What board game best describes your life? Which sums up your personal situation at the moment: “Risk”? “Trouble”? “Mystery Date”?
I did a survey among my friends and on Facebook and most people answered the question by saying, “Sorry!” Apparently “Sorry!” is the game summing up our existence even more accurately than the game “Life,” which explains why psychoanalysis will never go out of style.
“Sorry!” says it is designed for players aged 6 and up, which is just about when most religions declare that human beings reach the age of reason. So the first thing you do, once you are a fully functioning and independent being, is to apologize for anything you do that helps you achieve your goal. Guilt and success become forever intertwined. What fun!
Board games still feel like rare and exotic items for me. When we were living in Brooklyn with my Sicilian relatives, we weren’t a board game family.
The adults played cards. Kids sat under the table. We were taught very early on to keep our mouths shut and watch the cards. These are good lessons.
All over the world, you see people playing cards. No matter what country you’re in, people play cards; card games are the games of the poor. Card games teach you lessons about luck and skill; they also teach you patience and how to learn when somebody is bluffing.
These games were usually segregated by sex: I never saw the women play cards with men, but that wasn’t because the women lacked skill. It was the mothers, grandmothers and aunts who taught all the kids how to play, after all, and they were as fearless and merciless as their male counterparts. Such early tutoring meant my brother and I could both handle an inside straight by the time we were in first grade.
But in those days packaged board games were regarded as exclusively for children. You could not have convinced an adult who had exactly one day off from work that he should spend it with Milton Bradley.
The idea of my Sicilian family being expected to sit down at the table in the basement kitchen in Brooklyn to play “Yahtzee” is like the framework for an absurdist drama written by Samuel Beckett and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It would be like a cross between “Waiting for Godot” and “Reservoir Dogs.” The only thing left by the end of the hour would be the blue plastic cup.
Other families, healthier and more modern families, often enjoy board games. I’ve heard this from reliable sources, including my friend and former student Shannon Cox. Shannon was trying to explain to me how she and her cousins would divide into teams, especially during big holiday celebrations, and play family trivia.
When I heard this, my heart stuttered. Immediately I was back in the basement in Brooklyn, imagining my cousins competing by answering our family’s trivia questions, such as “What year did Little Lennie finally get out of Ossining?” or “Who’s the actual father of Marie’s oldest boy?” I panicked.
Seeing the blood drain from my face, Shannon quickly explained that it was merely a lively game of “Trivia” as played by her family, not a quiz about secrets in her family. But she added that, for one birthday, her mom indeed designed a game of trivia based on incidents in Shannon’s own life. Shannon’s best friend easily won, thereby putting Shannon’s immediate family to shame. I bet even those non-Mediterranean types were suspicious that somebody unrelated to them knew so much of their story.
Depending on the day, my life’s game varies: Some days are all “Concentration” and some are “Aggravation.” I avoid “Operation” (funny bone excepted) and have abandoned “Miss Popularity.”
Given one game, I choose “Chutes and Ladders.” As I move around the board, one year at a time, the more clearly I see the interplay between undeserved luck – both bad and good – and earned achievement. You never know what unexpected moment of grace will raise you up or what surprising act of sabotage will put you down. It’s only when you’re at the bottom of the ladder that you ascend.
So roll the dice; hit the spinner; take your chance. Don’t skip your turn; who knows when it will come again?
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.