The original Game of Life was incredibly dark

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Published on 13 Jan 2020, 13:00
The Game of Life was dark for a reason.

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In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox's Phil Edwards explores the real meaning of life.

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The original game of Life was depressing. Really depressing.

When we think of the Game of Life, the candy-colored 1950s and '60s version comes to mind — featuring the glossy American dream of buying a house, piling kids in the car, and becoming a millionaire.

Born in 1836, Milton Bradley grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he dropped out of college to begin a career in the printing business. He quickly acquired a monopoly — he owned one of the only lithography machines in Massachusetts outside of Boston — and it made him a wild success.

But in 1860, disaster struck. Bradley had printed thousands of portraits of Abraham Lincoln, hoping for strong sales based on Lincoln's presidential nomination. Unfortunately, Lincoln grew a beard in the meantime, and the portraits failed to sell, nearly bankrupting Bradley.

From that failure, however, his greatest success was born. Soon thereafter, Bradley invented the Checkered Game of Life, with the game's board mirroring the ups and downs of his own career. It turned out to be a hit. In 1866, Bradley patented the game and secured his fortune.

After Milton Bradley died in 1911, the game of Life began to transform from board-game-as-moral-tract to board-game-as-escape. The version familiar to modern players makes success all about money and achievement rather than virtue.

That makes a couple of questions surprisingly tricky to answer: What should the meaning of Life be? And which version of the game is actually more depressing?

Want to learn more? Your best bet is probably James Shea's history of the company: is a news website that helps you cut through the noise and understand what's really driving the events in the headlines. Check out

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