The Meaning of Life

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Author: Jill Lepore
Date: May 21, 2007
From: The New Yorker(Vol. 83, Issue 13)
Publisher: Conde Nast Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,347 words
Lexile Measure: 1250L

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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, 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 labelled 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, though landing on Suicide, 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 journey of life," Bradley explained, in his Rules of the Game. 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 Checkered Game of Life made Milton Bradley a brand name. His company, founded in 1860, survived his death, in 1911, the Depression, two World Wars, and even my mother, who worked there in the nineteen-forties. In 1960, to celebrate its centennial, the Milton Bradley Company released a commemorative Game of Life. It bears almost no resemblance to its nineteenth-century namesake. In Life, players fill teensy plastic station wagons with even teensier pastel-pink and blue plastic Mommies and Daddies, spin the Wheel of Fate, and ride the highway of Life, earning money, buying furniture, and having pink and blue plastic babies. 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. As the game's ad slogan has it, "That's Life!"

If, like me, you played the 1960 version of Life while wearing bell-bottoms and listening to a 45 of Elton John's "Rocket Man," you have a pretty good idea of what happened to Milton Bradley's nineteenth-century game about vice, virtue, and the pursuit of happiness: it was reinvented as a lesson in Cold War consumerist conformity, a kind of two-dimensional Levittown, complete with paychecks and retirement homes and dental bills. Inside the game box are piles and piles of paper (Life is . . . paperwork!): fake automobile insurance, phony stock certificates, pretend promissory notes, and play money, seven and a half million dollars of it, including a heap of mint-green fifty-thousand-dollar bills, each featuring a portrait of Milton Bradley near the end of his days--bearded, aged, antique.

In the board-game industry, the 1960 Game of Life, which has sold thirty-five million copies, is like that portrait of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A163737160