The adjacency of truth

Enthusiastically cruel board games, the Green Man of paganism, and job title heroes

Hello, friendly human. Every week, this dispatch helps you make better creative and strategic choices through the exploration of decision-making frameworks. It’s good to see you.

Recently, while rummaging through a cupboard in the hills of Tennessee, I found an old board game that is perhaps best described as...how shall we put this…"enthusiastically cruel”.

That board game, first published in 1980, is called Public Assistance—tagline: why bother working for a living? 

Stocked by several stores upon publication, including FAO Schwartz, the game was denounced as racist—which of course brought it to the attention of the AP, and then the attention of Phil Donahue and the Today Show.

“Public Assistance is a board game that enshrines, quite cleverly, a right-wing vision of the welfare system,” said the Washington Post in 1980.

Players circle the board in either the "Working Person's Rut," a living hell of bills and taxes, or on the "Able-Bodied Welfare Recipient's Promenade," which is a pleasantly racy round of looting, gambling, drinking, having illegitimate children, and of course collecting government handouts. For the working person, the only hope is to get on welfare or the get a government or union job, both higher-paying forms of welfare, but if you make the mistake of going into business for yourself, government regulations will drive you into the extremest depths of poverty. Working people are tormented by busing and affirmative action; their children live in fear of being beaten up by an "ethnic gang." People on welfare get an unending stream of "stolen goods, Cadillacs and Lincolns, and other appurtenances of the good life.”

Stage whisper: there’s nothing quite clever about it.

Here’s the board: 

You start on the first of the month. You roll dice to move. While circling the board, you attempt to earn money by remaining on welfare and avoiding work. 

Sometimes, you land on “good news”, which means you avoid work but still get paid.

Sometimes you land on “bad news”, which means you have to pay for things.

When you land on a “benefits” square, you draw a Welfare Benefits card, like this:

Or this:

Other times, you land on “burden” and draw a Working Man’s Burden card, like this:

Or like this:

And sometimes, you land on one of four Saturday Night detours: gambling, drugs, prostitution, and armed robbery. 

I looked up “hatpin wound”, mentioned in one of the squares above. It’s somewhat telling that a board game that’s terrified of systematically disadvantaged people is also afraid of an accessory women used to protect themselves from rapists.

Anyway, throughout the game you spend and earn money…

…which resemble grotesques or pagan Green Man symbols. Maybe Freemason imagery.

To win, a player must circumnavigate the board 12 times. Each circuit is a month. And then you pay taxes.

And then maybe you burn the game because it’s stupid and revolting.

I trust that the game’s odious point of view is obvious.

It certainly was to Stanley Brezenoff, Administrator of the Human Resources Administration and Commissioner of Social Services of the City of New York who, in November 1980, encountered the game at a cocktail party in Washington DC and subsequently sent a letter to 13 retail establishments criticizing the game.

The game publishers then sued the mayor and the city of New York for defamation, but the claim was denied. You can read the suit if you’d like.

At the time, the game’s publishers denied that Public Assistance was racist.

"There is no race in our game," says Johnson. "They're trying to put it in there. You see what you want to in the game. My attitude is, why should I work for poor people? Why can't they work for themselves? Working for poor people's gonna make me poor. Why the hell should I work 60 hours a week so a poor person can fare well? To support able-bodied loafs? The whole idea of welfare is immoral.”

Right. Of course. Which is why the game was re-released in 2012—this time as Obozo’s America.

But look. My point isn’t to re-litigate how racist, classist, and sexist Public Assistance is. There’s no need to dredge up past insults when there are enough crimes of bias happening today.

Rather, the point is to raise a larger idea that Public Assistance represents. The idea that games—that acts of playing, in themselves—tell you a lot about culture.

Specifically, they tell you what is allowed and what is not allowed in that culture, and by whom.

Games, in other words, are pretend, rule-based activities that touch upon and imply IRL frameworks at the edges.

Because the act of playing is a forming function. It’s a stepping out of ordinary life into non-ordinary life. When kids wrestle, or give speech to dolls, they’re playing “just pretend”. The kids don’t really want to hurt each other, and they “know” the dolls aren’t real—but the very act of pretending is the act of exploring boundaries. A game may be limited in place and duration, circumscribed by certain boundaries—arenas, fields, courts, whatever—but games become memory. Games can be returned to. Games become tradition.

And a play community can become permanent even after a game is over. The players cherish the feeling of “being apart together”, of sharing something important, of—as Johan Huizinga puts it in Homo Ludens, “mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting its usual norms, retaining its magic beyond the duration of the individual game”.

Which is to say a game is never just a game.

A game is a suggestion that different rules may exist, indeed do exist. And a game can also be a hope: that if enough people play the game, the world of the game can become real.

So yes, Public Assistance is a game. But it’s a game that allows its makers to say the quiet part out loud. It’s a way of testing boundaries, but keeping plausible deniability. It asks its audience to take it literally, but not seriously.

Public Assistance is stupid. Laughable. Ridiculous. But it was a stupid, laughable, and ridiculous harbinger for the way Americans increasingly speak now.

That is, through games. Through “just kidding”. Through “I didn’t really mean that”.

You’ve gotta watch out for the games.

Their adjacency is truth.


gif by Mathew Lucas


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