Excerpt from The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mansion of Happiness

A History of Life and Death

by Jill Lepore

The Mansion of Happiness
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2012, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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What it doesn't look like is the Checkered Game of Life, but, curiously, it does rather resemble the Mansion of Happiness, just with lots of pieces of plastic attached to it. The 1960 Game of Life is a spiral race, its serpentine path representing the voyage of life, from high school graduation to retirement. (In Life, you never die; you just quit working.) Some squares offer rewards: "Contest Winner! Collect $5,000." Others mete out penalties:

"Buy Furniture. Pay $2,000." But neither is morally freighted; instead of a battle between virtue and vice, it's an accounting of income and expenses. The game's most important squares are those that announce, in red letters, "Pay Day!" What you earn depends on a choice you make on your very first move: Will you go to college or take a job? The Checkered Game brought together choice and chance, but Life has only one real fork in the road: work or study. If you start work, you can collect paychecks right away; if you go to college, you have to take out loans and pay them back, but you earn more when you eventually do start getting paychecks. After that there are occasional financial decisions to be made - do you want to buy life insurance? would you like to invest in the stock market? - but these, and the piles of paper and the cars full of babies, serve mainly as a distraction from the play's passivity. Like the Mansion of Happiness, Life is a journey along a fixed path, where only one thing matters. At Life's "Day of Reckoning," you count your cash, not your good deeds. Like all earlier spiral race games of life, Life is about fate - not whether you're fated to become an Immortal Man, but whether you're fated to retire to Millionaire Acres. By 1960, the mansion of happiness was a five-thousand-square-foot house in a swank retirement community.

The 1960 Game of Life was a smash. Children liked it because it's like playing dress-up; you get to pretend to be a grown-up. One speaks, of course, only for oneself, but this game is just for kids - unless you're eight, it's a drag. And, as the years passed, it drew criticism: it is, after all, relent- lessly amoral and shamelessly cash-conscious. In the Wall Street 1990s, a team of designers charged with updating it gave up; whenever they tried to make the game less about having the most money, it made no sense. All they could come up with was to add "life tiles," which allowed players to do good deeds. But the only way to be rewarded for your virtue was in the game's sole currency: cash. Save an endangered species: collect $200,000. Solution to pollution: $250,000.

In 2007, just before a global financial meltdown involving securities fraud, subprime mortgages, and bad debt, Hasbro introduced a wholly reimagined game: the Game of Life: Twists and Turns. In this version, life is ... aimless. There's a place to begin, but it's called Start, not Infancy or High School Graduation. There's no place on the board called Happy Old Age and no Millionaire Acres, either. Plainly, the Gate to Heaven is out of the question. The game board is divided into four squares - Learn It, Live It, Love It, and Earn It - through each of which a colored path snakes its way. (The game is a mishmash of a square board and a spiral one.) You decide how you want to spend your time: go to school, have kids, hang out, travel the world. Whatever. You begin using a tiny plastic skateboard as a game piece; if you want, you can convert it to a car. You can buy a house, from "Modest," for $200,000, to "Mansion," for $1,000,000. You pay 10 percent a year on your mortgage. The rules advise: "Because houses increase in value by 6% a year, higher-priced homes earn more over time than lower-priced homes. Just be sure to offset these earnings by any debt you carry." How players (ages nine and up) would do that is unclear. This game is paperless. Instead of cash, each player gets a Visa-brand credit card - made out in Milton Bradley's name - to swipe in the game's electronic Life Pod. Only the computer - a battery-powered mechanical deity - knows how much money you have. Accused of wantonly advertising credit cards to kids through the Hasbro-Visa deal, a Visa spokesman insisted, "We are not marketing to kids. We are helping to educate kids. It's never too early." Suffice it to say, Twists and Turns has a remarkably forgiving attitude toward the highly leveraged player. "If you're in debt in Monopoly," George Burtch, vice president of Hasbro's games division, told me, "you're watching. But in this game, you can be hugely in debt but you're still playing, and no one knows it!" In the Mansion of Happiness, there's a square for that kind of thing. It's called the Road to Folly.

Excerpted from The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore. Copyright © 2012 by Jill Lepore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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