The Timelessness of Snakes and Ladders
How a common children’s game has survived for centuries as a moral teaching tool
Chances are you’ve played Snakes and Ladders. Rebranded in 1943 by Milton Bradley as Chutes and Ladders, most of us have sat with a version of it at some point in our young lives, but its origins involve much more than just child’s play. The game is a potent teaching tool whose simple design has been used for centuries, arguably even millennia, as a way to embody and reinforce religious teachings and cultural values. Along the way it’s evolved and adapted to incorporate the themes and aesthetics relevant to each culture that played it, from ancient India to Victorian England, to the US and far beyond.
Surviving game boards suggest Snakes and Ladders emerged somewhere in Northern India or Nepal. In its earliest identifiable form it was called Gyan Chauper, though other versions have gone by names like Leela, Moksha Patamu, and Paramapada Sopanapata. These titles translate roughly to terms like Game of Self-Knowledge, Ladder to Salvation, or Steps to the Highest Place, showing the weight of the content it was meant to convey. Over centuries the game traveled and evolved, its basic design serving as a durable chassis for any culture that took it up, containing and transmitting their moral and spiritual beliefs.
For the one among you who hasn’t played some version of it, Snakes and Ladders progresses players in a zig zag pattern up a grid of about 100 squares by the roll of dice, or cowry shells originally. Planted on various squares are ladders that move players further up the board and snakes (or chutes) that slide them back down. The first player to reach the final square, entirely by chance, is the winner.
Bookending each ladder and snake is a moral lesson, whether in the form of an illustration or explicitly written out. This is where a lot of the game’s most obvious moral and religious didactics happen. But in playing, people are also made to experience the course of fate, and the consequences attached to virtues and vices. The experiential and communal nature of games is what makes even (maybe especially) the most basic of designs so effective at reinforcing culture.
“They are meant to teach us in a way that is very different from oral history and storytelling,” says Colleen Macklin, director of New School’s PET Lab, which designs games around social engagement and education in underserved communities around the world. “Without the players, the game doesn’t even really exist — I mean, you could say that there’s a board with some images drawn on it, or some dice, but it really isn’t anything until we play it.”
Play predates any formal system of language, education, politics, even our species itself. For us and our fellow primates, play is as much a way of being entertained as a way to work out how we interact and negotiate with the world. With that in mind, it’s really no surprise that evidence of humans playing games goes back thousands of years. But in an age when many of the newest games become unplayable within a decade of their invention, we still have something to learn from games as old as Snakes and Ladders — and its relatives like Pachisi — that have stuck around for thousands of years.
Jain, Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist Versions of Snakes and Ladders are well documented. Often made simply of painted cloth, few boards have survived from any earlier than the mid-18th century. But some scholars think the earliest form of the game may have emerged from ancient Jain mandalas, in which various squares were illustrated with karmic concepts and progressions, connected by religious scribes with lines to underscore their relationships. The leap from those connective lines to ladders and snakes isn’t a big one — both are symbols common to many religions’ spiritual stories.
Devout laypeople would play these games as a form of meditation or communal exercise, reinforcing the teachings of their religion in a form of study that didn’t involve books or sermons. As such, the contents of each square were carefully considered, their connections intended to invite contemplation about specific tenets and the larger worldview they reflected when taken together. Predictably, landing on a snake square for ‘drunkenness’ would drop your piece a few spaces, but that square’s relationship to those around it was also relevant to the message of the game. Their groupings would divide and classify various spiritual concepts, or outline a religion’s cosmology. It’s possible that even the ratios of snakes to ladders (one version had 40 to 22) were a means of communicating how fraught and narrow the righteous path could be.
“My impression is that some boards (including Jain ones) seem more pessimistic in that they include a lot of snakes and fewer and shorter ladders to aid the upward path,” says Andrew Topsfield, keeper of Eastern art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and a leading scholar on the game. “This may reflect the very highly developed nature of Jain karma theory and the many subtle spiritual pitfalls that the Jain scholars identified. The bhakti or devotional worship-based boards (Hindu and Muslim) can seem a little more balanced in this respect, though not without generous provisions of dangerous snakes of their own.”
The designs were also beautiful. Many boards have squares adorned with elaborate illustrations of religiously relevant phrases, figures or architecture, framed by flora, fauna, and symbols of spiritual planes. Rows of squares are sometimes arranged by levels of enlightenment, even in shapes suggesting the human body, simultaneously reflecting concepts like karmic paths, chakras, or other conceptions about various levels of the spiritual realm. One surviving board is even divided into sub-games corresponding to distinct spiritual or earthly states of being, an elaboration on the basic mechanic that enhances the religious content. Many of the old boards are genuine works of art, as telling as any manuscript or painting (and in a sense, they’re both).
“Games are an art form, and the aesthetics are important,” Macklin says. “It’s kind of like ritual — and of course games are very tied to ritual. The way that a church looks for instance, or the weight of the goblet you might be passing around in some kind of ceremony, all matter as much as the meaning behind it.”
Nomenclature is another major distinguishing factor between versions of Snakes and Ladders. The final square of a rare remnant of a 200 year old Sufi board, for example, speaks of ‘extinction into God,’ echoing the Sufi doctrine of “death before death.” Though distinct, these notions aren’t dissimilar from the Jain and Hindu versions’ goal of reaching Moksha — the ultimate release from the cycle of life and death—in their terminal squares. In the American version, we “win” a blue ribbon.
Modern adaptations of the game are much less rigorous in the messages they try to impart. In a popular American version, moral lessons are illustrated as comically simple drawings that anyone born in the ‘80s will recognize — a boy rescues a cat and makes a new friend at the top of the ladder, a girl eats too many chocolates which, as shown at the bottom of the connected chute, makes her ill (confusingly, at the top of another ladder, a girl is apparently preparing to eat an entire cake as her reward for baking it). There’s no apparent plan in the arrangement of these messages, their relationships to one another, or their correspondence with the number of squares a given ladder or chute advances a player or sets them back.
Imperial Britain is largely responsible for any of us in the west being exposed to this game. It was imported to Victorian England and soon caught on, even keeping the Indian iconography in its boards until around the 1930s. The virtues and vices became more generalized, endorsing grace and success under the ladders with warnings of poverty and disgrace adorning the snakes. Pregnant religious inscriptions were replaced by the two-part cartoon dramas, separated by a ladder or a serpent (and eventually a chute), as the snake to ladder ratio was generally evened out.
“It was probably thought that US infants would be frightened by all those snakes,” says Topfield. “Perhaps this might reflect some deeper cultural predisposition, going back to when the first West-bound settlers had to watch out for rattlesnakes.”
It did well in the UK and US, retaining its potency as a childhood game that, at least in part, furthered the moral vision of its host culture. These games are vehicles for culture, another reason the chameleonic nature of Snakes and Ladders is so interesting — it provides a window into numerous places and times in world history. In their look, feel, and design, we see the priorities, values, aesthetics, and mentality of people we’ll never get a chance to meet.
Today the game continues to demonstrate its value as an educational tool, in promoting linear thinking, and concepts of sequence. It’s a format that’s still being innovated upon. Versions have been designed to educate communities facing the consequences of climate change, on how to face conflict, or to learn local farming cycles. The PET Lab mentioned earlier uses the cultural adaptability of simple games to foster disaster preparedness education in places where people have little access to technology, or even weather forecasts.
Games like these aren’t designed to be won, but to teach and communicate through experience. In our time, games are still as much an amplifier of culture as films, music or literature. A game like Grand Theft Auto probably says a lot about our culture — not all of it good — but little of that message really comes from the mechanics or design of the game itself.
As a design, this game model is robust enough to last for centuries precisely because of its simplicity and adaptability. The reason today’s most popular video games are unlikely to survive for another century, let alone another few decades, is largely because the complexity of their underlying code renders it impossible to adapt them to new ideas and perspectives. They’re closed systems, whereas games like Snakes and Ladders — whose underlying mechanism is akin to guided reading — allows any message or idea to be tooled to fit its time and place.