Winning at the Game of Life

Game of Life

Games can be pretty instructive. There are a host of benefits to playing games, ones we can probably all figure out. Depending on the type of game being played, they can promote teamwork, togetherness (“The family that plays together stays together!”), patience, good sportsmanship, strategizing, good hand-eye coordination and the list goes on. However, until I played the game of Lifethe other week, I didn’t realize how a game could enhance my understanding of actual life. Now I’m recommending it for everyone!

For those of you unfamiliar with The Game of Life (orLife), it is a board game in which you choose cards for a career, salary, and a Game of Lifehouse as you spin the wheel that tells you where to move. The career and salary have nothing to do with each other (you could be a teacher making $100,000 or an athlete with a $30,000 salary) and they, as well as the house card, are drawn randomly. As you move around the board, you land on spaces that either make you pay (like when you get a speeding ticket or the stock market crashes) or give you money (you can win the Nobel or write a best seller). You also collect Life tiles that give you a certain amount of money that you count up when you retire at the end of the game. The player with the most money wins. So, it’s a great little capitalistic type of game.

The first night my family and I played the game, I was the big loser. Although I went to college and initially chose a good career and salary, I was forced to change careers and got a drastically reduced salary card. My house was the $200,000 mansion (I was hoping for the split level but no dice) which I couldn’t pay for and for some reason I kept landing on spaces in which I had to pay for stupid stuff. I was especially irritated when I got penalized for not having homeowner’s insurance because, with all my financial woes, how was I expected to pay for that? When I finally reached retirement, I was so frustrated. I did everything ‘right’ yet I had little to show for it.

The next time we played, I had the exact opposite experience. Lady Luck was on my side and I could practically do no wrong. My salary was among the highest, I kept landing on spaces that either gave me tiles or money, and my house was reasonably priced. In short, the money was pouring in! I have to tell you, that game was much more fun than the other one. I was loving life (heh) but my husband and son did not share my fun. They kept groaning with disbelief when I got more money and didn’t even want to count up the money at the end because it was obvious that I would win. I insisted that we count although, to be fair, I didn’t make them do the math.

So what’s the big deal here? Everyone knows that winning is more fun than losing. Yes but it actually goes a lot deeper than that. It’s not just winning that is important; it is the perception of how winning is accomplished that truly matters. (Don’t believe me? Just ask if Shoeless Joe Jackson is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame yet.) For example, if you go on Hasbro’s website, it promotes Life as a game of options with “Where will your choices take you?” as their slogan. However, anyone who plays the game (and surely their marketing people have played!) will tell you that your choices do not matter at all. Even the Wikipedia entry on the game points this out: “Some critics have noted that luck plays too large a role in determining the winner of the game, with Life Cards, which are essentially random, being the prime determinant of the winner. Aspects of the game where a user has to make a decision, such as attending college or purchasing insurance, have a very small effect in the outcome.”

And that right there — the realization that our decisions have little effect — is what drove much of the anger behind the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the United States, we have a cultural belief called The American Dream. This belief states that if people work hard and pull up their bootstraps, they too can share in the riches of this great nation. Even the poor can succeed monetarily if they just make all of the right decisions. So, the perception is that you can win the game if you play hard and follow the rules.

It’s a lovely sentiment and has given hope to millions of strivers but the sad fact is that it’s untrue. Just as in Life, you can make all the right decisions yet get constantly knocked down by things out of your control. Millions of Americans went to college only to find that there aren’t any jobs. Others worked three jobs in order to buy a home only to be thrown into the street when they couldn’t pay the mortgage. Many people had a good living only to lose it all to bankruptcy when they couldn’t pay their healthcare bills.

In the weeks after the Occupy Wall Street protests began, I heard a lot of people — regular folk and commentators alike — express bewilderment at what the demonstrations are designed to do. I too was somewhat puzzled right up until I played that first difficult game of Life. The frustration I felt at not being able to stop the financial hits cleared it up for me.

When I realized that I was going to lose regardless of what I did, I wanted to shout about the unfairness. I wanted my husband and son to sympathize with my misery and agree that the rules needed to change. Most of all, I wanted them to admit that their winning was just luck and not because they were more skilled players. In short, I wanted to change their perception about winning. And I got all that just from playing a game. Imagine if that was my actual life!

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