In 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president, a lanky, long- nosed, twenty-three-year-old Yankee named Milton Bradley invented his first board game, played on a red-and-ivory checkerboard of sixty-four squares. He called it the Checkered Game of Life. Play starts at the board's lower left corner, on an ivory square labeled Infancy - illustrated by a tiny, black-inked lithograph of a wicker cradle - and ends, usually but not always, at Happy Old Age, at the upper right, although landing on Suicide, inadvertently, helplessly, miserably, and with a noose around your neck, is more common than you might think, and means, inconveniently, that you're dead.
"The game represents, as indicated by the name, the checkered journey of life," Bradley explained. There are good patches and bad, in roughly equal number. On the one hand: Honesty, Bravery, Success. On the other: Poverty, Idleness, Disgrace. The wise player will strive "to gain on his journey that which shall make him the most prosperous, and to shun that which will retard him in his progress." But even when you're heading for Happiness, you can end up at Ruin, passed out, drunk and drooling, on the floor of a seedy-looking tavern where Death darkens the door disguised as a debt collector straight out of Bleak House: the bulky black overcoat, the strangely sinister stovepipe hat.
The history of games of life contains within it a history of ideas about life itself. The Checkered Game of Life made Milton Bradley a brand name. His company, founded in 1860, survived his death in 1911, the Depression, and two world wars. In 1960, to celebrate its centennial, the Milton Bradley Company released a commemorative Game of Life. It bears almost no resemblance to its checkered nineteenth-century namesake. Instead, Milton Bradley's antebellum game about vice, virtue, and the pursuit of happiness was reinvented as a lesson in consumer conformity, a two-dimensional Levittown, complete with paychecks and retirement homes and medical bills. In Life, players fill teensy plastic station wagons with even teensier pink and blue plastic Mommies and Daddies, spin the Wheel of Fate, and ride along the Highway of Life, earning money, buying furniture, having pink and blue plastic babies, and retiring, if they're lucky, at Millionaire Acres. Along the way, there are good patches: "Adopt a Girl and Boy! Collect Presents!" And bad: "Jury Duty! Lose Turn." Whoever earns the most money wins. (The game's motto: "That's Life!") Inside the game box are piles and piles of paper: fake automobile insurance, phony stock certificates, pretend promissory notes, and play money, $7.5 million of it, including a heap of mint-green fifty-thousand-dollar bills, each featuring a portrait of Bradley, near the end of his days: bearded, aged, antique.
As the years passed, Life came to look more and more like that portrait of old man Bradley. Only a handful of games have had as long a shelf life. After all, not for long did anyone play Park and Shop, another game sold by the Milton Bradley Company in 1960, whose object was "to outsmart the other players by parking your car in a strategic place, completing your shopping quickly, and being the first to return home." In the 1990s, Hasbro, which bought the Milton Bradley Company in 1984, revised Life to market it to the baby boomer parents who had grown up with it: the station wagons swelled into minivans and it became possible, a few miles down life's highway, to have a midlife crisis. The update was a disappointment. And so, in 2006, in an attempt to Botox the shiny, puffy nowness of youth into a gray-whiskered game, Hasbro decided to start again, to design a new game of life, by asking, What would Life be like if it were invented today? That's a question about the present. If you turn it around, though, you can make it into a question about the past: Why did Milton Bradley invent the Checkered Game, the way he did, when he did? How, in short, did Life begin?
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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