Why I won’t let my kids play The Game of Life

When I was a kid, one of my favorite games was The Game of Life.

If you were a kid in the 80s, you probably played it too. You gave the spinner a whirl, drove your little plastic car around, and “lived” life – picking career or college, getting married, having kids, buying insurance, upgrading your house, etc.

It was fun because it let you pretend to be an adult while you were a kid. (what we really need is The Game of Being a Kid – I'll trade being told to eat my vegetables if I don't have to write TPS reports)

Here's something I realized much much later – the Game of Life kind of messed me up for actual life.

(or more to the point, it would have messed me up if I believed life had to be lived that way)

We go through life with invisible scripts and limiting beliefs. Invisible scripts, a term I learned from Ramit Sethi, are those beliefs that are “pre-written by our societal values.” Limiting beliefs, which seem to go hand in hand with invisible scripts, are those beliefs that constrain us in some way.

The Game of Life is one massive invisible script for how you should Real Life.

That's why I won't let my kids play The Game of Life.

(OK I let them play it but you get my point, but no thanks to Monopoly)

There are more than two paths

career-or-collegeIn The Game of Life, there is only one major life-altering decision you can make – Start College or Start Career. It starts at the beginning and it determines your income for (potentially) the remainder of the game. There are “Trade salary card with any player” boxes you can land on but those were added later to balance out the game, there's no Real Life equivalent.

If you go to college, you are saddled with $100,000 of debt but you could get a career with a higher salary. There are 9 careers and only 2 careers (Doctor, Accountant) require a college degree. Let's ignore the other mechanics of the game (how paydays are determined, other benefits like the Computer Consultant gets paid $50,000 anytime the spinner stops between numbers or comes off the track) but the basic premise is that to get a higher payday you need to go to college.

Jobs are a matter of supply and demand. If you have skills that in demand, you can command a higher salary. If you have skills that are in abundance, you can't.

It also ignores how often someone can change careers at any time. What you decide at the beginning of the game does not set your path for life. You can always add to your skillset. What you decide in your twenties is not your lot in life.

(By the way, there's a space where you pay $5,000 for spring break if you go to college — that alone should disqualify this game from Real Life!)

The goal isn't money

game-of-life-objectiveThe goal of The Game of Life is to “Collect money and LIFE tiles, and have the highest dollar amount at the end of the game.”

As if Real Life were so simple!

Money is important but is it the objective of life? If you were to ask someone ambitious, hungry, and 20 — money seems all-important.

Ask someone who is 40. 50. 80. Has two kids. Found a partner. Lost a partner.

Money takes on a different meaning.

When I was deciding what to study in college, the number one factor was the career prospects of that field. I chose Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University because your chances were pretty good. No disrespect to other majors but in 1998, computer science at a premier university was your meal ticket. It helped that I enjoyed the problem solving and tinkering but the #1 overriding factor was money.

Graduate and I could get paid that sweet sweet startup money!

As I write this today, at 35 with two kids and barely into what I consider my “real adulthood,” money is a means to an end. I want enough to support our lives but so many things are ahead of money in importance. My post about Why Do You Work? is one of the most popular on the site because it's a question we all want to understand about ourselves.

Life is more than just work. It's family, it's friends, it's holidays, it's free time, and so many other hours not captured in the 40+ of work.

The Game of Life's objective might be to have the most money, but in my Real life the objective is something very different. When you think back to the happiest moment from last year, what do you think about it? It's probably not seeing a direct deposit line item in your bank account. πŸ™‚

Investing isn't gambling

game-of-life-stock-market-certificatesThe Stock Market mechanic is pure insanity. At the start of any turn, you can buy a stock for $50,000. The stock has a number and any time a player spins that number, you collect $10,000 from the bank. You can only own one stock and if there's a Stock Market Crash (someone lands on it), you lose one stock.

I realize The Game of Life has to do something to try to capture this idea and the idea of index funds and 8% gains every turn is decided un-sexy, but straight up gambling? And you can buy only one stock? You can't sell the stock and get paid tax-free dividends?

I want my kids to learn that investing looks like it's a lot of craziness, especially if you turn on CNBC and catch an animated Jim Cramer, but it's quite boring. Invest your retirement and/or savings (you don't need for 5+ years) in the stock market through a low-cost index fund, watch it grow over time (or more like don't watch it spike and drop), and sell when the time comes. Zzzzzzz.

But Zzzzzz is smart and it's better to be smart than entertained. πŸ™‚

Getting married & buying a house

get-married-everybodyThere are only four spots every player must hit (the red ones with a Stop sign). They are:

  • Career Choice
  • Get Married
  • Buy a House
  • Sell 1st House, Buy a 2nd

Some are required spots, like Career Choice and Get Married, but they all play into invisible scripts. We should all make a single career choice and then potentially change it in a mid-life crisis (the game has a mid-life crisis space!!!!). We should all get married. We should all buy a house and then trade up to a more expensive house.

The Game of Life isn't cruel, it's merely mirroring the invisible scripts of our society. If you are in your mid-30s and unmarried, society views it a certain way. If you are in your mid-30s and without kids, society views it a certain way. Ask anyone in those position and they get pressure from their parents.

Is it right? No. Everyone should be free to live their own lives however they want because it's their life!

But society says you need to get a job, get married, buy a house, and then trade up that house. If you don't, you're weird. Or there's something wrong with you… says society.

I say forget that – live your life.

Retirement is at the end

retirementMost of life sounds like fun. Go to work for 40+ hour weeks, have a family, buy all sorts of stuff, go on all sorts of vacations or get a timeshare, trade up your house, blah blah whatever. Those are all ideas we believe because society says so.

Do you need to own a house? No, but it makes sense depending on your situation.

Do you need to get married? No, but it makes sense depending on your situation.

Here's one invisible script that I think needs to get busted up big time – you work for 40+ years and then retire. In the Game of Life, you live your life until you retire. That's the end.

Many people defer their lives until retirement. That's why you have so many mid-life crises – people are living an unhappy or unfulfilled life and have a crisis where they overcorrect.

Some folks find so much of their identity in their work that there may be a link between mortality and retirement.

I want our kids to find fulfillment and happiness in their work but I also want them to live a balanced life. I don't want them to defer their happiness because of work. I don't want them to have mid-life crises. And I don't want them to think things have to be done a certain way and checkboxes need to be marked.

The first step is to identify these invisible scripts and limiting beliefs in life and ensure we don't pass them on.

I'm not an animal... :)
I'm not an animal… πŸ™‚
One last word… the point of this post isn't to slam the game, it's just one company's gamified version of adulthood and it's meant for fun. I enjoyed it, I don't think it messed me up, but I do feel it captures a lot of invisible scripts we don't need in our lives. Sometimes fun is just fun, but we should watch out for what we're unknowingly passing on. πŸ™‚

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Empower Personal Dashboard, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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8 years ago

You & Milton Bradley need to collaborate on the Jim Wang Game of LIFE, with many more forks in the road, an entrepreneurial path, and of course a road leading to early retirement!


8 years ago
Reply to  Jim Wang

Nonsense, I think the game of your life would be much more interesting than the original game of Life! You would have many more options, such as early retirement, start a business, start a blog, invest in index fund, etc. Perhaps this could be your next business idea?

8 years ago

I haven’t played that game forever, but yeah, I agree it offers a very narrow script! I hadn’t really thought about it that way.

8 years ago

I didn’t play this game as a child, but I appreciate all your insights regarding this game. Perhaps the people who made this game had too many “invisible scripts” going on, and those scripts and limiting beliefs are reflected in the game even if they don’t realize it.

How do you feel about the game Monopoly?

I loved the game of Life as a kid, too. Since then I’ve heard similar critiques, and I agree that there are some very questionable assumptions presented in it. I remember thinking as a kid that some of the monetary ratios seemed off. I also remember altering the game to allow for more choices. We wouldn’t draw our houses blindly–we’d just choose the one we wanted. As to whether I’d let my kids play it, I’m not sure yet. It could be a good way to open up a conversation about these cultural assumptions and messages one day. I definitely… Read more »

8 years ago

Love that game! I played that game so many times growing up by myself. That’s a depressing thought. Glad my parents eventually bought me a Playstation. Haha. I see the game of Life being played out as I see relatives graduating this year. The older family members are basically saying to these graduates the same thing The Game of Life says – go to college, get a degree (preferably in Law, Medicine, Computers), get married, and retire. As a personal finance nerd I try to tell them that that’s not the only option. While I’m a huge advocate of college… Read more »

8 years ago

I’m surprised they haven’t come out with the Millennial version of life – graduate, go work for a start-up, cash out at 30. For those of us that worked in the late 90’s, that was the standard view of the world.

But you’re right, it’s still fun to play – along with Risk and Monopoly.

8 years ago

Another very good post, Jim.

I know you talk money, but The Game of Life goes way beyond that. It has cultural, social, nationalist and political undertones. If you live life a certain way, you deserve certain things and if you don’t, you don’t. I get all kinds of sneers, bordering on hostility, for giving up my cushy corporate job to go freelance.

Not to mention that this game was created for the majority population who thought things would never change, or at least wish they did not.

Debbie M
8 years ago

The game “Careers” is better. You start out by writing out your own formula for success involving some combination of money, happiness, and fame. You can go to college any time you get an opportunity, and you can change careers every time you change jobs, though if you get a job in a career you’ve had before, you’ll probably do better.

Debbie M
8 years ago
Reply to  Jim Wang

Blogger is not on the version I had! But teacher is–that’s sort of close!

8 years ago

Agreed – on so much. One thing I think about is how radically changed the job market is since I entered into it in 2008, I can’t begin to imagine what it will look like by the time your kids get there. I think the whole concept of a path will be totally obsolete.

8 years ago

A friend of mine tried to program this game into his computer, and found that indeed there was only one moment where you could choose. Luckily, real life has so many more options and choices!

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