Do new games make us all losers?

Diana West

12/29/2003 12:00:00 AM - Diana West

If, as John Seabrook writes in the New Yorker, American parents bought Erector sets and Monopoly because they believed they were prepping their kids to become builders or bankers, then the British and Irish parents who bought the horse-betting game Totopoly couldn't have been hoping for more (or less) than creating successive generations of trackside touts. Practically all that kept me from becoming a bookie, maybe, was the fact that my Totopoly-playing days, roughly 30 years ago, were limited to a single year spent as an American in Ireland.

Seabrook's point is that toys and games appearing before World War II -- of which Totopoly, debuting in 1938, is one -- appealed to parents. It was only after the war, he writes, that "toymakers began to make products that appealed exclusively to kids -- toys that, in many cases, parents actively disliked, which was the principal source of their appeal."

The theory holds with prewar Erector sets, which first sprang up under the Christmas tree in 1913, and prewar Monopoly, which made its initial public offering in 1935. And every postwar, parent-bumming toy manufactured since -- from Rock'em Sock'em Robots (1966) to Bratz dolls (2003) -- bears out the rest of the theory. Bolstering Seabrook's case is the scholarship of John Brewster, a toy historian who has written that early-20th-century toymakers "were marketing a particular social morality -- one that stressed industry, probity and individual endeavor." Play was child's work, Mr. Seabrook explains, "and building blocks and baby dolls were the tools that children used to become adults." "By the mid-1970s," he writes, "toys had stopped trying to prepare children for anything other than a perpetual childhood."

But what about Totopoly? Does a racing game that designates one player (ages 8 and up) a "tote clerk," or bookmaker, fit into that recreational, prewar continuum of "industry, probity and individual endeavor"?

The question arises because some 30 years after I raced my last horse to the Totopoly finish line, I have received the game as a gift -- no mean feat, given that Totopoly was sent to pasture 20-odd years ago. Thanks to eBay and a devoted husband, a late-1970s version of the game has arrived from Great Britain, along with a batch of earlier-vintage accessories ordered separately, and has become the family's newest favorite game. On Side 1 of the Totopoly board, players bid on racing enterprises and racehorses that they must see through training; on Side 2, players race the mounts that have survived training -- and that players can still afford -- to an entertainingly unpredictable finish.

When I was kid, my family played Totopoly during long, very black, Irish winter nights unbroken by the garish glare of television (which we didn't have) and other plug-in distractions. And we played with a perhaps peculiar intensity. Or at least I did, age 8. I still remember, after a particularly rigorous training round, the sting of losing my last mount, Marmaduke Jenks, before the race on Side 2 had begun. The poor horse was deemed "unfit" by a "Veterinary Surgeon's Report" card and -- chilling words -- "SCRATCHED from the Race." That's when I felt the sting.

Actually, I bawled, striking a deep chord of sympathy in my rather softhearted parents, who went on to sponsor Marmaduke Jenks' unprecedented, indeed, miraculous recovery. The horse, to the chagrin of some people (my brother), went on to win "the Race."

I enjoyed playing my "new" Totopoly this month, although there was something missing -- no quarantine for heelbug, no incurable "coughing trouble," and nobody's horse got "SCRATCHED from the Race." This I put down to our good luck, or maybe my bad memory. Then I noticed that the separate bag of older accessories -- playing cards, metal horse-markers and the like -- included a stack of vet reports that, sure enough, delivered the odd wallop of bad news that had once felled my Marmaduke Jenks. This element of the game had been eliminated in the game's more modern incarnation.

Why? The answer may offer a glimpse of where Totopoly originally fit into the Erector-Monopoly era of adult influence. If Erector sets taught us to build, and Monopoly taught us to bank, then maybe Totopoly taught a little something about the school of hard knocks -- something more familiar to the gamesters, young and old, of the 1930s than the 1970s. By then, the shield of affluence protecting perpetual childhood warded against such "blows." Soon, even winners and losers would be barred from the playground, a recreational protection that serves the current cult of "self-esteem" and other dumbed-down standards.

All of which places classic Totopoly in that earlier era -- where I like to play.