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!