Milton Bradley's "Game of Life": Constructing a National Narrative Through Board Game Analysis

Open Access
Swansen, Haleigh E.
Area of Honors:
English (University College)
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Kathleen Kennedy, Thesis Supervisor
  • Paul deGategno, Honors Advisor
  • Material Culture
  • Milton Bradley
  • Game of Life
  • Board Game
  • American History
  • Literary Analysis
  • Entertainment
  • Morality
  • Social Studies
  • Popular Culture
  • Cultural Studies
  • Education
This thesis approaches the Milton Bradley Company’s classic Game of Life as an object of both material culture and literary study, applying critical analysis and historical research to the 1860, 1960, 1982, 1991, and 2016 editions of the game to better understand social assumptions about morality and American adulthood. Each edition is first assessed as an artifact of literature, a readable object from which implications can be drawn about the respective society’s expectations concerning adulthood and ethics. Next, historical research is conducted on the era surrounding each edition, providing context for each board’s message and exploring whether or not the editions’ literary implications correlate to historical events. Milton Bradley’s original game, the 1860 Checkered Game of Life, concerns itself primarily with entertainment as an outlet for moral instruction, a focus consistent with the recorded history of the eighteenth-century United States; it elevates personal integrity as the catalyst for social success. Editions published after 1960 emphasize materialism and portray morality as a component of the American Dream, tying a player’s financial gains to “public morality” by rewarding industry, perseverance, and healthy risk-taking. By 2016, the game shifts from the American Dream to a focus on personal affirmation and individualism—a change consistent with the mentality of an emerging millennial culture.