all into my RV and turn it into a mobile luxury spa! Yeah, laissez les bons temps rouler…
And now I land on my favoritest square of the game: I’m a grandparent! In real life, it’s perhaps my greatest wish that this old fart father should be so lucky. Actually, the four holes in the back of Jillian’s blue minivan have been filled. The game designers didn’t seem to take into account the possibility of more, so when Jillian is blessed with another set of twins, they have to be squeezed in between the older plastic siblings. They all fall out from time to time because the designers also didn’t make seatbelts, but fortunately there are no accidents or casualties along this Life’s highways.
Meanwhile my two kids, not the blue and pink pegs, but my real ones, have chosen the college route in Life and landed lucrative professions. I hope that Avery’s expressed interest in being an artist finds a fulfilling outlet in his career as a computer designer. And as a veterinarian, Jillian will certainly provide good care for future generations of hamsters and other pets she has wanted.
Appropriately, I reach the end first, and add up all my assets. Ka-ching! I’ve even got financial security, and while it’s not enough to retire in Millionaire Estates, I’ll be happy in Countryside Acres. And I see carfuls of grandkids coming around the curve to come visit me!
As I lie on the carpet in good health with my flesh-and-blood clan, in my real-life quadruple-wide Cape of sorts, on a seaside 3 acres with my aging vehicle parked outside to take me to my various gigs telling stories like this in my roller coaster career of choice, I count my blessings. And I realize just what I’d like for a gift next year. A similar scene perhaps with Mouse Trap next time, and a T-shirt. One with the logo “Life is Good” because… it is.
My sister, Cherni, joined us in this game of “Life” on New Year's Day and she got to playfully experience a road not taken. Jillian already had a full car of kids when she landed on a square announcing "Twins!" Players in this game have "Share the Wealth" cards which they can use to claim half of another's winnings.
I don't know if this move was Kosher, but Cherni, childless in real life and up to that point in game life, seized this opportunity to co-opt one of the children. And Jillian was quite willing to share, seeing as she was having trouble keeping all her children pegged in the car. She also knows how wonderful her beloved aunt is with children, so it was a win-win situation!