Games People Played

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As in any business, there have been many changes in the game industry over the years. The original Parker Brothers plant in Salem has sprouted a series of additions. Its old coloring tables have been replaced by highspeed presses. The wooden houses and hotels of the original Monopoly sets have been replaced by plastic ones, wood being simply too expensive now. The presses at Parker Brothers print up almost forty-six billion dollars in Monopoly money a year—considerably more than the United States Treasury and, some would say, of more stable value. But, in spite of modern techniques of marketing research, board games remain essentially a “seat-of-the-pants” business. The Harvard Business School has yet to figure out a way to predict which ones Americans will want to play. And the experts in the game business must sometimes wonder if they have an inkling either. George Parker invented more than a hundred successful games in his lifetime. He was convinced that his finest creation was a game called Chivalry, an elaborate strategy game somewhere between chess and checkers. Despite his best efforts the game was not a success. Mr. Parker could invent it, promote it, revise it, give it a new name—Camelot—publicize it, and advertise it, but he could never sell it. Conversely, in 1965 Parker Brothers did not spend a penny promoting or advertising Ouija boards, and sales tripled all by themselves.

Some games retain their popularity, unchanged, from the day they were first created. Except for a few design details Monopoly is exactly as it was in 1935. Other games bend with the times. The Game of Life, one of Milton Bradley’s biggest sellers to this day, is now no longer “checkered,” and the rewards are monetary rather than spiritual (although for traditionalists the moral version is still available, too). Other games will have a brief flurry of interest, fade away, and then reappear generations later in a contemporary form. Near the turn of the century there was a popular game for ladies and gentlemen called Old Maid … Old Bachelor, which reflected the accepted male-female relationships of the time. The woman tried to corral the man and head him toward the square representing the Church and matrimony. The man tried to slip away and head for a square showing a billiard table representing “the Club and … single blessedness.” In these days of feminine liberation there is a game being marketed called He-She-Him-Her. In this game the woman tries to move her token, a brass wedding ring, out of the Kitchen while the man tries to block the exits with silver bolts. The established firms, however, avoid introducing games on controversial subjects and would not dream of trying to sell an item based on Vietnam or racial problems. “We’re trying to bring families and people together, not divide them,” explains Mr. Parker.

On the other hand, there is now a series of small, specialized firms creating games that are distinctly partisan. There was a game popular among some extremely conservative groups called Victory over Communism. In this game the player answers questions on current events. If his answer is considered correct according to the doctrine of the group, everyone at the table yells “Freedom!” and the player advances along a board to liberate a captive nation. If all nations are not liberated within a certain time, everyone loses. Players of an anti-Establishment persuasion can amuse themselves by throwing dice and playing games designed to show ways of getting President Nixon out of the White House. Sex has not yet become a national track game, but organized crime now has an entry. A game called the Godfather is available, packed in a box shaped like a violin case.

Unconcerned that some behavioral scientists claim, somewhat patronizingly, that board-game players are simply people working off their aggressions in socially acceptable ways, Americans in increasing numbers go on blithely buying, playing, and enjoying their favorites. If there is a deep secret underlying the timeless appeal of board games, Aldous Huxley perhaps best expressed it: “With their simple and unequivocal rules [games] are like so many islands of order in the vague untidy chaos of experience. In games one passes from the incomprehensible universe of given reality into a neat little man-made world where everything is clear, purposive and easy to understand.”

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