One of the first board games you play (or played) as a child is Snakes and Ladders. It’s a simple game where you throw dice – pure chance – and advance the number of squares indicated by the dice. If you land on a snake, you slip back several or many squares; if you land on a ladder, you get boosted up several or many squares. First to the end is the winner. The game requires no skill or thought, which is probably why it is suitable for young players. If 4 players play 100 games, they ought to each win somewhere in the region of 25 games as luck will even out over many games.
The exact opposite to Snakes and Ladders is chess, where there is no element of chance. If you win at chess, it is because you are a better chess player than your opponent. It is coldly intellectual. There is no real social interaction, which is why it makes a very suitable computer game. If 2 players play 100 games of chess, it is quite conceivable that the score will be 100 – nil, if there is a great differential in the skill level of the players.
Other games such as Monopoly or poker involve a large element of luck, but the games depend on what you do with the luck, or lack of it, that comes your way. Poker seems to have become a very popular game of late and this might be because it is in some ways in synch with the zeitgeist. It is essentially a game of mendacity, where your success depends on your ability to compute the odds of any of your hands winning and lie to your opponents about the strength of your hand. If you have a relatively feeble hand, you will want to suggest the opposite to your fellow players; equally, if you have a strong hand, you will maximise your gains if you can string your opponents along into believing that it is less than it in fact is.
Poker is a zero-sum game. The winnings accumulated by the victorious equal the amounts lost by the unfortunate or unskilful. There is still a large element of luck in poker, as the cards you are dealt are the fruit of chance, but once again, over many games, the players who can play their hands more skilfully will win.
Monopoly requires nothing like as much skill as poker, or as much thought, and no great degree of mendacity. You still need to exercise a strategy, but your ability to execute it will depend largely on the roll of the dice. The other interesting thing about Monopoly is that as the game progresses, dominant positions tend to become more dominant. It is very hard to come from behind. Once your opponents have been able to build up a large and frightening property portfolio, your chances of landing on it as you go round the board a few times become enormous. Land on it a couple of times in succession and you will become bankrupt and have to leave the game. It’s not for nothing that it is called Monopoly.
I used to play a version with my brother where the game didn’t end with bankruptcy, but the loser would be sold into slavery and have to pay off his monstrous debts by continuing to go around the board in an attempt to bankrupt the bank, increase the humiliation of the loser and the jubilation of the winner.
At the end of any game, the counters are put back in the box and you go and do something else. No great harm befalls you as a result of losing a game, nor does any lasting benefit accrue to the winners. The exception to this, in the examples above is poker, where real money is involved. Poker is in this way a synthesis of game and life. The money makes it a real-life game. There are no doubt players who are happy to play for pretend money, but not many of them. The spice is in risking real money. Without real money, there is really no risk and nothing much to get the heart pumping faster.
What, if anything, can you learn from considering these games as metaphors for real life?
Snakes and Ladders does have some real life lessons, as chance continually throws you googlies that you have to deal with. Just when it all seems to be going swimmingly, you hit a Snake and suddenly lose your job, or get ill or some other misfortune befalls you. Similarly, you might be in the right place at the right time, or meet someone by accident who becomes hugely influential in your life – a Ladder. But as Snakes and Ladders requires no skill, you are just the passive observer of fortune, which isn’t what real life looks like. As a political system, Snakes and Ladders looks a bit like communism. Everyone has an equal opportunity, but no one has any real power over their life. It is a game devoid of personal endeavour. Some may be lucky, some not, but there isn’t much you can do about it.
Chess isn’t like real life either, because there is no factor of chance in it, or any real human interaction. A life like chess would imply that society is organised according to intellectual talent to the exclusion of everything else and that is not remotely what life is like. In chess there are no happy accidents, but equally no unforeseen consequences, or at least no consequences that you couldn’t foresee if you were skilful enough. There is a narrative that life is in fact like this, that the foresightful and the skilful will rise to the top – an idea that the meritocracy is based on but that narrative is flawed because there is no accounting for luck in it.
Monopoly is the perhaps the closest to how life actually looks. The difference being that not everyone starts the game with the same amount of “cash”. We all go around the board, trying to accumulate a stash, but we are hampered by the forces against us, by the institutions and companies that have already commandeered much of the board. We collect £200 at every lap, and then spend most of this in rents and charges. Every now and again we get an unexpected windfall from the Community Chest, but it rarely proves game, or life changing.
Poker is perhaps the most popular game as relying on your wits to deal with the chances that befall you, there is more skill involved. But as already mentioned, it is a game based on lying and as a zero-sum game, the glee of the successful is counter-balanced by the misery of the losers. In poker, the losers go home (or back to their hotel) to lick their wounds and deal with the hole in their bank balance. No one cares. They shouldn’t have got involved in the game in the first place if they couldn’t stand the heat.
The difficulty in life is that we are all involved in a synthesis of poker and Monopoly; we don’t have much choice about joining the game. And some of us are just going to be less skilful dissimulators than others, or just plain unlucky. What happens to them? In a right-wing worldview, it’s just hard cheese. Too bad. You had the opportunity and you either didn’t apply yourself (the favoured response) or you were just unfortunate. Hey, life isn’t fair. Shit happens. To the victor goes the spoils. The left-wing view would be perhaps that no one deserves to win and that any winnings that there are should be shared out. You can see that if you had applied yourself and made a pile, you’d be unhappy about this viewpoint. You might not think that luck had anything to do with it at all.
A corporatist viewpoint would be that the way the Monopoly board was organised, was intrinsically fair because it doesn’t matter much who wins, just so long as the bank does. The players are just hapless consumers.
As mentioned above, when the game is over, we go back to doing other things. Losers get over it. But in real life, you have to live with the losers and they have to live with the consequences of having lost. They may be disgruntled and unhappy about the whole affair, in which case, they are going to make poor neighbours and find ways to visit their disgruntlement on the winners. So it makes a lot of sense to even things out a bit, and that is what a responsible government is supposed to do. That is sort of the basis of social democracy. The difficulty is in finding the balance between making the game worth winning, so that we all apply ourselves to it, and compensating the losers in some way so that they don’t feel too miserable. That is obviously very difficult to achieve. One way of ensuring that you don’t achieve it is to let the poker winners and the Monopoly corporatists dictate what happens to the losers. After all, anything the losers get is going to come from their winnings, so you can hardly expect them to be in favour of it.
The games also don’t take into account that life is a collaborative exercise. In this respect, it is not like poker. It is not a question of the poor stumping up for the rich, but of the players playing together to improve everyone’s lot. This is where much of politics falls down. If you consider life just as poker or Monopoly (and if you are winning, you might be tempted to) you will miss the essential difference and will act in ways which are not going to be beneficial to society or to you yourself in the long term.