Wednesday, September 9, 2020
September 9, 2020: History through Games: Careers
[One of the most consistent through-lines in my life as an AmericanStudier, from my own childhood through my experiences with my sons, has been games, both board/card and video. So this week I’ll analyze a handful of games that offer complex lessons about our past, leading up to a Guest Post on the wonderful Reacting to the Past pedagogical games!]
[NB. I wrote this piece for the Fitchburg Historical Society’s Summer 2020 newsletter, so it’s a bit longer than my usual blog posts, but it’s also too perfect for this week’s series not to include here!]
My sons and I have been serious board gamers for most of their young lives (they’re now 14 and 13 years old), but in this locked-down moment we have taken our board gaming to a whole new level. As usual that has meant multiple daily repeats of the same current obsessions, which at the moment includes a new favorite, the delightful card game Exploding Kittens; and a 1980s classic, Iron Crown Enterprise’s wonderful Middle-earth-set Riddle of the Ring. But this new reality has likewise required a deep dive into the backbench of our voluminous collection, assembled across many years, three apartments, and roughly three-dozen obsessions. At the bottom of one of our piles, hidden beneath larger boxes and thus far too long forgotten, was a game I had ordered from eBay many years ago: the 1971 version of Careers.
The original Careers (which we had played with my parents at their Virginia home, prompting our interest in ordering our own version of the game) was released by Parker Brothers in 1957. The 1971 edition kept much of the same design and gameplay, but offered, as the back of the box notes, “a bright, new board and some new career choices, like Ecology, which reflect the world of the 1970s.” And indeed, playing the 1971 game with two curious and thoughtful middle schoolers felt very much like entering a time machine and emerging in early 1970s America, to learn a number of interesting and at times frustrating lessons about that moment (and perhaps about legacies into our own).
As you might expect, gender was a particularly overt and eye-opening subject. The 60s women’s rights movement meant that the most blatant sexism of the 1957 edition—which featured for example a space called “Shopping Spree” in which “your wife” spent an exorbitant amount of your cash on hand—had disappeared. But the 1971 game still has a number of details which read quite differently in the era of #MeToo. In the “Big Business” career path, you can receive 4 hearts (a measure of happiness, but one often linked to relationships and love) for “Lunch with your secretary.” In the “Sports” path, you receive 2 hearts for “Play touch football with the girls.” And in the “Teaching” path, you receive 4 hearts when your “New principal is a bachelor,” which of course not only condones workplace romances with serious boss/employee and power dynamic issues, but also assumes that anyone going through the “Teaching” path is a woman (compared to the game’s overall default, which as these other “romantic” spaces suggest tends to be that the player is male).
That latter space likewise illustrates a second, somewhat subtler takeaway from the game: the cultural attitudes toward distinct career paths. Perhaps it’s because I’m a teacher so my sensitivity was up, but I found the attitudes toward teaching particularly striking. Besides that “bachelor” space and its assumption of teaching as a gendered (and romance-centered) profession, it’s interesting to note that teaching is the career which features the most happiness rewards, but through one specific and strange lens: of the three other happiness spaces in the path, two are framed as opportunities to not have to do the job at all (“Snow storm, no school” gives you 2 hearts; while the culminating “School’s out” space gives you 8, one of the game’s biggest happiness payouts overall). Taken together, these spaces create an image of teaching as a profession for women who are more interested in landing a powerful bachelor than, y’know, educating young people.
Perhaps the other most telling career path is “Space.” Just the existence of this career path at all reflects a very different historical moment than our own, the era of the 1969 Apollo XI moon landing and subsequent missions which made astronaut was one of America’s most desirable careers (as in the 1957 edition, “Space” is tied with “Sports” for the career path which offers the most rewards). Moreover, while some of the Space path’s rewards are for successes within the career itself (“Successful lift-off” offers 6 stars [fame], while “1st man on Mars” offers a game-high 16 stars), many others indicate that a career in Space is geared more towards celebrity than exploration. If you “Endorse Crunchies,” you receive a “$2000 fee”; if you “Sell your life story,” you “Collect $5,000”; and if you “Sell moon craters,” you “Earn $10,000.” Those financial rewards are second only to those available in the “Sports” path (and in both cases they are among the path’s culminating, most rewarding spaces), illustrating a pair of careers in which capitalizing on celebrity seems to be a chief pursuit.
While the American Studies scholar in me might have expected some of these details about 1971 attitudes, it’s also important to note a final category of lessons from the 1971 edition of Careers: unexpected, surprising details. For example, one of the biggest punishments in the “Politics” career path (and in the game overall) is the culminating “Caught with mink” space, which causes you to “Lose ½ your Fame”; I wouldn’t have said that the anti-fur and animal rights movements were prominent enough in the early 70s to occasion such a punishment (and it’s possible that they weren’t, as my fellow American Studies scholar father reminded me that VP candidate Richard Nixon had famously claimed that his wife Pat would never wear a “mink coat” in his 1952 “Checkers” speech). On the other hand, the “Big Business” career path features a number of surprising spaces which indicate just how fully (in the game’s imagining) the corporate world remained about cozying up and kowtowing to power rather than achievement or innovation: if your “Uncle is the treasurer” your salary goes up $1000 (which seems unethical and potentially illegal, but hey) and if you “Let Boss win at golf” it goes up $2000, while “Dent boss’s car” is one of the path’s negative experiences.
Perhaps the most surprising details are contained within the aforementioned, new “Ecology” career path. While the path is partly oriented toward scientific study (if you earn a “Science” degree in College you can enter Ecology for free), many of its spaces focus instead on the goal of living a more environmentally aware life. That includes both individual actions (both “Bicycle 50 miles to work” and “Invent self-destructing containers” earn you financial rewards) and collective goals (“A smog-free day” and “Swim in unpolluted river” both earn you happiness rewards). Since this was the only new career path in the 1971 edition, it’s fair to say that the creators wanted to emphasize both threats to the environment and opportunities for action with this addition to the game; just a year after the 1970 founding of Earth Day, then, the American environmental movement was clearly making an impact on national conversations and narratives.
Who said that homeschooling and play have to be two different lockdown activities? Next game tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historical games you’d highlight?