Finn played The Game of Life this summer, and raved about how much fun it was. He got the game for Christmas and he and his brothers played several games by themselves that afternoon while I cleaned up. I’d never played before, but I surmised that the game provided friendly competition along with a few lessons about real life.
I did not care at all for the game chatter I heard while they were playing.
“I’m not going to college,” Porter announced. “That just makes you have to pay more money. It does.”
Later, I heard Drew declare, “I don’t know why they even have those insurance cards. No one ever buys any.”
Then Finn yelled, “Darn! Hey guys, you wanna change the rules so no one pays taxes?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I told the boys that I wanted in on the next game.
“Great,” said Finn. “I get to be the blue car, and I get to go first.”
“No,” I said, “We’re going to play this game by the rules. I bet you roll or spin something to see who goes first.”
Finn lay back on the couch, sulking, while I carefully perused the rules. I decided I was going to guide the boys through a carefully
considered game, in which rules were followed and prudent decisions
about careers, marriages and spending were made.
The game began as many games dominated by males do. There was an immediate fight over which boy was going to be what color car, which was ultimately resolved with only one shove. I was the white car, because apparently white isn’t the color of any sports team that’s popular in our house.
At the beginning of the game I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go to college. If you do, you get to choose from three career cards. Those who skip college must pick and keep one.
“Of course I’m going to college,” I said. “Education is the most important thing you can invest in.”
“That’s a bad move, Mom,” Drew said. “None of us are going to college. Going to college just makes you owe money and then you lose.”
“Yeah, it’s like buying insurance,” Finn said. “There’s no reason to do it.”
“Yeah, and you won’t make more money, Mom,” Porter said. “You won’t.”
“You’ll see,” I said smugly.
Each career card was color coded so that it was eligible only for salaries of certain colors. I soon realized that the available salaries varied wildly. I watched as Drew picked the artist card and a salary of $80,000. Whenever anyone spun a “1” it meant he sold a painting and that player had to pay him $10,000. Porter was the policeman and earned $90,000. When someone spun a “10” it meant they were speeding and had to pay him $10,000.
Finn was the computer consultant and earned $70,000. Whenever the spinner came off the track, the bank paid him $50,000 to fix it.
When I graduated, I chose to be the accountant. I picked three salary cards but the only one I was eligible for color-wise was $40,000. When anyone landed on the “pay taxes space” they paid the taxes to me.
“What a crock,” I said. “That wasn’t worth going to college for.”
“Told you,” Finn commented.
It was immediately apparent that with our game, the computer consultant is the person you want to be. No matter how carefully each of us handled the spinner, it always seemed to become hung up, so we all spent a lot of the game handing over $50,000 bills to Finn, who piled them up gleefully on the table before him.
Being the policeman wasn’t so bad, either. Porter drew a hefty salary, and I swear he rigged the spinner to favor the 10, because there were a lot of speed traps along our game of Life.
Sometimes a person landed on a spot that marked a life event and you picked up a tile with “LIFE” on one side and an event and a dollar amount on the other. Presumably these were things you did in your life that were meaningful and resulted in financial gain. The first time I picked a LIFE tile I read it out loud: “Win Nobel Prize.”
I seized on the opportunity to enhance the game. “Guys, do you know what the Nobel prize is?” I asked, thinking about how I would explain Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa to them.
“MOM!” Drew shrieked. “You’re not supposed to look at it!”
“That can’t be right,” I said firmly, as I consulted the rules. He was right. All the tiles were to remain face down until the end of the game, when their monetary worth was calculated along with each player’s money to arrive at a grand total. Essentially, the momentous events described on the cards were worth nothing but the amount of money that accompanied them. The rules forbade me from telling the boys about climbing Mount Everest, or why the person who cures the common cold would get a lot of money, or what the English Channel is and why you would swim across it. So much for teaching the boys a little something. I checked the box to see who had manufactured the game. It seemed to me that Milton Bradley had missed an opportunity to market the Game of Life as a real learning experience by creating that rule.
As the game progressed, each of us had to get married. This was shown by adding a pink or blue peg to the shotgun seat of the player’s car. Finn and I got married without complaint, but the twins were adamant about the fact that they don’t like girls. Each chose to marry another boy, while Finn protested, “A boy can’t marry another boy!”
I just kept my mouth shut and refrained from discussing homosexual marriage and civil unions since that was apparently against the spirit of the game and would get complicated besides.
I continued to spin 10’s and 1’s and accumulate debt. Interestingly, in Life, the loans came with a set interest rate of $5000 for every $20,000 loan and there was no incentive to pay them back sooner rather than later. So I didn’t.
Instead, I used the little cash I had to purchase home and car insurance, and I made a big point of doing so. “You should always insure your home and your car,” I emphasized to the boys. Later I landed on a space where I wrecked the car, and I shouted with glee as I showed them that I did not have to pay for the damaged car because I was insured. Soon after, Porter, (who we were now all calling “the overpaid policeman”) lost his house in a flood and paid for his damage from his thick wad of cash without blinking an eye. The insurance lesson did not go as well as I had hoped.
Later in the game, there was a place where you came to a fork in the road and had to pick the path you wanted to take. I watched Finn as he counted out the spaces on each path and compared his landing points.
“Hmm, have a baby girl, or get a payday. That’s a no brainer! Give me my $70,000,” he demanded. My heart sank. I thought about asking him to reconsider– how many people get to choose whether or not to have a baby girl? — but then I realized that we’d already been playing for over an hour and we were nowhere near retirement. So I kept my mouth shut and silently mourned my lost granddaughter.
The game of Life seemed to drag on as long as a real lifetime. I realized that Milton Bradley must have tested his game and discovered that it lasted far too long, and then made the rule against peeking at the Life tiles to prevent all the questions and explanations that would result. After all, if we’d wanted to play a game that lasted for hours, we’d have just played Monopoly.
The boys got restless, and Finn started smacking Porter on the head to tell him it was his turn to spin. Drew farted and then jumped up and down for the sole purpose of spreading the stench about the room, and I called a halt to the game.
“I will not tolerate this type of behavior any longer,” I warned. “I’m not going to play anymore if you don’t shape up.”
“That’s okay, Mom,” Finn said. “You’re losing big time, anyway. We could all count up our money now and see who won.”
Porter won, and Finn was a close second. I was barely out of debt, even though my Life cards revealed that I had won the Nobel Prize and written the Great American Novel. I tried to tell the boys that even though I didn’t have the most money at the end, I’d still led a full life and made valuable contributions to society.
“That’s great and all, Mom,” Finn said, as he started packing up the board, “but in the Game of Life, all that matters is who has the most money, and that person wins. Those are the rules.”
He was right, of course. And Life, like life, isn’t always fair.