Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

originally published September 20, 2014

I confess: I am but one week away from commemorating my 40th year on this planet, and I have yet to ever play The Game of Life. This is not due to some ethical or existential objection to simulating the course of one’s existence upon a square slab of cardboard, but rather due to my friends and I having spent our youthful recreation time with Star Wars toys and kindly ol’ Super Mario. I never got around to playing Candyland either.

As beloved as this board game may be, with its plastic minivans, its cruel cash-drains and generous paydays, buried deep within its roots is a transformative story. The original version of the game, concocted by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, elevated the concept of gaming from prescriptive quests for moral elevation to a more practical and modernized measure of success. More importantly, it came packaged with choice.

The Game of Life as we know it (well, as you probably know it, since I’ve never played the thing) features one early decision: go to school or get a job. After that, each soul is subjected to the whim of the spiteful spinner, suggesting that life is but a cavalcade of random collisions, and that we are always at the mercy of the fickle flick of fate. Mr. Bradley’s outlook on destiny was far more empowering.

Tracing the Bradley lineage would suggest that a rather dreary definition of “life” could have taken center-stage in his outlook. The family tree was planted in America in 1635, and since then its bark shows the hatchet-marks of murder, Indian attack, kidnapping, and at one point hot embers being poured into an infant’s mouth. When Milton finally squeezed his way onto the planet in 1836, the Bradleys were a little less prone to being butchered, but far from being economic titans.

Milton started out as a draftsman and patent agent, serving the people of Springfield, Massachusetts during the recession of 1858. Not long afterward, he switched careers and opened up the first color lithography shop in town. With the impending presidential election of 1860 on the horizon, Milton was raking in a fortune selling lithographs of the forerunner, Abraham Lincoln. There was only one problem…

Honest Abe had grown a beard. Furious customers were returning the prints in droves, claiming them to be an obvious forgery. Hell, this Lincoln wasn’t even wearing that funky hat! Milton was distraught; he burned the remaining lithographs in his collection and took a huge financial loss – yet another kick to the groin in the Bradley legacy.

Before long, Milton had discovered a new project. A friend had given him a copy of a board game. We don’t know if it was Britain’s New Game of Human Life, Mansion of Bliss or Mansion of Happiness, but it was some sort of game in which one progressed through a pretend life, earning virtues for progress and avoiding the perils of on-board sins. These games were all similar, with the end goal being the ascension of one’s token into the promised land. Milton loved the concept, but he found the game to be too linear, and ultimately a bit too pushy with the morality lesson. So invented something better.

In Milton’s game, players use a teetotum (a six-sided spinning top – dice were seen as symbols of the evils of gambling back then) to move around, but there is an element of choice in almost every spin. There are potentially unavoidable bad-news squares (suicide is a grisly way for any board game to end), but if you steered yourself correctly, with a bit of luck you could be the first to acquire 100 points and win the game. Points are won through more modern (and American) means of success: wealth, getting elected to Congress, finding happiness, and so on.

Milton called it The Checkered Game of Life.

The ultimate goal (though it was possible to rack up 100 points without it) is to reach Happy Old Age at the top of the board. That’s it. Being good – or, landing on squares with positive virtues – brings rewards, which allowed Milton to pitch the game as a moral activity. But the optimum result had nothing to do with religious ascendance, giving the game more universal appeal. Milton took The Checkered Game of Life into a stationary store in New York in the winter of 1860 and pitched it. Within a year he had sold more than 40,000 copies.

Milton had found his calling. His company began releasing heaps of new games, even developing a way to package them, so that Union soldiers could use them to pass the time during the Civil War. Eventually, he drifted into other interests.

Milton had the opportunity to meet Edward Wiebe, the man who was trying to get educators to re-think how little kids were swept into the school system. Wiebe was a proponent of kindergarten, insisting that young ones might learn from play and creativity, instead of basic memorization and regurgitation. Milton, who had happily swum in the philosophical waters of pro-kindergartener Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, jumped on board. The Milton Bradley company began marketing books and materials for kindergarten, also beating out Crayola to become the first company to manufacture packages of standard-color crayons.

He was a busy guy. Somewhere along the way, Milton also found the time to invent this:

In addition to reinventing how humans cut paper, Milton Bradley was also the first American company to bring the game of croquet across the Atlantic and popularize it in the States. Toward the end of the century though, while The Checkered Game of Life, croquet sets and jigsaw puzzles were still bringing in the bucks, it was Milton’s educational supplies that were keeping the company afloat. When he died in 1911, he felt they were his greatest contribution to society.

The company lived on in his name, as we all know. After falling on some hard times in and around the Great Depression – at one point the company was manufacturing joints for aircraft landing gear for World War II planes – the new company operators revamped the product line. Like a phoenix they returned to their seat of glory in the game world with products like Candyland, Operation, Battleship, Stratego, Trouble and Twister. But it was the centennial re-design of Milton’s original game (now re-titled The Game of Life) by Reuben Klamer and Bill Markham that broke the bank.

While this new version of the game has earned a much longer tenure as the favorite child of the board game brood, there is something clearly lacking from Milton’s original, and that’s the aspect of choice. In truth, The Game of Life owes more to the linear journeys of The New Game of Human Life or Mansion of Bliss than to its predecessor, as once you have either gone through college or leapt into the workplace, your in-game future is left to chance.

Milton was a bit more of an optimist, I suppose. Either that or he felt his fellow humans possessed more control over their direction. Given how he steered his genetic ship toward a bright future when his ancestors had spent so many centuries suffering, I think there may be some merit in seeing things Milton’s way.

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