What the Game of Life can teach us about success

If your life was a board game, how would you score it?

Game of Life
(Image credit: (CC BY: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheila_sund/" target="_blank">Sheila Sund</a>))

Remember the Game of Life? It's one of the most popular board games ever. You won if you ended the game with the most money.

Here's the interesting thing you probably don't know: The game wasn't always about money. The original version was about vice, virtue, and happiness. But when it was re-released in 1960 it was about cash. When Milton Bradley (the man) first created it, he saw the game as a tool to teach children about ethics.

In his patent application, Bradley himself insisted that his game was "intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice." [The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death]

When Milton Bradley (the company) looked at the original game in 1960, what did they think?

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"You could never in a million years sell it today," Mel Taft told me. Taft used to be vice president of research and development at the Milton Bradley Company. [The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death]

And this was true. In the ensuing years, the game was criticized for being amoral and cash-crazed — but without the money focus the game ceased to work.

The 1960 Game of Life was a smash…And, as the years passed, it drew criticism: it is, after all, relentlessly amoral and shamelessly cash conscious. In the Wall Street 1990′s, 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. [The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death]

It's funny that the game broke when money stopped being the point system.

It ties in with what Harvard professor Michael Norton told me about the role of money in our real lives — it's an easy way to keep score.

From my interview with Michael Norton:

Some things are hard to measure. So, "Am I a better dad than I was last year?" Well, there's no objective scale where I can look back and someone says, "Last year you were a 71 dad. This year, you're a 74 dad." Or spouse or whatever it might be, it's very, very hard to know.The things that we can know are things we can count, and one thing that is really, really easy to count is money. So, if I want to know if I'm better off this year than last year, one of the first things I can do is say, "Do I have more money?" I think that alone makes it very, very motivating...…it also works better with other people: "Am I better off than you? I don't know, but if I have a bigger house than you, I beat you."

What else is interesting is that the research supports Milton Bradley's thoughts about games being educational.

Why do we play? We play to learn.

Play creates new neural connections and tests them. It creates an arena for social interaction and learning. It creates a low-risk format for finding and developing innate skills and talents… Learning and memory also seem to be fixed more strongly and last longer when learned in play. [Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul]

The way you see a game dramatically changes your behavior

In fact, the way a game is structured has more of an effect than your personality does.

As Tal Ben-Shahar explains in his book Choose the Life You Want: 101 Ways to Create Your Own Road to Happiness, Stanford researchers assembled a group of students who had been voted most competitive by their peers and another cohort who had been voted more cooperative.

All students played the same game

But some of the players were told it was called "The Community Game." Others were told it was called "The Wall Street Game." Guess what happened?

If someone's personality had been judged competitive or cooperative before the game was a weak predictor of behavior. What really mattered?

Those who were told the game was called "The Community Game" cooperated. Those who thought it was "The Wall Street Game" did not.

We all need money

And if you spend it the right way, it does increase happiness. But research shows money doesn't buy meaning in life.

And when old people are surveyed (people who have almost completed "the game of life") they never use money as their scoring system.

If there's something many agree is a good measure, it's probably relationships. I've tried to use that as a scoring system before but it's still not as simple and elegant as money.

Maybe it depends on the type of life you want.

Here's one metric that's for certain. You only have about 30,000 days, roughly, to play this real game of life. Will you decide whether you won or lost by money? It's something to consider. For me, personally, I think Tim O'Reilly may have said it best:

Some of you may succeed, and some of you may fail. I want to remind you that financial success is not the only goal or the only measure of success. It's easy to get caught up in the heady buzz of making money. You should regard money as fuel for what you really want to do, not as a goal in and of itself. Money is like gas in the car — you need to pay attention or you'll end up on the side of the road — but a well-lived life is not a tour of gas stations! [O'Reilly Radar]

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