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In 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president, a lanky, long- nosed, twenty-three-year-old Yankee named Milton Bradley invented his first board game, played on a red-and-ivory checkerboard of sixty-four squares. He called it the Checkered Game of Life. Play starts at the board’s lower left corner, on an ivory square labeled Infancy—illustrated by a tiny, black-inked lithograph of a wicker cradle—and ends, usually but not always, at Happy Old Age, at the upper right, although landing on Suicide, inadvertently, helplessly, miserably, and with a noose around your neck, is more common than you might think, and means, inconveniently, that you’re dead.
“The game represents, as indicated by the name, the checkered jour- ney of life,” Bradley explained. There are good patches and bad, in roughly equal number. On the one hand: Honesty, Bravery, Success. On the other: Poverty, Idleness, Disgrace. The wise player will strive “to gain on his journey that which shall make him the most prosperous, and to shun that which will retard him in his progress.” But even when you’re heading for Happiness, you can end up at Ruin, passed out, drunk and drooling, on the floor of a seedy-looking tavern where Death darkens the door disguised as a debt collector straight out of Bleak House: the bulky black overcoat, the strangely sinister stovepipe hat.
The history of games of life contains within it a history of ideas about life itself. The Checkered Game of Life made Milton Bradley a brand name. His company, founded in 1860, survived his death in 1911, the Depression, and two world wars. In 1960, to celebrate its centennial, the Milton Bradley Company released a commemorative Game of Life. It bears almost no resemblance to its checkered nineteenth-century namesake. Instead, Milton Bradley’s antebellum game about vice, virtue, and the pursuit of happiness was reinvented as a lesson in consumer conformity, a two-dimensional Levittown, complete with paychecks and retirement homes and medical bills. In Life, players fill teensy plastic station wagons with even teensier pink and blue plastic Mommies and Daddies, spin the Wheel of Fate, and ride along the Highway of Life, earning money, buying furniture, having pink and blue plastic babies, and retiring, if they’re lucky, at Millionaire Acres. Along the way, there are good patches: “Adopt a Girl and Boy! Collect Presents!” And bad: “Jury Duty! Lose Turn.” Whoever earns the most money wins. (The game’s motto: “That’s Life!”) Inside the game box are piles and piles of paper: fake automobile insurance, phony stock certificates, pretend promissory notes, and play money, $7.5 million of it, including a heap of mint-green fifty-thousand-dollar bills, each featuring a portrait of Bradley, near the end of his days: bearded, aged, antique.
As the years passed, Life came to look more and more like that portrait of old man Bradley. Only a handful of games have had as long a shelf life. After all, not for long did anyone play Park and Shop, another game sold by the Milton Bradley Company in 1960, whose object was “to outsmart the other players by parking your car in a strategic place, completing your shopping quickly, and being the first to return home.” In the 1990s, Hasbro, which bought the Milton Bradley Company in 1984, revised Life to market it to the baby boomer parents who had grown up with it: the station wagons swelled into minivans and it became possible, a few miles down life’s highway, to have a midlife crisis. The update was a disappointment. And so, in 2006, in an attempt to Botox the shiny, puffy nowness of youth into a gray-whiskered game, Hasbro decided to start again, to design a new game of life, by asking, What would Life be like if it were invented today? That’s a question about the present. If you turn it around, though, you can make it into a question about the past: Why did Milton Bradley invent the Checkered Game, the way he did, when he did? How, in short, did Life begin?
A great many questions about life and death have no answers, including, notably, these three: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when you’re dead? These questions are ancient; they riddle myths and legends; they lie at the heart of every religion; they animate a great deal of scientific research. No one has ever answered them and no one ever will, but everyone tries; trying is the human condition. All anyone can do is ask. That’s why any history of ideas about life and death has to be, like this book, a history of curiosity.
“How did the game of life begin?,” though, isn’t an existential question; it’s a historical one, and you can find answers to historical questions in libraries, museums, and archives, like the U.S. Patent Office. “I, MILTON BRADLEY, . . . have invented a new Social Game,” Bradley wrote on his patent application. “In addition to the amusement and excitement of the game, it is intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice.” It was a new game, but the genealogy of the Checkered Game of Life stretches back centuries and across oceans. Bradley’s invention is descended from a family of ancient Southeast Asian games—members of a genus called “square board race games”—whose common ancestor is probably over a thousand years old. Nepal has the “game of karma”; Tibet has the “game of liberation.” In India, JnÞaìna Chaupaìr, the game of knowledge, is played much like the Checkered Game of Life: land on a virtue and you get to climb a ladder toward the god Vishnu; land on a vice and you’re swallowed by a snake. Life has its ups and it has its downs. Then you die, the snake spits you out, and you start again.
In the nineteenth century, games from the farthest reaches of the British Empire and beyond found their way into middle-class Victorian parlors. A Persian game of life was collected, probably about 1810, by a British major general serving in northern India. The American firm of Selchow & Righter packaged pachisi as the Game of India at least as early as 1867. The New York–based McLoughlin Brothers sold the ancient Japanese game of Go as Go-Bang in 1887. Beginning in 1892, JnÞaìna Chaupaìr was available in Britain as Snakes and Ladders; in the United States it was sold, entirely unhinged from its Indian origins, and decidedly karma-free, as Chutes and Ladders.
Unfortunately, although Milton Bradley kept a diary all his life, he never put his papers in an archive, and most of them have been lost, which, notwithstanding his patent application, makes it something of a challenge to know exactly how a young New Englander came, on the eve of the Civil War, to adapt an ancient Southeast Asian game to a red-and-ivory checkerboard featuring an American vision of the good life. He certainly never traveled to India. Still, he didn’t have to look half a world away to find what he was after.
That life’s a game that can be played well or badly is a very old idea, in the West no less than in the East. The people in Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia play a game of life, “not much unlike the chesse,” in which “vices fyghte wyth vertues, as it were in battell.” (The origins of chess are murky. It is thought to have been invented either in India before A.D. 600 or in China about a.d. 800.) How to win and what the rules are—whether you’re playing against yourself or against God or Satan—are matters of much speculation. In 1640, the English poet George Herbert put it this way:
Man’s life’s a game at tables and he may
Mend his bad fortune, by his wiser play;
Death plays against us, each disease and sore
In Man versus Death, being clever helps, but the best you can hope for is to prolong the game. Death always wins. Death is a bastard. Death cheats.
Milton Bradley took a different view. In the Checkered Game of Life, you can win and you can lose and you can even be ruined, but there’s no square called Death. Unless you land on Suicide, you can’t actually die. Also, you have some control over your fate. “The journey of life is governed by a combination of chance and judgment,” he explained. There’s what you roll, and there’s where you choose to go. The Checkered Game of Life is a game of destiny checked by strategy. This really was new, because Milton Bradley came from a family ruled for generations by nothing so much as an angry God.
The Bradleys arrived in New England in 1635, when Daniel Bradley, an apothecary’s son, settled in Salem, in Massachusetts Bay, just five years after the Puritans founded their city on a hill. Their sufferings were biblical. Daniel Bradley was killed by Indians in 1689; six years later, his fifteen-year-old son, Isaac, was taken captive. In 1697, another son, his wife, and two of their children died in an attack on the town of Haverhill, during which Hannah Bradley, the wife of still another of Daniel’s sons, was captured, whereupon her husband, Joseph, trudged after her, through waist-high snows, with his dog and a purse of coin. He meant to ransom her.
To be rescued from captivity was to be redeemed. It took Joseph Bradley two years, but he finally redeemed his wife and brought her home. Then, in the winter of 1704, Indians returned to Haverhill and broke into the Bradleys’ house all over again. This time, Hannah, who was eight months pregnant, fought back. “Perceiving the Misery that was attending her, and having boiling Soap on the Fire,” she “scalded one of them to Death,” as the minister of Boston’s North Church, Cotton Mather, described it in an account of her trials and tribulations. She hid her sister and one of her children in the back of the house; eventually, she surrendered. She was then forced to walk, for weeks, over hundreds of miles, northward; she lived on nuts, bark, and wild onions. Once, she was allowed a piece of moose hide. She prayed “that the Lord would put an end unto her weary Life!” Six weeks into her captivity, she gave birth, “with none but the Snow under her, and the Heaven over her.” When the baby cried, the Indians “threw hot Embers in its Mouth,” which rendered its “Mouth so sore, that it could not Suck . . . So that it Starv’d and Dy’d.” She endured by faith alone. “She had her Mind often Irradiated with Strong Perswasions and Assurances, that she should yet See the Goodness of God, in this Land of the Living.” At last, “her tender and Loving Husband . . . found her out, and fetch’d her home, a Second time.” And what, upon her redemption, did she pray? “O magnifie the LORD with me, and let us Exalt his Name together.” The next time an Indian came to her door, she shot him. She lived to be ninety.
In 1707, when Mather wrote about Bradley’s captivity and redemption, he used her story as an allegory for the Puritans’ errand into the wilderness, quoting Virgil: “Ab una Disce omnes.” From one, learn all. That same year, he delivered a sermon called “The Spirit of Life Entering into the Spiritually Dead,” preaching from the gospel of Luke: “He was Dead, and is Alive again.” Resurrection is redemption from the captivity of death, but Mather spoke, too, about another kind: redemption from the captivity of sin. Sinners are dead souls, dry bones, but they can be quickened, made alive. There wasn’t much you could do to be saved; the Lord would decide, on the Day of Judgment. You can hearken: “O ye Dry Bones, Hear the word of the Lord.” And you can pray: “Lord, I am Dead! I am Dead! Oh! Let me ly no longer among the Dead.”
Hannah Bradley’s life was in God’s hands; her captivity was a blessing, her redemption a lesson. She was far from helpless, but she was pursuing neither happiness nor even happy old age. Hers was a story not of success or failure but of fate: God had chosen to visit her with affliction, and there
was nothing she could do but praise him, remembering Psalms 119:50: “This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.” Hannah Bradley didn’t think of life as a game. There was no game; there was only God, his word, and the quick and the dead.
The first game called Life, in English, wasn’t Milton Bradley’s. It was the New Game of Human Life, a board game engraved and inked in 1790 by John Wallis, a London printer and mapmaker. Card and table games were fashionable in eighteenth-century London, which is where Hoyle’s books of rules were first published. Board games look like maps, and they were made by mapmakers. The first board game sold to children, Journey Through Europe, or the Play of Geography, was printed in London in 1759. The first jigsaw puzzle, Europe Divided into Its Kingdoms, also a map, was sold seven years later. Wallis’s New Game of Human Life is a map, too: its life is a journey along a twisty path from birth to death, with eighty-four stops on the road, one for each year.
The notion of life as a voyage goes way back. Plato, in The Republic, wrote about old men as “travelers who have gone a journey.” Francis Bacon, in his History of Life and Death, described life as a “pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world.” (It might be a long trip, Bacon warned, so be careful not to wear your shoes out: you might need them in the after- life.) In Wallis’s game, life is a voyage to salvation, just as it is in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, first printed in 1678. (Either salvation or that other place: “I saw that there was a way to hell,” Bunyan wrote, “even from the gates of heaven.”) Your progress is speeded up by virtue and slowed down by vice. Each stop is a “character.” You begin at the Infant. Whoever dies first wins. Your reward is to become, at eighty-four, the Immortal Man. There are setbacks at every turn, JnÞaìna Chaupaìr all over again. Land on the Married Man, at the square marked 34 (the thirty-fourth year of your life), and you get to advance to the Good Father, at 56; but land on the Duelist, at 22, and you’ll be sent back to age 3, for acting like a child. There is some slight sense of improvement—the acquisition of wisdom, maybe—not unlike that captured in a proverb Benjamin Franklin once printed in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “At 20 years of age the Will reigns; at 30 the Wit; at 40 the Judgment.” The Benevolent Man, age 52, has much to recommend him. Still, there are rogues and knaves all over the board, from the Thoughtless Boy, a ten-year-old, to the Troublesome Companion, at eighty-one. Every age has its folly.
The New Game of Human Life borrowed its board and rules from the Royal Game of Goose, invented in Florence in the sixteenth century, and one of a class called “spiral race games.” The oldest spiral race game may be the Hyena Game, played for centuries by Arabs in Sudan, in a groove traced in the sand with a stick. It involves a race between pebbles represent- ing the players’ mothers, who leave their village and head to a well at the spiral’s center, where they must wash their clothes and return home before a hyena catches them. (A similar game, from ancient Egypt, is known as Hounds and Jackal.) Wallis adapted the spiral race game to the idea that life is a voyage in which travelers are buffeted between vice and virtue. It was this allegory that gave the New Game of Human Life its “UTILITY and MORAL TENDENCY.” Parents were instructed to play with their children and “request their attention to a few moral and judicious observations explanatory of each Character as they proceed & contrast the happiness of a Virtuous & well-spent life with the fatal consequences arriving from Vicious & Immoral pursuits.” The game is a creed: life is a voyage that begins at birth and ends at death, God is at the helm, fate is cruel, and your reward lies beyond the grave. Nevertheless, to Puritans, who considered gambling the work of the devil, playing a game of life was, itself, an immoral pursuit. As the English poet Nathaniel Cotton put it, in 1794:
That life’s a game, divines confess;
This says at cards, and that at chess;
But if our views be center’d here, ’
Tis all a losing game, I fear.
The New Game of Human Life showed up in the United States not long after George Washington was inaugurated, and it was still being played as late as the 1870s; although, by then, an essayist who wrote about it made it sound quaint, an antique game played “on a queer old parchment.” The fearsome hand of providence made the New Game of Human Life, by latter-day board game standards, unbearably dull. There’s no strategy, just dutiful to-ing and fro-ing, in abject obedience to the roll of the die and the rules of the game. Even worse, there’s a dispiriting absence of adversaries; you’re racing against other players, but you’re not competing with them,
not the way you are in, say, Monopoly, when you get to charge them exorbitant rents. And, as for parents offering up “a few moral and judicious observations” at each square, I have tried this—giving my best impression of an eighteenth-century father—and all I can say is: no dice. When my six-year-old landed on the Docile Boy, I asked him, “Do you know what ‘docile’ means?”
“It means you should do what I say, you little blister.”
“Oh yeah?” He narrowed his eyes. “Your roll.”
Two more games of life, the Mansion of Bliss and the Mansion of Happiness, were both produced in England beginning around 1800. They look a lot like the New Game of Human Life: spiral race games adapted to the pilgrimage of life. Both represent immortality, life’s final destination, as a heavenly mansion; this was then a popular Christian conceit, taken from John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” “O Lord! deliver us from sin,” prayed one American evangelical in 1814, “and when we shall have finished our earthly course, admit us to the mansion of bliss and happiness.” Or, as the rules to the Mansion of Bliss had it:
Who enter the mansion of bliss,
Will have cause to rejoice at his claim;
So well has he travell’d thro’ life,
He has happily ended the game.
In the United States, the Mansion of Bliss never really made a mark, maybe because the phrase “the mansion of bliss” was also used by Americans to refer to an especially alluring woman’s breasts. But the Mansion of Happiness, the most popular board game in Britain, had an extraordinarily successful American career. It was sold in the United States at least as early as 1806. In 1843, an American edition, based on revisions to the English game made by Anne Wales Abbott, the editor of a Boston-based juvenile magazine called the Child’s Friend, was offered by W. and S. B. Ives, a printing company in Salem. In ten months, Ives sold nearly four thousand of what went on to become the century’s most enduring game. It became a staple of Victorian parlors; it made its way west on the Overland Trail.
The Mansion of Happiness is abundantly pious. Its rules begin:
At this amusement each will find
A moral fit t’improve the mind;
It gives to those their proper due,
Who various paths of vice pursue,
And shows (while vice destruction brings)
That good from every virtue springs.
Be virtuous then and forward press,
To gain the seat of happiness.
You can hear, in these lines, echoes of the earliest Puritan primers: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” And the last couplet alludes, quite particularly, to the beginning of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), in which Man waits for the son of God to “Restore us, and regain the blissful seat.”
No game is more didactic: “At this amusement each will find / A moral fit t’improve the mind.” Whether it’s amusing is difficult to say. The Mansion of Happiness is hard to finish, mostly because the wages of sin are so harsh—“Whoever becomes a SABBATH BREAKER must be taken to the WHIPPING POST and whipt” (a retreat of six squares)—that you’re forever going backward and losing turns. However popular the Mansion of Happiness was with the parents who purchased it, the game boards that survive in archives are in such suspiciously good condition that at least one historian has wondered whether children—who must, invariably, have been given the game as a gift—could ever bear to play it. Its rules read like a sermon: “Whoever possesses AUDACITY, CRUELTY, IMMODESTY, or INGRATITUDE, must return to his former situation till his turn comes to spin again, and not even think of Happiness, much less partake of it.”
Milton Bradley was born in Vienna, Maine, in 1836, two centuries after Daniel Bradley crossed the Atlantic, by which time the Bradleys had not yet begun to think of happiness, much less partake of it. He was the great-great-grandson of Jonathan Bradley, one of the many members of the Bradley family killed by Indians. He was his parents’ only son. He was named after the Puritan author of Paradise Lost. As a boy, he read Pilgrim’s Progress. When he was ten, his family moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, so that his father, Lewis, an insolvent, itinerant craftsman, could work in the textile mills.
The nineteenth century was an age of machines: the steam engine, the cotton gin, the power loom. Inventors abounded; the patent office could barely keep up. “Men of progress” they were called, and “conquerors of nature.” Their machines were better than poetry. The genius of Eli Whitney was said to rival that of Shakespeare. The head of the U.S. Patent Office declared the steamship “a mightier epic” than the Iliad, and any fool could see that James Watt had a thing or two over Cicero. Machines were thought to be the engines of progress, the “index of the degree in which the ben- efits of civilization are anywhere enjoyed,” as James Mill, John Stuart Mill’s father, put it, in his six-volume History of British India. (Having never been to India proved no obstacle to Mills’s claiming that Indians were stalled on the march to progress, as measured by their “great want of ingenuity and completeness in instruments and machinery.”)
But the age of machines had its critics. Thomas Carlyle considered faith in machines a kind of spiritual bondage, something akin to a religious fallacy but worse, and every bit as much a delusion as seventeenth-century New Englanders’ belief in witchcraft. Faith in progress is faith in the future, but if we think that machines liberate us from the past, Carlyle argued, we are wrong; it is we who are their prisoners. “Practically considered,” he wrote, “our creed is Fatalism; and, free in hand and foot, we are shackled in heart and soul with far straighter than feudal chains.” We may be blind to those shackles, blinded by a fog as thick as London’s, as he put it, but we are just as surely “fettered by chains of our own forging.”
What Carlyle was describing, and what the Bradleys, like everyone else, were caught up in, was a quite extraordinary transition, a shift in where people were seeking answers to questions about the meaning of life: from the ancients to the moderns, from the pulpit to the patent office, from books to machines, from the arts to the sciences. Not just the source but the nature of authority changed. Answers you used to find in the past you were now expected to find in the future. And you were supposed to find them yourself.
The secularization of progress and the rise of individualism had a great deal to do with another transformation: the shape of a life was changing. Life used to begin where it ended; it ended where it began. A lot of other things used to be circular, too. Everything went round and round: day and night, the seasons, the crops in the field, fate. In an unraveling that had begun even before Daniel Bradley sailed to Salem, all those circles were turning into lines. The sun still set at the end of every day, but now you could turn on the lights and day would never end. The very idea of history came to a kind of close. The world of tomorrow was infinitely more inter- esting than the world of yesterday. Novelty replaced redemption.
While his father worked in the mills, Milton Bradley attended Lowell’s grammar and high schools. Then he went to the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, where he likely studied with Jacob Bigelow, Harvard’s Rumford Professor of Physical and Mathematical Science. In a widely read treatise called Elements of Technology, Bigelow used the word “technology” to describe “the application of the sciences to the useful arts.” (Before that, technology was something you made by hand. Bigelow’s usage soon found a place in the name of a new school: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Technology, Bigelow said, was “promoting the progress and happiness of our race.” That’s neither what Bunyan meant by progress nor Milton by bliss. No machine can take you into the mansion of happiness or even to the gate of heaven.
Lewis Bradley did not find happiness shackled to a new and improved loom. He left Lowell for Hartford, in search of better work, which meant that his son had to drop out of school. Here, though, was yet another novelty: the Bradleys could travel from Lowell to Hartford by train. At the time, the locomotive was the symbol of progress, pictured, in prints and paintings, chugging across the continent, conquering nature, unstoppable. You could measure it: each mile of railroad track was another mile of progress. In the 1840s, train tracks reached across Massachusetts, much to the distress of Henry David Thoreau, who had built on the banks of a pond in Concord a very different mansion of happiness: a cabin in the woods. While the train to Fitchburg rode by, its whistle screeching, its smokestack puffing, Thoreau wrote that all those machines were merely “improved means to an unimproved end”: “We boast that we belong to the nineteenth century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation,” but that, he believed, was humbug. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”
Thoreau planted a hill of beans and spent his time hoeing, reading, writing, picking huckleberries, and listening to bullfrogs trumping, hawks screaming, and whip-poor-wills singing vespers. “Mr. Thoreau is thus at war with the political economy of the age,” one reviewer of Walden complained in 1854. But Thoreau wasn’t so much battling progress as dodging it. He had the idea “not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.” No one can manage that. Ralph Waldo Emerson drafted a letter, never sent: “My dear Henry, A frog was made to live in a swamp, but a man was not made to live in a swamp. Yours ever, R.”
Milton Bradley, no frog he, did not sit out the restless, nervous, bustling, trivial nineteenth century. He kept striving. He left Hartford. By 1856, he had made his way to Springfield, Massachusetts, where, two years later, he opened his own business: “MILTON BRADLEY Mechanical Draftsman & Patent Solicitor.” In an age of machines, he would write not poems or prayers but patents. The next year, when Sa‘id Pasha, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, hired a Springfield firm to build a $300,000 railroad train on which he might travel the newly laid tracks between Cairo and Alexandria, it was Milton Bradley who designed and supervised the construction of a rosewood-and-mahogany observation car, from sketches supplied by an Egyptian artist.
In 1860, Bradley started a lithography business and brought out an immensely popular election-year lithograph of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln. But then, just when it seemed the young striver had finally crawled his way to Success, he nearly sank into Ruin: Lincoln grew a beard, making Bradley’s inventory worthless. One evening, a friend came over to cheer him up, bringing with him a board game; from descriptions, it sounds as though this must have been the Mansion of Bliss or a near knockoff. Bradley loved it. He decided to invent his own game, with materials he had near to hand: a chessboard and wooden men.
He always claimed to have invented the Checkered Game of Life from scratch, but that’s not strictly true. Most of its ideas were, by then, hack- neyed. “Life is a kind of chess,” Benjamin Franklin once wrote. By playing chess, you could learn foresight, circumspection, caution, and perseverance. An 1834 engraving called The Chess Players; Or, The Game of Life, by the German artist Moritz Retzsch, depicted life as a game of chess between Man and Satan, held in the nave of a Gothic cathedral. Americans reenacted Retzsch’s engraving in tableaux vivants. It inspired short stories, novels, and plays. In 1848, one abolitionist complained about compromises with slaveholding states by arguing, “The North is as unequally matched with the South in this Game of Life as the youth in Retzsch’s chess-players, with his Satanic adversary.”
In Bradley’s game, you don’t play against the devil; you play against other men. And you don’t play for your soul; you play for success. Bradley found more in Franklin than in Retzsch. Born in Boston in 1706 into a family much like Hannah Bradley’s, Franklin grew up listening to Cotton Mather’s sermons. But the story of his life, as he told it, wasn’t the story of dry bones quickening; it was the story of a voyage “from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of Affluence and some degree of Reputation in the World.” It was the story of “the way to wealth.”
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, on 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 Brad- ley’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.
Who is God, the only one and True?
A. Money is God....
Do we progress?
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.48 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 Monopoly,” 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 Second Life, 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 be a failure—he spurned his own achievement.54 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 Kindergarten Review.
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 Kindergarten Review, 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.
“The journey of life is governed by a combination of chance and judgment,” Bradley had written, in his rules for the game, while still a young man. “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.” But the older he grew, the better Bradley came to see that he had been wrong. Some people are given better chances than others. There are such things as lousy starts, rotten luck, and bad cards. Maybe he even regretted that he had placed Poverty so close to Infancy and made the chances of getting to School no better than one in three. The kindergarten movement was about beating those odds. Maybe, as he neared the mansion of happiness, Milton Bradley saw in making crayons for kindergartners not only their second chance but his, too: redemption, at last.