Inventing the Game of Life
This post and others is part of a series on business boardgames. In the spring of 2012, the American Enterprise team partnered with a class at Brown University to study the history of business boardgames. Under the direction of Professor Steven Lubar, Brown students assembled a database of historic games, performed research at Hasbro’s archives, and led bi-weekly meetings with the Smithsonian’s curators. In these guest posts, students from the class discuss both how business boardgames have transformed time, and how board games reflect changing social values and attitudes toward business in the U.S.
How do you become successful as a toy inventor? Reuben Klamer, who developed the 1960 Game of Life, suggests inspiration, perseverance, serendipity, and a good sense of humor. Serendipity refers to his chance encounter with the “Checkered Game of Life” in the archives of the Milton Bradley Company, one day after he was tasked to create a new game for the company’s centennial celebration. While he did not open the dusty contents of the box, he was “electrified – by the word ‘life.’ It occurred to me that the word ‘life’ would be a valuable name for a new game concept.” Thus was the Game of Life invented.
This was not the first time that someone had developed a game about life, however. As Jill Lepore points out in her New Yorker article, the “New Game of Human Life” was printed in England by the 1720s, a game based on the Christian notion that “life is a voyage in which travellers are buffeted between vice and virtue.” Milton Bradley then published The Checkered Game of Life in 1860. An instructional game based on Puritan ethics, the winners were players who reached a Happy Old Age through leading a virtuous life.
Another publisher, Selchow & Righter, published a game titled “Stepping Stones: The Game of Life” in 1920. The rulebook points out, “Where is there a Real American Boy who does not wish to do big things – to make a success of his life – when he grows up so that his Mother and Father will be proud of him?” For this Game of Life, the goal was to climb the corporate ladder and earn a place in the President’s Office.
The Checkered Game of Life was eventually removed from the market, its Puritan morals perhaps too “preachy” and outdated for a society centered on capitalistic values. Still, its title inspired Reuben Klamer to come up with the revamped 1960s version of the Game of Life. Its goal was closer to that of Monopoly: to bankrupt other players and emerge as a millionaire tycoon. Although tactical decisions and the revenge feature determine smaller successes and failures along the way, everything ultimately depends on luck with the spinner, the Wheel of Fate.
At a time when television was an affordable and popular source of entertainment in the U.S., Klamer knew the game had to be visually appealing in television advertisements. Artist Bill Markham, who worked under Reuben Klamer at the time, helped create a prototype based on Klamer’s ideas for a three-dimensional, circuitous game track with a spinner. This became the first three-dimensional board game made in plastic, and the two filed a patent for it in 1960.
Klamer, with his background in engineering and marketing, further advised the company on working with plastic and reducing production costs, and came up with a promotional plan featuring the popular TV personality Art Linkletter. This helped pave the way for one of the first paid television commercials in the game industry (an early example from the 1960s is up on YouTube). Klamer still owns the rights to the Game of Life today, and must approve all revisions.
Today, there are 26 international language editions of Life produced in 59 different countries. The only localized version is the Japanese edition (Jinsei Ge-mu), which makes references to current events and customs unique to Japanese life, such as New Year’s celebrations, an imperial wedding, going on a hot-spring tour, holding a concert at the Tokyo Dome, even buying a nuclear bomb shelter on sale. The Takara Tomy Company, which distributes the game today, speculates that the original popularity of the game grew from its representation of the American Dream – in the 1960s, American life was idolized among the Japanese as symbolic of wealth and success.
Invention does not necessarily begin from a blank slate. Life has been re-invented many times, reshaped to fit cultural peculiarities and changing attitudes towards success. Drastic changes have been made to the Game of Life over the years, unlike Monopoly, whose iconography and overarching goal has remained consistent since 1935. Inventors may find inspiration from past games, innovate existing concepts, imagine new designs to help convey them, and devise new marketing strategies for the appropriate audience. As the playing field for the games business increasingly centers on digital games and the global marketplace, the next inventors of the Game of Life may be well on their way. What you need is to balance skill, strategy, and a good bit of luck.
Andrews, Peter. “Games People Played.” American Heritage Vol 23-4, 1972
Couzin, Mary. “Reuben Klamer on Success, Careers and The Game of Life.” Global Toy News. June 17, 2011.
Jensen, Jennifer. “Teaching Success Through Play: American Board And Table Games, 1840-1900.” Magazine Antiques, December 2001.
Klamer, Reuben. The Game of Life: An Inventor’s Chronicle. Hasbro/Milton Bradley Special Edition, 2010.
Lepore, Jill. “The Meaning of Life.” The New Yorker, 21 May 2007.
Walsh, Tim. Timeless Toys: Classic Toys And the Playmakers Who Created Them. Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005.
Whitehill, Bruce. Games: American Boxed Games and their Makers 1822-1992. Pennsylvania: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1992.
“What’s Jinsei Game.” Takara Tomy.