Snakes and Ladders – How the Meaning of an Ancient Children’s Game Adapted Over Time – Extra Credits

Snakes and Ladders – How the Meaning of an Ancient Children’s Game Adapted Over Time – Extra Credits


So, this may blow your mind – it certainly did mine – but Snakes and Ladders may be one of the oldest, and one of the best mechanics-as-metaphor games out there. It is surprisingly filled with meaning, through and through and that meaning actually morphed and warped to match the needs of every culture that played it as the game passed from hand to hand. Snakes and Ladders started in India forever ago. In fact, there’s evidence out there for a version of it being played two thousand years ago. Over the years it’s gone through many, many versions and many names from “Leela” to “Moksha Patam” to “Gnan Chauper”. But no matter what version you look at, it’s always held to one thing: its play serves as a form of moral and philosophical education. In fact, the reason we have so many different versions is not because people were fundamentally altering or updating the gameplay; but rather because different groups were changing the underlying theming to represent their particular thoughts on religion or moral life. So what lessons can Snakes and Ladders possibly teach? Well, as students of games, most of you are probably well aware that Snakes and Ladders basically plays itself. The player actually has no agency at all. There are no choices you make, there is no skill involved, no way for you to improve; it’s just roll the dice and embrace you fate. And that’s exactly it. That’s actually one of the things it’s intended to teach. Pachisi, the precursor to our Parcheesi, is another ancient Indian game – one filled with mechanics and elements of skill. But, unlike pachisi, the crafters of this “Snakes and Ladders” game wanted it to help people embrace the concept of fate. And thus we get a game that is dictated entirely by the random falling of cowry shells or today, the fall of a spinner or dice. The game is also intended as a moral lesson. It’s supposed the represent the karmic cycle with the final square representing Moksha, or release, from Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. To that end, the snakes and ladders each represent a virtue to help you improve your karma or a vice that would drag you back down the karmic chain. For example, in one of the early versions, the ladders are labeled faith, reliability, generosity, knowledge and asceticism and the snakes are called disobedience, vanity, vulgarity, theft, lying, drunkenness, debt, rage, greed, pride, murder and lust. But what these vices and virtues were, and where they were placed, and even the size and shape of the board itself, was dependent on which community was playing it. In many of the versions, the number of the final square and the placement of the virtues or vices have some religious or spiritual meaning, further enhancing the game’s use as a moral and religious teaching tool . In fact, many of the versions of Snakes and Ladders actually have names that translate to things like “ladder to salvation” or “the game of knowledge” and there are clearly distinct Hindu, Jainist and Muslim versions. The Jainist version was even a favorite to be played during Paryushana, a ten day long religious fast. (Not exactly what we think of when we think about Snakes and Ladders.) which brings us nicely to talking about OUR form of Snakes and Ladders. Snakes and Ladders was brought from India to England during the height of the colonial period in the 19th century. And while, at first, the Indian symbolism was maintained, it rapidly gave way and the game was adapted, as it has been with every culture, to use the symbols and forms uniquely relevant to the culture that adopted it. In this case, a Victorian, Anglican and Protestant culture. Off the bat virtues like industry, punctuality and obedience, and vices like gambling and frivolity and quarrelsomeness got introduced. But far more interesting is what happened to the number of virtues and vices. Remember back a minute ago when we were listing them for the Indian version of the game? And how there were five virtues but fourteen vices? Well, if you look at the Snakes and Ladders board today, you’ll see that that number’s fundamentally changed. The English version of Snakes and Ladders ended up with fourteen vices AND fourteen virtues, as the English, Protestant, Anglican culture believed that every vice should also have an opportunity for redemption. In the United States, the number of virtues and vices were reduced to ten, which I could argue ties in nicely to the more Puritan notion of ten commandments, although that’s pure speculation on my part, until at last, when it was taken by Milton Bradley one of the virtues was dropped out for unknown, but potentially copyright reasons. The name was changed from “Snakes and Ladders” to “Chutes and Ladders” (because snakes were “too dangerous”) and the elements on the board were reduced to pablum morality lessons for children mostly about the virtues of being industrious. Though I can’t say that’s not as much a product of the culture of 50’s America as any of these others were, their time and place. So yeah, Snakes and Ladders: hardcore mechanics-as-metaphor, morality game that shows us just how much culture influences our interpretation of any art including games. Even after having obsessively researched it for a few days I can’t believe how much I never knew was buried in a game that I’ve played since I was three. Just goes to show you how much this world can still surprise you and just how much even the simplest games can mean. Well, that is us done for this year. The Extra Credits staff is gonna take a much needed break for the holidays to rest up and spend some time with the family. But we will be back in mid-January with more cool stuff. I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday and we’ll see you next year!

100 thoughts on “Snakes and Ladders – How the Meaning of an Ancient Children’s Game Adapted Over Time – Extra Credits

  1. Wow. I NEVER noticed the virtues/vices stuff in the game. Probably never learned anything from any of those games.

  2. Thank you for creating this video. It's an incredibly interesting and informative look into a game I thought until now had zero merit.

  3. There's one thing I still don't understand : why create a game about morality that is completely random? Doesn't that teach people that morality is more of a thing that happens than an actual choice?

  4. Would've been nice if you had started this video by explaining that Chutes and Ladders is based on an old Indian game called Snakes and Ladders. Actually, a brief explanation of what Chutes/Snakes and Ladders is at the beginning would have made this video much better. I played Chutes and Ladders one time when I was about five, and since then I hadn't seen or heard anything about it until watching this video. So I was a bit confused when you just jumped right into this vid seemingly on the assumption that everyone was already familiar with the game.

    Snakes and Ladders is a pretty obscure board game that many people have never heard of, let alone played. You should treat it as such.

  5. Literally never seen a game of Snakes and Ladders with any themes other than "you found a ladder" and "you found a snake".
    I didn't realise there was ever any kind of virtue/vice design aspects.
    I feel somewhat left out. :/

    Perhaps the snakes and ladders both just represented "dumb luck"? 😛

  6. packed with symbolism! thr snakes rep the Kundalini serpent coiled at the base of our spines in Hinduism. the ladder is our spine, of course! climbing to enlightenment, falling back down from our spiritual high, and climbing back up!! cool

  7. In Estonia, it's called "Circus", themed accordingly and none of the elements have names. Actually, I'm not even sure how we always knew which way each element leads – they're all different.

  8. do you think the first donkey kong is a modern interpretation of the snake and ladder but with the player moving upward by himself rathe than chance? (the snake is remplaced by the act of dying and restart at the bottom)

  9. Mechanics as metaphor beg the question: Do they even matter when nobody notices? We've become so bad at perceiving stylistic devices throughout mass media, not only in games, that it is, in my eyes, starting to harm their production. (Look at the mediocre movie epidemic.) Shouldn't the industry make an effort to bring back that understanding of stylistic devices to steer audiences back to a path of literacy in stylistic devices?

  10. I didn't know it was called snakes and ladders in other countries. Because I live in America, for me its always been chutes and ladders.

  11. This game is fundamentally stupid and you've done nothing but expose it: Your path to salvation/nirvana/prosperity is dependent on the choices you make but you have no agency in how you end up choosing.
    Also, any game that can be won by a toddler who is slightly luckier than you is a pure, distilled, waste of time.

    The only way this is a 'valuable' lesson is if you believe in predetermination, which only a few religions actually do on a philosophical level and NO ONE encourages as an actual mindset. The only thing the original game got kind of right is that it is easier and more likely for you to make poor decisions in life than good ones.
    The protestants who decided to create a christian version of this game apparently did not actually understand their own theology since salvation is entirely dependent on whether you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour. You can't be virtuous enough to find salvation without Jesus and you can't accumulate enough vices to lose it if you've found him. If anything the christian version of this game should be about exploring the mechanics that go into boosting the likelihood that you'll be born into a christian household or bump into a persuasive missionary.

    This is why we have card-games: Everyone starts off on an uneven playing-field, but winning or losing is up to making the most of what fate throws your way. Don't bother with games of chance unless you're likely to win something.

  12. i've stayed up until 4am and i have about twelve tabs open with more of these videos. and let me just say, sir, how dare you

  13. This comment section gave me terminal cancer. I actually study religion, I like science, but I hate having arguments with ignorant unknowledgeable teenagers.

  14. The version of snakes and ladders I have doesn't give the snakes or ladders any labels at all. It's just numbers, snakes, and ladders. Why would that be? My game is several years old, I've played it since I was small and I get the feeling it was actually my brother's. So why didn't my copy have any sort of references to hard work or something? I figure the virtues and vices are a bit beyond my time, but they did mention that chutes and ladders has stuff about success. Now I'm curious…

  15. Seems like a pretty sucky way to teach morals, where the player rolls dice and suddenly they made a bad decision that they otherwise wouldn't. You can't teach players to make good decisions if the game prevents them from making decisions. At worst, it'd teach them that they're in no more control of their own actions than they are of the world.

  16. Keep reading the comments to see a bunch of Westerners, Atheists, Christians, and Materialists who don't understand Samsara, the endless karmic cycle of being, complain about how their culturally-relative understanding of Free Will proves that this game is stupid.
    Try learning something about a spiritual perspective other than your own for a change.

  17. Can Snakes and Ladders properly be called a game? There are no choices made by the participants, so wouldn't it more accurately be described as a simulation?

  18. a friend of mine made his own version of snakes n ladders for his son, one of the things I really liked about his version is that most of the ladders are in the first 3 rows and most of the snakes in the last 3 rows, essentially making the game much harder the closer you get to the end, he has 11 snakes and 10 ladders and when I asked him about this he basically said everything in this episode and that he didn't want him to be unrealistically optimistic (which tends to get my friend in trouble so it's understandable), he even added in the morals of each ladder and snake using 2 frame comics one frame at the start of the ladder/snake 1 at the end. for ex. one of the ladders shows the character finding a wallet, and the top of the ladder the character is returning it. while one of the snakes shows 2 people in an argument and at the bottom of the snake one slaps the other. but what I really like that he did is that every ladder brings you to a point where you could hit a snake in the next roll, but only 2 of the snakes brings you to a place where you can hit a ladder and both of those snakes are in the top row just before the end space, and what I think it's teaching him is that mistakes are hard to fix and good deeds can be easily overshadowed by a bad one, he's one of the most socially conscious kids I've ever met, I watched him give up his seat on the bus to an elderly lady with no prompting, he's 6

  19. Hounds and Jackals from ancient Egypt (from 4000 years ago) had the same game mechanic, except it was JUST a snake, and acted as chute OR ladder depending on which end you landed on, with a couple of them on the board. The context of the game was a race between one player's group of hounds and another player's group of jackals, so the game was pretty different overall, and had a little more strategy (as "get all your pieces to the other end" games do). For the ancient Egyptians, board games were seen at least partially as a communication with the gods – the random element (bones, sticks, a spinner, whatever) was seen as the gods showing their favor or disfavor to the person.

    Important decisions were sometimes made over games of Senet (played since pre-dynastic Egypt, 5500 years ago or earlier), where the winner was seen as favored by the gods, therefore their idea or argument was ultimately right (despite the game having strategy in addition to a random element).

    Snakes didn't have the same villainous associations for the Egyptians as they did for other cultures, but they still may have been the ones who created the idea and disseminated it to India. Remember that the "Silk Road" as a route for cultural exchange existed for thousands of years (and for silk trade obviously, since Chinese silk was found in the trappings of 3000-year old mummies).

    The two really interesting things to me, in the field of Vaguely Related Information are:
    1. Polyhedral dice were used since ancient times (there's a 20-sided die from Ptolemaic Egypt, the Royal Game of Ur used 4-sided tetrahedral dice) – eventually the six-sided cubes caught on, but there were all sorts of experiments before then – including lots of "dice" systems that weren't just numbered linearly (like 1,3,4,6 on 4-sided dice, and so on).
    2. More interesting IF true, there are similarities between New World patolli, a game that has existed for at least 2000 years in Central America, and pachisi the Old World game "from India" which has existed for several hundred years – though not conclusively before the 16th century. Pachisi may have been based on patolli – somehow, meaning Indians were very interested in the New World and super into board games – or they are both very old, and represent either another avenue of "Pre-Columbian Contact" (probably via Asia), or more simply, that board games such as that have existed since the Ice Age, and probably before. And that's nice.

  20. I always knew the game as chutes and ladders. That just makes more sense. Chutes go down because they're slides. Slides go down, and ladders goes up. Makes sense. How does snakes correspond with going down?

  21. I grown up playing snakes and ladders and other Indian games. Although latter I found out what most of those game meant to be played for isn't simple as rolling dice, but as child who cared, just roll and play. Nostalgic

  22. Honestly, the history of snakes and ladders that you have exposed in this video is pathetic and shallow compared to the esoteric meaning of the game of the goose

  23. What a thrill…
    With darkness and silence through the night
    What a thrill…
    I'm searching and I'll melt into you
    What a fear in my heart
    But you're so supreme!

    I'd give my life
    Not for honour, but for you! (Snake Eater)
    In my time there'll be no one else
    Crime, it's the way I fly to you! (Snake Eater)
    I'm still in a dream, Snake Eater!

    Someday you go through the rain
    And someday, you feed on a tree frog
    This ordeal, the trial to survive
    For the day we see new light!

    I'd give my life
    Not for honour, but for you! (Snake Eater)
    In my time there'll be no one else
    Crime, it's the way I fly to you! (Snake Eater)
    I'm still in a dream, Snake Eater!

    I am still in a dream, Snake Eater! (Snake Eater)

  24. So this just proves my point, a worldview/perceptions can adversely effect how you see the world and engage with the people in it

  25. Not surprised at all. Coz
    English people didn't just took snakes and ladder from India.
    Entered with almost 60% GPD and left it with 0.5% GPD.
    235 million Lives
    And not to forget that Diamond which she still wears proudly.
    Anyway Shit is getting reversed quickly.
    You know what I mean.

    HAHAHAHA

  26. I think this game makes sense if you consider the "Lila ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lila_(Hinduism) )" aspect of Hinduism. It would be fit into "Monist (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monism)" philosophy (one of the many and famous philosophies of Hinduism) if you are relying on random chances. Moksha (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moksha) is the end of this game (then the vices and virtues don't matter, you are out of this samsara). Having said that, another game "Pachisi" also is there, which does have skill and agency involved. So whatever suits your taste, you can learn from there (like the various philosophies and practices of Hinduism).
    Or it is just a game and someone thought let's include moral teaching in it and so they did without thinking too much. It didn't turn out to be perfect, and we are here overthinking it.

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