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Did Board Games Help Cause the Recession?

A lot of these games reinforce values that we should all be questioning in times of economic stress.
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No, I'm not talking about the games corporate boards played that wreaked havoc on the economy. I'm talking about the ones that you actually play on a game board.

Since the recession began, sales of board games have soared. But we should all be wondering what these board games are teaching us about economics (and life in general). The sad part is that many of the values we learn from board games are the same ones that contributed to our current economic struggles.

Let's take a closer look at some of these family friendly games:

The Game of Life

How to win: Retire and die with the most amount of money

Strategy: Buy stock, have lots of babies, and get revenge

I give the Milton Bradley Company credit for updating this game to reflect some new realities. In the 1992 version, if you went to college you graduated with $40,000 in debt. And in 2005, you graduated with $100,000 in debt. (This works out to 7.3 percent growth rate in tuition, which is in the ballpark.)

First of all, this game teaches us that the main purpose of getting married and having kids is to "collect presents." Oddly, you rarely have to spend any money on your kids. Neglecting them is apparently fine.

The reality is that far too many new parents are shocked at the costs of raising children. The Department of Agriculture estimates that you'll need to spend about $200,000 to pay for a kid through age 17. Presents will probably not cover these costs.

Go For It!

How to win: Have a higher status than your opponents by owning mansions and sports cars

Strategy: Unclear

"Go For It!: The Game Where You Can Have It All" has almost totally faded from existence. But in its heyday in the 80s, it made clear to players age eight and up that the key to happiness is found through upgrading to a fancier car, home or vacation destination every year. If you didn't, you were a failure.

The main problem with this game is that it taught us that we will almost certainly get a big promotion and generous pay raise on every Labor Day. In other words, why not borrow today and pay for it next year?

Having unrealistic expectations about your future salary can cause major trouble for a family. At the peak of the bubble in the last decade, American household debt was 133 percent of disposable income. While many of these families thought they could dig themselves out with future income, the world changes too quickly for it to be a sure thing. With Labor Day behind us, don't assume anything about a big upcoming raise or bonus.


How to win: Force other players into bankruptcy and seize their assets

Strategy: Build and control as much commercial real estate as possible in Atlantic City, New Jersey

Also, isn't a monopoly supposed to be a bad thing, not a good thing? Many of the transactions in Monopoly that you need to make in order to win would not survive scrutiny from the Justice Department. One of the greatest investments in Monopoly is to control all of the railroads, since the more railroads you control, the more you can jack up prices. Totally illegal in real life.

Also, we rarely "win" when we bankrupt our customers. Financial institutions who designed complicated mortgage and credit card products saw a lot of short-term accounting profits when they originated these loans. But just like their customers, banks lost big -- stuck with worthless properties and bad loans, putting the entire economy into a tailspin. A thriving economy depends on participants playing by the rules, rather than profiting through tricks.

Board games are great for families and friends to spend time together without spending a fortune, but a lot of these games reinforce values that we should all be questioning in times of economic stress. Life is not a contest of who can consume the most stuff, and the we can't always depend on luck.

Do yourself a favor: stick with Scrabble.