When I was young I loved to play board games, as the youngest child, they presented me with an almost level playing field upon which I could best my parents or older brother. Monopoly and Cluedo were the staple family favourites although my father lacked the patience required for Monopoly.
I remember once while on holiday in Devon, the whole family had been locked inside a caravan not much bigger than a coffin, as for two weeks rain had blown horizontally across the moors and drummed its random, frantic, staccato rhythms against the caravan’s plastic windows. I loved that holiday, no other holiday had ever presented the family with such an opportunity to spend time together playing games. But, upon reflection I feel a great amount of sympathy for my father. A working man doesn’t get much holiday, and to be given no choice but to spend it in such claustrophobic conditions at the hands of Britain’s most inclement weather conditions started to shred his nerves. Subsequently we never holidayed in Britain again.
For what must have been two or three days we played nothing but 20 questions with such rapidity, frequency, intensity and ferocity, that what was once nothing more than an innocent parlor game had become more like an interrogation at Auschwitz. Playing 20 questions came to an end once we had all become so telepathically sensitive to one another’s ways of thinking that people were often making correct guesses after only two or three questions had been asked. To prevent the further development of the hive mind under the pressure of cabin fever conditions, we moved on to Monopoly.
It’s hard to recall, but we were somewhere into our third or fourth day of an epic Monopoly marathon, when suddenly my father created an economic chaos, with what appeared to me to be the touch impulsive decision to sell Bond street, Regent Street and Oxford Street all for 1 pound each. Now admittedly as a nine year old boy I had never visited any of these locations and therefore suspected that my father’s worldly knowledge formed the foundation of his decision. Maybe he had insider knowledge that a freeway was to be built through this area of London or perhaps it was being considered for a landfill site. Whatever his reasons were, I quickly learned that Monopoly is not really a game that rewards philanthropy as my father was quickly eliminated, leaving him free to stretch his legs and pace the entire length (6 feet) of the caravan, and to have some quiet time alone watching the raindrops zigzag their way down the plastic windows. I can’t remember who it was that ultimately benefited by picking up such prime London real estate for 3 pounds, but I am pretty sure that they went on to win the game, but that’s not what mattered. I blame this incident for sowing the seeds of my doubt towards capitalism and consumerism. After all This was in the midst of the opulent 80’s, a time that saw the zenith of the capitalist dream, Dallas and Dynasty were being viewed by millions, and Gordon Geko’s mantra “greed was good,” succinctly encapsulated the meaning of a decade. As a child growing up in the in this society I had until that point regarded the accumulation of wealth as a fun and worthwhile, even noble cause. I was little more than a naive,brainwashed lovechild from the loins of Reaganomics, the belief that there would be such an abundance of wealth being generated by the rich the they would literally run out of places to put it, and therefore it would overflow and “trickle down” to the plebs like me. But through my father’s adoption of the Kerouacian approach to economics, which considers money as “ruining the sanctity of the moment”, had opened my eyes and I started to appreciate that maybe there was more to life than going around in circles, accumulating wealth in some contrived sense of competition where really there is no one to compete against. Instead you can opt out, go on the road, or in my fathers case up the other end of the caravan. Selling up, opting out and going to sit by himself, was my father’s symbolic act of resistance against the the capitalist dogma of the 80’s materialist economic machine. If he was going to be forced to into incarceration on a wet windswept moor, he would be damned if he was going to spend his time playing games that simulated his working life.
Due to my father’s lack of patience and his ability to create an economic crisis any Wall Street trader would have been proud of, one Christmas we bought the Game of Life. Now the Game of Life is a lot like Monopoly insofar as it judges the success of a person’s life purely through the accumulation of wealth, but it is targeted for an audience with a shorter attention span. Perhaps its most significant difference to Monopoly is that the Game of Life has a definite end point to it, you reach the end of the board and enter a retirement home. It must have been decided that this presented my brother and I the opportunity to learn fiscal responsibilities whilst giving my father the reassurance and hope that the banality would last no more than a couple of hours, after which he would be free to go and lie under a car and get oil all over himself.
It all sounded to good to be true, a simulated journey through life. A classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the character of capitalism. It represented a salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in western society. But as is really the case the Game of Life is the product of a demented imagination. The Game of Life is what every family would have been made to play on a Saturday night if the Nazi’s had won the war. It represents the sixth Reich and what they would have perceived as entertainment.
Let us take a look at the board. At first glance the board takes on the appearance of having been designed by some insecure colour blind, fascist, amidst the throes of a hideously, depraved acid trip. It is easily possible for even the most slow witted person to determine , that the “Game of Life” really bears little resemblance to life but is more of a spiritual representation of post-apocalyptic world in which the inhabitants had long ago lost their wills to live. But, enough of these nebulous generalities and find some cold hard facts, look the beast squarely in the eye and gain an understanding as to how this absurd game was conceived.
The game was devised by John Horton Conway, who to the best of my knowledge is neither a Satanist nor a Nazi, and has never indulged in LSD. But, what John has done though is to build himself quite an impressive ivory tower, having gained his undergraduate and PhD from Cambridge, he is presently Professor in Applied and Computational Mathematics at Princeton University.
In technical Game Theory jargon (maybe the only area of advanced mathematics of any interest(see John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind”) the game is an example of “cellular automaton”, which apparently is represented by the curios little animation above. It all sounds rather impressive but leaves me wondering, why all my memories of playing the game are so crap? To answer this question I needed to revisit my childhood and with little effort I was soon playing online.
The first piece of imagery that caused me some level of cognitive dissonance, more so than reducing myself to a pale blue plastic peg , indeed the peg probably has greater social skills, was that then I had to choose the colour of my car upon which I would sit. Throughout the experience this was a feature I never got beyond, I just couldn’t understand its meaning or purpose. In all probability the game of life would be a short one if we were to observe such a reckless approach to vehicular safety.
The method by which you progress through life, the instrument used for simulating the passing of tim, is a psychedelic spinner placed either in a volcano, or an exceptionally large dog turd. Either way adds to the games anarchic, semiotic nature, that the player has at least subconsciously been aware of from the moment of taking the lid off the box.
I proceeded the game against one computer character “Bernard”. Within no time Bernard had become a sports personality earning $60,000, at what frequency is not specified. It would be hard to imagine any sports personality earning as little as $60,000 per year, perhaps with the exception maybe of erstwhile San Diego quarterback Ryan Leaf who probably spent nearly as much time in prison as he did in the NFL and achieved a higher quarterback rating there as well.
With in no time and requiring no discernible effort to be put into studying, I became a lawyer earning $100,000 per???? Although saddled with student debt I felt confident I would beat the jock. Bernard proceeded down raod the when all of a sudden, without even leaving the car, he got married, no dating, no engagement, he just got married, to the best of my knowledge Bernard had never even met the girl. This rash approach to the sanctity of marriage seemed a touch flippant. I was uncomfortable that at the same point along the path everyone gets married, was there a divorce cul-de-sac further down the road? I was starting to feel my anxiety taking a hold of me, as such important lifestyle decisions were being arbitrarily decided by a spinner and the boards commands. In essence I had sacrificed my right to free will, my life was out of my hands. And perhaps most offensively to the homosexual community it was automatically assumed that Bernard was heterosexual.
Within no time Bernard, the sports personality, had amassed a in excess $250,000 without having set foot outside of his car. I could only assume he was some kind of professional sports car driver, even though having your wife sat on top of the car with you at the time was certainly something I had never heard of in the history of motorsports. Compounding this conundrum was the fact that on his next turn Bernard’s wife had twins, whom they quickly sat on top of the car and carried on their way. How these children were conceived is puzzling given the very asexual nature of the pegs, leading me to assume Bernard had abducted them. Meanwhile I had to show for myself was a wife and a log cabin.
For some reason I decided to take the opportunity to go back to college and retrained as an accountant, I was now earning 40% less than I was before as a Lawyer, surely casting into doubt any genuine accountancy skills. The next lifestyle choice came with the options “Take the Family Path” or “Continue with the Game of Life”. I thought this was pretty harsh, inferring in someway that the Game of Life ends once having a family. I decided to take the family route but sadly had no children, for no reason. It appears that infertility hides insidiously within the construct of cellular automaton games.
Bernard and his army of children, to rub salt into the wound had also adopted a pet, and were driving off into the sunset. My wife and I however, appeared bitter and twisted by our inability to have children, we drove on in silence, communication dropped to the level of dumb beasts, seething in resentment for one another.
The next fork in the road offered the stark choices to take “The Risky Path of Life” or “The Safe Path of Life”. When playing a game like this what kind of anally retentive person picks the safe path? I had no idea what the risks were involved but I hoped they would fill the void of my childless marriage. I had visions of having to cram heroin up my ass and cross international borders, or robbing banks. What actually transpired was I could gamble but it even limited the amount. So I gambled as much and as hard as I could, seeing the gap of relative wealth get ever wider with Bernard, who I must say with 4 children and a pet didn’t seem to be living the kind of lifestyle I would usually associate with a sports star.
My wife and I rolled into the retirement home while Bernard was still out on the highways and byways of life, making more money, having more fun. By the time he arrived at the retirement home, (to which he had brought all his children, something I thught to be a little odd) my wife had electrocuted herself while drying her hair in the shower. Although soundly beaten by Bernard, I did finish the game with just short of a million dollars, which would appear to me an over inflated amount to be considered as a failure.
It truely is a rubbish game for the reason that no matter how reckless you are, you cannot be Ryan Leaf. No matter how much you try, you can’t break the law, develop a drug habit, run a ponzi scheme, or even sleep with your opponent’s wife. There are no crippling illnesses or injuries, even though you spend your whole life riding on top of a car. In that respect the Game of Life is similar to education, in that no matter how recklessly one pursues it, no one ever really fails, some people just succeed more. And that flies in the face of everything Darwin stood for, survival of the fittest has now become a celebration of the mediocre. This all fits into my views on the dumbing down of our societies, which I’ll leave for another day.
From my own personal perspective I found it liberating as the board didn’t contain
the “death spiral” upon which I spend much of my time. A realistic version of the Game of Life would have this, along with the “divorce cul-de-sac” and god forbid, the ultimate bummer, “The Ryan Leaf” card.