Seven Games of Life and How to Play

Seven Games of Life and How to Play

By Richard Smoley 
New York: G&D Media, 2023. 221 pp., paper, $17.95.

When I was growing up, I was a big fan of the Milton Bradley board game “The Game of Life.” Its rainbow-colored spinner produced a delightful clicking sound, and the hills and valleys of the game path, set out in molded plastic relief, were aesthetically pleasing.

A generation later, my twin sons were introduced to the game and were appalled by it. Their attention was drawn not to the colors of the spinner but the heteronormatively gendered blue and pink playing pieces, and the game’s emphasis on procreation. Victory was defined as acquiring $1 million and then quietly dying. Anything else was failure.

Perhaps I did not notice these things because I came of age in the 1980s, when greed was good and gays were closeted. Or perhaps my sons were just more enlightened at age tern than I was. But our contrasting experiences show how the meaning of “winning” at “the game of life” has shifted over time.

The pursuit of money for its own sake is not one of the septet of games that Richard Smoley details in Seven Games of Life and How To Play, though money is certainly one way of keeping score in some of them, and a means toward achieving success in some others. Smoley presents six “games”—survival, love, power, pleasure, creativity, and courage—in a rough hierarchy from the profane to the sacred, with complexity and subtlety increasing as the player climbs the ladder. A seventh game, the Master Game, is atop the list as a sort of boss-level challenge to be unlocked by the most accomplished players.

Smoley is perhaps known to readers for his scholarly yet accessible books on occult and esoteric matters (and for his editorial stewardship of this magazine). Seven Games of Life is a different breed of book. It reads as a guidebook from a seasoned spiritual traveler produced for those at earlier stages in their journeys. It is not a self-help book in the conventional sense. Rather, it is in the tradition of manuals for living dating back to the Stoics that offer sound advice without being patronizing or simplistic.

The author draws on his erudition and vast areas of knowledge, but does so in easily comprehensible language that is never pedantic. There are references to pioneering psychologist Alfred Adler and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, but also to Downton Abbey and the National Lampoon. Smoley’s seven games are played by billions of people from all walks of life, and there is no snobbish intellectual gatekeeping here.

“The games themselves (perhaps excepting the Master Game) are of no absolute value,” Smoley writes. But “we have all bought the ticket to the amusement park that is life, and we may as well take the ride.” He does not intend to hand the reader yet another quick-fix self-help guide “with the usual array of instructions,” but rather to show that “although these games may be serious up to a point, it is ruinous to take them seriously in an absolute sense. They are best played with a lightness of spirit.”

While we all play the survival game—for failure to do so results in immediate nonexistence—and the games of love and power (here cast as primarily about interpersonal relationships and the dynamics within them) are required for anything beyond a feral state, Smoley presents the next three games as key to being a realized human. “You would not even know whether you were succeeding in the games of love, survival, or power without a sense of pleasure,” he argues. The things that bring us joys and pains are the broad outline of our personalities. They also fuel the impulse to do and make—to play the game of creativity. Anyone who toils at a boring job but delights in a hobby or avocation knows that creativity is a requirement for self-realization.

The game of courage insists that we do what we know to be right even when it is unpopular or dangerous and may put our success in the lower games at risk. Why stand up for justice when one’s livelihood and societal position could suffer for it? For some, Smoley writes, it is because an act of courage “points to values beyond life.”

That opens the door to the Master Game. It is the only game that is entirely optional, but it is also the one that makes the rest worthwhile. It is “concerned with another reality,” not beyond this life but hidden within it. Drawing on G.I. Gurdjieff, Smoley writes that the players of the first six games are in a state of “walking sleep,” carrying out the motions of existence like automata. This seventh game tasks us with waking up—easier said than done, but an aim to which all who seek to live deeply must aspire.

Peter Orvetti is a news analyst, freelance writer, and former divinity student residing in Washington, D.C.