Guest commentary: On Games of Life

By Vincent Gonzalez, Ph.D.

“… when a modern poet says that everyone has a picture for which he would be willing to give the whole world, how many people would not look for it in an old box of toys?”
  — Walter Benjamin

“What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”
 — Friedrich Nietzsche


We play Judith Margolis’ Game of Life like Alice plays croquet in Wonderland – the act of play destabilizes every rule. The game bleeds beyond its box into larger life, invites a non-rational number of players, proposes an entirely subjective rule-set, and confounds any explanation of playerly motive. It is a thrilling challenge to all the ways “play” frequently means something decidedly unplayful, and so much more so because this wild play declares itself to be a vision of life.
Judith Margolis’ Game of Life is compelling as a text or as a work of bricolage, but its richness is clearest on its own terms – as a game, and a Game of Life in particular. The following panels each juxtapose one of this game’s iterations with another project also called “The Game of Life”


1. On the Bounds of Play

Judith Margolis’ Dead Husband’s Game of Life (ca. 2000)
and Milton Bradley’s The Checkered Game of Life (1866)
According to its patent, Milton Bradley’s original Game of Life was “intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice.” But its Chutes and Ladders structure could only reach as far as players would carry the platitudes printed on the board: “honesty to happiness,” “gambling to ruin.” The game’s further rules presented a nightmarish incoherence: suicide is entirely random, and if two people go to college, the first is imprisoned. Even if it claimed to teach life-skills, rules like these assured that the game stopped when the board was folded up.
Margolis’s Game of Life, on the other hand, calls itself a “challenge” rather than a lesson, and presents a novel mechanic that causes the game to play itself while the players’ are away. The game enters a state of “recess while the game box is closed up and the chips are moving freely inside the game box. While the game is in recess accrued Wins are Blocked and saved by that player until the resumption of the game at which time they are applied to the opposing players score.” Thus, by smudging the boundary of playtime, Margolis’ Game of Life asserts a life of its own: the chips move the players.
Perhaps the notion that the world is a willful co-acting subject entangled (even when unseen) with human life, rather than a field of passive objects, cannot be forcefully impressed. If this is a “great moral principle,” it is nonetheless best described as a “challenge,” a bewildering encounter which asserts its vitality even when it is ignored.

2. On the Number of Players

Judith Margolis’ Momma’s Game of Life (2003)
and Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life (1960)
The centennial version of Milton Bradley’s Game of Life imposed several changes mimicking the 100-year transition from Victorian morality to the consumerist ethic of the baby boom.  Now, rather than all players racing for the same numbered square, each works to out-acquire each other; whoever finishes life with the most money, wins. Also, significantly, each player was now imagined as a family-car rather than a single peg, filling up slowly with spouse and children. Nuclear families for the nuclear age: Others are those against whom you can compete. Life, under cold-war capitalism, foreshadows Margaret Thatcher’s proclamation, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”
In Margolis’ Game of Life, however, “There are two players, your SELF and your REAL SELF.” Though they are called “two,” this bounding of the player(s) serves to destabilize their quantity across the act of play. Whether one or two people take up the board, they are initially offered a situation of partial alterity. To play is to say strange sentences like “I will be yourself; you will be my real-self,” or “As my real-self, I disagree with my self’s interpretation.” From this ground, some game actions drive the player(s) toward identity, and others toward separation. Turn-taking, hiding and revealing, for instance, move the players toward two, while the spontaneous consensus at the end of the game seems only possible for a single person, if even then.
Life, here, is not a defined activity for singular players with multiple heads, but the shifting practice of player-making. To play Margolis’ Game of Life is to merge and divide, to collaborate in competition, to enact a vision of life in which Others emerge then slide back into self-identity.

3. On Following Rules

Judith Margolis’ Game of Life for a Man I Never Understood (2005)
and Conway’s mathematical simulation The Game of Life (1970)
John Conway’s mathematical simulation, The Game of Life, was played on graph paper before computers took it up.  It deploys exactly four rules to determine how a field of cells will develop, each square surviving, dying, or being born according to the number of living cells surrounding it in the previous round.  Because death from loneliness (0 or 1 neighbor) or overcrowding (4-8 neighbors), and new life (3 neighbors), required neither randomness, nor human skill, this is commonly described as a “Zero-Player game.” But a Zero-Player game still invites spectators, and a range of experts on human-life have drawn inspiration from Conway’s Game of Life toward deterministic predictions for human-sciences from biology and linguistics to economics, sociology, and city-planning.
We cannot extrapolate this sort of playerless humanity from Margolis’ Game of Life, largely because the rules cannot be simplified into algorithms. By failing to offer definitions for “related” and “unrelated links,” “wins” and “losses,” “insight” and “credits” or “great happiness,” and insisting upon but not explaining their relationships to one another, these rules invite the player(s) into Talmudic disputation. There can be no play without the clarification of “house-rules,” a process that mimics, intersects, and accelerates the practices of collective definition that characterizes the game as a whole.
Imagine a linguistics or biology crafted after this model. The researcher would find no place to stand outside of the system they describe. Prediction is possible within certain bounds, but there exists no transcendent world of Laws, only the co-emergence of differently constituted actors.

4. On Purpose

Judith Margolis’ The Game of Life for a Strong Woman (2010)
and “The Game of Life” in the Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag
Why did God create the whale? To play with it.  (Psalms/Tehillim 104:26)  In 1941, the Kabbalist Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag used this verse to prove that divine generosity creates connection, but answers no need: “it is all like a game.” So teaches (Bnei Baruch). (The Kabbalah Centre), which also claims succession from Rabbi Ashlag, does not cite the text, but they share the sentiment. These three generations later, both movements teach that humanity must overcome the illusion of interpersonal alienation by embodying God’s playful generosity. Paradoxically, life has a purpose, but that purpose is to unite in a generosity that defies purpose. Both the Kabbalah Centre and Bnei Baruch translate the message thus: Life is a Game.

Why play? Those theorists of play – Johan Huizinga, for instance – who  frame play as free of purpose, remain obligated to face a tension with the historical, macro-social work done by patterns of play. Consider the toy soldier. Even if the player plays freely, play itself does something.

In Margolis’ Game of Life, these two layers of the game drift so close together that they short circuit. It is not clear that the player is ever allowed to play for no reason – every action requires introspection – but neither can we locate a historical movement of the game that is not thoroughly destabilized by the reverie of specific players. These games are, finally, commissions and gifts, in some cases gifts to the dead. It is possible that no one but the designated recipient could play, and possible that those specific people could not stop playing if they tried. The motivation of the player, and what we might call the motivation of the game flicker rapidly and dissolve across a single plane of consistency: “Have Fun!”