Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Game of Life

Last night the kids suggested that we break out the game of "Life" and play it together as a family. What a great idea! It was an immediate incentive to get everyone to help clear the dinner dishes and wipe off the table.

In the game of Life players spin a wheel to move a little car across spaces on a board that represent life experiences. There are opportunities to make career choices and gain or lose money for different reasons. I remember playing many games of Life as a kid. My friends and I would skip the boring, confusing parts like car insurance or stock certificates and race our cars to those paydays!

What I immediately noticed last night was how much more complex Life has become. (The metaphor is almost too obvious!) Career choices are more varied and contemporary, there's the possibility for job loss and "mid-life crisis", and houses can be bought and then re-sold for either a profit or loss. I can't imagine a kid playing this game without an adult being present to explain some of the nuances of accounting, stocks and other financial matters.

And that's the troubling essence of the game: it's all about the money. The player with the biggest pile of cash at the end wins. The game designers have obviously tried to expand its spectrum of values by having players earn "Life tiles" for various humanitarian and enrichment activities ("Help the Homeless", "Support Wildlife Fund"). But at the end of the game these tiles are awarded a monetary value, so ultimately it all comes down to the moolah. All piles, no depth.

I was also struck by the fact that all players must get married. Whether you have children is left up to chance rather than choice (my wife remained childless throughout the game), but going without a spouse is not an option. I also noticed, despite all the attempts to acknowledge life's "shadow side" (job loss, car theft, etc.) that divorce is not an available option. This is not a complaint, because I realize this is just a kids' game, but just an observation.

It was interesting to notice how the designers cleverly incorporated the actual board's shoddy construction into the game itself. The plastic spinner kept repeatedly slipping off its balance point. The rule states that whenever this happens the player who has the job of "tech support" collects a substantial sum of money to fix it!

My son ultimately won, and I noticed that the outcome didn't particularly seem to matter to any of us compared to the actual experience of playing the game together. The fun resided in the adventure of seeing what adventures and obstacles happened to each other, struggling together to figure out the rules, and laughing at the essential absurdity of it all. So that for me is ultimately the deepest metaphor of the game

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